May 27th, 2011
“What else is different?”
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
The term “Cultural Catchup” really has two meanings.
The first is the broad notion of catching up on television shows which have proven to be important cultural touchstones but which have escaped my gaze.
The second, however, has been the experience of witnessing the conversation on a post and then quickly “catching up” with the context that informs the conversation. This is not to say that anyone has been spoiling the show, but it’s a basic fact that those of you commenting know what’s ahead, and so as I watch through a season I often find myself rereading (or at least thinking about) previous comments and putting two and two together.
I raise this point in part because the unique nature of this viewing experience is something I like theorizing and because this sort of retroactive sense making is at the heart of “After Life,” an episode that serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the season premiere and the season as a whole. In many ways, this is the start of the season: whereas “Bargaining” was saddled with the task of getting from Point A to Point B, “After Life” is allowed more space to breathe and more time to explore the magical and psychological consequences of that transition.
While I don’t think the result is particularly subtle on the level of plot, coming in the form of a metaphor-turned-monster-of-the-week, the strength of that metaphor is confirmed by the unbearable weight of Buffy’s return on her friends, the audience, and more importantly Buffy herself.
And although I don’t think it retroactively solves my issues with “Bargaining,” it certainly gives the title greater meaning and establishes a tragic and poetic frame to the show’s sixth season.
“Day of the Moon”
April 30th, 2011
[Note: while this does not air until a bit later this evening in the U.S., I’m embracing my independence from any one particular country to post my review when it’s finished so that those who watched in the U.K. can discuss it in a more timely fashion. Accordingly, if you want to avoid spoilers, don’t keep reading.]
It’s the time of year when writing about television on the side must take a back seat to writing about television in an academic (and, over at the A.V. Club, “professional”) fashion, and so it’s unfortunate that a weekend filled with paper writing had to collide with “Day of the Moon.”
In truth, I could probably handle writing about an episode like next week’s, where the show returns to its isolated adventures with only subtle nods towards a larger serialized storyline. I could evaluate the appeal of the situation (which next week features Downton Abbey’s own Hugh Bonneville, I believe), consider the ongoing character dynamics between the Doctor and his companions, and then be merrily on my way.
With “Day on the Moon,” I could actually be here for a day. It’s a compelling episode, filled with enough good ideas to carry three episodes of a lesser show, but it also ends up with enough loose ends that actually going through and analyzing them in a satisfactory fashion would be impossible given my current time crunch.
But, I do want to make a few points about the episode, given that I am sure there will be oodles of speculation to be done over the course of the season regarding what we saw here and given the fact that I very much enjoyed it.
April 24th, 2011
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
In chatting with one of my colleagues who has not read A Song of Ice and Fire earlier this month, he raised an interesting question: why, precisely, do some Stark children go to King’s Landing while others remain in Winterfell?
It was a question that never occurred to me while watching “The Kingsroad” since I already knew the answer before I popped in the screener, but it’s one that strikes me as important during these early episodes. There is no avoiding the fact that Game of Thrones has a dislocated narrative, with various locations (highlighted in the opening credit sequence) housing storylines that are often operating on their own frequency, and such dislocation risks feeling arbitrary. It is, arguably, the greatest challenge that Benioff and Weiss faced with the adaptation, and facing that challenge will require more than a clever title sequence that places the various locations into context.
“The Kingsroad” is the first stab at really tackling this challenge through thematic material, something that embraces the parallel storytelling that the series necessitates (as compared to the books, which go long stretches without visiting particular locations/characters). While the shifts in location were minimal (and very strategic) in “Winter is Coming,” with “The Kingsroad” we see a more traditional structure wherein we consistently shift from one location to another, a structure united by a growing sense that these characters may wish they had taken a different fork in the road.
It doesn’t quite bring the entire episode together, but the maps drawn for each of the show’s numerous storylines are at least all on the same piece of paper, and focus on the degree to which each individual character is prepared for the path that they have chosen (or that has been chosen for them).
January 27th, 2011
“That was Leslie Knope.”
I don’t want to suck the fun out of what was the most particularly hysterical episode of those I’ve seen from Parks and Recreation’s third season, but there is a structural logic to “Flu Season” which wasn’t immediately clear on first or second viewing. When I watched the episode initially, it was a comic tour de force for both Amy Poehler and Rob Lowe, and some strong pairings (April/Ann, Andy/Ron) which tested out some dynamics which the show has not really dealt with in the past. Watching it earlier today, however, I realized that the episode is just really well organized from top to bottom, focusing around a central question from a wide variety of angles.
What happens, precisely, when we get sick? “Flu Season” not only mines the comic depths of flu-ridden characters struggling to control their mental and bodily functions, but it also uses illnesses to draw characters closer together, to further integrate both Ben and Chris into the realities of Pawnee and the Parks department in particular, and just to make us laugh for twenty minutes. It looks at how people respond to illness both in terms of broad comic efforts of isolating the infected party and in terms of basic sympathy, the latter growing into a mutual respect which continues to serve the show and its characters extremely well.
January 24th, 2011
In the midst of the growing controversy surrounding Skins’ sexual content and allegations of child pornography, which Matt Zoller Seitz does a tremendous job of breaking down over at Salon, the show itself is being lost. Or, rather, the show itself is becoming irrelevant. It’s not just the controversy that’s obfuscating the text itself, though, as the series’ almost shot-for-shot adherence to the UK original means that those of us who’ve seen that series are being given very little reason to engage with the show. Just as it is easy for the PTC and advertisers to generalize the series’ content based solely on overblown claims, it’s easy for critics with knowledge of the original series to just sort of step back and let the show happen.
