“The Bubble”/”Lil’ Sebastian”
May 19th, 2011
It’s unfortunate that I haven’t been able to review Parks and Recreation more regularly this season: while I had screeners for the first six episodes, anything after that proved difficult since so much of my Thursday evenings was spent watching and writing about The Office for The A.V. Club. Obviously, given my affection for the show, I always watched it as soon as possible, and have felt that the third season has been a strong continuation of the momentum gained during a stellar second season.
However, I find myself in the position of being more critical of the show than I’ve been all year in regards to “The Bubble” and “Lil’ Sebastian,” two very funny episodes that felt rushed from a plot perspective. Even as someone who has been on board with Ben and Leslie’s relationship this season, something about its presence in these episodes gave me pause. Everything just felt like it was moving too quickly, and in a way which was considerably more transparent than the rote, yet still fairly passive, romantic chemistry that has been building throughout the season.
Which is not to say that my opinion of the show has diminished (it has not), or that these were bad episodes (they were very good); It’s simply that this particular season finale got a bit lost in the plot, never quite able to focus on telling the kinds of stories I feel the show is most effective at telling.
March 15th, 2011
The most problematic scene in “Original Song” had nothing to do with original songs. It was the deliberation between the judges at Regionals, as three ridiculous stereotypes joined together to tell a series of lifeless jokes with no function beyond the initial irony that Kathy Griffin would be playing a Tea Party amalgam of Christine O’Donnell and Sarah Palin. Any scene which functions exactly as you could imagine based on a casting announcement is what one would call a wasted opportunity, and a waste of the pretty great Loretta Devine.
However, the scene is also problematic because it’s happening outside the context of the episode. While the show often raises the specter of “How is this logistically possible” with its various performances, it often does so with a purpose: a big theatrical number is used to reflect big theatrical emotions, using the show’s loose grasp on reality as a stylistic advantage. There was no use to that deliberation scene, an indulgence and little more, but the musical numbers are more often than not “useful” in telling that week’s story. Some of the show’s best episodes, like “Duets,” are all about using musical numbers (sometimes even elaborate ones, like Kurt’s “Le Jazz Hot”) to represent the characters’ state of mind.
What fascinates me about “Original Song,” which was overall a pretty solid episode, was how transparent it was. It positioned songwriting as a way for characters to express their emotion, but their fairly impressive songwriting skills mixed with the on-the-nose characterization made the behind-the-scenes machinations painfully clear. It exposes the central irony of the big Regionals performance: as the Glee club kids take to the stage to perform original songs that communicate their feelings about love and tyrannical educators, they perform pop songs written by famous songwriters for the purpose of selling iTunes downloads.
And while that doesn’t entirely undercut the episode’s function, it does blunt the impact of an episode which was otherwise positioned as a pretty important character beat.
May 29th, 2010
“Different circumstances, that could be me.”
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
When I remarked a while ago that I intended on focusing on fewer individual episodes during Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s third season, there was a resounding chorus which indicated that “Doppelgangland” absolutely had to be one of them. Not one to fight against a group capable of such raucous consensus, I made a note of it and so here we are.
However, let’s rewind for a second to that initial moment where the episode was suggested so heavily. At the time, since the commenters were so kind as to avoid spoilers, I had no idea why they were suggesting “Doppelgangland;” while when we eventually get to an episode like “Hush” I know enough about the plot to have some sense of what to anticipate, here I have no expectations beyond the comment hype. Is everyone so interested in it because it features a huge step forward for the mythology (like “Surprise”/”Innocence?”), or is it that the episode offers something different that has captured fans’ collective attention?
Part of what makes Buffy so great is that there isn’t just one kind of “good” episode, which meant that all of the hype in the world couldn’t have kept “Doppelgangland” from being at least a bit mysterious when I sat down to watch it. I can’t entirely speak for those who requested the episode, but I can say for me personally that this one’s worth writing about because it’s a barrel full of fun which doesn’t feel like it sacrifices the show’s complexity to achieve such enjoyment. The episode is a rumination on Willow’s unique place as both the most “innocent” (through her general attitude in life) and the most “corrupted” (through the dark arts) of the Scoobies, and the dualities therein give Alyson Hannigan some fantastic material and simultaneously become a thematic consideration that is meaningful to the series’s larger narrative.
Critics Ponder “What They Died For”
May 19th, 2010
Trapped between perhaps the most divisive episode in the show’s history and a sprawling two and a half hour finale shrouded in mystery, “What They Died For” is a bit tough to “criticize.” Generally speaking, the episode was dramatically strong and effective at providing momentum heading into the finale, but with no guarantees that the payoff will live up to our expectations there is this sense of uncertainty which means that this weeks reviews from critics are sort of hedging their bets.
Normally, you might claim this is in some way counterproductive, but it means that critics are focused on making connections to past episodes and offering their own takes on how the developments in this episode apply to larger ideas within Lost as a whole. It makes for another strong week of Lost criticism, as the setup work done in “What They Died For” is mirrored by critics setting up their own perspectives on the series as we head into Sunday’s finale.
So, let’s take a journey around the internet to see what the critics are saying, shall we?
“What They Died For”
May 18, 2010
“I think you’re mistaking coincidence for fate.”
[For more analysis of this week's penultimate episode of Lost, check out my roundup of Critics' commentary from across the web.]
Earlier today, TV scholar Jason Mittell wrote a rather fantastic analysis of the variety of different types of questions floating around as Lost comes to an end, nicely capturing the ways in which categorizing the questions helps us outline our own “priorities.” Say what you will about “Across the Sea” (as I, or the critics, did), but it has certainly forced Lost’s active audience to consider which questions matter most at this late stage in the series – rather than forcing us to see things a certain way, the episode forced us to see things of our own choosing, things which help form our personal view of the series heading into its conclusion.
