May 4th, 2011
In what has been a truly spectacular second season, Justified has more or less followed the same pattern as the first season: serialized elements are introduced gradually over the first half of the season before exploding in the final episodes.
What seems different this time around, though, was the nature of that explosion. While both seasons feature conclusions defined by a three-way battle (Miami/Crowders/Raylan in S1, Bennetts/Boyd/Raylan in S2), the second season had given each of those groups an incredible level of detail and history. With the Bennett/Givens feud having been established early on (and most evident in Dickie’s daily reminder of Raylan’s baseball bat handiwork), and with Boyd having risen into a position of power in opposition to the Bennetts, “Bloody Harlan” lives up to its title by giving us the big action climax to these ongoing feuds.
And yet, on some level this still felt like a denouement, or at least a futile attempt at a denouement for a show purposefully designed to avoid such efforts. With so many storylines featuring so many characters with a great deal of agency (and a multitude of motivations), Justified is always reaching the climax of one story or another, but it’s never truly allowed to have that moment to pause and reconsider. There is a brief moment early in “Bloody Harlan” where it feels like Raylan and Winona are going to be able to look to the future, but within minutes another loose end is picked up and another bloody firefight begins to unfold, before being replaced by contemplative scenes almost begging to serve as resolution.
In other words, Justified is a show of false parlays, which this season has focused in on the qualities that will make its constant search for futile resolution one of the finest shows on television.
“Father Frank, Full of Grace”
March 27th, 2011
By the conclusion of its first season, I would argue that Showtime’s Shameless found something of an identity independent of its British predecessor. This is not to say that the show is better or worse, something I can’t judge given that I’ve seen only brief glimpses of the British series, but I felt as though the first season seemed driven by characters more than versions of characters. Between the work of Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan and Emma Kenney, the Gallagher siblings feel as though they (if not necessarily the world they inhabit) are real people who I want to see face the challenges that result from their position. Their story never felt like we were seeing someone else’s story transposed onto these characters, as each performer seemed to be driving the characterization as much as any sort of influence from across the pond.
That is a testament to the strength of the cast, and the writers for working with them, but it is only one component of the series’ future. The other side, the part where we consider the world that John Wells and Paul Abbott have created in Shameless’ Chicago, seems problematic as the show heads into an extended hiatus before a second season. “Father Frank, Full of Grace” has some strong moments, but it has already put into motion an enormously problematic return to the status quo which threatens to undermine whatever strong character work might be done.
Or, to put it in other words, it’s already threatening to be just like every other problematic Showtime series.
March 21st, 2011
“Is that why I’m here? To tell stories?”
In reviewing last week’s penultimate episode of MTV’s Skins, “Tara,” at The A.V. Club, I sort of offered my general take on the show thus far: while it has not lived up to the British original, it has made enough variations to define itself as largely independent from that series’ successes and failures. While it remained uneven throughout its run, things started to gel towards the end: actors improved, plots became more interesting, and the branching out into Tara’s perspective was a welcome departure from the British model.
Of course, just because the show is now being considered largely based on its own standards does not mean it won’t fail to live up to those standards in “Eura/Everyone.” In some ways, the finale is the ultimate test: as stories reach what more or less resemble conclusions, the strength of the series’ storytelling is challenged. Skins is a show that tells stories by limiting its perspective, as individual episodes are framed by one narrative while intersecting with others. As a result, an episode like “Eura/Everyone” where the frame character is notable in her absence asks the series’ collective cast to fill in the gaps, never quite allowing any one of them to fully take over (as evidenced by the “Everyone” side of the title).
Ideally, the characters will have taken on such a complexity that the ensemble feel should feel like a culmination of a season’s worth of development. More realistically, however, “Eura/Everyone” will reinforce the hierarchy between characters, their “resolutions” revealing which of them became three-dimensional teenagers and which were left to feel like characters in a story.
That hierarchy is strikingly evident in this finale, although I’d argue that “Eura/Everyone” is more successful than not when it counts the most.
February 9th, 2011
“Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”
Perhaps more than any other show on television, Friday Night Lights is actively concerned with the notion of legacy. The Dillon Panthers were one, the East Dillon Lions are becoming one, and the show itself has formed its own sense of legacy with distinct notions of past, present and future despite a relatively short five season run.
