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.
Heating Up Leftovers: Season 7 Finale
September 15th, 2010
Technically speaking, every Top Chef finale is meant to stand alone – for the remaining chefs, it all comes down to the meal of their lives. However, for the audience sitting at home the finale is the end of a journey, and usually the end of a season of narratives; whether they be rivalries or redemptive arcs, there should be some sort of story coming to an end during each season of the show.
However, Top Chef D.C. never quite found a narrative that it knew how to work with, and the finale is a perfect example of that. Despite the fact that there were a number of potential narratives to build upon, the finale was left to stand entirely on its own without any real connection to previous outings. Sure, the surefire rivalry ended when Kenny left early, but after last season’s finale felt like the show finally getting the showdown we had all been waiting for, the showdown between Angelo, Ed and Kevin felt like leftovers, except that they were leftovers that you don’t remember having but still seem old and tired regardless.
And while the cooking itself wasn’t impacted by this particular concern, my emotional attachment to the conclusion most definitely was.
Getting Some Feedback: A Top Chef Failure and a Work of Art Worry
July 8th, 2010
I have yet to blog about this year’s season of Top Chef’s seventh season, and I really wish that I wasn’t doing so under these particular circumstances, but “Room Service” was such a failure that I have a few thoughts on where precisely it went wrong (although Scott Tobias has a more complete rundown of the episode at The A.V. Club). The notion of introducing a tournament-style competition in order to send two chefs home isn’t the worst idea, as they’re trying to create competition between the chefs (especially after the hyper-competitive elements last season) and this forces Kenny and Angelo’s rivalry to the forefront and draws further tension from the various chefs. However, the way in which that competition was actually executed failed to actually highlight the weakest chefs, instead punishing good chefs for small mistakes while rewarding weaker chefs for a single quality dish in what was an otherwise disastrous performance.
And while I want to highlight a few problems, one thing I want to focus on specifically is a lack of feedback within the process, which was also central to part of last night’s episode of Work of Art, which I want to discuss briefly as well.
March 25th, 2010
One of the advantages of the workplace comedy is that there are enough logical reasons for co-workers to get together after hours that episodes like “Happy Hour” don’t feel inherently forced. Sure, it’s still a bit television-like that an entire office would go out for Happy Hour together, but the show doesn’t really need to justify itself too much if it wants to tell some “Things that happen in bars” stories about the cast of characters.
I think where “Happy Hour” goes off the rails is where things become schticky; while the show sort of steps back from the worst of the exaggerations by episode’s end, these sorts of episodes are better when it doesn’t feel like the characters are invading the outside world. While it is inherently in character for Michael Scott to become someone different in a social scenario, the introduction of “Date Mike” was a fun sight gag that ended up pretty lame in execution.
Luckily, the storyline brought together something that could be more interesting moving forward, but it made what could have been a nice sort of “hang” with the cast into an uneven experience.
March 4th, 2010
I don’t have a whole lot to say about “The Delivery” on its own, to be honest with you: as I am not one of those who have turned on Jim and Pam, or someone who feels that their relationship has anything to do with the show’s creative downturn this season (after all: they were all but married last season and the Michael Scott Paper Company arc was pure gold), I was charmed by the birth of young Cecilia Marie Halpert, which was heartwarming and emotional and all of those things.
I’m with Alan Sepinwall in that the episode sort of lost all of its momentum in the latter half, and rather than repeat his thoughts (all of which I agree with) I thought I’d consider the scheduling ramifications here. As I was discussing with Jaime Weinman on Twitter, I think the interesting thing here is the “Part 2” is unquestionably the weaker episode, but in what position is it the least weak? The Office is a show with a fairly impatient fanbase, and I think that “Part 2” likely played better as a weak second-half here than it would have next week, a slight blight on an otherwise well-executed storyline rather than another weak episode in an average season.
December 3rd, 2009
“I’ve made some empty promises in my life, but hands down that was the most generous.”
There is a moment in “Scott’s Tots” where the storyline was going exactly in the direction I wanted it to go in…and in that same moment, there was every potential that it would go in a direction that would legitimately bother me.
