Tag Archives: Review

Game of Thrones – “The Lion and the Rose”

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“The Lion and the Rose”

April 13th, 2014

“Blackwater” has often been cited as the definitive Game of Thrones episode, capturing the scale and sheer expense that have come to define the series within television culture. It was also an episode that George R.R. Martin scripted himself, finally seeing the scale he had taken to literature to obtain come to life onscreen (albeit still with a degree of sacrifice to his most ambitious visions for the episode).

At the same time, though, Martin’s scale only rarely manifests as the episode’s bombast. It tends to manifest in minutia, in the sheer detail of individual scenes. This has primarily come in the form of feasts, gallant affairs where Martin revels as much in the food on the table as the people sitting at it. It’s an effort to provide scale not in the form of giant explosions, but in the form of atmosphere—he wants you to feel like you’re there, which is often more about tone than anything else.

It’s something the show has rarely been able to communicate the same way: few scenes have lasted long enough to luxuriate in the environment, and to create that sense of becoming lost in the splendor. The closing sequence of “The Lion and the Rose”—detailing Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding and reception—is one of the first, a carefully designed piece of theater that is all about moving pieces, each more detailed than the next. It’s also a scene that deploys that detail for a specific purpose, crafting a sequence that builds to its conclusion at such a rate that even those who don’t know what’s about to happen know that something is about to happen.

That it’s something both readers and non-readers alike have been waiting for is just the icing on the cake.

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Season Premiere: Game of Thrones – “Two Swords”

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“Two Swords”

April 6th, 2014

“Killed the right people, I suppose.”

The beginning of Game of Thrones’ fourth season is caught in evaluative limbo.

We are past the point where it is a critic’s job to tell you what Game of Thrones is. At this stage, the show is the show, and nothing in the first three episodes of the season—which were sent to critics—changes that. To write an advance review of a season of Game of Thrones is less about evaluating its quality and more about offering vague previews of what’s to come for those who haven’t read the books but nonetheless want some sense of where their favorite characters are headed in the early-going, or for those who’ve read the books and want a basic gutcheck on how certain details were translated. If something in these first three episodes actually changes someone’s mind regarding the series, it would shock me not unlike the Red Wedding shocked non-readers.

This might be the last time I say this. The fourth season marks the first that will begin to actively and aggressively merge material from multiple books, likely resulting in some of the most substantial deviations from the source material to date. As someone whose interest in writing about the show comes in large part based on how the series approaches narratives, characters, and themes from the book in a different medium, we are on the verge of one of the most exciting periods for the series, one where the discourse will take on considerably higher stakes. Will readers embrace the changes? Will non-readers even notice that something is amiss?

“Two Swords” marks the calm before the storm, hence the evaluative limbo—although we are approaching the moment when I expect we’ll see far more interesting ranges of critical response to the series, the season premiere has the series firmly in transition, still holding onto the familiar instability we’ve come to understand. It’s a delicate transition, mind you, and one that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—who doubles as director—handle extremely well, but it’s ultimately a familiar feeling returning to Westeros in season four.

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Series Finale: How I Met Your Mother – “Last Forever”

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“Last Forever”

March 31st, 2014

I want to say upfront that I think the How I Met Your Mother finale was not an abomination. It featured a number of resonant moments, images, and character beats that tapped into what made the series resonate early in its run. When it finally reached the moment the series had been building up to, the chemistry between Josh Radnor and Cristin Miloti was quiet and sweet, and it stands as one of the series’ finer moments. This was a series that set out to tell a non-linear story about love, and delivered a—somewhat—non-linear finale about love, such that no one can claim How I Met Your Mother was a dramatically different show at the end than it was in the beginning.

However, I also want to say that I hated the How I Met Your Mother finale. A lot.

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Risk/Reward: The Crude Experimentation of ABC’s Mixology

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Mixology doesn’t make sense, at first.

During the panel at the Television Critics Association press tour for the series in January, the producers were asked a range of questions about the viability of the show’s premise—documenting ten singles in one night in one bar—before I got a chance to ask my question, which was basically a good-natured way of asking “Did anyone try to convince you not to do such a thing?”

