Tag Archives: Television

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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The Draw of the Docuseries: Showtime at Winter TCA 2014

Speaking to the brand appeal of Showtime’s programming during his executive session, David Nevins emphasized his channel’s appeal to adults…who can afford Showtime.

We are no longer at the point where we can claim that “no one” is watching Showtime: having grown considerably throughout the run of recently-ended hit Dexter, the channel can now boast series—specifically Homeland—reaching upwards of seven million viewers for each episode. Much of that has to do with the rise in non-linear platforms—DVR, OnDemand, etc.—that are more convenient for viewers than various repeats, but it also shows a channel growing its subscriber base. That said, Showtime is still in a small percentage of American homes overall, such that we need to distinguish the brand appeal based on who is spending the money necessary to access the channel on a monthly basis.

Those distinctions are fairly unimportant when it comes to series like Episodes (now airing its third season) or Penny Dreadful (premiering May 11th), the two original series for which Showtime presented panels during their Winter Press Tour half-day. The truth is that if people can’t afford access to watch Episodes or Penny Dreadful, it is unlikely that they will be missing out on anything particularly “important.” Episodes is entering its third season with a fourth already ordered based on the series’ co-production model with the U.K. and its cost-efficient production (which will film primarily in the U.K., and which takes advantage of scripts being written in advance to block out production in specific sets/locations). Penny Dreadful is the new psychosexual horror series from John Logan, starring a motley crew of public domain monsters and continuing what I’ve dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” that continues to find traction among audiences with a greater horror tolerance than I contain. Both shows will have their audiences, but both fit comfortably into the kinds of shows that are either available elsewhere or which fit comfortably into existing genres; in other words, they’re not the kind of shows that we would lament being stuck behind the premium cable paywall, in the same way we might think about shows that appeal to minority audiences or feature representations not present elsewhere on the television dial.

It’s different with Years of Living Dangerously (debuting April 13th). First announced to critics at the channel’s summer press tour event, this celebrity-correspondent-led docuseries is about educating audiences on the human toll of climate change. It seeks to take science surrounding climate change and give it a human face, both in the celebrity correspondents—who the panel emphasized will be more effective at communicating these messages than scientists themselves—and in the people whose lives are being impacted by climate change that the series will follow. Presenting the series for critics alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ian Somerhalder, producers were adamant that this was the kind of documentary that could lead to real global change, which landed at Showtime because producer Jerry Weintraub insisted that if you wanted eyeballs, television was the way to go.

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So It’s Come To This: The Case for the Simpsons Clip Database

SoitscometothisaSimpsonsClipshowWe should have known it would be FXX.

Two days after critics questioned the fledgling cable channel’s cancellation of Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, and what it meant for its future, FXX joined the long line of cable channels who have chosen to build their brand on the backs of syndication rights. And given that FXX is owned by NewsCorp, who also owns 20th Century Fox, that the channel would emerge victorious in the basic cable channel sweepstakes for The Simpsons is not a huge surprise. The decision allows Fox to keep the show within the corporate family, while simultaneously providing a cornerstone around which the FX brand and FXX specifically can differentiate within the competitive space of basic cable.

It’s not quite the “Simpsons Channel” that had been rumored in previous years, but it comes with what some would consider to be a comparable model: FXNow, the channels’ streaming service, will have exclusive rights to The Simpsons within a non-linear space, which some could argue is the most lucrative part of the deal. As DVD sales plummet and streaming becomes the de facto model through which many young adults receive their content, The Simpsons represents a substantial piece of television history, and one that its fans are likely willing to revisit. When Marcia Wallace passed away last month, how many Simpsons fans rushed to revisit “Bart The Lover?” When you’re standing outside a restaurant talking about the quality of your meal and you give it your lowest rating ever, seven thumbs up—I actually did this last night—there’s a chance you’ll want to rush home to check out “Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner.” In a world where Simpsons references are a language for a certain generation, the ability to stream this content has tremendous value, and would push use of an app that otherwise would struggle to compete with services like Netflix.

There are obviously some complications: for example, FXNow has commercial breaks within episodes, meaning there will be no space in which commercial-free episodes of The Simpsons will be available to stream. However, more importantly, I remain firm in my belief that the most valuable resource to Simpsons fans is not the ability to watch the show whenever they want, but rather the ability to reference the show at a moment’s notice. Within this deal, The Simpsons is being used as a leverage point to build a channel brand, generate revenue, and maximize potential revenue for a new channel; within popular culture, however, The Simpsons is used as a generator of meaning, a way to communicate that is best served with a different non-linear application that this deal would seem to render impossible (or at least highly unlikely).

