“The Crash” and The Americans’ “Trust Me”
May 21st, 2013
Of the shows I fell behind on earlier this year, The Americans is what I’ve considered my first priority to catch up on, although even that has been a slow process; I just finished “Trust Me,” the sixth episode of the FX series’ acclaimed first season, last night.
However, sometimes timing is fortuitous, as I watched it after having watched—and podcast with the folks at the Mad World Podcast—about Mad Men‘s “The Crash,” and I was struck by a shared interest in how the normal manifests within the sensational. Obviously, “Trust Me” isn’t a trippy drug trip, but it nonetheless juxtaposes a form of psychological struggle or torture with scenes of danger that at first manifest as part of the game but eventually appear to be simply a coincidental brush with everyday terror.
March 25th, 2011
The greatest test of a critic’s demeanor towards a particular program is how they respond to its renewal.
When Fringe was picked up on Thursday, there were two primary responses among critics. The first was excitement: many had written off Fringe after it was banished to Fridays by a network with a reputation for injustices related to science fiction programming, and so an early renewal (rather than a tense upfront decision) was a revelation.
If I’m being honest, though, my response was more on the side of cynical. My first thought was what would need to change to justify the renewal, and what kind of story/casting changes might be necessary in order to facilitate this renewal. I think part of this is just my inner pragmatist, wanting to be realistic about the obvious compromises that will need to be made as Fringe shifts from a show Fox wants at a 2.0 to a show Fox will renew at a 1.5. However, I can’t lie and suggest that my cynicism is not partially the result of some trepidation regarding the show’s more recent story developments.
“Bloodline” seems an ideal episode to air directly after the renewal, given that this is the kind of episode that the show might no longer be able to do. While I think it might be premature to suggest that a cash-strapped fourth season will result in the end of Over There’s role within the series’ overarching storyline, I think it is fairly safe to claim that spending a quarter of the season in an entirely different world populated by different characters may be lost.
And I hope they don’t think that plot can make up for the loss of atmosphere.
“Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday”
Aired: May 21st, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
Along with Better Off Ted, I find it’s easy to forget about Party Down. Its short ten-episode seasons mean that it airs during a very concentrated period of time, and the transience of all but its central characters means that it doesn’t have quite the same cumulative impact of other series. Combine with the fact that the show did take a bit of time to get itself settled following the exit of Jane Lynch and the arrival of Megan Mullally, and that the show was sadly canceled earlier this year, you have a show which might not immediately spring to mind as a 2010 highlight.
However, “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” has resonated with me more than the series itself, for reasons which largely relate to its structural distinctiveness. You’ll find that this is a consistent criteria for a list like this one: rather than leaning towards prototypical episodes of a series (like, for example, Constance’s wedding in the case of Party Down) I tend to lean towards those which are trying something different. In this case, “Birthday” is both one of the series’ most postmodern episodes (what with Guttenberg, he who has been elevated by the Stonecutters, playing a version of himself) and one of its most naturalistic, with the caterers becoming partygoers in their own right. It is silly, as the show often was, but it leans more heavily on a version of reality which I found compelling and, more importantly, resonant.
September 23rd, 2010
Earlier this year, I wrote about what I called “procedural pacing,” wherein FX’s Justified gradually became more serialized throughout its first season: by starting with a more procedural format, and then having that format be interrupted and taken over by a serialized story line as the season wore on, the show established and then shattered its status quo. As a result, when the story eventually turned over in its entirety to Raylon Givens’ battle against the Crowder family, it felt “earned”: instead of seeming like an attempt to create false stakes, we had seen every step in this process, allowing the storyline to feel wholly organic and, more importantly, wholly satisfying.
