5 Stories to Watch in the 2011 Emmy Nominations
July 12th, 2011
After numerous failed attempts at writing about why I was struggling to write about the Emmy Awards, which will go down as a meta fail of epic proportions, I’ve decided just to write about the Emmy Awards now that we’re only two days away from the nominations.
These are the five stories that I’m most interested in heading into the awards, the situations that have the most potential to surprise, infuriate, or otherwise stir emotion within my person. They are not predictions so much as they are a forecast, one that I sort of hope will get to my ambivalence towards this year’s awards in the process (although that might send me back into the spiral that I’ve found myself in for the past few weeks all over again).
1. Playing the Game of Thrones
While I think that Game of Thrones is worthy of Emmy consideration, I don’t know if I’m actively rooting for it over other competitors: while it has some strong acting contenders, and will definitely compete in the craft categories, I think there is tough competition in the drama field in terms of both acting and in terms of series.
I am very curious to see how people respond to FX’s Wilfred, which debuts tonight at 10/9c on FX.
On the one hand, I’m interested in how divisive the show’s premise will be: this is a decidedly weird premise, and the show doesn’t spend any time trying to explain or justify it in tonight’s premiere. “Happiness” begins with Elijah Wood’s Ryan imagining his neighbor’s dog Wilfred as a bipedal, pot-smoking dude in a dog suit – creator/producer Jason Gann, to be specific – and simply moves on from there.
However, on the other hand, I’m wondering what those expecting something truly bizarre are going to think when they discover that Wilfred isn’t as weird as its premise might indicate. Now, don’t get me wrong: this is still a weird show, and all three episodes sent to critics feature moments which play on the premise quite directly. And yet, at the same time, all three episodes boil down to some pretty general themes, and this is at its core the story of a depressed man exploring his identity with the help of a friend. That the friend is imaginary, and that he is actually a dog, is not really the point of it all, which was kind of surprising given that “Guy in a Dog Suit” was pretty much all I knew about the show going in.
While I find Wilfred to be occasionally amusing, and certainly think that the premise holds narrative potential, what I’ve seen so far ends up coasting on the premise without really exploring it to any large degree. Individual setpieces may signal where the show may succeed in the future, and Wood and Gann may be strong anchors around which to build a larger comic world, but this is a surprisingly small show given its larger-than-life premise.
And while that may benefit that show in the end, it has resulted in a bit of a slow start that might engender a mixed reaction.
May 4th, 2011
In what has been a truly spectacular second season, Justified has more or less followed the same pattern as the first season: serialized elements are introduced gradually over the first half of the season before exploding in the final episodes.
What seems different this time around, though, was the nature of that explosion. While both seasons feature conclusions defined by a three-way battle (Miami/Crowders/Raylan in S1, Bennetts/Boyd/Raylan in S2), the second season had given each of those groups an incredible level of detail and history. With the Bennett/Givens feud having been established early on (and most evident in Dickie’s daily reminder of Raylan’s baseball bat handiwork), and with Boyd having risen into a position of power in opposition to the Bennetts, “Bloody Harlan” lives up to its title by giving us the big action climax to these ongoing feuds.
And yet, on some level this still felt like a denouement, or at least a futile attempt at a denouement for a show purposefully designed to avoid such efforts. With so many storylines featuring so many characters with a great deal of agency (and a multitude of motivations), Justified is always reaching the climax of one story or another, but it’s never truly allowed to have that moment to pause and reconsider. There is a brief moment early in “Bloody Harlan” where it feels like Raylan and Winona are going to be able to look to the future, but within minutes another loose end is picked up and another bloody firefight begins to unfold, before being replaced by contemplative scenes almost begging to serve as resolution.
In other words, Justified is a show of false parlays, which this season has focused in on the qualities that will make its constant search for futile resolution one of the finest shows on television.
