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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Three – “Getting some (Critical) Perspective”

“Getting some (Critical) Perspective”

December 15th, 2009

[This is Part Three in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

When I entered into university, I knew that it was going to change how I approached various parts of my life. A liberal arts degree, by nature, is about developing analytical skills in order to more carefully consider and understand the world around you. And while I really enjoyed my high school experience, I knew that university would shift me even further in that direction, and I was ready for the challenge.

However, something very strange happened, in that concurrent to the development of greater critical analysis skills I started watching a rather enormous amount of television. And at that point, the two worlds started to converge, and I discovered that they were more peanut butter and chocolate than they were oil and water. It would be a number of years until this entirely crystallized, but it became very clear very quickly that I was not a “normal” television viewer.

The serialized shows that I was exposed to during this period are those which helped solidify my critical faculties, driving me to consider them from multiple angles and almost begging for a more careful consideration than most viewers might have been partaking in. And while I won’t pretend that this is the only way to watch television, there is no question that the convergence of my sudden interest in television and the critical analytical skills developed in university is an incredibly important part of how I enjoy this medium today: watching intently, taking notes, and spending as long writing about the episode as I spent watching it.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Season Premiere: Dollhouse – “Vows”

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“Vows”

September 25th, 2009

“I am all of them, but none of them is me.”

I never thought I’d be writing this post.

No one gave Dollhouse a chance of succeeding when its first season debuted to pretty abysmal numbers at midseason, and when it showed little signs of life on the ratings board when it concluded. It was a show that never found an audience, on a network that had done Joss Whedon wrong before with Firefly, setting everyone up for the inevitable letter writing campaigns when the show was canceled. Not only that, but to some degree people weren’t convinced the show deserved a second chance: it only late in the season discovered anything close to an identity, and even then some believed the show would be let down by some miscasting or the battle between procedural and serial proving too much for the show to handle.

So when the show got a second season against every oddsmaker, it was kind of surreal. On the one hand, as someone who liked what the show did at the end of the season, I was excited to see that Joss Whedon and Co. would have an entire summer to figure things out and put themselves in a position to really deliver some great television. However, on the other hand, I wondered if the end of the season was just a fluke, and that its premise and its star were just never meant to carry this show forward.

And then I saw “Epitaph One.” And then, in that moment, I realized that the premise was not going to be the problem, and that the show’s real challenge was how it will get from Point A (its rather auspicious start) to Point B (a science fiction thematic goldmine). “Vows,” of course, doesn’t entirely answer that question, but what it does indicate is that the ramifications from the end of last season haven’t ended, and that this is still a show capable of delivering an hour of television which treats this subject matter with the right balance of philosophical investigation and narrative procession. It is not a perfect premiere, by any means, but it confirms what I think we were all hoping when we heard the show got a second season: the growing pains are over, and a new life has truly begun for Dollhouse.

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Hard-Boiled or Sunny-Side Up: The Divisive but Satisfying 2009 Primetime Emmy Awards

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Hard-Boiled or Sunny-Side Up:

The Divisive but Satisfying 2009 Primetime Emmy Awards

How do you like your Emmys?

Oh, don’t pretend as if you don’t have an opinion. Anyone who is reading this column has some sort of an opinion about the award show and its brethren, lavish ceremonies designed to recognize the very best in a specific industry. However, the Emmys are not a universally accepted success story, and while there are some who view the awards as a valuable institution for recognizing talent others see them as an antiquated and slow-minded organization hellbent on refusing to accept that which is different in favour of more traditional “awards” fare.

As such, Emmy producers really have two entirely different bodies of viewers to be concerned with (throwing out those who would never watch the show in the first place). On the one hand, they have those people who believe in the dignity of the Emmy Awards, who highly respect the work of the Academy and believe quite strongly that this is a serious occasion meant to honour the very best in television. On the other hand, you have those who are angry that Battlestar Galactica never won a major award, and that The Wire and The Shield got snubbed for their final seasons, and who are convinced that any time the Emmys do make a good decision it was by some sort of fluke.