I don’t think I entirely realized this before, but Fringe very much follows the same principle. It could have, at any point in its first two seasons, indulged in its science fiction premise to the degree we see in “Olivia”: we’ve known about the alternate universe since the first season finale, after all, so what was stopping them from introducing Fauxlivia at that point in the story? Fringe has had the potential for a serialized science fiction series since its pilot, and many have often criticized the series for not doing episodes like “Olivia,” a rollicking yet thought-provoking premiere, more often.
And yet, “Olivia” works as well as it does precisely because it is disrupting a status quo the series has established quite well over the past few seasons; much as Justified’s serialized elements had greater meaning due to the nuanced buildup, the slow development of the alternate universe and its role within this larger story has allowed the various dualities and conflicts the series is creating to have meaning which would have been lost had it been introduced at an earlier date.
“Constance Carmell Wedding”
June 25th, 2010
In some ways, there could never be a perfect finale for Starz’ Party Down. The show is about people confronting the fact that they might be living their finale, that working for a catering company may be the highest rung they will climb in southern California, and so “endings” are inherently unnatural. Instead, the characters are in a constant state of waiting to become, working hard or hardly working towards the end goal of achieving great success in their chosen field. And so while this may well end up the series finale (due to Starz reinventing itself as a genre network under new management and the middling ratings for the series) of Party Down, it is an episode about failed beginnings more than endings.
While very funny and quite poignant in a number of areas, “Constance Carmell Wedding” suffers a bit under the weight of those final moments, unsure of who would be returning for the following season or if there would even be a following season. Constance’s return is most welcome, and the focus on career goals is well met, but there’s a point where a half-hour comedy just can’t carry the weight of beginnings, endings, reunions, unions and everything else in between.
However, let’s not pretend this means I won’t miss the show should it truly be done, or that I didn’t find the second season to be particularly strong: while it may not have all come together perfectly, it was a confident second season which built on the first season’s success without abandoning its winning formula, and I sincerely hope that the show gets a reprieve if only to see what a third season would look like for these character I’ve come to admire.
“Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday”
May 21st, 2010
I told myself I was going to be content with just a Twitter conversation about this week’s superlative episode of Party Down featuring Steve Guttenberg as himself, but then I actually started to have that Twitter conversation and realized that I was going to need to write something down.
Specifically, I want to discuss what it is that makes “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” so fantastic, because it isn’t just Steve Guttenberg. The episode is entirely atypical, eschewing the traditional catering setup for a more casual atmosphere, and the trade of the show’s usual employment drama for more complex interpersonal drama is really well handled. It raises an interesting question for a series which relies so heavily on formula: is it possible for the show to veer away from its structure more often, or would episodes like this one become overbearing if they become too common?
It’s complicated enough that I want to spend a few paragraphs talking about it, plus I’ve got some thoughts on whether the show could live on without half its cast.
“Jackal Onassis Backstage Party”
April 23rd, 2010
“It’s no picnic being the boss, huh?”
When we write about Party Down, we tend to focus on the premise over the characters. Part of this has to do with the fact that we’re all preparing for the fact that the show might lose many of its characters if it gets a third season, so there’s a vested interest in emphasizing its revolving locations and the general focus on struggling actors/writers/show business folk working to support their dreams over Henry or Casey. While we’re attached to the characters, who were certainly one of the most important parts of the hugely enjoyable first season, it’s the diverse engagements that really set the show apart, and which have formed the basis for its most enjoyable episodes.
“Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” reminds us that these characters are very funny, but it also reminds us that the show isn’t used to handling quite this much character. While the dynamics of the first season cast took some time to develop, they eventually formed into something truly fantastic; however, it was rare that the show seemed like it was really spending a lot of time introducing, or renintroducing, or “changing” character dynamics. The second season premiere has to go through a lot of exposition, which keeps the humour from rising to the level achieved last season, but the central premise remains strong, and the changing dynamics work in the show’s favour at the end of the day.