“Save My Love”
March 23rd, 2011
I only recently caught up with FX’s Justified – after reviewing the premiere, I actually hadn’t seen a single episode, unable to find the time on Wednesday night to check in on what has been a pretty great second season. However, I was able to catch up over Spring Break, and spent Monday evening checking out last week’s episode, “Blaze of Glory,” and then following it with “Save My Love.”
Watching them together (they were on the same disc sent by FX) is a really unique experience, and I’m curious to know how viewers who waited a week between episodes responds to the transformative power of “Save My Love.” While I thought “Blaze of Glory” was fine, it was an example of a fairly simple storytelling method: a secondary character (Winona) gets mixed up with a primary case, the two storylines converging for a brief moment before eventually being resolved on their own terms. While the episode had a Justified feel, the material with Art hunting his old nemesis (slowly) being particularly charming, it didn’t really show us or tell us anything about the people involved. It might have said something about Winona, but the “resolution” sort of kept that from being fully investigated.
However, as you have no doubt figured out, “Save My Love” not only offered a stellar example of how serial convergence can function in a procedural setting, but it also dramatically transformed the ending of “Blaze of Glory.” It’s a stealth two-parter, undoing the resolution in a blink of an eye and marching on forward with an unending sense of tension. It’s an obnoxiously tight hour of television, but it also very much depends on both the series’ serial development up to this point and the lack of serial development in some of this season’s episodes.
“The Moonshine War”
February 9th, 2011
“You never go outside…you know that.”
There are two reasons I decided to forgo a pre-air review of Justified second season, despite having access to the first three episodes in advance. The first reason is that I legitimately did not have time to watch all three episodes, making writing a comprehensive review of the likes of Sepinwall or Ryan somewhat pointless. The other reason is that I sort of feel as though my coverage of the first season established my opinion about the series, addressing the lingering concerns about the procedural structure and embracing the series’ complex conclusion. Considering that my opinion on those efforts is entirely unchanged based on “The Moonshine War,” to repeat it would be redundant.
Instead, I want to focus my limited time on “The Moonshine War” itself, a compelling premiere which is surprisingly subtle given the explosive finale that was “Bulletville.” While the title implies a war, this is very much an introductory survey, a short but stellar glimpse into another corner of Harlan, Kentucky, and the battle brewing within. It’s a strong foundation for the season’s serialized arc, but despite the somewhat manufactured circumstances it never feels like a blatant new beginning.
It feels like a return to Kentucky, and a return to a world which is as rife for drama as it was at the conclusion of last season. And, frankly, I’m pretty darn excited about it.
Review: Archer Season Two
January 27th, 2011
In December, as the semester wound down, I took the opportunity to catch up on a show that I honestly hadn’t given much thought to when it premiered.
As I am now aware, I really had no excuse to avoid FX’s Archer – which returns for its second season tonight at 10/9c – the first time around. Its cast features numerous people who I enjoy (like Chris Parnell, Judy Greer and Jessica Walter), the spy genre seems like something with plenty of comic potential, and people I usually trust on Twitter, and in the world of television criticism in general, approved of the show.
However, I didn’t watch because it plays into two categories which I am less likely to actively seek out. The first seems particularly strange considering that I was raised on The Simpsons, but animation has not been a part of my more critical relationship with television. I stopped watching The Simpsons at around the same time I started watching everything else under the sun, and since I didn’t have access to Adult Swim or the Cartoon Network it wasn’t as though I was in a position to test emerging shows out at random. I just sort of stepped away from the form, not out of a lack of appreciation so much as a lack of habit. The other reason, meanwhile, is that I don’t tend to lean towards the particularly vulgar – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is low on my catchup list because its brash nature just doesn’t fit my general comic sensibilities, and so Archer’s reputation for being particularly “rude” meant that I did not necessarily rush out to see how it was working.