What host Neil Patrick Harris and producer Don Mischer put together for the 61st Annual Emmy Awards was what I would considering to be the Sunny-Side Up version of the Emmy awards. With a charming and self-deprecating Harris at the helm, and a sarcastic and rarely serious John Hodgman playing the role of announcer, they staged a show which spent nearly every moment not taken up by awards being self-deprecating or dismissive of something, whether it’s the future of broadcast television or Harris’ own bitterness over his loss in his own category.

For those who have little to no faith in the Emmy institution, this was an ideal point of view which gave them an entertaining show that one almost feels joins in on their frustration, if not directly. However, for those who look for a more hard-boiled and serious awards ceremony, chances are that they viewed this year’s Emmys as an ill-conceived attempt to pander to younger audiences.

Me? I’m just happy they weren’t scrambled.

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Cultural Learnings’ 2009 Primetime Emmy Awards LiveBlog

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2009 Primetime Emmy Awards LiveBlog

September 20th, 2009

For Cultural Learnings’ complete review of the show, CLICK HERE. For the full live blog, read on below.

I was kind of on the fence about liveblogging the Emmys this year, I really was. Twitter has provided an outlet for quippy remarks and observations that I might have while watching the event, and I ultimately end up writing a huge 2000-word rundown when the show ends so it’s not as if a LiveBlog is going to stand as my only coverage of the big event here at Cultural Learnings.

However, ultimately I want something to be able to refer to when piecing together my final rundown of the night’s festivities, and a LiveBlog seems like the kind of setup that will capture my reaction to the various winners/moments in the ceremony for those who want to know how everything is going down as it’s going down.

So, if you want to follow along with the show or check back later to see my subjective take on a particular moment in the show, here’s where you’re going to want to be. Meanwhile, if you want things elaborate and substantial, check back later tonight for my full analysis of the evening’s winners, losers, and everything in between.

7:20pm: As we wait for the show to begin, feel free to check out my predictions for the big night (the acting categories all link to long analysis pieces of each category): Cultural Learnings’ Full Emmy Predictions.

7:54pm: Enjoying Christine Baranski’s guest spot in a pre-Emmys airing of The Big Bang Theory – an omen for Jim Parsons? Baranski was always going to lose to Tina Fey, but she was damn good in this episode.

8:00pm: And we’re off and running. Television: useful science of the electronic age, indeed. Making fun of Wipeout as “Unsophisticated” is a bit low of CBS, but I guess they don’t have anything quite as lowly…except for Big Brother. Anyways, time for NPH.

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Cultural Learnings’ Complete 2009 Emmy Awards Predictions

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2009 Emmy Awards Predictions

September 18th, 2009

We’ve been predicting the various acting awards throughout the week here at Cultural Learnings, but now it’s time for the biggest categories at all (and the smallest) with our complete, scientific, nondenominational, likely mostly wrong Emmy predictions. For categories I covered previously, click on the category to check out my complete rundown of the category and the justification for my decision, and then stick around for the rest of the awards (including Outstanding Drama and Comedy Series) after the jump.

The 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards air Sunday, September 20th, at 8pm Eastern. I’ll be doing some sort of live coverage (either a live blog or some sporadic live tweeting), and then will have a full recap/review of the proceedings once they come to an end.

Lead Actress in a Drama Series

  • Glenn Close (Damages)

Lead Actor in a Drama Series

  • Hugh Laurie (House)

Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

  • Steve Carell (The Office)

Lead Actress in a Comedy Series

  • Toni Colette (United States of Tara)

Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

  • Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)

Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

  • Hope Davis (In Treatment)

Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

  • Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother)

Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

  • Kristen Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies)

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The Cancelled and the Underrepresented: The 2009 Creative Arts Emmy Awards

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The Cancelled and the Underrepresented

The 2009 Creative Arts Emmy Awards

For those who aren’t particularly interested in the seedy underbelly of the Emmy Awards process, the Creative Arts Emmys aren’t particularly interesting. Generally, the awards tend to be a bit more scattershot than the main awards, meaning that few “favourite” shows take victories and thus there isn’t a lot of mainstream attention generated by them. However, more and more each year there’s interest in terms of smaller shows getting a chance to shine in awards not deemed worthy for network television consumption, and more importantly for us pundits there’s a chance to see if there are any trends emerging (as tenuous as any trend can be when different voting bodies determine each set of awards).