Such is the tightrope that this episode chooses to walk by effectively demonstrating the aftermath, rather than the initiation, of one of Michael Scott’s horrible miscalculations. The show loves mining the comedy from Michael putting his foot in its mouth, but rarely does it craft so elaborate a scenario where Michael is forced to do precisely the opposite. The episode is about what happens when Michael is finally forced to pull the foot out of his mouth and try to make up for what he’s done, making up for a past mistake rather than receiving an immediate comic comeuppance for his error of judgment.
There are a number of logical leaps that make this episode inherently problematic, and I can see what many would turn against the episode considering the direction it heads in, but the situation “Scott’s Tots” creates is so inherently part of his characters and his journey that the episode feels like a perfect character piece to show the consequences of Michael Scott’s dreams living beyond his means (and, in some instances, his brains).
Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya
November 20th, 2009
In the promos for the season finale of Season Six of Project Runway, Lifetime uses dramatic music and a deep-voiced announcer to try to build suspense for the big reveal. However, in their language, they have something wrong: they create anticipation for the reveal of who is “the next big name in fashion,” and my immediate response is “who cares?”
See, what works about Project Runway is that it transfers the aesthetics of the fashion industry into terms that are unrelated to the fashion industry. I know nothing about fashion, but I know a lot about what Nina Garcia likes to see in fashion, or what the series values in terms of creativity. It’s created an audience that, even if they have no knowledge of the fashion industry, have gained knowledge of what Project Runway considers fashion. As such, rather than caring about what these young designers do in the context of the fashion industry, we care about how they situate themselves within the show’s cast of characters from seasons past. For a viewer like me, Bryant Park is the setting of the finale of Project Runway, not a global fashion event, which is why Lifetime language is demonstrative of the season’s failures: I don’t care if they’re a big name in fashion, I want them to be a big name for Project Runway.
And I can confirm that Irina, Althea and Carol Hannah will not be names to remember, a fact which has more to do with the way the show treated them than it does with their individual personalities and talent. And while we’ll never know if this season would have been more interesting if it were in New York, and if the production company hadn’t changed, what we do know is that Season Six failed to provide both the next big name in fashion and a single memorable name for this franchise.
[A few more thoughts on Project Runway, and then some thoughts on both Top Chef and Survivor, with spoilers after the jump…]
October 15th, 2009
The Office is a show that is going to have its share of filler episodes, moving between larger storylines (like last week’s wedding) and the next major storyline. Sometimes these focus on the day-to-day of the office environment, which is often quite fun for how it brings out the supporting characters more carefully. However, sometimes they’re episodes like “Mafia,” which play out very simple ideas in a way that is minimalist to a fault.
It’s not that the show doesn’t work when it slows down like this, but it needs for something to be particularly interesting or clever for me to buy it. This episode had the potential for Michael to go completely overboard, which isn’t my favourite character trait, but instead he just kind of sat there passively experiencing the whole episode. It makes sense that an episode that has both Jim and Pam (two huge parts of the office’s dynamic) missing, and in which Michael has nothing but creative space and free time scheduled for the day, is going to feel a bit lackadaisical, but at the same time it seemed like there was a pay-off that just never came in this one.
“Vivre Las Vegas”
September 9th, 2009
I think I’ve discovered the effect of watching Top Chef week by week.
As particularly obsessive readers of the blog might know, I went through the first five seasons of Top Chef at a pace of about two a week (that’s seasons, not episodes) over a period this summer, and obviously got a little bit addicted to the show. I was curious to see just how I’d react to not being able to turn on the next episode as soon as a chef got sent to pack up their knives.
What I’ve discovered is that it’s made me really impatient, although in a way that really defines how the sixth season is thus far progressing. There is some amazing talent in this year’s cast, and I think that’s the problem: the sheer gulf between those individuals and the rest of the field is so large that I want to be able to watch the next episode not because I’m desperate for more Top Chef but because I want them to cull the herd as quickly as possible so we can see that core group go head to head in what could be one of the most competitive Top Chef finales ever.
For this reason, I was quite pleased to see “Vivre Las Vegas” eliminate two chefs who were pretty well dead weight, as it means we’re that much closer to really getting down to business in Vegas.