Perhaps it was that I was in the midst of finishing papers and in need of an outlet for expletives and insensitivity, or maybe I’m just being saltier as I get older, but mainlining the first season of Archer along with the first seven episodes of the second season was a whole lot of fun. While the show may be aiming for offensive in quite a few circumstances, it always seems primarily concerned with being smart – in its second season, in particular, the show manages to maintain a sense of excess despite having become a tighter, more well-oiled machine between seasons.
The result is a show that makes me laugh a great deal, and one which always leaves me wanting more (which is both a blessing and a curse, as always).
“Pilot” and Beyond
January 12th, 2011
The central contradiction in FX’s newest drama series, Light Out, is not uncommon in serial dramas. It is a show about the tension created during times of great stress, when individuals are forced to choose between the path which is “right” and that which allows them to keep their marriage, or pay off their debts, or survive another day. And yet, while the show wants us to empathize with Patrick “Lights” Leary and his decision to take the path of least resistance (and least blows to the head) and the forces threatening to pull him back in, the show is actually more like his younger brother. The show doesn’t really have the same sense of tension, the same pull in different directions: it knows what needs to be done, and lays a clear path which lacks much of the ambiguities which plague its central figure.
I don’t call this a “contradiction” to suggest that it undermines the series tremendously – Lights Out is a fine series, one which grows over the course of its first five episodes and eventually finds moments which do more than echo great drama series of the past decade. Those echoes are not without value, and with generally strong performances and some solid action the show does not come across as a blatant copy so much as a prestige pastiche (a pastige, if you prefer), but there always remains the sense that the show is following a decipherable logic. Characters fit into fairly small boxes, boxes we understand better than we would in an ideal situation, and the conclusions they come to are logical more in terms of pre-existing tropes than in terms of human behavior.
And yet, as I think the “Pilot” demonstrated quite nicely, there is value in treading over familiar ground so long as it still provides a certain thrill. While it may not always transcend its genre trappings, and has some down moments throughout its first five episodes, Lights Out is the kind of show that breeds appreciation if not necessarily fandom. I didn’t feel as if I needed to watch one more episode, but once I turned it on I didn’t start looking at the clock to see when it might be over. It doesn’t exactly pull you in but it doesn’t push you away either, and while that distance creates some of the resistance to the series you may see above, it also creates room to let the show sort of settle; it’s room that I’m hoping the series uses to its advantage in the remainder of its first season, as there’s plenty of potential to work with here.
[Spoilers for the Pilot, and some vague comments on subsequent episodes, to follow]
Kurt Sutter’s War on (Some) Critics
December 30th, 2010
Earlier this year, I wrote a profile of sorts regarding the role that Kurt Sutter’s Twitter account, @sutterink, was playing in shaping Sons of Anarchy’s image within online communities, and the degree to which its polarizing nature would play into one’s experience of watching the series. When I wrote that piece, I had more or less no opinion on the issue: while I found it academically interesting, on a personal level I felt as if the Twitter account was a logical extension of the kind of renegade spirit which defines the series and Sutter’s personal approach to both storytelling and showrunning. It’s his opinion, his Twitter account, and his show – that gives him every right to say whatever he so desires, and I have no intention of vilifying his activity in this area.
However, on a personal level, my opinion has changed. I am among those who were disappointed in Sons of Anarchy’s third season, a group which includes many of the same people who were so high on the show before the ratings bump in Season Two made it into FX’s biggest hit. It is a group which includes intelligent critics, critics who elaborate on their opinions on a near-weekly basis and whose opinions are well-respected. It is also a group which includes people who may not be as well-respected, and whose opinions may not be quite as elaborate, as is the case with any or all responses to television in the internet age.
My frustration is not that Sutter refuses to admit that Season Three was a failure – that remains, of course, just my opinion – but rather that he seems intent on categorizing and labeling critical response to the season based on broad generalizations which suggest a hivemind incapable of independent, or comprehensive, thought. While there is an argument to be made that trends in online criticism contributed to the negative response to Season Three, suggesting that it is the result of bandwagons or gender determination represents a dismissal and an insult to the very kinds of people who supported the show in years past, and may now be less likely to support the show in the future.