Complete Winners List – 2009 Creative Arts Emmys

This year, through the joys of Twitter, I was able to both share the news of various winners and be able to get some response (from Todd VanDerWerff, Alan Sepinwall, and in particular Jaime Weinman), which resulted in some interesting discussion. So, to kind of pick up on that, here’s a few of the key areas of interest from the awards that made me pause either out of interest, excitement or concern.

Pushing Daisies wins Big, Still Cancelled

The Emmys were never Pushing Daisies’ problem: although the show wasn’t able to garner a nomination as a series in its first season, it did grab nominations for Lee Pace and Kristin Chenoweth, as well as some attention in the creative arts categories. This year, though, the show received a really fitting swan song as it picked up three awards (art direction, costumes and makeup), showing that even in an ill-fated and shortened season the show was noticed by voters in terms of its craftsmanship. The show has now won six Emmys total (picking up trophies for Directing, Music Composition and Editing last year), which helps cement the show’s legacy as a wonderful if tragic moment in television history.

Battlestar Galactica finds Mixed Bag in Final Year

After two back to back wins in Visual Effects, and a hugely effects-driven finale, one would have expected the show to dominate in that category. However, to my shock at least, Heroes picked up the Special Visual Effects award for the first time, although BSG didn’t go home empty handed. Spreading the love around, the show picked up the award for sound editing, which is well deserved if not quite the award one would have expected them to be contending as closely for. Either way, it’s great to see another part of the show’s great team behind the scenes pick up an award, and its unfortunate that areas where the show should have contended (See: Bear McCreary’s amazing scoring work) were uncontested.

Changes Wreak Havoc on Comedy Guest Acting

Of the changes made to the Emmys this year, the one that sort of slipped under the radar (and didn’t face a lot of pressure from any particular group) is the elimination of the individual performance in a variety/comedy/music special/series. This was the category that Stephen Colbert infamously lost to Barry Manilow, and in which musical performers, talk show hosts, and (most interesting for our purposes) Saturday Night Live hosts contended.

This year, both Tina Fey and Justin Timberlake won awards for their appearances on Saturday Night Live, and in both instances it raises some really interesting questions. Now, in Fey’s case, this actually was a guest performance: she wasn’t the host in that episode, and her stint as Sarah Palin really was a guest spot (albeit in the really strange variety show format, which would have put her in the old category especially since they submitted a clip show of ALL of her appearances). However, Timberlake’s win is an example of something that would certainly have remained in the Variety Performance award, which makes for an interesting test case. Considering how much of each individual episode an SNL host is in, I think it’s a strange comparison with other guest stars, and I can see why voters would lean towards Timberlake in comparison with the other contenders.

It just raises the question of whether the loss of that category has now opened the door for the more showy SNL roles to elbow out some more complex supporting work on the comedy side of things…although, realistically, they probably would have given it to the oldest possible nominee if not to them, so I’d still be complaining. Although, what else is new?

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2009 Emmy Nominations Analysis: Power to the People?

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Power to the People?

2009 Emmy Nominations Analysis

The people have the power, and the people have pretty darn good taste.

That’s the story out of this year’s Emmy award nominations (click here for Cultural Learnings’ list, and here for the Academy’s) where a few key surprises and a couple of major snubs indicate that the popular vote was not in any capacity an absolutely travesty for the Academy, as some quite logically predicted. I spoke earlier this week about just what the definition of popular would end up indicating, and the answer appears to be a healthy combination of an appreciation of great television and an eye for trendy selections. The result is an Emmys where nearly every category has a silver lining, and where a few snubs are not enough to give the impression that there’s going to be some very deserving winners in this field.

