Season Two Finale
This summer, I stopped in to review the first two episodes of Skins, a British series which aired this Fall on BBC America. And then, promptly, I completely abandoned the series – it was not out of lack of interest, but there was something about the show that didn’t particularly make it “appointment viewing.” If I had to put a finger on what it was, it was that the show’s artistic side (unique to the genre) only occasionally felt like it was elevating this material to something beyond the teen cliche. The weird interrelationship between a really interesting visual and cinematic aesthetic and somewhat less interesting long-run storylines kept me from writing about Skins week by week, but when I did eventually finish the first season I had to appreciate it; while the overall arcs never really caught fire, individual episodes (organized to focus on a specific character) were quite strong, and going into its second season the show had a lot of questions to answer.
BBC America finishes airing the show’s first two seasons tonight, and I have to admit that the second season was perhaps better than the first. I have some issues with some of the individual characters not quite getting enough attention (Anwar, although Dev Patel may have been busy preparing for a certain likely Oscar nominated film I reviewed yesterday), getting the wrong kind of attention (Michelle, who just never clicked in either season really), or feeling like the attention they’re given doesn’t really offer us a proper sendoff (Cassie and Syd, in particular). Considering that the show is switching out its characters in favour of an Effy-led ensemble for the third season, the second season finale has a lot to handle, at least related to fixing these types of problems.
But what buoys the season is that it also does a lot of things right. In Chris and Maxxie it finds its characters most concerned for the future, both of whom don’t find it in the traditional school system due to either dreaming bigger (the West End for Maxxie) or getting expelled (Chris’ excursion into the world of real estate). Similarly, the show chooses Jal as the emotional center, the character who has always been perhaps the most logical and as a result both legitimizes Chris and eventually offers the finale’s most pivotal grounding force. And although getting hit by a bus seems a horrible fate for Tony, it in fact creates a far less obnoxious and more human Tony once he comes to terms with his memory loss and develops into someone far more comfortable in this world.
The result is a season, and a finale, that feels like the show was better organized to take advantage of its artistic side, embracing its almost dream-like state more often and with greater success. This isn’t to say that the finale is perfect, or that I think we’re ready to say goodbye to these characters, but I think it does indicate that the show and its formula has plenty of life and could work well transitioning into new characters.
“A Good Opportunity”
Season 2 Premiere
Over the summer, I finally got around to watching the first season of Flight of the Conchords, HBO’s wonderfully offbeat and hilarious comedy series from New Zealanders Bret and Jermaine. The first season, using songs from their great back catalogue of hits combined with new songs to stretch out the plot of each episode, was a triumph of comedy, and the very small but very alive world they created makes for the perfect antidote to the testosterone-laden comedies that more recently have dominated the pay cablers.
The second season won’t premiere on HBO until January, but U.S. viewers (and resourceful international folks) are able to catch the full episode on FunnyorDie.com. What you’ll find is the first episode where the Conchords are flying without a net: out of original material from the pre-television era, the second season is already confirmed as their last, the creative output necessary proving as taxing as you might imagine. Even the second season, though, feels different: once the backbone of the show, the music here felt by comparison to be either entirely unrelated or simply perfunctory.
This isn’t a total slight of the premiere, but rather an observation that it is changing: after spending a season developing a show that could support their music, they are now transitioning to music that can support their show. For that reason, unmemorable songs isn’t so much a concern as it is the show’s new reality: in terms of the quest of the Conchords to succeed in the music industry, with their bumbling manager Murray and their one fan Mel, the show has become about plot, specifically how the band more or less lost both of those things in the first season finale.
“A Good Opportunity” is not destined to be a classic, and doesn’t answer every question about how the show will manage a second season creatively, but the machinations of the episode are done in good form and, ultimately, add up to a welcome return for the winners of the Grammy Award for Best New Zealand Artist – or, more accurately, a pencil sharpener spray-painted gold.
“The Legend of Merle McQuoddy”
December 10th, 2008
I am going to miss Olive Snook most of all.
Yes, I will miss everything else about Pushing Daisies: Emerson Cod’s quippy one-liners, Chuck’s emotional integrity, Ned’s neurotic worrying, Jim Dale’s charming narration, Lily’s shotgun, Vivian’s heart on her sleeve, and the various quirky individuals who populate this world week after week, incapable of sitting still as they balance between our world and the whimsical universe Bryan Fuller has created.
But there is something about Olive Snook that pleases me the most, and makes me most upset for the show’s passing. It’s her sheer exuberance: without Ned and Chuck’s burdens, or Emerson’s gruff persona, Olive is the character who most gets to interact with the more fanciful elements of these storylines. The best mysteries are often the ones in which Olive takes part, or where Olive’s participatory spirit extends to the other characters – they have a certain bounce to them, a visual and aural sharpness only possible by the spunk her character brings to each scene, and they are in fashion throughout “The Legend of Merle McQuody.”
