April 19th, 2010
Last season, I managed to watch and enjoy an entire season of United States of Tara without writing about it beyond a preview, which seems like the sort of oversight which shouldn’t happen: sure, I don’t get paid to do this, and there are plenty of shows that I watch but don’t blog about (for various reasons), but this is a compelling and intriguing show featuring some great performances that seems like it would lend itself to the sort of analysis I like to do. And yet, here I am again this season – after writing about the premiere, I’ve fallen off the wagon for the past three weeks, and I still don’t really know why.
I think it happened last season because the show is admittedly paced a little bit slowly, and it seemed to be in a largely contemplative mood in regards to Tara’s conditions: if the show is going to do all the contemplation for me, largely playing out the paces of the stories we’d expect to see given its premise, then why do I need to write a thousand words about it? However, this season the show has switched gears: the show’s pacing has completely gone off the rails, and yet the characters continue to want to try to live as if things are normal, to ignore the chaos and try to sort of power their way through.
“Doin’ Time” manages to debrief a fairly substantial, and potentially show-breaking, development with an ease which reminds us that this show is on some really strong creative footing this year: while it remains at times slow and contemplative, it is applying those traits to situations that we couldn’t have imagined a season ago and making some damn fine television in the process.
“The Last Recruit”
April 20th, 2010
“You could find yourself in a situation that’s…irreversible.”
From what we can gather, the Man in Black is a man of promises: while he has a certain power of persuasion in general, his greatest tool appears to be his ability to offer the thing that people want most. He offered Claire knowledge about her son’s whereabouts, and promised that he would help her find him, and he promised Sayid that he would reunite him with Nadia so long as he joined his side. In both cases, the characters had clear goals, and in both cases their predisposition to accepting such promises (the darkness within them) pushes them into the realm of the psychotic and dangerous.
But “The Last Recruit” asks us to reevaluate these characters, or more accurately asks us to reconsider whether their situation is truly irreversible. While Sawyer is right to be wary of Sayid and Claire due to their allegiance with Locke, other characters have the ability to promise them something more, or to force them to fully consider the nature of what the Man in Black is promising and the complications therein. On a show marked by the overwhelming power of fate, this week’s episode demonstrated a lot of characters charting a new path for themselves just as soon as it seemed everyone was in the same place for the first time in ages, with most choosing to chart their own path amidst the unclear motivations which define the island’s politics.
It becomes an instance where short-term convergence leads to long-term, and ideological, dispersion, just as the Sideways storyline begins to bring the whole gang back together again in a way which seems just uncanny enough to overcome a somewhat problematic short-term focus.
March 30th, 2010
There are plenty of reasons to be apprehensive about “The Package.” It’s coming off of an epic mythology episode of romance and intrigue, it features a vague title that seems to refer to some sort of MacGuffin, and it has the unfortunate task of “filling in the gaps” in its flash sideways as opposed to telling its own story. Because we saw a small glimpse into Jin’s fate in “Sundown,” we can be fairly certain that the show will be colouring in the lines this week, and after a week when the show was willing to go off the page entirely it means that the show is facing an uphill battle.
Like the season’s weaker episodes, “The Package” struggles with a flash-sideways that proves completely inconclusive and an island scenario which feels like pieces moving on a chess board, but it ultimately works because it doesn’t feel like those pieces are being moved. When things stall in the episode, it feels like they’re stalling for a reason, and everyone involved knows why they’re making the choices they are. While things may not be moving as quickly as some fans want them to be, they seem to be moving faster than the characters were prepared for, and there’s a nice tension there which bodes well for the remainder of the season.
And, let’s face it: the reveal of just what “The Package” is was way too good for me to be too cranky.
March 22nd, 2010
Last week, Kelli Marshall noted that I had never reviewed a single episode of United States of Tara, Showtime’s comedy series which debuted last year and which won Toni Colette a much-deserved Emmy award in September. This seemed surprising to me, considering that I had quite enjoyed the series upon its debut and had found its first season pretty uniformly solid. I am still not entirely sure why I never took the time to review any individual episodes of the show, but I can at least confirm that it had nothing to do with the quality of the series.
