An Assemblage of Words in Response to is a new, probably ongoing project in which I give myself a limited time period to write words about things.
Sex Education is a surprisingly deep show, in terms of its ensemble.
Otis, the sex therapist’s son turned high school sex therapist, is undoubtedly the show’s lead. And his relationships with his mother, his best friend Eric, and his business partner/romantic interest Maeve are the most important relationships in the show. But as the show introduced other characters, it becomes more and more invested in their lives: while some “clients” appear and disappear in the episode where their problem emerges as an episodic point, others like Adam, Aimee, and Lily become part of the fabric of the show. It adds richness to a show that could have become tired amidst the tropes it deploys in order to stake its claim to ’80s teen movie nostalgia.
But when it comes to its finale, the writers’ interest in their supporting characters couple of hiccups for Sex Education, wherein story developments didn’t necessarily have the effect the writers desired.
That’s bizarre to me, but not unexpected: the show debuted in the midst of graduate school, when reviews became more scarce and the blog in general became less of a priority. It was also a show that I, for various reasons, found myself always falling behind on within a given season, such that I often wasn’t current enough to write something even if I had found time or the inclination to say something. And while I’ve been more vocal about my appreciation for the show on my Twitter feed, it still feels weird to have never really tried to grapple with my relationship with the show in this setting.
I’m not going to try to encapsulate the entire series in this review, or else I’d be up all night. But I did want to briefly capture why “START” is such a compelling entry into the pantheon of serialized drama finales, despite in some ways departing from tradition. While far from the cut-to-black ending of The Sopranos, The Americans still works against many of the instincts of contemporary drama storytelling, and in doing so managed to reinforce and strengthen my connection to these characters that’s existed even if I’ve never quite put it into words.
Skam has always been made in service to its audience.
In the beginning, this was an abstract statement: Skam existed as a way of fulfilling the public service mission of NRK, specifically aimed at younger viewers. It was a fictionalized glimpse of what it was like to live as a Norwegian teenager circa 2015, grounded in realism and focused on reaching teens on the platforms where they spend their time while also interrogating—but not demonizing—how those platforms are shaping their experiences.
But once the show began airing, its audience left the realm of abstraction. They became real viewers, drawn to Skam for any number of reasons: whether it was the commitment to realism, the ability to relate to the characters, investment in relationships, or obsession with the transmedia release schedule that keeps you constantly on edge waiting for the next piece of the story, Skam became a hit, first in Norway and then in countries around the world thanks to the work of fan translators and the wonders of streaming video and Google Drive. Suddenly, a show designed as a service to Norwegian teenagers generally defined became a service to an expanding global audience, a diverse and complex fanbase with expectations distinct from the public service mandate at the core of the project.
In this transition, “service” starts to shift in meaning. There is “public service,” where the show began, but there is also “fan service,” as well as the need to “serve” the story being told, and the characters brought to life over the course of the series. Suddenly, as Skam entered what was announced as its final season, it was being made in service of all of these ideas, forced to balance competing—or at the very least overlapping—goals in the process.
[With its final week, Skam is adjusting its format to shift perspective on a daily basis, moving between a range of supporting characters to bring the show to its conclusion. Given the promise of daily clips, I’ve decided to review each clip as it is released, with a final reflection on the week and the series as a whole to follow over the weekend. You can find the rest of my reviews of this season’s episodes here.]
The choice to start with Vilde is an easy one: she is the character who was most likely to have a POV-season who will never get one, given how the show has played with the vulnerabilities she hides from her friends. Her eating disorder was built into season two through Noora’s observations of it, and what we’ve gleaned of her home life has seemed challenging. There is clearly a season’s worth of material in understanding Vilde, whose ignorance has always come alongside surface-level insecurities distinct from the more guarded POV characters.
Perhaps this is why Vilde never got a POV season: it was always evidently clear that Vilde was never truly “chill,” and thus there wasn’t necessarily a façade to break down in the way we saw with the other characters. Learning that Vilde is struggling to take care of her depressed mother helps put parts of the character into context, but it doesn’t really transform our understanding of the character, or push the show into new territory (especially given it’s not dissimilar to Isak’s relationship with his mother, although the show never explored that directly). In making the choice for the final season, Sana offered a richer thematic palette, while Vilde offers a tragic but perhaps a bit rote take on a teenager forced to be the responsible adult in the wake of mental illness.