It is a testament to Kristin Chenoweth that Olive is still this charming even as she returns to idea of unrequited love, a notion which nearly sunk the character in the first season when it felt like an excuse to keep Ned and Chuck from connecting. Now that the show has settled, Chenoweth has made Olive’s emotional state more natural while also being integrated more closely into the week’s mystery. After being paired with Ned on “Comfort Food,” Olive here becomes a Jr. P.I. in Training with Cod Investigations, resulting in a fantastic comic pairing, some wonderful Olive moments and, most importantly, another in a series of great segments as Pushing Daisies marches towards its final Legend.
“Chuck vs. The Sensei”
December 1st, 2008
Any show coming out of a major story arc is going to have a bit of a tough time of their next episode. This isn’t to say that the episode is going to be bad, but rather that it’s inevitable: whether Lost after their premieres or Battlestar Galactica after its inevitable midseason pit stops, there’s going to be a point when the rising action has reached its climax and it’s too soon for the next story to really pick up.
This was, for Chuck, as good a time as any to return to the past of one John Casey, stern-faced Buy More employee in one life and…stern-faced NSA agent in the other. While I like seeing more of Casey, the episode spends a lot of time plainly stating that John Casey only has one speed: mad. There is no inner calm in John Casey, and while we get one moment of unquestioned humanity in the episode there is, for the most part, not going to be something approaching the emotional side that we get so often from Sarah.
But Adam Baldwin knows how to play mad, and the show knows how to balance an episode like this; while it doesn’t help it rise above the show’s standard this season, the choice to parallel Casey’s past with Ellie’s upcoming wedding and the pressures of in-laws offered a good chance for the storyline to slowly move forward even as Casey faces off against a familiar face from his past (and ours, as far as the TV spy game goes).
December 1st, 2008
After catching up with last week’s episode of Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, I posted on twitter that anyone who was actually interested in science fiction television should be watching this show instead of Heroes (Five episodes behind and feelin’ fine). There are a lot of reasons for this, from the show’s willingness to engage with the human implications of its events to its simultaneous interest in building its characters individually as opposed to en masse as part of broader story arcs. While at times one wishes the show would be less vague in terms of the grand scheme of things, it manages to take that vague setting and find a foundation in the characters and their plight.
At its core, “Self-Made Man” is a procedural mystery: spotting a Terminator model in a photograph from New Year’s Eve 1920, Cameron goes on a journey through the archives in search of a clue to why a Terminator would be sent back to that particular date. But what the Josh Friedman and his staff have been demonstrating all season is that they have a command of this series: even those elements which feel quite simple (in this case, largely inconsequential and without detailed reasoning beyond an episodic context) are executed with such a precise sense of both character and theme that it doesn’t matter when we don’t get the “Why?”
While other shows spend so much time focused on building suspense for that particular question and forget to build characters, Terminator is carving out a niche for itself as the kind of show that uses its characters for more than acting out plots – while it’s still not to the level of some of Lost or BSG, it is nonetheless quality science fiction television at this stage of the game.
December 3rd, 2008
When I was watching this week’s special Monday episode of Privileged, it struck me that what I like about the show is how comfortable it feels: its storylines were rote, but the execution was such that it all felt like part of a longstanding relationship despite the show only being ten episodes old. And, I got the same feeling watching tonight’s aptly titled “Comfort Food,” the eighth episode of Pushing Daisies’ second season.
It will also be one of the last: ABC only has plans to air two more episodes, a rather frustrating reality when I consider that this is a show that is not complacent in its comfort. The episode’s central mystery, a charming and cameo-filled zany cook-off scenario, was in line with the series’ tradition, but it also featured a chance for Ned and Olive to interact on an individual level. Meanwhile, Chuck’s storyline took her character in a whole new direction, while giving her and Emerson a chance to interact in a new way as well.
What we got was, as a result, was an episode that reminds us what we will lose when Pushing Daisies leaves our television: an enormously pretty, extremely entertaining, and wonderfully whimsical world. And even if it’s not redesigning the world, I don’t want to lose my weekly visit to this world.
November 26th, 2008
I was one of the few who, really, wasn’t jumping up and down over last week’s episode of Pushing Daisies. While the episode was, no question, a strong investigation into Ned’s character and the show’s central questions, it all felt a bit heavy to me. And while I’m not saying that the show shouldn’t be allowed to enter into that territory, when I’m up to my neck in deadlines part of me would rather an episode of Pushing Daisies that feels more indulgent than self-indulgent, if that makes any sense.
