“Summertime” and Televisual Space
January 8th, 2012
After rewatching the entire first season over the holidays with my parents, I found myself enjoying Shameless more than when it premiered (as I wrote about soon after), and I looked forward to checking out the second season. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was to find it so disarmingly different from what we saw last year.
This isn’t to say that the show has dramatically changed its approach to storytelling, although there is evidence to suggest that they are finding better ways of balancing the different character dynamics based on reviews from critics who have seen beyond tonight’s premiere. Rather, the fast-forward to the dog days of summer has created both a temporal shift and, more importantly, a spatial shift in terms of the characters and the world they live in. More generally, though, the long summer days offer a plethora of sunlight, dramatically transforming the aesthetic of the show and signaling a new season in a very direct, meaningful fashion.
I realize that this is not particularly evaluative, and if we were to speak exclusively on those terms I found the premiere promising but uneven, but I want to spend a bit of time discussing these changes relative to the question of space, an increasingly important factor as worlds begin to converge in a new spatial dynamic within the series.
“Father Frank, Full of Grace”
March 27th, 2011
By the conclusion of its first season, I would argue that Showtime’s Shameless found something of an identity independent of its British predecessor. This is not to say that the show is better or worse, something I can’t judge given that I’ve seen only brief glimpses of the British series, but I felt as though the first season seemed driven by characters more than versions of characters. Between the work of Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan and Emma Kenney, the Gallagher siblings feel as though they (if not necessarily the world they inhabit) are real people who I want to see face the challenges that result from their position. Their story never felt like we were seeing someone else’s story transposed onto these characters, as each performer seemed to be driving the characterization as much as any sort of influence from across the pond.
That is a testament to the strength of the cast, and the writers for working with them, but it is only one component of the series’ future. The other side, the part where we consider the world that John Wells and Paul Abbott have created in Shameless’ Chicago, seems problematic as the show heads into an extended hiatus before a second season. “Father Frank, Full of Grace” has some strong moments, but it has already put into motion an enormously problematic return to the status quo which threatens to undermine whatever strong character work might be done.
Or, to put it in other words, it’s already threatening to be just like every other problematic Showtime series.
February 7th, 2011
In some ways, The Chicago Code seems like the only new series premiering this midseason.
Oh sure, there are a number of other shows making their debuts in the first two months of the year, but The Chicago Code has been one of the year’s most-buzzed about pilots since last Spring, when it was still in contention for the Fall lineup. Being bumped to midseason (for Lone Star, no less) may have been seen as a slight the first time around, but it turned into a real coup for Shawn Ryan and company. Their show went from one of the year’s most talked about pilots to the year’s last great hope, the one new network show that critics could actually endorse wholeheartedly which doesn’t get immediately canceled.
We all know what happened to Lone Star, however, and yet I feel fairly confident that the same fate is unlikely for this particular program. At its core, The Chicago Code is a police drama, but it stands out in the fact that it seems so committed to surface multidimensionality. There are no “cop shows” on television which are actually one-dimensional: they all have their quirks, and all engage in elements of character and basic seriality on a smaller scale. However, for the most part, they purposefully appear one-dimensional. One of the reasons that shows like CSI or NCIS have become a punchline is that they are sold as something blindly simple, capable of being reduced and often (although not always) reducing themselves as if to meet those lowered expectations.
At least evidenced by its pilot, The Chicago Code is not playing the same game. Not content to establish simply a premise or a setting in its opening episode, the show establishes a world: a story is told, a map is drawn, and ambiguities are left without feeling as though pointless mystery is being used to create gutless melodrama. It’s just a really smart hour of television, and one senses that the intelligence isn’t going to suddenly stop in the weeks ahead.
January 12th, 2011
Thanks to a particularly busy schedule and some difficulties getting access to the episodes in question, Friday Night Lights’ fifth season has been mostly absent from Cultural Learnings. And yet, this is about to change, both because of greater access and because there is a growing sense of urgency.
Not really within the show itself: while there is certainly plenty of tension on the series right now, it continues to follow the slow burn mentality it always has. And yet my relationship with the series has taken on a certain tension, as it is becoming more and more clear that this is a show which is about to come to its end. I could have waited until the NBC airings to cover the show, but this is going to be the real ending: this is when critics will write their posts on the series’ legacy, this will be when the fans will respond to the fond (or, who knows, potentially tragic) farewells, and this is when I want to say goodbye.
And so I’ll likely be checking in with the series weekly from now until the finale – for now, a few brief thoughts on the season as a whole and a more detailed review of “Gut Check” after the jump.
November 16th, 2010
“Are you on anything? Because this is trippy.”
“The Substitute” is terrible, except that it’s sort of great.
Every moment stands on the precipice of being terrible, predicated on tenuous connections to our reality. And yet, with a willingness to indulge in fantasy the episode achieves something approaching self-actualization, finding the honest moments in storylines that could very easily have been devoid of such honesty. Some moments are worse than the show’s baseline of ridiculousness, while other moments spin that ridiculousness into the kind of character moments that the show often struggles with.
Ian Brennan, returning to the material of “The Rhodes Not Taken,” tells a story about loneliness, albeit in an episode so jam-packed with storylines that the actual feeling of loneliness is largely theoretical. While not quite the series’ best episode, “The Substitute” makes so much with so little that we can’t help but find it admirable.
