Promise and “Prophecy Girl”
April 21st, 2010
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Going into “Prophecy Girl,” I was expecting something big – everyone had indicated that this episode, as Whedon returns to writing and takes over directing duties, is when the show finally finds itself. Because I know that the series is going to eventually become heavily serialized, and that the first season finale is supposed to be the start of that push towards more complex stories, I expected to have all sorts of new potential to be writing about.
Instead, I’ve discovered that “Prophecy Girl” is ultimately a subtle rather than substantial shift in the series’ trajectory, a question of execution rather than some sort of creative shift. With Whedon behind the camera, the emotional resonance of the episode and its stories is the strongest its been thus far, and there are a couple of pretty key bits of character development which sort of clears the slate heading into the second season. However, produced like many first season finales, you can tell that this was either a beginning or an end depending on if the series was picked up, and so it spends as much time resolving as it does complicating.
The result is that all of my prophecizing and pontificating about earlier episodes is probably more substantial than what I have to offer about “Prophecy Girl”: it was entertaining and emotional, and signals the show is coming into itself quite nicely, but it’s only made me anxious to move on already. However, I made a promise to write about it, so some thoughts on the finale and the first season overall are necessary at this stage in the Cultural Catchup Project.
“Everybody Loves Hugo”
April 13th, 2010
“There’s a difference between doing nothing and waiting.”
Ah yes, that eternal question: a week after finally getting something close to answers about the Sideways universe and what it means for the series, “Everybody Loves Hugo” appears at first to be the start of another waiting period. The Man in Black is right when he says the above, of course: there is a difference between the show sitting around wasting time and the show waiting for the right moment to introduce something that will truly change the direction of the series.
I’d argue that “Happily Ever After” gave us the momentum required to (hopefully) negotiate the difference between these two approaches. While early episodes lacked the context necessary for us to view the flash sideways as something that was building to something larger as opposed to just the show twiddling its thumbs to toy with our minds, the new details about how the Flash Sideways work means that there is now a function to the “waiting,” making it seem more purposeful and goal-oriented.
It’s one of the things which makes “Everybody Loves Hugo” a particularly intriguing episode; after creating the expectation that it would be a quiet episode of waiting and wishy-washy motivations, various characters get tired of waiting and take things into their own hands, creating some rather explosive moments that punctuate a philosophically intriguing hour.
And that certainly doesn’t qualify as “doing nothing,” even if we’re still waiting for the big answers.
April 5th, 2010
While Life Unexpected is effectively a romantic story, as a young girl’s life struggles to find a family after being given up for adoption lead her back to the family she was meant to have, it doesn’t necessarily take place in a romantic world. There are times, of course, when the show steps towards the saccharine, and everything works out a little bit too easily, but Lux still went through a pretty hellish time in foster care (as we saw in last week’s episode), and I have always had faith that the show knows that what happened with Lux, Cate and Baze becoming a sort of family isn’t something that can happen every day.
“Father Unfigured” is the show dealing with that particularly reality, using Cate’s father (who she presumed abandoned the family) as a test to gauge the probability of this sort of situation ever happening again. And as I expected, it is very clear that the show’s premise is more than a bit romantic, but it’s a romanticism that manifests itself as a legitimate connection between these three human beings as opposed to some sort of simple or traditional notion of love. Essentially, Life Unexpected is like the television drama version of Lilo & Stitch, where “family” has its own unique meaning that no other family could entirely understand but which nonetheless connects with audiences.
The show often forces this “family” through a few more hoops than may be ideal in order to get to that stage, but they’ve nicely set things up heading into next week’s finale.
“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.
“The Hollow Men”
January 15th, 2010
“This world is for people who can evolve.”
We’re going to be waiting two weeks until Dollhouse concludes its troubled two-season run (although scheduled to finish next week, the cross-network Haiti Telethon is taking over primetime on the 22nd), and it’s going to be interesting to see the kind of anticipation that builds around the show’s series finale. “The Hollow Men” is an engaging hour of television that features a strong performance from Harry Lennix, but there is every sense that this is transition episode and little more: the scale of the “war” is at this point still so small that the episode feels more incidental than perhaps it should.