What I’ve always liked about the show is that it isn’t afraid to take its protagonist to some dark and disturbing places: while the show is ostensibly labeled as a comedy, it knows that the same premise (Tara’s multiple personalities) which begets that comedy is just as capable of swinging to the side of dramatic, and so T’s promiscuity goes from humorous to tragic, and Buck can conversely swing from embarrassing to oddly comforting. The show does not have separate spheres of comedy and drama, but rather different circumstances wherein its premise shifts to meet the needs of the story.
Based on the season premiere, it’s clear that that Diablo Cody and company are very aware of the delicate balance the show requires, and so you have what is effectively a dramatic premiere where comedy and drama (mostly) come from the same place of uncertainty and insecurity, setting the show up for an intriguing sophomore season that will, hopefully, find more space in the blog rotation.
March 16th, 2010
There are only so many ways that we can talk about the “Flash Sideways” structure of Lost’s sixth season before we discover its deeper meaning, only so many ways that we can pass judgment while technically reserving judgment.
However, I will contend that those who suggest that the structure is meaningless without a sense of the big picture are overstating things: yes, episodes like “Recon” might become more interesting with a rewatch once the pieces start to come together, but the structure is capable of being interesting in its own right. Like the original flashbacks, the segments are more dependent on individual characters than the show has been in a long time, and so we love episodes featuring Locke and Ben while we become frustrated with episodes featuring Kate and whatever other character we don’t tend to like very much.
I’ll be curious to see how people respond to “Recon,” a Sawyer episode that threatens to rewrite the character’s fairly popular transformation during the “LaFleur” story last year. Part of what made Kate’s flash so problematic was that it felt regressive: it’s one thing to hearken back to an earlier structure that focuses more on these characters, but it’s another to show them more or less exactly as we’d seen them before. Some even argued that Sayid’s flash had the same problem, in that it didn’t show us anything new, or really change our perception of the character.
Personally, I think that we can take a lack of change as a fairly substantial clue to the deeper meanings at play here, but what makes “Recon” work is that the changes we’ve witnessed on the island feel as if they have heavily influenced the James Ford we meet in the flash sideways. The changes between this Sawyer and the one we saw in the first season are not dissimilar from the changes between the Sawyer who crashed on Oceanic Flight 815 and the Sawyer who was known as Lafleur, and it’s the sort of change that says more through simple character drama than any plot-based exposition could ever accomplish. The scenes are as much a reminder as they are a reveal, and while that might not currently seem fitting for a final season I think it’s all going to work out in the long run (or the long con, if you prefer).
“Out of the Box”
March 9th, 2010
White Collar is what I would call a premise procedural. While it eventually falls into a rhythm of crime-solving like other procedurals, it starts with a central premise or setup that remains unresolved in order to provide the show its tension and its “added value” beyond the formula. For Burn Notice, it’s Michael’s never-ending quest to figure out who burned him, and for White Collar it’s Neal Caffrey’s quest to reunite with his beloved Kate. To some extent, both shows have their characters just killing time, waiting until the beginning and end of each episode where they will make incremental progress on their broader search.
What keeps White Collar from ascending to the level of Burn Notice is that, by and large, I don’t “buy” its premise. The same thing has happened with Burn Notice over time, as we reach the point where we wonder why Michael Westen doesn’t realize that he has a woman he loves, a mother who loves him, and a loyal best friend in Miami which give him more than enough reason to leave the whole “burn” mess alone. But with White Collar, it was sort of there from the beginning, with too many questions about Kate’s loyalty (and, frankly, her fundamental lack of personality) and the trustworthiness of Fowler’s plot to make it seem like we should be rooting for this reunion.
The show has always been at its best when Peter and Neal are friends, not enemies, and when Neal is a charismatic crime solver rather than a lovestruck idiot with enormous blinders to all sorts of logical concerns with his plan. As such, “Out of the Box” struggles to reflect what has made the show a pleasant experience over its first season, trapped in conflict and false goodbyes that we know will return us to the status quo, just as Michael Westen remains in the dark about who burned him.
At the least, though, White Collar seems to realize that things needed to be shaken up, and they’ve taken some intriguing (if predictable) steps to perhaps set the show on a better path heading into its second season.