And these suggestions may be the only thing more confounding than the narrative decisions which drove Sons of Anarchy’s third season.
December 1st, 2010
In plotting the first season of Terriers, Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin made two key decisions which shaped the series into one of the year’s finest.
The first was their willingness to resist creating a season-long arc: after the first four or five episodes seemed to be towards some larger conspiracy, the show risked frustrating viewers by pulling up before things became too complicated. In an age where hyper-serialization is highly valued, the decision seemed strange until we saw the result. The residual energy from the near-miss mythology lingered in the subsequent standalones, as unfinished business meant a constant threat of its return – when it did return in “Asunder,” there were more pieces to the puzzle, and the re-entry was surprisingly elegant.
The second was that, throughout the various ups and downs, the show never concretely positioned its heroes within any definitive morality. While we could argue that Hank and Britt are inherently good men, their willingness to do petty, despicable, and reckless things has been refreshing. Hank’s jealousy has never been romanticized, and Britt’s violent outbursts have never been pitched as heroic; while we understand why they do the things they do, we are never asked to agree with them, and the result is two characters who we can relate to even when we don’t want to. They’re characters we like even in their darkest moments, but characters that we don’t necessarily forgive after the fact. They are characters that feel real, and thus characters that we become connected with.
“Hail Mary,” coming off of the rollercoast that was “Quid Pro Quo,” is hopelessly hopeful. Following the earlier pattern, it concludes stories without actually concluding them, leaving threads of story that can be picked up at a later date. It provides a sense of future that it must subsequently tear away, reunions that are either years or weeks too late. While you could technically argue that this is a happy ending, a sort of scrappy P.I. Casablanca, in truth the ending is as the season was: an exercise in dynamic delay, a true marvel of narrative form.
And a show that simply cannot be allowed to ride off into the sunset.
November 30th, 2010
Look, let’s get it out of the way: Sons of Anarchy was very far from the best show on television this fall. It was a season with a story to tell which seemed completely unwilling to tell that story, and when it finally got down to business it seemed as if everything was expedited and choppy. For a series that once delivered what I would describe as sick, twisted poetry, the third season lacked both rhyme and reason. While I perhaps understood what Kurt Sutter was going for by the time we reached the season’s penultimate episode, nothing about “June Wedding” made those previous episodes any more satisfying. In fact, the show sort of felt like it was following Stahl’s example: when you think a situation is going south, or you’re tired of playing a certain angle, you just shoot someone and call it a day.
I have some fundamental issues with the idea that Stahl could even come close to getting away with what she did in “June Wedding,” and the degree to which Stahl’s sociopathic behavior is being used to fuel the march towards the season’s conclusion, to the point where I’ve officially written off this season of television. Last week’s episode indicated to me that whatever Sutter was selling this year, it simply was not the show I want Sons of Anarchy to be, or the show that it had the potential to be coming out of its incredibly strong (and cohesive) second season.
In advance of watching “NS,” I had heard the buzz: this was a “return to form.” However, as Cory Barker wrote about earlier, the degree to which a solid finale (which “NS” arguably is) can overwrite previous struggles is fairly limited. And yet, I had no expectations that a legitimately enjoyable 90 minutes of television would actually make the season’s problems more apparent. “NS” is a smart episode of television which only confirms that the show’s third season was a wild miscalculation, an absolute failure of “Serial Narrative 101” that traveled halfway around the world and only got a lousy t-shirt with a bundle of letters hidden in it which only confirmed presumed details from the distant past.
I’m a bit busy now, though, to delve into all of the reasons why the season fell apart. I plan to come back to it at a later date, perhaps early next week, but for now I want to take “NS” as what it truly is: a launching pad to the future, and an opportunity for the series to move on with something resembling momentum.
Because on that level, “NS” is more or less a success.