[After spending this season, as with last, writing about Game of Thrones at The A.V. Club, I was in Europe during the finale, which meant my colleague Caitlin PenzeyMoog stepped in. But since I’ve reviewed every episode of the series, it seemed odd not to be weighing in, so below are my thoughts. They are from a book reader’s perspective, but ultimately carry no significant spoilers from material yet to be adapted into the series.]
Most television is didactic on some level: while ultimately no show can control how its audiences watch it, it embeds certain codes by which it should be interpreted. In early seasons, it teaches us things about itself, which we will then use to map out the journey as it gets deeper into its run.
Game Of Thrones’ early seasons—pulling from Martin’s own lessons in the novels—taught us that anyone could die, and that no one was immune from the type of tragedy that befalls those in or near or subject to power in Westeros. Its middle seasons amended this lesson to show us that there are no easy paths to power, sidelining characters like Daenerys and Arya on long journeys of self-discovery that distracted from their central goal. It trained us to watch Game Of Thrones as a non-linear exploration of power in its various forms, embracing its muddied morality and considering the consequences that befall all those who lay in its wake.
But television shows change, and with them their lessons. For five seasons, the show trained its audience to be on the edge of its seat wondering where the narrative could go next, but this season has been a retraining of sorts. Suddenly, there need to be easy paths to power (albeit with long roads taken to get there), because the show is near its end. Suddenly the morality needs to become less muddled in places, because the powers of Westeros need to be in a position to unite against the threat of the White Walkers (a “big bad” the show introduced in its very first scene, yes, but then trained us to forget about by developing so slowly). Suddenly, there are characters that can’t die, because the level of investment in their arcs—Jon’s rise from the dead, Arya’s two entire seasons in Braavos, Sansa’s torture at the hands of Ramsay—is too great for them not to play some type of role in the endgame ahead. Game Of Thrones has changed, and its sixth season was about retraining us to watch the more predictable show it’s become.
I spent part of Sunday afternoon watching the Mad Men marathon on AMC. I haven’t written about any of the seventh season thus far, which means it’s been nearly two years since I’ve . And the marathon made me glad for this, in its way: I realized that I hadn’t really properly oriented myself to the first half of the season before diving into the first, struggling at times to connect what we were seeing to the big picture.
That was definitely the biggest issues with these final episodes, which often spurned traditional seriality. The show has always been a balance of episodic and procedural engines, but the jumps in time and the revolving door of characters has made these final seven episodes scattered. However, it has also made them distinctive, such that revisiting them reminded me how much each had connected in some way or another. Although the purchase of SCDP by McCann-Erickson has ostensibly been the season’s arc, we never saw its initial implementation, and when the characters tried to turn it into an arc on the level of SCDP’s founding McCann-Erickson stepped in to tell them it wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t going to be that season. Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, and everyone else are not going to ride off into the sunset on stallions—they are more likely to fade into the distance like normal people, living normal lives.
When I used to write weekly reviews of Glee, it was during a period where I would often search through each episode looking for a quote to use as an anchor for my analysis. Glee was a show that wore its heart on its sleeve, and so it wasn’t a particularly difficult task with the show; in fact, the biggest challenge was choosing between the numerous moments where characters said exactly what the point of it all was.
It’s therefore not a huge surprise the same could be said for Glee’s two-hour finale. The last hour, in particular, was unabashed: whether it’s opening us up to joy, or Blaine telling Kurt that he’s “the only one I know who would do something like this,” or Rachel Berry standing on the stage of a 3/5 scale recreation of Radio City Music Hall telling all of the children to believe that dreams come true, Glee could never be attacked for a lack of synergy between the message it started with and the message that constituted its ending.
Glee could be attacked for many things, most recently a haphazard final season that understood its strengths and weaknesses and kept pretending they didn’t matter, but that central message has always been strong. Even as someone who wrote about the show critically, a task that will inevitably drive a person to madness, I always believed the core message of Glee was powerful, and I wasn’t surprised to see stories emerge this week that sought to celebrate those principles. I was emotional during this finale because no matter how many wrong turns the show took during its run, the place it kept landing in was a place of hope, and it was hard to root against that.
However, it was also hard to focus on it. During the final performance of OneRepublic’s “I Lived,” with a huge collection of past and present members of New Directions and ancillary characters, the show seeks to paper over a complicated history of characters it served poorly, characters who were ignored then forgotten, and plot twists that sought to fundamentally undo the good work the show was doing in other areas. It was a moment that understood the transcendent power of “hope” and human perseverance, but—like the final season as a whole—simultaneously reminded us how rarely Glee calibrated itself properly to be the beacon of hope it believed itself to be.
