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Sons of Anarchy – “Culling”

“Culling”

November 24th, 2009

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve checked in on Sons of Anarchy, primarily because I’ve run out of superlative things to say about the show. Right now, the show is riding a wave of momentum that feels almost Wire-esque, relying less on twists or turns (which would perhaps illicit more of an immediate desire to write about it) and more on a clear depiction of SAMCRO accomplishing what they want to accomplish in the form of some really compelling asskickery.

“Culling” is the first time in a few episodes where things, you could argue, go wrong, but what’s most intriguing is how uniquely situated the audience is within this story from a traditional law and order perspective. Because our point of view lies with the Sons, who are in this for vengeance over justice, we root against the ATF and become legitimately concerned when the Charming P.D. enter into the equation. The show has us cheering things that television doesn’t necessarily always condition us to cheer, and it makes for an episode that builds tension not by having things go terribly wrong but rather having the definition of justice become a debatable topic on which different characters have very different perspectives.

It’s the complicated web the show has been spinning with shocking clarity all season, and it’s making for an enormously entertaining march to the finale.

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Season Finale: Mad Men – “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”

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“Shut the Door”

November 8th, 2009

“I’m not going…I’m just living elsewhere.”

Every episode of television is a collection of scenes, individual set pieces designed to present a particular moment or to evoke a particular emotion or feeling. The scenes serve one of many potential purposes, whether it’s establishing a standalone plot within a particular episode, calling back to a previous scene or event in another episode, or even simply being placed for the sake of foreshadowing. A scene can change meaning as a season progresses, an awkward encounter with an overly touchy politico turning into a legitimate affair by the addition of new scenes that speak to the old one, for example. And, at the same time, other scenes are simply brief thematic beats designed to give the viewer the sense of a particular time or place, with nothing more beneath them than the aesthetic value apparent in the craftsmanship involved.

A great episode of television, however, is where every single scene feels purposeful, and more importantly where there is no one type of scene which feels dominant. There can still be scenes designed to engage with nothing more than the viewer’s sense of humour, just as there will be scenes that feel like the culmination of two and a half seasons worth of interactions. In these episodes there is a balance between scenes which unearth feelings and emotions from the past that have been kept under wraps all season and scenes which create almost out of thin air entirely new scenarios that promise of an uncertain future.

In a season finale in particular, this last point is imperative. A great season finale assures the reader that, as the quote above indicates, the change which is going to take place in the season to follow is both fundamental (in presenting something which surprises or engages) and incidental (in maintaining the series’ identity), both chaotic (in the context of the series’ fictional universe) and controlled (within the mind of the show’s writers). It is an episode that must feel like the fruit of the thirty-five episodes which preceded it while also serving as the tree for the twenty-six episodes which will follow. It is the episode that, for better or for worse, will be more closely scrutinized than any other, and for which expectations are exceedingly high.

“Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” is more than a collection of scenes. It transcends the concepts of script and screen to capture characters in their most vulnerable states, in the process tapping into the viewer’s emotions with a sense of purpose that the show has never quite seen. Where past amazing episodes have sometimes hinged upon a single scene or a single moment, or on the creation of a particular atmosphere, this finale is like a never-ending stream of scenes that we have been clambering for all season: characters say everything we wanted them to say, do everything we wanted them to do, and yet somehow it never felt like puppet theatre where the characters would follow the whims of Matthew Weiner more than their own motivations.

It is a finale that never wastes a single scene, and which marches towards an uncertain conclusion with utmost certainty. Somehow, in a finale which does not shy away from scenes which are both disturbing to watch and destructive to the show’s tempestuous sense of balance, it maintains a cautious optimism by demonstrating that not everything will fall apart at once, while retaining the right to have everything in shambles by the time we return with Season Four. It’s a singular achievement, an hour of television which sits perfectly in the gap between the past and the future while never feeling as if it takes us out of the present, the moment in which these characters are captured in these scenes.

So, shut the door and have a seat: we’ve got some discussing to do.

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Sons of Anarchy – “Fix”

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“Fix”

September 22nd, 2009

In the world of Sons of Anarchy, everyone’s got a problem they’re trying to fix; heck, in every single show on television, people are looking for solutions to problems. Early on in its second season, it’s clear that the real conflict on this show is not within any single problem but rather the inability for various characters to see (either due to ignorance or due to being too traumatized by their situation) that there are two levels of problems. One is the growing threat of the League of American Nationalists against the Sons of Anarchy or, if you’re on the other side of the coin, the ongoing blight of SAMCRO on the town of Charming. However, there is also the internal struggle between Clay and Jax, not to mention Gemma’s own personal tragedy as well as personal struggles for Opie (Donna’s tragic death), Tig (who murdered Donna) and it seems like just about everyone else.