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Better Without The Bear: How The Cancellation Bear Damages Ratings Culture

CancelBearWantedOver the past year or so, I’ve engaged with what I would call a friendly feud with the Cancellation Bear, the—as far as we know—fictional mascot of ratings site TV By The Numbers. In truth, I have no substantive beef with the Bear or its overlords as individuals, but the Bear and I disagree on a number of issues tied to how ratings are reported and enjoy the occasional repartee. I will admit that it’s a silly thing, filled with wildly exaggerated responses—reflected in this Wanted poster—and certainly among the simpler, more juvenile pleasures one can partake in.

However, over the past year, my feud with @TheCancelBear has been tinged with a degree of legitimate concern for the state of the discourse. Originally, the feud emerged from an ambivalent relationship with the site and its approach to ratings reporting. The site’s role in making ratings data both highly visible and highly accessible makes it a valuable tool for teaching about and researching the television industry, but the Cancellation Bear represents the site’s other role: actively inciting fear and uncertainty among fans of series struggling in the ratings in an effort to both drive traffic and—especially in the past two years—crusade against what they see as “fan excuses” that have no traction compared to their sure-fire prognostications. The former has helped make it possible for a “ratings culture” to exist; the latter has made that “ratings culture” unnecessarily combative and unpleasant.

This ambivalence resulted in a rather epic conversation myself and Tyler Dinucci had with a representative of the site last year. Based on a consideration of Last Resort’s ratings, the conversation wasn’t really about the fate of Last Resort (and I’m not just saying that because I was on the side of optimism and the series was canceled after 13 episodes). The conversation was actually about how TV By The Numbers frames its analysis of ratings not simply as good on its own merits, but rather uses the Cancellation Bear as a front behind which it can insult “desperate fans” who would choose to look on the bright side.

More troll-like than ursine, the Cancellation Bear is the site’s Id, framing the site’s largely measured—and unquestionably educated—predictions through the contempt the site’s creators seem to have for many of their readers and fellow reporters/journalists; it’s a frame that risks turning TV By The Numbers into a disruptive force within ratings culture, more interested in loudly performing its distinction than participating in a meaningful discourse central to TV’s future.

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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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Interview: Hell On Wheels Showrunner John Wirth

JohnWirthWhen veteran writer/producer John Wirth took over as showrunner on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, it was a somewhat strangely public process. John Shiban, the showrunner for the show’s first two seasons, backed out unexpectedly after the series was renewed, leading AMC to make the series’ pickup contingent on finding a new showrunner. With series creators Joe and Tony Gayton departing as well, Wirth stepped into a series with established characters, existing storylines, and more or less complete creative freedom to take the show in whatever direction he desired.

That direction has made the show a strange sort of success story for AMC, shuffled off to the prestige-less refuge of Saturday nights where it’s been quietly outperforming expectations (see Kate Aurthur’s report at Buzzfeed for more). It concludes its third season tonight at 9/8c on AMC with the expectation that it has earned a fourth season, and having successfully transitioned from a slightly underperforming prestige AMC drama to a successful translation of their film western audience into original programming on a normally dead night.

At July’s TCA Press Tour before the season premiered, I had a chance to talk to Wirth about his perspective on showrunning, how he came to be involved with Hell on Wheels, his planned use of social media (which I’ll be reflecting on soon elsewhere), and how—despite the strange circumstances—Hell On Wheels marks a meaningful period in his career as a showrunner-for-hire.

This is far from your first time serving as showrunner on a series; in fact, the Internet suggests you were part of a “Showrunner Training Program” at some point? How do you train someone to be a showrunner?

JW: I put together a committee of writer-producer-showrunner types. We did a small book called A Television Writers’ Handbook. And it was the first time in the history of the Writers’ Guild that anybody had codified what it is to work on a TV show and what the various positions are and what’s expected of you when you’re in those positions. And we had a big chapter on showrunners, and how to behave as a showrunner, and so forth.

Out of that, Jeff Melvoin—who I had asked to be a part of that committee—had the idea: is this something we could teach? And I didn’t believe that it was, and he believed that it was. He said “I’m going to try to put together this program, will you work on it with me? “And I said sure, but I don’t want to be in charge—this little book we did took five years, and I thought it would take a couple months.

We put together the Showrunner Training Program, which has been enormously successful. I still don’t believe you can teach someone to be a showrunner, but you can expose them to the things they’re going to experience when they are showrunners. That’s really the goal of that program, to let people know what it is they’re going to be experiencing when they get that job.

What’s that job like?

The job itself is ridiculous. You’re the hardest working man or woman in show business – the hours are incredible, you have to be a writer/producer and manager, you have to manage up down and sideways, you have to be a priest, you have to be a magician, you have to be a wife – it’s nutty.

So why you do you think AMC came to you to fill that job on Hell on Wheels?

JW: I think they got to the Ws in their rolodex and were like “Damnit!” Who’s after this guy? We’d better like him. Continue reading

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Series Finale: Breaking Bad – “Felina”

BreakingBadTitle“Felina”

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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