June 3rd, 2010
If you’re looking for thoughts on the more entertaining of last night’s USA Network premieres, then you’ll want to check out Alan Sepinwall’s review of the fourth season and Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the premiere at The A.V. Club. Ultimately, I’m about in line with Todd on the show: while I still enjoy it, and thought the premiere did some interesting things, I’m finding that I am far less engaged in the series than I once was. While before its scheduling in the summer months seemed like a welcome bit of intellectually-aligned fun, now it just feels like we’re, you know, burnt out on Burn Notice.
But since those gentlemen put such a nice button on the Burn Notice premiere, I wanted to turn my attention to that which came afterwards. If Michael Westen had tied me to a chair and interrogated me for two days, I honestly don’t know if he could have been able to get me to remember what happened at the end of Royal Pains’ first season last summer. I remembered the basic premise of the show, as well as the basic character interactions central to the series, but in terms of an actual plot the closest I could come is “Campbell Scott’s eccentric billionaire has a weird illness that he pulled a Jason Street to try to fix,” which doesn’t exactly constitute a lasting impression considering I relate to it largely through an obscure Friday Night Lights reference.
“Spasticity” is a fine example of both why I plan to keep watching the show and why, in a few months time, I’ll likely forget about everything I watched this summer. While the show has a way of passing the time in a way which I quite admire, it is not what one would call entertaining: there is nothing here to please crowds beyond a compelling guest turn from Kyle Bornheimer and residual love for Arrested Development having fundamentally changed our perception of Henry Winkler, the rest of the series comfortable to sit in a functional but lifeless holding pattern that honestly serves it quite well.
In some ways, I have a certain respect for the show not trying to push itself to be more explicitly engaging, retaining its understated even when it occasionally results in storylines which what one would generally consider “unmemorable.”
May 30th, 2010
“She saw something new every time she painted it.”
It’s been three weeks since I last checked in with Breaking Bad, which is unfortunate but not that surprising: I was busy graduating two Sundays ago, and then last week anyone without screeners was out of luck if they were simultaneously a fan of both Breaking Bad and Lost. It’s particularly unfortunate since both “Kafkasque” and “Fly” were pretty fantastic. To briefly offer my perspective on each, I loved the parallel between Jesse and Walt each watching their confidantes spinning a web of lies in “Kafkaesque,” in particular Walt’s reaction to Skyler’s ability to pull off the gambling alibi with such precision. And as for “Fly,” I thought Rian Johnson did a fantastic job of taking a purposefully contained – for budgetary reasons – episode and and allow it to be defined by its sense of atmosphere. The show tiptoed dangerously close to Walt revealing the truth about Jane’s death, and by embracing that tension without exaggerating it the series created an episode which remained definitely “Breaking Bad” without the shoot-outs and chaos the show has used so effectively this season.
“Abiquiu” remains a fairly low-key affair, as characters plot out their next moves more than necessarily finding themselves in the middle of a firefight, but I say this in the best possible way. While the thrills of “One Minute” are part of the series’ identity, it is often better in those quiet moments where character are forced to live with their actions or where taking the next step means crossing a threshold they might not be able to cross. In many ways, we’ve seen these characters at this point before, but each time Breaking Bad brings us to a crossroads we see something new in these characters, whether it be confirmation of what we’ve always believed or a new facet of their personality emerging – and frankly, at this point, the show can paint that door as many times as it wants as far as I’m concerned.
“I See You”
May 9th, 2010
I don’t have much to say about plot development in “I See You” because there largely isn’t any: after the shootout at the end of last week’s episode, we spend the hour sitting in a waiting room as Marie and her family struggle with the uncertainty of not knowing whether Hank would make it out alive. There are no crazy twists or action sequences, replaced by people waiting to find out the fate of their husband/brother-in-law/uncle/partner/colleague/etc.
However, the hour raises an important point: from the beginning of this season, we have been made aware of things which Walter has, to this point, been ignorant to. While Walter’s life is dominated by uncertainty and paranoia, we have a lot of the answers that he’s looking for, and our knowledge is making Walt’s struggle particularly interesting but also, if we’re being honest, somewhat unsuspenseful. Last week’s episode lulled us into a false sense of security before unleashing the Cousins on Hank, but this week’s episode has Walt panicking over something that we watch being taken care of, an odd juxtaposition which makes an interesting thematic point regarding the season but which lacks some of its impact now that the worlds collided last week.