March 2nd, 2010
“You think you know me but you don’t.”
The Flash Sideways structure this season has been taking a lot of criticism from those who think that its opaque intentions are obscuring any meaning that it might have, but I think that in terms of its immediate function it has actually been quite clear. As the show confuses the question of identity through the Man in Black and his various influences, the Flashes offer a glimpse at characters in a far less confused universe who are still just as confused as they were before. Yes, there seems like there is a deeper meaning behind the scenes that is being withheld, and there are times when the connections are too simple to feel eventful enough for the show’s final season, but “Sundown” is a pretty clear example of the basic dramatic purpose of these scenes.
“Sundown” is not the best episode of this short season, nor is it a particularly pleasant one: it is an episode filled with darkness, showing characters taking actions and getting into situations from which there is no real escape. However, it’s a nice bit of analysis of the determinism that dominates this universe, and with a strong performance from Naveen Andrews the episode is able to entertain even if we are none too happy with its outcomes.
February 23rd, 2010
“I guess we weren’t looking for it…”
When Lost adds new elements to its world, acts of expansion that have been quite common early in the show’s sixth season, there’s always a question of why we’ve never seen it before. Why did they wait so long, for example, for us to meet Benjamin Linus, and why did we never learn about the Man in Black until the fifth season finale? They’re questions that have some merit, certainly, but which perhaps miss the point: the reality is that sometimes things sneak up on you, and things that have existed for centuries are only able to be found when you know where to look (and sometimes Michael Emerson blows away the producers and becomes part of the show’s expansion).
“Lighthouse” is a cross-reality investigation of this idea, of what people are able to “see” with the right information and how those viewpoints change those characters. For some, their perspective is clouded by an infection taking over their mind and body, while for others their perspective is clouded by a life filled with self-doubt and personal struggle. And while we’ve yet to be given the proper coordinates to full interested what the show’s flash-sideways structure represents, it continues to offer a unique perspective on who these characters could have been, which remains a compelling counterpoint to the characters they are and – perhaps more importantly – the characters they are destined, or not destined, to be.
February 2nd, 2010
“Nothing is Irreversible.”
To say that I am excited about the final season of Lost is an understatement, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.
I was excited, for instance, for the final season of Battlestar Galactica, but that season had clear expectations in terms of dealing with the identities of the final five Cylons, and was divided into two halves so as to stretch it out further. With Lost, there is no such clarity, as the show could be headed in any bloody direction we could imagine, and it will be completely over in only a few short months. And this is a show that I started watching on day one, that I remained devoted to throughout its run, and that was an important part of my transition into TV criticism.
So “LA X” is the culmination of a six-year journey, and my only hope going into the premiere was that it would feel like the beginning of the end without feeling like the end of the beginning, that it would seem like it was the same show that came before while clearly marching towards a conclusion.
And what we got was an episode of television that turns the show’s world upside down while simultaneously fitting pieces together to work towards that conclusion, and by balancing the two almost to perfection Lindelof and Cuse have made this just as exciting and eventful as I hoped it would be, all while making me even more confused than I was before. It starts a season that promises to probe the above question in terms of an abstract impression of these characters and the journey they have taken on our television screens, a ballsy move that promises another year of complex but precise television.
Welcome back, Lost – we missed you.
January 19th, 2010
Through the magic of Twitter, I’ve known for a few weeks that critics have been fine with how White Collar resolved its midseason cliffhanger, which I…well, let’s just say that I wasn’t buying what they were selling. So, going into “Hard Sell,” I knew that I wasn’t going to be writing an extended treatise on the show’s incongruous plot twist tarnishing what goodwill it had.
However, although I was able to put away that particular hat, “Hard Sell” remains, well, a hard sell for me. While they may negotiate the cliffhanger in a way that doesn’t damage the integrity of the show, it also does absolutely nothing to make the show more interesting. There’s some vague potential on the margins here that makes me wish this were an entirely different show, but as it is all this mid-season premiere demonstrates is that no matter the crazy ideas the show might introduce, it’s always going to revert back to a pretty blasé procedural with some charismatic leads.