In politics, or even in sports, the final moments are when the legacy is at its most vulnerable. As unfair as it might seem, the legacy of Friday Night Lights could very well come down to how “Always” brings the series to its conclusion. This will be the final time we spend with these characters, their final actions and reactions, and Jason Katims’ challenge is finding that balance between progress and consolidation.
He found it. “Always” is not perfect, getting a bit too cute for its own good towards its conclusion, but it all feels so remarkably “right” that it captures in an hour what the series accomplished over the course of five seasons. It is uproariously funny and incredibly moving, and those moments which resonate emotionally are not simply those which have been developing over the course of 76 episodes. The weight is felt across the board, with characters old and new finding self-realization amidst a larger framework.
They are legacies within legacy, as “Always” captures the emotional current of what will go down as one of the decade’s finest drama series.
December 1st, 2010
In plotting the first season of Terriers, Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin made two key decisions which shaped the series into one of the year’s finest.
The first was their willingness to resist creating a season-long arc: after the first four or five episodes seemed to be towards some larger conspiracy, the show risked frustrating viewers by pulling up before things became too complicated. In an age where hyper-serialization is highly valued, the decision seemed strange until we saw the result. The residual energy from the near-miss mythology lingered in the subsequent standalones, as unfinished business meant a constant threat of its return – when it did return in “Asunder,” there were more pieces to the puzzle, and the re-entry was surprisingly elegant.
The second was that, throughout the various ups and downs, the show never concretely positioned its heroes within any definitive morality. While we could argue that Hank and Britt are inherently good men, their willingness to do petty, despicable, and reckless things has been refreshing. Hank’s jealousy has never been romanticized, and Britt’s violent outbursts have never been pitched as heroic; while we understand why they do the things they do, we are never asked to agree with them, and the result is two characters who we can relate to even when we don’t want to. They’re characters we like even in their darkest moments, but characters that we don’t necessarily forgive after the fact. They are characters that feel real, and thus characters that we become connected with.
“Hail Mary,” coming off of the rollercoast that was “Quid Pro Quo,” is hopelessly hopeful. Following the earlier pattern, it concludes stories without actually concluding them, leaving threads of story that can be picked up at a later date. It provides a sense of future that it must subsequently tear away, reunions that are either years or weeks too late. While you could technically argue that this is a happy ending, a sort of scrappy P.I. Casablanca, in truth the ending is as the season was: an exercise in dynamic delay, a true marvel of narrative form.
And a show that simply cannot be allowed to ride off into the sunset.
November 30th, 2010
Look, let’s get it out of the way: Sons of Anarchy was very far from the best show on television this fall. It was a season with a story to tell which seemed completely unwilling to tell that story, and when it finally got down to business it seemed as if everything was expedited and choppy. For a series that once delivered what I would describe as sick, twisted poetry, the third season lacked both rhyme and reason. While I perhaps understood what Kurt Sutter was going for by the time we reached the season’s penultimate episode, nothing about “June Wedding” made those previous episodes any more satisfying. In fact, the show sort of felt like it was following Stahl’s example: when you think a situation is going south, or you’re tired of playing a certain angle, you just shoot someone and call it a day.
I have some fundamental issues with the idea that Stahl could even come close to getting away with what she did in “June Wedding,” and the degree to which Stahl’s sociopathic behavior is being used to fuel the march towards the season’s conclusion, to the point where I’ve officially written off this season of television. Last week’s episode indicated to me that whatever Sutter was selling this year, it simply was not the show I want Sons of Anarchy to be, or the show that it had the potential to be coming out of its incredibly strong (and cohesive) second season.
In advance of watching “NS,” I had heard the buzz: this was a “return to form.” However, as Cory Barker wrote about earlier, the degree to which a solid finale (which “NS” arguably is) can overwrite previous struggles is fairly limited. And yet, I had no expectations that a legitimately enjoyable 90 minutes of television would actually make the season’s problems more apparent. “NS” is a smart episode of television which only confirms that the show’s third season was a wild miscalculation, an absolute failure of “Serial Narrative 101″ that traveled halfway around the world and only got a lousy t-shirt with a bundle of letters hidden in it which only confirmed presumed details from the distant past.
I’m a bit busy now, though, to delve into all of the reasons why the season fell apart. I plan to come back to it at a later date, perhaps early next week, but for now I want to take “NS” as what it truly is: a launching pad to the future, and an opportunity for the series to move on with something resembling momentum.
Because on that level, “NS” is more or less a success.
October 17th, 2010
“Are you kidding me?!”