Mad Men and 30 Rock Dominate

There is no surprise here, don’t get me wrong: no one expected the iron grip of these two shows to stop after dominating last year’s proceedings. However, the scale of that domination is quite ludicrous. 30 Rock has 10 acting nominations, 4 writing nominations, 3 directing nominations, plus its nod for Best Comedy Series and all of its other technical nods. The result is an absolutely staggering number of nominations, and I’m happy about it: I like seeing Tracy Morgan, Jack McBrayer and Jane Krakowski all get nominations for their work along with Fey and Baldwin, and although the four writing nominations kept other shows out of the running they are four pretty fantastic episodes.

Mad Men, meanwhile, didn’t add quite as many nods, although it did pick up a Lead Actress nomination for Elisabeth Moss, which makes me extremely happy. As I said in my preview, I really expected January Jones in the category, but I prefer Moss’ less showy role at the end of the day. Still, combine with Hamm (also nominated for his guest stint on 30 Rock) and Slattery returning (I’d have preferred Kartheiser, but I’ll take it), and its own four writing nominations (plus a directing nod), and the show is without a doubt dominating on the drama side of things.

Out with the “Popular,” In with the Popular

In the biggest shocker of all considering the popular vote, the Comedy Series category had one shocking exclusion and one suprising (but oft predicted) inclusion. The exclusion is the most popular comedy on television, in terms of viewers – Two and a Half Men failed to secure a comedy nod, something it has done in years previous. This makes me question the definition of popular, especially with the inclusion – Family Guy, the first animated comedy series since The Flintstones to make it into the category. While The Simpsons always chose to compete in the Animation category because it also reflects the work of the animators, Family Guy chose to cut out the animated part and compete with the big boys, and it paid off. However, unlike last year where they could submit their Star Wars special in order to get credit for the animators, this year they’re left off entirely, so MacFarlane’s ego is being boosted at the expense of the show’s direction.

The Sophomores Triumph

No one was quite sure what would happen with Breaking Bad, a second year show that won Emmys last year but without much support around it. Well, we have our answer: although snubbed out of both directing and writing, the series picked up a nomination for Drama Series, and Aaron Paul snuck into the highly competitive Supporting Actor (Drama) category for his work on the show, in addition to Bryan Cranston’s nomination for Lead Actor. Damages also impressed, delivering nominations for William Hurt (undeserved, but whatever), Rose Byrne, Glenn Close, Ted Danson (Guest), as well as Series and Directing nods.

The Freshmen Fail

True Blood had a real shot at some awards love, but it was empathically shut out of the proceedings: it’ll probably contend with United States of Tara for best Title Sequence, but with no Drama Series or Lead Actress love, it’s clear the Emmys didn’t find its vampire story appealing. That’s unfortunate for the show, but it’s a trend: no Freshman series broke into the series categories, and only Simon Baker (The Mentalist) and Toni Colette (United States of Tara) made their way into the major categories.

HBO “Domination”

In a popular vote, nobody quite knew where HBO would end up, but the answer is in far better shape than people anticipated – although Mad Men and Breaking Bad have AMC as the new “it” network, HBO is still holding some cache. Not only did Big Love score a huge surprise nomination as the 7th contender in the Drama Series race, but Flight of the Conchords is honestly the biggest story of the awards. With a Comedy Series nomination, a shocking Lead Actor nomination for Jemaine Clement, plus both writing and directing nominations, the show blew onto the radar like it wasn’t struggling with growing pains in its second season. While everyone saw the show’s Carol Brown getting an Original Song nod, the love wasn’t anticipated. The network also performed well with In Treatment, which missed the Drama Series race but picked up three acting nods (Byrne, Davis, Wiest).

The Year of How I Met Your Mother

I let out an extremely girlish “Yay,” nearly dropping my computer, when How I Met Your Mother was listed as one of the nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series (and I even predicted it!). I know it has no chance in the category, but its nomination is a vindication of the highest order that voters went with the popular vote, and that it jumped from not even being in the Top 10 to being in the Top 7. I call it the Year of HIMYM, though, because Neil Patrick Harris has an open door to pick up an Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Comedy – long live Barney Stinson.