The show has spent much of its second season implying that events which seem small are going to eventually seem very large, aided by the presence of “Epitaph One” as an image of the world’s future dystopia, but the real trick is trying to actually make those small events seem large in the context of a single episode. The work done in “The Hollow Men” is not inelegant so much as it is hampered by the “rush” towards a conclusion, and at times the episode feels like a “greatest hits” collection of the show’s finest moments as opposed to a culmination of ongoing storylines. The episode spends a lot of time talking about characters as a family, which is a fine idea but which fails to capture the evolution these characters have gone through: while the show’s relatively short run precludes the kind of depth that the final episodes of Lost or Battlestar Galactica brought to the table, there is still a sense that the way Dollhouse made its way towards its finale kept it from having the dramatic impact it perhaps could have.
It does nothing to make me less intrigued about how the show wraps up its run next week, but I definitely am not connecting with the ending as perhaps some others might be.
“Girls vs. Suits”
January 11th, 2010
I picked up the fourth season of How I Met Your Mother on DVD over the holidays, and I watched a few episodes over the course of the break. I came to realize that there are a number of highlights in the season, but that many of them hinge on a story element that has since that point been entirely wasted. Episodes kept pointing towards Barney coming to terms with his playboy identity in order to confront his feelings with Robin, and those episodes are painful for me: they’re a sign of the storyline that the show cut loose before I felt it should have been cut loose, and before it had been given time to develop into something that could have become a meaningful part of this universe.
If we view “Girls vs. Suits,” scripted by co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas as the show’s 100th episode, as a celebration of what they consider the show’s two most enduring elements, we find that the mythology surrounding the Mother and the audacity surrounding Barney Stinson are the show’s constants. But considering my frustration over Barney’s regression from his relationship with Robin, and considering how the story surrounding the Mother has been dragged out to the point where it has ceased being about Ted and become more about the show itself, this isn’t what my ideal 100th episode of the show would look like.
And yet, I found “Girls vs. Suits” managed to crack my cynical exterior with one of its storylines, although the other (although eventful and charming at points) simultaneously confirmed that it may have to be in desperate need of some reinvention to ensure it can “make it work” in the future.
“The Psychic Vortex”
January 11th, 2010
On a night with the third episode of Chuck’s third season and How I Met Your Mother’s 100th episode, I won’t tell a lie: I forgot about the Big Bang Theory.
Admittedly, I have my ups and downs with the show, but there’s something about it that is more comfortable than eventful, so I got lost in the hype surrounding the night’s other episodes. But “The Psychic Vortex” was eventful in quite a few ways, and while it did nothing to change the current state of the series’ long-term storylines (and in fact did less than some episodes earlier this season to downplay its most problematic relationship) it managed to find some fun moments amidst two separate stories…even if it found 90% of them in the one involving Sheldon.
That’s one constant of the show I didn’t forget, and unfortunately the episode unearths a few other constant frustrations that have plagued my time with the show over the past few seasons. While this episode wasn’t criminally unfunny, it did do disservice to enough characters that I once again feel like the show is one giant missed opportunity saved by Jim Parsons – not a terrible premise for a show, but not one that lives up to its full potential.
“The Importance of Being Erica”
December 8th, 2009
Going into its second season, Being Erica was a show about one person. But, with a slight expansion of its universe, the show had the potential to become about people beyond Erica, for her journey to become less about her own problems and more life’s problems. The show’s therapy conceit, driving characters to revisit their past in order to offer perspective on their lives, isn’t something that is isolated to one character, and in some ways Erica revisiting her greatest regret (her brother’s death) meant that the show would need to find its emotional core elsewhere. Erin Karpluk will always be very charming, and the show’s structure is a nice procedural element to drive the show forward, but Erica no longer had a “purpose” all season, and at times it felt as if the season was actively ignoring the expansion of its universe (which I found really intriguing) in favour of telling stories that, well, didn’t matter.