Television development is a game of risk/reward. Mixology represents a substantial risk for creators Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, as it’s their first television show and they’re playing with narrative in ways that most would advise against. As I noted in asking my question, there is no escaping this premise—whereas other shows can throw out their premises (see: Cougar Town) or make significant adjustments to characters as they evolve over time (see: Parks and Recreation, The Office), Mixology is tied to telling one story about ten characters in one night in its first season (which debuts tonight at 9:30/8:30c on ABC).

To their credit, Lucas and Moore were fairly open about the fact that this was a swing. Speaking to reporters, Moore described the process of the show’s creation:

“We just kind of sat down and thought what would be the best show, most interesting show to us, how to do it differently, how to show people, like, meeting and falling in love and that comedy in a different way.  And we didn’t really think about, sort of, the structure of TV and how it works and all of the rules.”

It’s easy to scoff at this—I do it often when film writers move into television, seemingly with no attention to the medium’s specificity—but in talking with Lucas and Moore after the panel it became clear they understand television enough to know they’re breaking some rules. Although the room didn’t exactly buy Moore’s attempt to sell the show as “Lost in a bar,” it was at least a gesture toward the televisual tradition the show leans on, and on principles of episodic and seasonal storytelling the show needs to address to succeed. Mixology has aspirations, ones that make it an interesting experiment in how we connect with characters, and how stakes function in television comedy.

It’s also a show that, six episodes in, makes more sense than it did at first, if not enough to make it a fully successful experiment.

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Review: Fox’s Enlisted works itself into one of season’s most promising comedies

Tonight at 9:30/8:30c, FOX debuts the pilot for Enlisted, a new military comedy from Cougar Town co-creator Kevin Biegel, with Men of a Certain Age co-creator Mike Royce on board as his co-showrunner.

I don’t want to talk about the pilot. This may seem strange: it’s the episode that’s supposed to demonstrate proof of concept, establish characters, and get viewers interested in seeing more stories in this universe. It’s also, all told, a solid pilot, one that highlights the bond between three brothers that is undoubtedly the heart of the show, so it’s not as though this is a case of needing to ignore the pilot to get to the good episodes after it. If you tune in to watch Enlisted tonight, you’ll find a well-crafted pilot that makes a clear, amiable case for tuning in next week.

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Improving Without Changing: Adapting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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My biggest issues with the Hunger Games trilogy were both things that have gone unchanged in the film adaptations. The structural sameness of the three books may have had a purpose, but it particularly affected my enjoyment of the second book, Catching Fire, where it felt lazy and formulaic rather than meaningful. The same can be said for the books’ close first-person perspective, which I found particularly limiting in the glimpses of a bigger conflict in Catching Fire that the perspective gave the books no chance to explore.

What I found most interesting about my response to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of what I identified as the least successful of the novels back in 2011, is that I liked it much more than its predecessor despite the fact it doubles down on these elements. Some of this has to do with how “first-person perspectives” function differently in literature vs. film, certainly, but I think it’s also a case in which one of the film’s most potentially frustrating choices successfully neutralizes one of the book’s biggest problems.

[Spoilers for the film, and then separately marked spoilers for the series, follow]

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Why The Homeland Twist Works [For Me] [Mostly] [Okay, Barely]

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“Game On”

October 20th, 2013

Last year, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum had a theory about Homeland. She argued that Sgt. Nicholas Brody’s panicked communications with Abu Nazir as Carrie Mathison was held hostage were all an act, and that he was in on the plan from the beginning.

It was an interesting theory, one she gave me credit for partially debunking by noting that Abu Nazir and Brody continue speaking in the same manner once Carrie is no longer listening to their conversation. For me, that was the sign that the theory couldn’t work: while an interesting idea, I did not believe Homeland was a series that would so actively mislead the viewer with information that—in hindsight—would contradict the intended truth of the situation.

If you saw last night’s episode of Homeland, and have been following some of the subsequent conversation, the above may sound familiar. Indeed, this season’s central storyline almost feels inspired by Nussbaum’s theory, as though the writers took it as a challenge as to whether the series could sustain a twist that in retrospect contradicts many of the storylines and character actions displayed in earlier episodes and maintain its reputation.