This week, by comparison, falls on the other side of the spectrum; some, and quite justifiably, are likely to find that the story of a Robin Hood-dunnit seems inconsequential compared to last week’s episode, and that it felt especially marginalized when there was quite a large amount of development in relation to the arrival of Dwight Dixon (especially in terms of fallout from his discovery of Chuck’s empty grave in last week’s episode).
For me, however, I thought that it was what Pushing Daisies is: a crime procedural glossed up with charm out the wazoo and a sureness of character which allows them to balance recurring storylines with a deft hand that most standard procedures aren’t capable of. So, while this episode certainly felt more forced than last week’s, that it still charmed the pants off me is perhaps the greater accomplishment. And I won’t tell a lie: when I’m scrambling to write my 20-page research paper on Performance in the transition from Aestheticism to Decadence in 19th Century Literature, I much preferred this lighter concoction than I did last week’s overload.
“Chuck vs. The Gravitron”
November 24th, 2008
The Jill Roberts-arc of Chuck was not what one would call new territory for the series, considering that Chuck’s past relationships from Stamford was such a focus of parts of the first season and earlier this season with the return of Bryce Larkin. The different of degrees, however, is that this is entirely Chuck’s burden: while Bryce had equal parts baggage as it related to Chuck and Sarah, Jill is all Chuck and therefore presents itself as his problem to handle. For two episodes, though, he’s melted into her arms only to have it all thrown out the window when he learns, as we did last week, that she is in fact a Fulcrum agent.
What “Chuck vs. the Gravitron” does so well is pit Chuck as much against himself than it does against Jill or against Fulcrum. While this entire season has been quite a fine showcase for Zachary Levi, this episode is a prime example of the kind of dramatic work that he is often required to bring forward in this type of role. His scenes with Jill this week followed exactly the arc they needed to: starting with terrified at the secret between them, moving into simple awkwardness, and then eventually turning into a realization that “the past is the past,” something that he hasn’t quite been able to do before.
And unlike some other shows, where burning through the built-in dramatic storylines leaves them nothing to accomplish, I get no sense from this episode that Chuck’s journey is complete, or that the season has no further direction. As it concludes Jill’s storyline on a high note, I have complete faith that they’ll find another one in a week’s time – and that’s the joy of Chuck right now.
“Oh Oh Oh…It’s Magic”
November 19th, 2008
With production on the thirteenth episode of its second season completed last week, Pushing Daisies has officially completed all episodes ordered by ABC. This is an alarming fact that hasn’t been lost on fans of the series, and they’re (justifiably) hoping that tonight’s episode brings a solid ratings bump and a chance for a third season (or, even, the order of more episodes for the Spring). As someone who is very much a fan of this series, I count myself amongst them: my fingers are crossed for tomorrow moning. Call it a cliche, but we’re hoping for a little bit of magic.
“Oh Oh Oh…It’s Magic” is actually a really interesting study for the show, and poses a question to this particular critical eye: is it the fanciful locations and atmospheric qualities that give Pushing Daisies its magical quality, or is it the characters who populate this world who have such pure and human emotions that magic spontaneously erupts when they’re on screen? While Fred Willard’s guest appearance as an illusionist (“The Great Herrmann”) and the world of magic offer some points of interest, the season has had better locations (in particular, the monastery and the circus exploded off the screen in ways that the claustrophobic stage just doesn’t).
Instead, this first episode back from a three week hiatus finds the show leaning on its characters, finding its emotion in their humour (Emerson and Olive) as well as their own tragic pasts (Ned and Chuck’s parent troubles). While there have been some who have called this one of the show’s best episodes yet, I felt somewhat more lukewarm about it. Until it kicks into gear in the third act, where the emotions finally overflow into a very exciting and meaningful conclusion, it was what Pushing Daisies always is: a show that finds magic in procedural mystery, and one that we hope continues to do so for a long time to come.
“Chuck vs. The Fat Lady”
November 17th, 2008
One of the things that Chuck has done so well in its second season is the integration of all three parts of Chuck’s life, specifically how the Buy More and Friends/Family storylines have integrated (mostly) seamlessly into the cases that dominate the rest of Chuck’s time. “Chuck vs. The Fat Lady,” in many ways, is the toughest test of this yet: reintroducing Fulcrum in a big way, the show is given the task of personalizing a group that has remained very vague and poorly defined since the show’s first episode.
But, proving once again that it’s absolutely on the right path this season, the show demonstrates with a deft hand how it is able to personalize that which could seem impersonal, and familiarize storylines which could have felt even more diversionary. Capture under the theme of surveillance, the episode provides ample pleasures on every level: charactertization, eye candy, plot development and John Casey demonstrating his ability to hit a High C with only his pristine voice.
And that’s just fantastic stuff, there.