Cultural Checkup: Suits and White Collar
August 12th, 2011
Although I’ve stopped watching Burn Notice, and ceased my bizarre commitment to the dull Royal Pains this summer, and didn’t bother with Covert Affairs’ second season, and didn’t even bother with Necessary Roughness (which I thought looked terrible), I remain really quite interested with USA as a network. With White Collar, they have a show that I think hits a lot of interesting buttons, and with Suits you have a show that seems to be aiming for the same goal. They’re shows that I like a great deal in particular moments, and that are in two very different stages of development.
However, as I drop in on both shows this week, I’ll admit that I find them a bit frustrating. While Suits has a lot of potential, its youthfulness shows signs of uncertainty in regards to questions of genre and narrative, problems that White Collar continues to carry even as it clearly leads the network’s offerings in terms of quality. I know that the general approach to USA programming is not quite this hyper-critical, but I’ve stored up a few too many things to say about the two shows, so I figured the Cultural Checkup was a good way to get through them.
“All Mixed Up”
September 22nd, 2010
I am officially to the point where I am done “defending” Cougar Town: I refuse to accept that anyone who has recently watched the series could think it is anything but honest, earnest and hilarious, and so I’m just going to pretend that there are no naysayers out there. While many turn to Modern Family for their television comfort food on Wednesdays, for me Cougar Town manages to hit the same emotional notes while abandoning neither the honesty nor the snark.
There is nothing complex about “All Mixed Up,” largely relying on the strong interpersonal dynamics that developed over the course of last season, but the episode says something about those dynamics in light of recent changes. It successfully makes the argument that while their relationships will sustain them through any number of challenges in life, it will not be able to make it so that those challenges don’t exist. This is a starkly honest show (as I note above), and this allows them to say something tangible and real about their characters without introducing false conflict.
In other words, things aren’t “All Mixed Up” at all.
“Chuck vs. the Anniversary”
September 20th, 2010
I didn’t realize it until I sat down to write this review, but I think this might be the last weekly Chuck review for quite some time here at Cultural Learnings.
This is not so much a reflection of the relative quality of “Chuck vs. the Anniversary” as it is a reflection of what kind of show Chuck has become over the past season. When I posted my review of NBC’s Chase earlier today, someone commented that Chuck similarly lacks character and consequence: they were joking, of course, but the latter point (consequence) stuck with me heading into tonight’s premiere.
This is still a show I enjoy, and a show I plan on continuing to watch, but I think Chuck has reached the stage where it no longer interests me critically. The season seems like it is onto a solid start, but it is a start which takes absolutely no risks, taking some potentially interesting new ideas and quickly absorbing them into the show’s existing structures.
And as pleasant as that is, I think it might be the point at which weekly reviews no longer feel like a good use of my time.
“Chuck vs. the Subway/Chuck vs. the Ring: Part II”
May 24th, 2010
I don’t know if I have that much to say about the Chuck finale, primarily because it isn’t a finale to anything in particular. It’s intelligent for Schwartz and Fedak to draw from the series’ overall premise and mythology to drive this two-part finale, as “Chuck vs. the Subway” and “Chuck vs. the Ring: Part II” are both emotionally satisfying, intelligent hours of television, but it means that it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s bringing anything to a close so much as it’s finally addressing long-standing issues.
The plot of the two episodes draws from elements earlier this season, like our discovery that John Casey has a daughter, the return of Brandon Routh’s Daniel Shaw, or the potential damage done by the Intersect for the human psyche, but it also makes the argument that fairly substantial chunks of the season (and, arguably, earlier seasons) were not what we thought they were. The conclusion to the episode, more than ever last year’s cliffhanger, introduces the idea that Chuck was destined to be this way, and that the circumstantial elements of the series have all been part of a broader function and purpose.
This makes this much more of a premiere than a finale, using what little momentum the pacing-challenged third season could muster in order to launch the series on a much more interesting trajectory. The result has me much more excited about a fourth season than I was when it was announced a few weeks ago, although no more appreciative of the third season’s narrative stumbling blocks – so long as next season lives up to the hype, though, I’m willing to forgive them for the year’s struggles.
“Chuck vs. the Tooth”
May 10th, 2010
So far in this six-episode miniseason, Chuck has been barreling along not unlike the train in the “premiere” of sorts: the destination isn’t particularly important, we’re just along for the ride as Chuck and Sarah adjust to being a couple and fighting evil at the same time. It’s been a nice change of pace in a season which felt like it was so clearly driving towards the triangle between Chuck, Sarah and Shaw that none of the show’s other elements really got to shine, and I’ve been enjoying these episodes quite a bit.
However, with “Chuck vs. the Tooth” that train has put on the brakes, and you can very clearly see the switch turning to send the train in a certain direction. I understand why this is (we only have two episodes left this season), and I also understand the long-term plans at play within this solid if not spectacular episode. The problem is that the show manipulates short term reactions in order to establish potential consequences regarding the intersect, leading to an episode which plays out as Chuck’s worst nightmare when, in reality, I think the episode would have played out in a more logical and less dramatic fashion.
It gets the point across, no question about that, but it does so in a less than elegant fashion which hearkens back to the original 13 episodes more than this more recent run.
“Feel a Whole Lot Better”
May 5th, 2010
In Scrubs’ first season, J.D. and Elliot were two people who should logically be together: they were clearly attracted to one another, they were both young and attractive, and they were the male and female leads on a television comedy series. However, in the span of a forty-minute episodes entitled “My Bed Banter & Beyond,” the two characters decide to embark on a relationship after spending a day in bed having sex and chatting about the future of their relationship. The episode cuts back and forth between their time in bed on that first day and their attempts to make the relationship work in the real world, and at the end (spoiler alert), they realize it was all a mistake, and just as we finally see them part as young lovers on that first day we see them broken apart a few weeks later. It was a really fantastic episode of television in terms of breaking down and psychoanalyzing the show’s decision to not follow through on that pairing, and it was the sort of subtle and effective storytelling that would abandon the show and that relationship until the show’s eighth season.