The response to “Game On” suggests that they can’t, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m no longer on board.

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Homeland – “Tower of David”

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“Tower of David”

October 13th, 2013

It’s been a few months since I watched the first two episodes of Homeland‘s third season. They were made available to press ahead of the show’s panel at the Television Critics Association press tour, which was logical—in that it allowed those in attendance to ask informed questions rather than random guesswork—but also daring. It was daring because in the two episodes screened for critics, Nicholas Brody did not appear for even a brief sequence, and yet Damian Lewis was seated on the panel at the Beverly Hilton.

I tweeted in advance of that panel that I was interested to see how the room responded to this (among other facts about Homeland‘s third season, specifically the increased focus on Morgan Saylor’s Dana), but Showtime was quick to offer clarification: a trailer revealed early footage of Brody’s first appearance in “Tower of David,” and the panel confirmed he would return in the very next episode beyond the ones we had seen. Part of me had expected them to treat Brody’s return as a surprise, leaving his fate open-ended, but from the beginning Brody was something the series was very open about, creating a certain suspense to see how the show planned on reintegrating the character into the narrative.

“Tower of David” works as a structural exercise in character development, drawing a parallel between Brody and Carrie’s respective prisons. However, it fails to acknowledge and mitigate the issues that plagued the two characters’ development last season, leaving an episode that works up until the point you look into the past rather than the present/future.

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Series Finale: Breaking Bad – “Felina”

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September 29th, 2013

A series finale is different from any other episode of a television show; the biggest test for a series finale is whether or not it feels different from any other episode of that television show.

Breaking Bad has been an often messy show, driven by complex moral agency and characters who seem simultaneously the architect and the victim of chaos. It was a series that continued to grow in scale but largely followed the same principles of tight characterization and almost claustrophobic connections with those characters. In the show’s third season, it delineated between “half measures” and “full measures,” and the series was ultimately a narrative driven by the former: while some were explosive and others were tragic, there was never a moment when one could say that Breaking Bad had solved or even dramatically mitigated its central conflict.

It was this quality that gave the series its momentum, and enabled it to grow an audience of devotees from a series that many people—myself included—had not given much of a chance in its early seasons. It was also this quality that by the very nature of a series finale was forced to change in “Felina,” a clean end to a messy show that very purposefully limits its capacity to embody the series it brings to a conclusion.

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Mhysa”

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“Mhysa”

June 9th, 2013

“Here only the family name matters.”

As Varys explains this fact to Shae, he’s being pragmatic: he’s trying to help someone whose very existence at King’s Landing threatens her own life and the life of the man she loves. Varys acknowledges that she has made Tyrion better. Varys acknowledges that hers is a true love. And yet Varys also gives her a collection of diamonds, telling her to sail to Pentos and start a new life for herself so that her love can do something good for Westeros without the threat of a single-named woman hanging over him.

It’s dark advice, advice that Shae refuses to take. Despite the fact that we just saw both Robb Stark and Talisa die for following true love over pragmatism, and despite the fact that Jon Snow just took three arrows from the woman he loves, Shae proves what many other characters have learned as well: there is still power in love even when all signs would suggest that trusting in such power will be your undoing.

“Mhysa” is about this love, which may seem strange in light of the fact that last week ended on such a foreboding sendoff for Robb and Catelyn Stark. And yet Game of Thrones needed a new motivation beyond ascending to the throne, a sense of purpose that could evolve beyond the War of the Five Kings and the deaths of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark which set it off. What “Mhysa” seeks to accomplish is reframe the actions of its characters not as part of a larger power struggle, but rather as actions designed to protect their families or to protect the realm. This is not to say that we are to support the Lannisters’ cruelty or to endorse Melisandre’s sorcery, but rather that we can shift our understanding of their actions away from a part in a larger plot and instead toward what motivated them to take those steps in the first place.

It’s an enriching move that works to build a strong foundation for future seasons, although one that has some issues retroactively making some of the season’s storylines resonate in the way intended. “Mhysa” concludes a third season that was only retroactively revealed—for non-readers, at least—to be the season where Game of Thrones could no longer be simplified to a battle between the Starks of Winterfell and the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, one that did its job without necessarily connecting in the process.

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