After the jump: Surprises! Snubs! Etc.!

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2009 Emmy Awards Nominations Predictions: The Tale of the Tape

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The Tale of the Tape

July 15th, 2009

Heading into tomorrow morning’s nominations (5:30 Pacific Time, so 8:30 Eastern and 9:30 for me in the Atlantic time zone), there are a few certainties, and a few question marks. I talked before about the uncertainty of the popular vote, which places a show like Lost somewhere in between an equilibrium of popular shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy and more critical/industry favourites like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Here, it’s tie to take a look at some of the big stories that could emerge from the nominations, as well as a glimpse at some of the categories that I didn’t get to during the week. So, let’s get the Tale of the Tape.

Mad Men = The New Sopranos?

Last year, Mad Men racked up an Emmy for Drama Series, a nomination for Lead Actor and Best Supporting Actor, and five other statues (including Writing for Matthew Weiner). The question now really comes down to just how much the show’s second season is going to increase those odds. Chances are that one of the show’s two leading women will break through, now much more household names when it comes to the show’s success, and there’s room for more supporting players at well. If it follows the Sopranos pattern, it could break through big – if it, however, gets held back by being on AMC, it could end up with roughly the same nominations.

The Year of CBS?

It may be unlikely, with far more popular shows in terms of Hollwood and the Emmys in the category, but How I Met Your Mother is at the point where its breakout year might be upon us. Neil Patrick Harris is hosting, the show’s ratings have solidified it as a hit in its own right, and it is no longer in fear of cancellation which makes it seem like the kind of show that will be around for a while. It has to compete with stablemate The Big Bang Theory, which has Jim Parsons breaking out in a big way, and Two and a Half Men, but that two more legitimate Emmy contenders than the network had a year ago (and, in my mind, two more than it should have, but that’s neither here nor there). Combine with a chance for The Mentalist’s Simon Baker, and CBS is maybe not just the people’s network anymore.

Breaking Bad Breaking Through?

Last year, Bryan Cranston won in a bit of a shocker in the Lead Actor category for his work on the other AMC drama, Breaking Bad. Many have taken that win and viewed it as a sign that the show, which got even better in its second season, has a chance of breaking through in its own right. I’m of the mind that it will, but Cranston’s win was as much for his lack of a win for Malcolm in the Middle than it was for his brave performance, so it will be interesting to see if the show can join Cranston in the Emmy race. It has the benefit of having aired fairly recently, but it’s yet to be seen if it can break through on the popular vote.

The Final Chance for Battlestar Galactica

A real chance of breaking into the Drama Series race, or the various acting categories, just isn’t in the cards; Battlestar Galactica may have had an amazing finale, and its actors may have stepped up more than ever before, but in a popular vote competition it just isn’t going to get the support it needs. Mary McDonnell is going to get pushed out of her category, although remains a long shot candidate if things get really weird, but the show’s real chance lies in both writing and direction. There’s probably room in those categories for Ronald D. Moore and Michael Rymer, as they’ve been represented before, so it will be interesting to see if they can pick up those nods. They’ll also dominate the special effects categories, with the Visual Effects team easily picking up their third Emmy.

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2009 Emmy Award Predictions: Outstanding Drama Series

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Outstanding Drama Series

Predictions

Last year, the big story in the Outstanding Drama Series category was the presence of three shows that broke down barriers for cable: Showtime’s Dexter was the channel’s first ever nominee in the category, and both FX’s Damages and eventual winner AMC’s Mad Men were the first ever basic cable series to make their way into television’s biggest category.

This year, the story is a little bit more muddled, as the return of a popular vote-only category raises questions about whether Dexter and Damages can make it back into the big dance competing against the juggernauts like House and Grey’s Anatomy. For shows like Damages and perennial nominee Boston Legal, that relied on showy episodes to sway the blue-ribbon panels, their popular support remains untested, which could lead to some surprises.