The season’s solution to this problem was to introduce Kai, a futuristic barista with a deep secret, and to spend two episodes delving into Dr. Tom. And while the latter resulted in a real tonal shift for the show that worked to its advantage, Kai didn’t work in the beginning like the show wants to believe it did at the end. Sebastian Pigott is a decent actor and a solid singer, able to pull off the role in a way that makes us invested in Kai’s journey, but the show was never consistent on what that journey meant. The show never let us see Kai’s journey through a perspective other than Erica’s, never allowed us to relate to him in a way that makes his story stand separate from his relationship with Erica. And yet, until the end, Erica never felt logically connected to Kai beyond their shared therapy strategies, and the story just never clicked in the way it could have.
“The Importance of Being Erica” is a strong finale that wants to pretend that the show figured all of this out, and that the season worked in a way that led to Erica’s emotional and career realizations. That’s stretching too far, but it’s another sign that even in its occasional problems there is a very good show that occasionally comes to the surface here (and that, if the show learned its lessons, could dominate in the third season).
December 3rd, 2009
“I’ve made some empty promises in my life, but hands down that was the most generous.”
There is a moment in “Scott’s Tots” where the storyline was going exactly in the direction I wanted it to go in…and in that same moment, there was every potential that it would go in a direction that would legitimately bother me.
Such is the tightrope that this episode chooses to walk by effectively demonstrating the aftermath, rather than the initiation, of one of Michael Scott’s horrible miscalculations. The show loves mining the comedy from Michael putting his foot in its mouth, but rarely does it craft so elaborate a scenario where Michael is forced to do precisely the opposite. The episode is about what happens when Michael is finally forced to pull the foot out of his mouth and try to make up for what he’s done, making up for a past mistake rather than receiving an immediate comic comeuppance for his error of judgment.
There are a number of logical leaps that make this episode inherently problematic, and I can see what many would turn against the episode considering the direction it heads in, but the situation “Scott’s Tots” creates is so inherently part of his characters and his journey that the episode feels like a perfect character piece to show the consequences of Michael Scott’s dreams living beyond his means (and, in some instances, his brains).
December 2nd, 2009
Over the weekend, I was chatting with a friend about Glee, and inevitably the conversation came to Terri Schuester. I find it’s usually a topic that every Glee viewer has in common: whatever they think about any individual episode, no one seems to actually like this character. And while I feel bad for Jessalyn Gilsig, who got stuck playing someone who nearly everyone hates, I think that from its very conception the character was a failure. In an interview with the L.A. Times (where she charmingly notes how a review of an episode which made an elated mention of her absence in said episode on the same site made her want to crawl back into bed), she notes that the character was conceived as a justification for Will’s flirtations with Emma; Will needed a reason to be straying from his marriage, so Terri needed to be someone who audiences didn’t like.
However, what I think Ryan Murphy and the rest of the show’s writers didn’t quite understand was how the show was going to be sold and what kinds of stories would dominate the early going. The show was never going to feel natural being about Will Schuester, to the point that those episodes that did focus heavily on his character (see: “Acafellas”) flopped primarily because the show’s core audience (and most of its mainstream buzz) were there for the less dramatic elements of the series (the music, the one-liners, etc.) or for the younger characters who were connected to the music/jokes but still capable of being expanded dramatically. The show had so many identities that a storyline which might have worked if this was an intense character drama like Mad Men had no chance of ever connecting with audiences, to the point where the character and the storyline were dragging down the rest of the show around it.
What makes “Mattress” work as an hour of television is that the show surrounding that storyline has matured to the point where Ryan Murphy has a handle of who these characters are and how they are able to wake up every morning with a smile on their face. For someone like Rachel, it’s knowing that she’s doing everything in her power to be a star, and for someone like Terri it’s knowing that she is doing everything she can to keep her husband from leaving her. By separating the means from the end, the show is able to take Terri and turn her into a character that is still inherently unlikeable without being so inherently unlikeable that she serves as a blight on its sense of momentum.
It’s not the best hour the show has ever done, but like “Wheels” before it the episode represents a clear sense that Ryan Murphy is back in control of this series just in time for it to head on hiatus.