When I dropped in on an episode of The Leftovers at The A.V. Club earlier 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.
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.
“TB or Not TB”
June 25th, 2009
That’s really not the question, Royal Pains.
This won’t be a particularly long review, but I do want to make note that the show is on better footing now that it’s back in chronological order, although it’s still a little bit all over the place with some of its developments. While the show has never seemed to aspire to much beyond its premise, it’s heading into a couple of directions both serialized and procedural that could prove interesting, but won’t quite commit to them enough to make them really stand out.
In the end, though, this one feels like it’s answering some more pressing questions about the show’s format than just the titular Shakespearean medical concern.
June 22nd, 2009
Weeds always sits at a perilous crossroads of plot and character development, as the two often aren’t synonymous terms as they relate to the early part of each season. By the end of the season, sure, they usually match up: there’s always a few events that bring everyone together and have the Botwin family and company in a dire situation. But early on, there’s always a sense that the plot takes over, carrying characters off to their future destinations without really stopping and letting it change or affect them in any way.
I’d argue that, based on these concerns, “Su-Su-Sucio” is a fairly effective turn, maintaining a strong comic sensibility and offering a welcome respite from the darkness of the early parts of the season without abandoning it entirely. While it may be too simple a formula to repeat ad nauseum, the introduction of Nancy’s sister Jill has kept that particular plot development from becoming too disconnected from notions of characters, and Andy’s return to the fold has had similar effects in terms of giving Nancy some more levity as it relates to her situation.
The result is an episode that, although smack dab in the middle of the show’s usual march towards a plot of some kind, felt like it was rushing through the storylines it should rush through, and pausing on the ones that deserved a bit more time. The early season pacing is the fastest its been in quite some time (at least in terms of bringing the cast together), and that’ll make for an interesting extension into the rest of the year.
June 18th, 2009
Ah, the ol’ second episode switcheroo. It happens more than you’d expect, really, for some pretty obvious reasons: when a show is in its infancy and needs to make sure that it keeps viewers’ attention, that second episode is extremely important. “There Will Be Food” wasn’t necessarily a far better representation of what the show will do, but the continuity of Tucker, who is without question the show’s most likeable Hamptonite, was the smart decision in terms of convincing us that the rich won’t be too heavily dehumanized or even necessarily fall into the same one and done patient formula of other procedural medicine shows.
“Strategic Planning” is pretty much what I expected the show to be, and in some ways what I was hoping it wouldn’t become, but in the end it’s all pretty inoffensive. By recreating the environment in which an episode of House is capable of taking place, and by essentially playing out an episode of House in that environment, the show isn’t doing itself any favours in the originality department. Combine with a lifeless Evan storyline, and some issues of continuity on the Jill/Hank front, and the hold on airing the episode makes a lot of sense. That being said, though, the episode also does a lot to explain how Hank’s business is working, and why Boris would be willing to rent out his guest house to a concierge doctor, which contributes enough to the show’s universe to forgive this well-acted, well-intentioned but ultimately well-treaded territory.
“Machetes Up Top”
June 15th, 2009
Weeds, perhaps more than any other half-hour “comedy”, follows a particularly serialized structure, where almost all of its characters are on separate and interconnected paths that always take a few episodes to get going. This is especially true early in the season, where everyone sets off on their own path until they slowly begin to return to their place of origin. When that origin was the community of Agrestic, you felt like there was a potential stabilizing force in the universe, the oppressive nature of the suburbs nonetheless offering something of a protection from the world of drugs, or gangs, or anything else you can imagine.
But when the Botwins moved to Ren Mar, the show and more importantly its characters lost that comforting sense of home, and in many ways the fifth season is about where they go to find safety and security in a situation that is quickly spiralling out of control. However, for various reasons, that security if proving difficult to attain, leaving nearly every character in a position to find themselves back in Ren Mar with Nancy waiting to see when the axe is going to fall.
For now, at least through “Machetes Up Top,” I think it works for the show, as the impending doom on one end is tempered by the comedy elsewhere, albeit all tinged with that sense that no one is going to escape the fallout – of course, at the same time, everyone probably is, considering that Nancy is unlikely to stop being alive anytime soon.