Mad Men is a lock to return to defend its title after a strong second season, while Lost’s popular support and the quality of its fifth season should be enough to grab a nomination. The real suspense will come down to whether some shows sitting at the edges might be able to make it in: Breaking Bad had a strong second season, aired very recently, and Bryan Cranston won Best Actor last year and is likely to be nominated again; The Wire broke the Top 10 with its final season, so perhaps The Shield could do the same; new shows True Blood and The Mentalist try to overcome mixed critical responses with their impressive ratings; 24 has been out of the running for a year, and even then was pretty well out of the running with its drop in quality.

Personally, my heart is with Battlestar Galactica, which is in its final year of Emmy eligibility. However, that’s a long shot that’s quite tough to predict when it’s going to come down to popular vote, and until my heart starts giving out Emmy Awards I guess Ronald D. Moore and company are out of luck in the big dance.

Predictions for Outstanding Drama Series

  • Breaking Bad
  • Dexter
  • Grey’s Anatomy
  • House
  • Lost
  • Mad Men

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2009 Emmy Award Predictions: Lead Actress in a Drama Series

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Lead Actress in a Drama Series

Predictions

Like with Lead Actor, chances are there are going to be a lot of familiar faces in this category, as veteran actresses in showy roles are unlikely to disappear from last year’s ballot. The difference here, though, is a bit more uncertainty in terms of how the popular vote will fall and who will benefit from the extra spot and someone potentially dropping from the category.

Glenn Close, who won last year for Damages, is a lock for another nomination, as are Sally Field and Kyra Sedgwick who will remain perennial nominees at this stage. This leaves three spots, which could go in a number of directions. The safest bet may be to give two of them to last year’s nominees, Mariska Hargitay and Holly Hunter. However, I have an odd feeling about Hunter, and Hargitay is one who I think benefited more from screeners than she may have from the popular vote, which creates some opportunity for some new blood.

While that may seem like a logical segue into another actress, I think the most likely individual is January Jones. Mad Men’s ladies were entirely unrepresented last year, a sin considering how great they are, but this year one would expect either Jones or Elisabeth Moss to break through. The reason Jones is the obvious choice is that Moss really had her big storyline in the first season; she was great in the second season, and part of me prefers her to Jones, but there is something iconic about Betty Draper and her connection with her husband (guaranteed nominee Jon Hamm) that is likely to pull voters towards her.

Also circling is Mary McDonnell, whose portrayal of President Laura Roslin on Battlestar Galactica reportedly made the Top 10 last year. It’s a showy role, and SciFi did their best to remind voters that this is their last chance to nominate her for her stellar work. At the same time, it’s still a science fiction series, and the emotion of her final scenes in “Daybreak” or her anger in “The Hub” are more powerful for fans than voters.

Speaking of fans, Anna Paquin has to be considered a contender; no, winning the Golden Globe doesn’t mean anything when it’s a Golden Globe, but she’s a former Oscar winner (if you haven’t seen The Piano, do so immediately) and the show has garnered a real following and has HBO backing its campaign. The show’s a bit too campy in order to break into the series race, but Paquin’s character shows some skin, has an accent (a bad one, but still), and has highly emotional storylines – that’s a solid recipe for Emmy.

Also on the periphery: Jeanne Tripplehorn, who is now the only of Big Love’s wives to be submitting in the category, Patricia Arquette, who continues to garner attention for newly-relocated Medium, and Jill Scott, whose Botswana-shot No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was well-received critically and where she has a highly dramatic, engaging performance that could sneak in under the radar. I’m aware that she’s a definite long shot compared to former Oscar nominees slumming in television, but sometimes doing predictions I get bored and want to go out on a limb.

Predictions for Lead Actress in a Drama

  • Glenn Close (“Damages”)
  • Sally Field (“Brothers & Sisters”)
  • January Jones (“Mad Men”)
  • Anna Paquin (“True Blood”)
  • Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”)
  • Jill Scott (“No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”)

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