I don’t entirely mean this as a slight on what is a fine episode of the show, but it feels a tiny bit indulgent in ways that I want to try to get a grasp on.
April 25th, 2010
Sunset is one of the most beautiful times of any day, but it is also its end: while it may be magical, and it may capture the beauty of the natural world, it is also the beginning of the night.
Walter White is in the process of rediscovering the magic of chemistry, cooking meth in an environment where it feels like every bit the accomplishment of science that he has always believed it is. However, at the same time, his day may be coming to an end: just as he has finally found an environment where his rationalizations surrounding his involvement in the drug trade are being supported at every turn, his brother-in-law is getting closer than ever to discovering the perversity of his notion of “child support.” And just as said brother-in-law, Hank, is getting closer than ever to solving the case which has given him the run-around for months, he quickly becomes collateral damage in Walt’s own sunset of sorts.
Unquestionably the season’s best episode so far, “Sunset” mines both tension and introspection from the magic, and terror, which comes with the end of each day, drawing the battle lines for what is going to be an intense conflict in the episodes ahead.
April 18th, 2010
You may have noticed this, but Breaking Bad’s third season is effectively a long string of meetings.
This isn’t entirely new for the series, but there isn’t the same level of action and reaction that the show is used to: while previous seasons seemed to build in altercations, or create circumstances where Walt and Jesse need to clean up a mess or solve a particular problem, this season is focused almost solely on characters having isolated and personal moments of reflections which come into play when they meet with another character on the show. These aren’t all formal meetings, but whether it’s Skyler and Ted meeting up in the bathroom post-coitus, the White family meeting for dinner, or Gus and Walter sitting down to discuss their future together, there is this sense that things are playing out in slow-motion. While the first season was about how quickly things can escalate, and the second season demonstrated the challenges which faced any sort of expansion, the third season is about choices, and so escalation is replaced by contemplation.
“Mas,” like “Green Light” last week, demonstrates how challenging it can be to make difficult choices, and how particular choices will create consequences that you may not be able to understand. Watching these characters come to grips with where they’ve come to, some more slowly than others, is proving just as compelling as anything else the series has done, languishing just long enough within each character’s struggle in order to give us a sense of what perspective they bring to the next meeting.
Which, considering the trajectory of these characters, may not be a pleasant one.
April 4th, 2010
Breaking Bad is a show more or less governed by self-destructive behaviour. We’ve been watching Walter White fall further and further into choices that threaten to destroy his family for over two seasons, and more importantly we’ve been watching everyone around him fall into similar patterns. If we really break it down, Walter’s self-destructive path has led directly to the struggles facing Skyler, Jesse, and Hank, and so “I.F.T.” becomes a sort of test of how Walt, and those he put on a similar path through his actions, are dealing with their self-destructive tendencies.
The result is one character who refuses to accept the consequences of his actions, and three characters who embrace self-destruction in an attempt to take control of their fate, although some more reluctantly than others.
August 27th, 2009
If you were quite a hawk-eyed reader of the blog, you might have seen a few weeks ago that I was convinced Royal Pains was ending its first season when Burn Notice ended the first half of its third, with a relationship-driven cliffhanger regarding the pairing of Hank and Jill. I was mistaken, of course – the show kept going, and this past Thursday it came to its finale and delivered something a little bit different. And “Wonderland” was a finale, of sorts, but one that is really strangely placed in terms of why I kept watching Royal Pains all summer.
It’s the show that really “broke out” in USA’s biggest summer ever, but the reasons it remained engaging for me as a viewer really has nothing to do with the show’s characters, at least for the most part. While some of these shows work due to the quality of their ensemble, the characters have felt ancillary to the premise and the aesthetic elements of the series. The show’s Hamptons setting is intriguing in the potential for us to meet recurring clients, and to embrace a world where the very rich and the very poor tend to interact on a regular basis – it opens up the potential for unique cases not seen on other medical shows, while in a breezy enough location to keep things from getting too serious.
However, this was a finale that went back to very basic procedural diagnosis drama, and that returned to the core relationship between the show’s regular characters which…well, I don’t want to be mean, but I don’t particularly care. I don’t dislike Hank, and I find Divya’s life quite interesting, but both Evan and Jill have been criminally underwritten, and the episode’s efforts to put roadblocks between their relationships is actually fundamentally false in terms of building suspense for a second season. The show has a stable of recurring players who I’ve grown quite accustomed to, and to put them into danger or to build suspense around them would actually feel final.