I was just saying to my friend Colin yesterday that Cougar Town is shaping up into a spiritual successor to Scrubs in certain areas, so it’s fitting that the show would introduce its own play on that episode and its functions with “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” another in a pretty long line of really strong episodes for the show. Playing out the “Will They, Won’t They” outside of the thralls of young love and within the dynamics of two divorcees trying to keep from being lonely for the rest of their lives, the episode plays out the consequences from Jules and Grayson’s hookup last week by having the characters lie to themselves about the dramatic conflict apparent in the story. While the episode skips over some of last week’s subtexts that could have made this even more complicated, they manage to squeeze in a lot of story which transforms last week’s hookup into something definitive.
And thus the transformation from “What the hell is this” to “the new Scrubs” continues.
“Chuck vs. the Role Models”
May 3rd, 2010
I wasn’t actually in the writer’s room when it happened, but the more I watch of Chuck Season 3.5 (the six episodes ordered after the first thirteen were broken/written as a conclusive story) the more I feel like the writers quite literally went back to the drawing board. In some ways, this set of episodes is like a whole new spinoff series, starting with last week’s pilot-like “Chuck vs. the Honeymooners,” and now these are the episodes where the show taps into various situations that seem to stem logically from the central premise.
In this case, Chuck has been reimagined as a series about two spies in love trying to make it work, so “Chuck vs. the Role Models” trots out an older married couple within the CIA to offer Chuck and Sarah a glimpse of their future, and to test their long term compatibility (after their short-term teamwork was proven in last week’s episode). Similarly, after last week’s episode introduced us to Morgan as a member of Team Bartowski, this week had Casey run him through his paces by offering some field training. They’re stories that feel like sitcom pitches based on where the show was situated after the end of last week’s episode, logical avenues for the show to investigate that could feel perfunctory is not executed well.
Fortunately, “Chuck vs. the Role Models” is a regular hootenanny (bonus points to who can tell me what episode of Buffy I watched today which has this word stuck in my head), taking full advantage of a couple of great guest stars and some nicely drawn situations to really get the most out of these central storylines. Throw in some nice subtle serialization, both through Ellie and Awesome’s time in Africa and through the consistency of character/tone throughout, and you have a show which continues to feel re-energized after a downer of a season.
“Letting You Go”
April 28th, 2010
I am officially nearing the point with Cougar Town where I may make it my personal crusade to travel across the country in order to force every person who gave up on the show in its (admittedly pretty bad) early episodes to sit down and watch an episode like “Letting You Go.” As a show which seemed to begin with tired archetypes, I can see why people were perhaps impatient with the series, but these characters are real people now: while Modern Family has a set of dynamic character types that offer plenty of storytelling opportunities, characters on Cougar Town evolve and change in life the same way that J.D., Elliot and Turk changed through medicine.
“Letting You Go” is a careful negotiation of the show’s central relationships told through a combination of some bare bones emotional realities and some ridiculous, over-the-top sequences that would seem like dream sequences on any other show. That the show is capable of achieving this makes it all the more impressive, and makes me all the more sad that people who would truly love this show let it go before it really had a chance to shine.
“Chuck vs. the Honeymooners”
April 26th, 2010
“Chuck vs. the Honeymooners” is not an episode about “Chuck and Sarah.” It is an episode about Chuck, and Sarah, and their independent personalities; the argument the show makes is not that they should be together (although it does sort of implictly make this argument through its quality), but rather that they each independently want to be with the other, and that this is a conclusion which they have come to as human beings rather than as much-shipped television characters on a network series.
I’m not one of those people who particularly cares about “Chuck and Sarah,” but I am one of those people who cares about Chuck, and Sarah, and their own journeys through this crazy life they’re living. In an episode which has a lot of fun moments which play into the lengthy period of romantic tension which led to this inevitable conclusion, there are also a lot of fun moments which are just the result of how much chemistry that Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have independent of a relationship, and how great the show’s stunt team is at making a low budget show look like an action film when it comes time to throw down.
The show can never be exclusively “about” Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, but so long as the show’s investigation of its potential results in episodes like this one which are damn entertaining entirely independent of the shipper mentality, I’d say that this little six-episode mini-season could be quite the ride.
“Chuck vs. the American Hero”
March 29th, 2010
Sometimes, when critics receive episodes in advance and when previews run rampant online, those of us without those episodes and who choose not to watch those previews nonetheless hear the basic content of an episode. And when it comes to this week’s episode of Chuck, it was absolutely impossible to ignore the subject matter of this week’s episode.
What’s interesting is that these responses were both positive and negative: news that this episode would directly speak to Chuck and Sarah’s relationship tends to divide the Chuck viewership between those who are excited about it because it’s the reason they watch the show and those who are excited about it because it means they might finally get around to resolving this issue. While some live or die based on this story, most viewers tend to view it as a part of the show that’s fine in small doses, and fine in theory, but occasionally overpowers the rest of the show’s narrative.
And so episodes like “Chuck vs. the American Hero” are either the highlight of the season or a necessary evil in order for the show to keep on track heading into the rest of the year; in this case, after a bit of a rough start, the episode manages to prove engaging enough and twisty enough that any of my concerns with their relationship were (mostly) pushed aside for the time being.