If, also, a little awful.
August 6th, 2010
The best compliment I can pay Friday Night Lights right now is that I left its fourth season finale wanting so much more than I received.
I know this is normally considered a negative statement, in that the show was somehow lacking in something that I desired, but that’s sort of the point of the ensemble drama: by showing us the lives of so many characters, there will inevitably be plots we don’t get to follow, relationships we don’t get to spend time with, and stories that could have had broader implications. The mark of a good ensemble drama is that we actually wanted to fill in those gaps, and the mark of a great one is that even with those gaps we are enormously content with the story that has been put on screen and want to see more.
Friday Night Lights hasn’t had a perfect fourth season, trapped between interesting new characters and paying service to those who came before, but the world of Dillon, Texas remains as vibrant and empowering as ever before. “Thanksgiving” is neither a definitive goodbye to original cast members nor a defining moment for the new characters who arrived earlier this season, but rather a series of moments that define this ensemble and the world in which they play football and, more importantly, live their lives. And while some part of me wanted a three-hour finale, giving us the scenes that it felt like we needed before the various stories came to an end, the selective gaze which Jason Katims adopts in the episode feels satisfying as a whole, bringing to an end an uneven but affecting season of network television’s finest ensemble drama series which bodes well for the final chapter this fall on DirecTV.
Season 9 Finale: In Defence of Kris Allen
May 26th, 2010
I’ve got a lot to say about this season of American Idol and the future of the franchise without Simon Cowell, but I’m going to be saving those for a Jive TV column in the coming days. However, since that piece will be more wide-reaching than tonight’s results, I want to comment briefly on two things.
The first is that, in case you didn’t notice it, Idol got a rare insurrection from quality music when Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” was used to soundtrack the package of Lee and Crystal’s auditions in Chicago and their Idol journey. I would highly suggest you look up Sufjan if you have not been privy to his music in the past, as “Illinois” (the album on which the song is featured) was truly a revelation for me.
The second is that I think people are falling prey to an easy but ultimately false analogy when it comes to tonight’s results. Kris Allen was, in fact, the eighth American Idol, and there are plenty of arguments to be made that Adam Lambert deserved to win that season, but I think we need to make a distinction between “relatively” undeserving winners and undeserving winners.
[That’s more or less a spoiler, but I figure that if you read this blog and have been watching enough to understand that it’s a spoiler, you probably found out already, so come back after the break and I can defend Kris Allen some more.]
May 24th, 2010
How I Met Your Mother has always been a show about ideas: the central premise of the show is more complex and philosophical than your traditional sitcom, leaning on themes of fate and narrative which are not necessarily what one would call common comedy fare. However, it was also a show where things happened within the thematic realm, where characters felt like they were making decisions and potentially heading “off course” from our expectations.
In its fifth season, HIMYM has lost that dynamism, as seen in a finale where nothing that happens feels of any consequence. “Doppelgangers” has a plot, and some “big” things happen in the series’ realm, but none of it feels organic or noteworthy. Instead, the episode feels like a rumination on the idea of controlling your own fate which just happens to relate to things characters happen to be experiencing at this point in time.
And while I still value that part of the series’ identity, and still appreciate these characters, the heart of the series has been notably absent in what I would easily call the show’s weakest season, and unfortunately “Doppelgangers” does nothing to change this even while providing one of the emotional moments we’ve been anticipating since early in the series’ run.
January 27th, 2010
Friday Night Lights is a show about convergence.
Really, all ensemble dramas end up driving towards climaxes which tend to bring various story elements together, so this may not seem overly remarkable. However, as the show heads towards the conclusion of its fourth season, the show is doing a lot to bring together stories, simplifying in some instances and complicating in others.
And while some of the tension created by this convergence is engaging, what I tend to enjoy more is the sort of indirect effects: this is the first time in a while where the show actively demonstrated the show’s central dilemma of ignoring the football in order to service the characters on a personal, non-football level, and that tension (when used, as opposed to simply created and elided) is part of the show’s tragedy.
“Injury List” is about capturing the tragedy of stories converging at the worst possible time, although the show manages to keep (most of) that convergence from seeming too convenient in the show’s late season push.
May 19th, 2009
As always, as a less than official TV critic, I haven’t been amongst those lucky enough to have seen FOX’s new series, Glee, ahead of time. This is not usually an issue, as I’m able to avoid any spoilers or any really strong opinions on these shows, but ignoring Glee has been nearly impossible. Between the constant deluge of ads that FOX has been deploying, and between every TV critic under the sun having extremely polarizing reactions to the series, ignoring Glee has been fundamentally impossible. People either love the show or, well, they agree that there’s other people other than themselves who will probably love it.
Amazingly, however, I managed to keep myself from seeing a single clip, or more than a few images, from the series: sure, I’ve seen the criticism, but this unique musical television “event” (premiering after American Idol despite not truly debuting until the Fall) remains entirely unspoiled in terms of its tone and in terms of its execution (although I’ve obviously listened to the critics enough to know some things to look out for). As a result, I can honestly say that I went into Glee with, primarily, no real expectations one way or the other. The result?
I’m a little bit in love.