“Leslie always has her heart in the right place, but just needs some help along the way.”
I wrote this six years ago. At that point, Parks and Recreation was a show still in search of its identity, existing in The Office’s shadow and week-by-week discovering more about its characters as we were. It says a lot about the show that now, six years and seven seasons later, “One Last Ride” puts a button on this initial judgment made three episodes into the series’ run. Leslie’s heart was always in the right place, but she truly found herself when she found her team to help along the way.
There’s always a lot of discussion about the change that Parks went through after the short first season, but returning to that review—and my collection of reviews from the first three seasons—in light of tonight’s finale made me realize that it didn’t really change at all. From the very beginning, this was a show that asked the audience to follow an optimistic, hard-working civil servant as she struggled to navigate a world that did not want her to succeed, slowly breaking down the barriers that were placed in front of her. We wanted her to succeed not just because we liked her, but also because she was operating with a moral imperative, one so powerful that it could overcome even Ron Swanson’s fundamental disbelief in the value of government. She was a hero, in truth, in ways that would make sustaining her drive the show’s biggest challenge.
When I dropped in on an episode of The Leftovers at The A.V. Clubearlier this season, it was cathartic: after weeks of watching but not writing about the show, it was nice to have a space to confront the series’ opaqueness.
But as I return to confront the finale, I’m wondering if I had it all wrong. On the surface, The Leftovers struck me as a series that begs us to analyze it, full to the brim with characters with uncertain motives building toward something and yet nothing at the same time. What’s the deal with Wayne? What drives the Guilty Remnant? Those questions at first seemed to bear fruit as it related to the themes of the series: even if we ignore the existential question looming over the entire series, these other questions funnel back into the meaning of the departure and accumulated considerable meaning as the season wore on.
That meaning was a smokescreen. It was a powerful one, granted, but as The Leftovers concludes I’m struck by how little separates a show that begs us to analyze it from a show that resists all analysis. Say what one will about Lost, but it wanted us to be invested in its mysteries, and even in the end sought to give purpose to our investment even if that failed to appeal to all viewers. By comparison, however, The Leftovers built a house of cards that it knew was going to burn away by the end of the season, leaving behind characters we relate to because they too were caught up in the construction. They lived through what we lived through, and must equally confront the landscape that revealed itself when the house burned to the ground. It was in those final moments that the show finally revealed its hand, and for the first time as an entire series became legible, and real, and open to the kind of analysis it had nonetheless inspired while resisting such visibility.
And the result was compelling, if also guilty of building a neater circle than it necessarily needed to.
Each season of Game of Thrones has been an exercise in selective adaptation, but its fourth season has been a feat of adaptive engineering. Working primarily with material from the third book but leaning heavily on the fourth and fifth in certain storylines, it is the season that has emphatically taken the “book-to-season” adaptation comparison off the table.
At the same time, though, the season has been organized around key climaxes taken directly from the third book in the series. Moreso than in other seasons, you could tell the writers were having to stretch storylines to maintain the timing they had established, creating material to flesh out the scenes on The Wall to justify the Battle of Castle Black taking place in episode nine or finding things for Arya and the Hound to do so that their scenes in “The Children” wouldn’t take place until the end of the season.
By and large, I would argue the show was successful in making the season work despite the delaying tactics. This is in part because the storyline in King’s Landing, arguably the most consistently substantial, was built for this timeline, clearly marked by two major events—the Purple Wedding and the Mountain vs. the Viper—with plenty of political intrigue in between. The other reason is that even if the material at the Wall was a bit thin in ways that even last week’s epic showdown couldn’t make up for, the season as a whole maintained a sense of forward momentum. Did this momentum extend to Bran, forgotten for multiple episodes, or to Stannis and Davos’ trip to Braavos? No. But it extended to pretty much every other storyline, and makes “The Children” the most climactic finale the series has managed yet. The inconclusiveness of “The Watchers On The Wall” may have been frustrating, but it guaranteed that there was still lots to resolve even for those of us who aren’t sitting at home with checklists of what’s “supposed” to happen in the episode.
And “The Children” resolved some of it, left some of it untouched, and by and large served as one big—and mostly effective—teaser for what’s to come.