“Fix” represents the episode where three weeks of letting these secrets and struggles linger is catching up with just about everyone, and everyone wants a solution that will make everything better but has no idea how to really find it. The show continues to embrace an almost satirical sense of the genres it plays with, never quite delving wholly into melodrama, and the result is that the show remains a pleasure to watch even as it deals with serious subjects in an emotional fashion.

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Season Finale: My Boys – “Spring Training”

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“Spring Training”

May 26th, 2009

My Boys has, perhaps, the oddest season structure on television. Its sporadically placed nine episode seasons always feel as if they barely start before they’re done, and they often seem designed so as to make no sense by the time they actually air (with this finale taking place during Spring Training despite finding the Baseball season in full swing – yeah, I said it – or the recent episode about the depths of winter taking place, well, not during the depths of winter).

But, more importantly, the show has this really weird pattern of ending and opening seasons with these highly dramatic scenarios of romantic cliffhangers and major events, but then abandoning them for the entire season in favour of standalone stories that are just about these character hanging out. This wouldn’t be a problem if these two forms were all that compatible, but to be honest they’re not: the end of last season was a bit of a mess, and when the show transitioned into a less serialized format this season it was kind of fantastic. I haven’t been blogging about the show due to time restraints, but there was some really great individual episodes in there, more than enough to convince me that the show is still in great shape.

As a result, it was with some caution that I entered into “Spring Training,” already pretty well knowing what we were heading into: Kenny and Stephanie’s hookup way back in last season’s finale was swept under the rug except for a few moments this season, so it was inevitable that we would be confronting that particular storyline. However, to my surprise, that’s the only attempt at drama the show made in the half hour, providing a finale that draws a simpler cliffhanger, and a trip out to that cliff which let the guys be guys, let P.J. go without any stated relationship trouble, and allowed a pretty great little season go out on a pretty good note.

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Season Finale: Dollhouse – “Omega”

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“Omega”

May 8th, 2009

If there is a single common trait amongst Joss Whedon’s best work, it’s passion. There is this impression that Whedon is pouring his heart into every little scene, and it’s almost always clear when Whedon himself is scripting an episode because it feels particularly purposeful and engaging. And, as a result of this, his passionate legion of fans respond in kind, and a fan favourite series is born. Unfortunately, the same series is probably also doomed to criminally low ratings, so to an extent Whedon has been painted with the brush of “Critical Darling, Ratings Failure.”

But to be honest, halfway through Dollhouse’s inaugural season, I didn’t feel Joss Whedon’s passion for this series: the premise wasn’t being used to its potential, the actors weren’t being allowed to dig into their characters, and in a television arena where patience is not a dependable virtue amongst a mainstream audience Whedon waited six episodes before finally delivering something with a pulse. But out of loyalty to a man whose work I admire and who even admitted last month at PaleyFest that he was going through a creative struggle on his end more than network intereference, myself and the legions of Whedonverse fans patiently waited for the show to break free.

And break free it has: starting with “Man on the Street” and extending into “Spy in the House of Love” and last week’s fantastic “Briar Rose,” the series has not so much reinvited itself as it has discovered the proper perspective on its themes and ideas. Even the episodes not quite as effective have helped to introduce key elements in a way that, rather than seeming like a random “This could be cool, I guess” sort of storyline, feel organic in the season’s momentum. Key mysteries were squared away faster than expected, one key reveal was played so well that being spoiled didn’t even matter, and heading into “Omega” there have been a number of critics who have noted that Dollhouse has quite stealthily become the show they most want saved during this year’s upfronts.

What impresses me about “Omega” is that it doesn’t present a cliffhanger, nor does it fundamentally change our knowledge of the Dollhouse universe (although I thought we should have seen it change on its own a bit more); while it confirms just what happened with Alpha, and makes good on a subtle line from Dominic last week that many astute fans picked up on, the episode is more about paying off some of the ethical questions and dilemmas posed over the last season in such a way as to less justify than explain them. While not perfect, slowing a bit in its conclusion and struggling in sections that required comic timing from Eliza Dushku, it was a finale that nicely summed up why this show is most certainly worth saving, while leaving more than enough questions to lay the groundwork for a second season.

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The Mole (2008) – “Episode Three”

“Episode Three”

June 16th, 2008

If there is a single thing that sets The Mole apart from other reality shows, it’s the tasks that the players are forced to do. They’re different than the other shows, relying not on skill but rather skills like communication, trust and in some cases pure ingenuity. The two tasks at the centerpiece of the fifth season’s third episode represent those which open up the game’s best elements, leaving room for the players to hang themselves and for them to have to think fast on their feet in tough situations.

There’s a lot of elements here that remind us of the show’s previous seasons, including more strong hosting from Jon Kelley and a pre-execution shocker that changes the dynamics of the game in a major way. And yet, there are still subtle differences: perhaps it’s that it isn’t new, but there’s a certain shift in the way the game is being portrayed (and in some ways played) that reminds us that this isn’t the same show.

That being said, it still remains the most watchable reality series for the summer months, and a worthy successor to its predecessors.

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