I’m extremely glad that Faye Miller actually said this during the episode, so I could pull quote it instead of saying itself myself. But, seriously: is Mad Men kidding me?
“Tomorrowland,” like its namesake, was supposed to be about potential: it was supposed to show us a way for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to survive, and a way for Don Draper to reconcile his identity crisis and move forward. It was about charting a new path after tobacco, working with the Cancer society and making plans for whatever the future might hold.
Instead, “Tomorrowland” drops us off with ten weeks of no business, a vacation conundrum, and a series of circumstances which is precisely the opposite of last season’s closer: instead of building excitement, “Tomorrowland” builds nothing but dread, creating scenarios that test our patience with these characters, and even the show itself.
Unless you’re a huge fan of total uncertainty and absolute chaos, chances are “Tomorrowland” was more disturbing than enlightening – the question, of course, is whether it is still good television.
And I think that answer, despite my frustration, is yes.
Heating Up Leftovers: Season 7 Finale
September 15th, 2010
Technically speaking, every Top Chef finale is meant to stand alone – for the remaining chefs, it all comes down to the meal of their lives. However, for the audience sitting at home the finale is the end of a journey, and usually the end of a season of narratives; whether they be rivalries or redemptive arcs, there should be some sort of story coming to an end during each season of the show.
However, Top Chef D.C. never quite found a narrative that it knew how to work with, and the finale is a perfect example of that. Despite the fact that there were a number of potential narratives to build upon, the finale was left to stand entirely on its own without any real connection to previous outings. Sure, the surefire rivalry ended when Kenny left early, but after last season’s finale felt like the show finally getting the showdown we had all been waiting for, the showdown between Angelo, Ed and Kevin felt like leftovers, except that they were leftovers that you don’t remember having but still seem old and tired regardless.
And while the cooking itself wasn’t impacted by this particular concern, my emotional attachment to the conclusion most definitely was.
“Parents Weekend – Part Two”
August 30th, 2010
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Huge has been my show of the summer: the show embodies the potential for programming aimed at teenagers which doesn’t speak down to its audience, mining the complexities of adolescence instead of exaggerating its most dramatic moments. Staying true to its observational camera angles (reminiscent of Friday Night Lights, soon to be part of the ABC Family…family), the show has allowed characters to develop independent of earth-shattering revelations, just as interested in silence as in outbursts or monologues.
I’ve seen some criticism of the show for being too close to various cliches, a criticism which I don’t think is entirely unfair: there is no question that Huge has hewed fairly close to the traditional expectations of summer camp fiction, and there have been moments (see: “Spirit Quest”) which lost the series’ focus on investigating the life-changing moments, both big and small, which have nothing (and everything) to do with the central mission of Camp Victory. However, when the show was at its best, this focus transcended the tropes it has played with, and the show is certainly flirting with my Top 10 for the year thus far.
The second part of “Parents Weekend,” scripted by series co-creator Savannah Dooley, does nothing to change my love for the show, as the episode perfectly sums up the ways in which the nuances and subtleties of these stories defies the predictability of its log lines; it’s a strong end to a damn strong half a season, and all we can hope now is that ABC Family is as interested to see the other half as we are.
“Parents Weekend – Part One”
August 23rd, 2010
In “Letters Home,” which was, like “Parents Weekend – Part One,” scripted by Gayle Abrams, we ‘met’ the parents.
Sure, we only met each camper’s parents through letters they wrote to them, but we got a sense of how each of them related with their parents. Trent, instead of writing to his father, writes to his deceased mother, while Will writes a scathing letter to her parents which she promptly rips up when she realizes it’s too honest for her standards. We didn’t actually meet their parents, but we saw enough to understand that family relationships play an enormous role in the larger psychological issues at play in the series.
Over the weekend, I watched the pilot to Winnie Holzman’s My So-Called Life, which is available on Hulu and which was pretty fantastic. That series was similarly interested in the relationship between teenagers and their parents, but what sets Huge apart for me is how many diverse scenarios its camp setting allows it to present. Whereas more dramas would be content to follow a few pairings, the sheer depth of this cast means that there are a good half dozen parental scenarios which unfold in the span of the episode, each connecting to the same basic themes while presenting an entirely different set of circumstances.
It doesn’t exactly have as much of a cliffhanger as it thinks it has, and treads water in a few too many areas, but there’s some really great subtlety here which continues the series’ trend towards greatness.