Instead, we’re putting roadblocks between characters who aren’t going anywhere, and whose divisions will be temporary before the show enters into its same comfortable rhythm next season.
August 20th, 2009
There’s really two trajectories for USA Network series as they approach the end of their first seasons.
The first is that they find a second gear, discovering another level of their structure where they are able to tell bigger and better stories. Burn Notice, of course, is the quintessential example of this, finding in its season one cliffhanger and then into its second season an entirely new identity that made the best possible use of its characters and setting to deliver some great television.
However, nearly every other USA Network series finds cruise control, that place where they are able to drift along at roughly the same, amiable pace as they began. This doesn’t mean that the shows are boring: I’d place Psych into this category, and I’d argue the show is still pretty fresh despite my refusal to keep watching it (time commitments, is all!). Rather, it means that their sense of identity becomes grounded and simplified in the face of potential expansion, finding a comfortable rhythm with which to become familiar and consistent with viewers.
With its final set of episodes heading into the finale, especially the primary focus of “Nobody’s Perfect,” I think Royal Pains is officially settling into the second category, and I think it’s really the only option. This isn’t a show like Burn Notice that feels like its universe could really expand: the laid back style of the Hampton’s has created a cast of characters who by necessity are not going to present broader threats, and the serialized elements like Hank’s previous firing are handled here almost entirely off-screen and brushed aside (mostly) by the end of the episode.
This is just a simple summer show, and one that has found its stride enough for me to say that it moving into cruise control about now will be enough to keep me watching, if not analyzing week after week.
“It’s Like Jamais Vu All Over Again”
August 6th, 2009
Alan Sepinwall has often talked about how, with TBS’ My Boys, the season finale cliffhangers are almost always of a nature where he as a critic doesn’t actually care about them. TBS asks critics not to talk about the result of the latest love triangle, or such trifling things, whereas Alan (and myself) watch the show for the sense of camaraderie, the sharp dialogue, etc.
I feel very much the same way about Royal Pains, a show that in its first half season has made quite a ratings splash but has failed to really connect with me on an individual level. It isn’t that the show is by any means bad, but rather that there is nothing standing out for me. I was going to start this review by complaining that they, like My Boys, chose one of the least interesting parts of the show on which to hang their hat when it came time to focus on a “Cliffhanger” (loose definition, I assure you), but then I realized something: I don’t know if there’s actually an interesting part.
I don’t think that’s a condemnation of the show, but it is the kind of thing which keeps an episode like “It’s Like Jamais Vu All Over Again” from feeling all that, well, interesting. It’s not that the case itself is that poorly drawn, or that the various interpersonal elements weren’t up to par. Instead, it is simply an example of a show where the focus seems to be on the element of the show, the love triangles and the like, that really does absolutely nothing for me, leaving me to wonder if the rest of the show will ever remain as in focus as I’d like it to.
Only time, and the new few weeks, will tell.
“No Man is an Island”
July 9th, 2009
Due to some thesis commitments, I’ve actually found myself doing something really strange: not only have I had no time to blog about television, but I’ve even found myself falling behind on watching it. Sure, I’ve gone through three seasons of Top Chef is about nine days, but watching new television just hasn’t been part of the game plan, which meant I just watched 10 Things I Hate About You, haven’t gotten to Warehouse 13, and was a day late getting to this week’s episodes of Burn Notice and Royal Pains.
And trust me, I’m as shocked as you are that the one show that shakes me out of my hiatus is Royal Pains, a show that two weeks earlier (before the show took a break for the holiday) had convinced me it was willing to settle for light and charming as opposed to something more substantial. However, “No Man is an Island” shocked me by emerging as a really compelling piece of television which did a lot of small things to bring to the surface intriguing characters dynamics, medical scenarios which start as one thing and evolve as medicine often can, plus a very Burn Notice/MacGyver piece of medicine from Dr. Hank.
It was the kind of episode that legitimately makes me think that these characters could eventually become their own less interesting but nonetheless entertaining versions of Michael, Sam and Fiona, a scenario I wouldn’t have predicted when the show started and that makes me more intrigued to see where the show goes from here.