When the episode was labeled as “divisive,” it’s easy to presume that the division lies between those who liked it and those who hated it, but the divisions go much deeper than that. The discussion of the episode brought to light how each individual viewer (rather than “groups” of viewers who we bundle into particular categories) has viewed the series thus far, and in doing so led them to the variety of questions which Mittell classifies; rather than eliding these sorts of big questions or attempting to lead viewers in a certain direction, Lindelof and Cuse sat their audience down by the fire and told them that they had a choice to see this show in whichever way they wanted to going into these final episodes, and they have been more than willing to take the criticism and praise found in the questions that viewers have been asking in the past week.
I make this point because “What They Died For” is all about human agency, about how and why we make choices and what it is that pushes us to do things which may seem morally reprehensible or potentially dangerous. The episode is an important connecting point between the show’s two realities, emphasizing the ways in which choices – and the trust implicit or explicit to those choices – shape both the show and its characters on the island and within the newly introduced sideways stories. By putting to rest any doubts about the position of free will within the series, one can’t help but feel that the show is also empowering its audience to enjoy the same type of agency as we head into the finale, picking up on the spirit (if not necessarily the content) of last week’s divisive episode.
And I, speaking entirely personally, think it worked really well, but I think we’re to the point where saying this objectively may be going against the point of it all.
“Chuck vs. the Tooth”
May 10th, 2010
So far in this six-episode miniseason, Chuck has been barreling along not unlike the train in the “premiere” of sorts: the destination isn’t particularly important, we’re just along for the ride as Chuck and Sarah adjust to being a couple and fighting evil at the same time. It’s been a nice change of pace in a season which felt like it was so clearly driving towards the triangle between Chuck, Sarah and Shaw that none of the show’s other elements really got to shine, and I’ve been enjoying these episodes quite a bit.
However, with “Chuck vs. the Tooth” that train has put on the brakes, and you can very clearly see the switch turning to send the train in a certain direction. I understand why this is (we only have two episodes left this season), and I also understand the long-term plans at play within this solid if not spectacular episode. The problem is that the show manipulates short term reactions in order to establish potential consequences regarding the intersect, leading to an episode which plays out as Chuck’s worst nightmare when, in reality, I think the episode would have played out in a more logical and less dramatic fashion.
It gets the point across, no question about that, but it does so in a less than elegant fashion which hearkens back to the original 13 episodes more than this more recent run.
April 1st, 2010
In its promotions for the show, FOX sells Fringe based on the tagline “New Cases. Endless Possibilities.” But what’s interesting, and ultimately enormously compelling, about “Peter” is that the possibilities aren’t endless at all: we know what happened to Peter at the age of 7, and we know the key parties involved, so the show isn’t interested in endless possibilities so much as it is interested in interpreting what we already know.
There’s a challenge in this type of episode, especially for a show that has created such a strong dichotomy between its standalone episodes and its mythology-driven stories; fans may go in expecting answers to big questions, and while “Peter” offers a couple of interesting tidbits and some neat connections it is first and foremost a story about the limits of humanity as opposed to the potential of technology. It is a starkly human story, largely taking for granted its science fiction premise in favour of a fantastic depiction of a man struggling against the inevitable and risking everything to save a life that wasn’t his to save, to right a wrong that was not his fault.
In the process he changed the course of time and space, and this show became both possible and extremely compelling, but for this hour none of that mattered compared to the love shared between parents and their children. “Peter” is a stellar negotiation of Walter Bishop and his dances with the dark side of morality, and in the hands of John Noble and with some nice stylistic flourishes, it is certainly one of the show’s strongest hours, if one that they’ll never be able to duplicate again.
March 25th, 2010
While 30 Rock is a show that rarely has a great deal of forward momentum, I always like it better when it seems like it’s taking me someplace in particular; Jenna’s best story was when she was dealing with her weight, Tracy’s best recent story was when he confronting the uncanny valley, and Liz and Jack are almost always at their best when it feels like they’re confronting something that could last a few episodes or have some sort of ramification for their future.
This does not mean that I don’t find episodes like “Floyd” funny just because 2/3 of the episode is pointless, but it does mean that I prefer the parts of the episode which feel like they have history and a future. I know it’s not typical for the show, and I know it’s not really going to last, but there’s something about Liz Lemon doing something which seems mildly important that just makes me like the show more.
“The Excelsior Acquisition”
March 1st, 2010
Sheldon Cooper is much more intelligent than he is smart.
What’s so strange about this character is that for all of his unquestionable intelligence, he is rarely smart about how he uses it: his lack of knowledge of social conventions means that he is often blinded to how cruel he is acting, which means that the character can often seem extraordinarily harsh. The show has struggled with a number of balance issues throughout its run, but when it comes to Sheldon the real question comes down to this: at what point would Sheldon’s intelligence outweigh his stubbornness or self-centeredness and force him to take a step back and consider what it is he is about to do or say?
I would argue that it is one thing for Sheldon to make a rash decision in search of a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, and I think it’s quite another for Sheldon to be willing to go to jail over insulting a Traffic Court judge. I understand that Sheldon will sometimes make mistakes, and that sometimes he will pick strange battles, but there’s a point where the character makes decisions not because they’re realistic but because they will make for better comedy.
And while I’d normally be fine with this if the comedy really delivered, the few jokes that the show managed to get out of the storyline weren’t enough to justify the borderline idiocy that Sheldon seemed to exhibit in order for it to happen.