And yet it seems prudent to consider “Tea” more carefully – considering the switch from Maxxie to Tea, this is almost entirely new material, although it technically intersects with some of the developments which developed between Maxxie and Tony in the UK series. On that level, “Tea” comfortably fits into concerns over the series having been made less transgressive in its trip across the pond, but I’m not sure that I’m so concerned after seeing the episode. While I lament the loss of the scenes in question, I thought the replacement scenes were more different than they were worse, and the episode as a whole built strongly on the pilot (and in ways which won’t be undone when the show goes back to a note-for-note adaptation next week).
September 28th, 2010
A week after opening with an unquestionably meta opening, Ryan Murphy did not stray far from that example with “Britney/Brittany”: in the opening scenes, Will expresses how he wants New Directions to know when to show restraint, while Kurt and many other students express their desire to branch out into something more exciting, youthful. It picks up directly where last week’s opening left off, questioning the song choices the series makes, which I’d argue is an interesting question that this season does need to respond to.
Of course, how much you enjoy “Britney/Brittany” depends on both its framework (which has some issues in terms of balancing fantasy and reality) and how Britney Spears’ presence plays out throughout the course of the episode. As someone who admittedly enjoys Spears’ music on the level of cheesy pop fare, I thought choosing Britney was not in and of itself a mistake; however, the show was let down considerably by the way in which her music and its legacy were received by those both within and outside of New Directions.
While musically satisfying, at least for me personally, “Britney/Brittany” suffered from an inelegance which is likely to cause any future themed episodes to raise even more red flags than this hour.
“One in Every Family”
September 27th, 2010
“Everything’s always a blur.”
Lying in bed, the newly married Lindsay Allen observes to her husband that her life is sort of like drowning: when he’s away (with his other wife), she feels like she’s drowning, and when he returns it’s like a sudden breath of air.
This scene does little to elevate Lone Star’s gender representations, as effectively Lindsay is arguing that she is lost without her man; however, while I will get to those questions in a moment, I want to focus on the way Lindsay’s description describes Lone Star in and of itself. The show feels sort of like a blur, really: while the show has a fairly leisurely pace, the threat of a reveal remains at every corner, creating just enough instability for an episode like “One in Every Family” to feel meaningful even when it doesn’t have any huge or groundbreaking scenes.
The show continues to paint in fairly broad strokes on some levels, but its second episode quite successfully expands on the nuance within its various worlds: the show still remains fairly centered on James Wolk’s Robert Allen, but the show around him has been effectively given additional depth which would indicate that this show is about more than its premise.
Emphasizing potential, of course, that is unlikely to see the light of the fall season.
September 27th, 2010
Barney Stinson is a very broad character, but Neil Patrick Harris has always specialized at emphasizing his vulnerability. Mind you, this vulnerability always disappears, but the series’ emphasis on serialization has allowed for Barney’s arc to avoid feeling too reductive. Yes, he resets every once in a while, but “Cleaning House” quite clearly identifies that there remains a sense of progress in the character.
While the episode wasn’t particularly fantastic, it felt more emotionally honest than the incredulous nature of the story would indicate on the surface. As someone who appreciates this level of emotional complexity, I like what the episode does for the overall narrative and for Barney as a character, even if it doesn’t fundamentally change the character in future episodes.
September 14th, 2010
“I’m afraid the 21st Century has come to Charming”
Nothing has really changed within SAMCRO as Sons of Anarchy enters its third season: there’s little discord amongst the group, and even though Gemma’s on the run and Abel’s a hostage of sorts in Ireland there is still the sense that the club itself is as solid as it’s ever been in the wake of last season’s tragedies.
However, the problem is that the world around them is no longer bowing down to their power: as Hale’s elder brother Jacob, trying to leverage his brother’s death into a successul mayoral run, notes in “Oiled,” the sort of old-school notion of law which the Sons held over Charming is no longer effective. We saw the wheels starting to come off the train last season, but there was a sense that it was SAMCRO’s lack of cohesion that led to their struggles. And yet, even when Gemma’s rape united Jax and Clay, and Opie got over his wife’s passing, things still unraveled in the finale, and things continued to unravel last week when mysterious gunmen killed Hale and threatened the safety of Charming.
“Oiled” is certainly a more methodical hour of television compared to last week’s premiere, as the sense of urgency which we expected to take hold during last week’s hour is replaced by a more functional effort to properly interpret the situation at hand. And yet, as the club tries to piece things together, their enemies are either committed to a more dangerous course of action or are already at work obfuscating reality in an effort to throw SAMCRO off the trail.
“The Blind Banker”
August 1st, 2010
Look, “The Blind Banker” was bound to be a disappointment.
First of all, it’s the second act of a three-act series, which means that it has nothing to introduce and nothing to conclude, robbing it of any real serial potential.
Second, it’s the one hour not scripted by the series creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.
And third, it has the ominous task of coming after a very strong premiere which overcame most people’s expectations for the project.
Mind you, I do not mean “disappointment” in the sense that I was not entertained by the episode, but the episode just has too much to live up to – the story is fine, and the characters remain well drawn, but the episode’s plot is thin enough that it seems to draw out my issues with the series as opposed to highlighting its best qualities. Lacking in both continuity and ingenuity, “The Blind Banker” struggles under the weight of its running time and eventually feels like little more than a basic procedural with some strong performances.
Which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but certainly isn’t the same series we saw last week.