“Wee Small Hours”
October 11th, 2009
“I can’t do this all by myself”
Sally’s teacher, sitting in Don’s car in the middle of the night, says that she is going to read her new class “I Have a Dream” on the first day back to school. However, she also indicates that they already know it: I don’t think she’s insinuating that they’ve heard the speech, but rather that there is something in child-like innocence that embraces the image of a dream and of a better future.
The entirety of “Wee Small Hours” is not about civil rights at all, but it is about characters confronting the demons in their past in an effort to move into the future. For Don Draper, a new relationship begins to mirror an old one, and for Salvatore Romano a long-standing response has suddenly put his career into jeopardy. And then there’s Betty Draper, wide-eyed and naive to the point of childhood, and let applying her innocence less to an understanding of Dr. King and more to a petulant child who wants what she can’t have but then doesn’t want it once she has it.
It’s yet another installment in a compelling but slow-paced series of episodes, ones which feel designed to show these characters searching the depths of their emotions and not quite sticking the landing, so to speak.
“Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception”
May 22nd, 2009
There’s an argument to be made that Party Down is the season’s strongest new comedy, and it’s one that has become progressively easier to make as the season continues. Not to disparage Better Off Ted (which is good but not particularly revolutionary), or The United States of Tara (which was a drama before it was a comedy, realistically speaking), but this out of nowhere Starz series from Rob Thomas and John Enbom simply presented the most complete comedy to debut. A strong ensemble cast is supported by a series of constantly changing party scenarios, ranging from the ridiculous to the personal, where recognizable actors show up as guest stars to complicate the lives of the characters involved; it doesn’t sound too complicated when you really think about it, but it’s essentially an absurdist procedural dark comedy series, and one that has been remarkably consistent.
“Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception” is a strong way to end such a consistent season, if not the show’s best episode: like many other comedies, the show is often as its most effective when dealing with heavier dramatic material but at the same time can lose something of its essence. The presence of Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) helps to elevate the finale from a comic level, and Jennifer Coolidge’s continuing guest stint in place of Jane Lynch brings something fun to the table, but this episode is far less about the scenario than it is about the characters. While the series has often ignored the reality of catering in order to allow the characters to mingle about and face little to no actual work, here the whole point is that there is real work: this is the real world, and if you can’t take the heat get out of the barn.
And by the end of the episode, everyone but Henry sort of does.
“Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh”
May 8th, 2009
Outside of some belated thoughts on the series’ pilot, I haven’t spent much time blogging Starz’s Party Down – things have been pretty busy during a majority of its run, and I ended up falling a bit behind before catching up a few weeks ago. Plus, the critics received the entire season ahead of time, so Alan Sepinwall (in particular) has been posting highly detailed reviews every week that, combined with the series’ remarkable consistency, have made my own desire to write about the show fairly minimal.
But “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh” was just so damn genius that I had to put in my two cents about the ways in which it was emblematic of the best qualities of the season’s strongest new comedy (sorry, Better Off Ted). The show follows a pretty basic formula, taking its cast of characters and placing them into a new ridiculous setting each week. This, in and of itself, makes the series feel particular fresh: because it doesn’t follow the traditional sitcom model of focusing on a single place or particular atmosphere, the show is able to vary its storytelling and its focus from episode to episode, and the characters are able to have a broad range of experiences without the show feeling too gimmicky.
What really makes an episode like this one work, though, is the way in which setting and character interact. The setting was perhaps the series’ most outlandish, a Russian mafia “celebration” of a mobster’s acquital for murder, with a ridiculous guest performance by Steven Weber that still has me laughing. However, the reason the episode was so strong is how much this appealed to the side of these characters that they’re forced to hold back while working as cater waiters: by tapping into their desire to be celebrities, or their highly active imaginations, everyone but Ron were able to at least partially enter into that part of their lives that being a cater waiter was supposed to make impossible, and out of fear for his own life Ron has to let it happen.
There are very few comedies on television were the most fundamentally ridiculous of scenarios can actually say more about characters than something inherently dramatic, and Party Down can certainly enter that club with this gem.