April 6th, 2014
“Killed the right people, I suppose.”
The beginning of Game of Thrones’ fourth season is caught in evaluative limbo.
We are past the point where it is a critic’s job to tell you what Game of Thrones is. At this stage, the show is the show, and nothing in the first three episodes of the season—which were sent to critics—changes that. To write an advance review of a season of Game of Thrones is less about evaluating its quality and more about offering vague previews of what’s to come for those who haven’t read the books but nonetheless want some sense of where their favorite characters are headed in the early-going, or for those who’ve read the books and want a basic gutcheck on how certain details were translated. If something in these first three episodes actually changes someone’s mind regarding the series, it would shock me not unlike the Red Wedding shocked non-readers.
This might be the last time I say this. The fourth season marks the first that will begin to actively and aggressively merge material from multiple books, likely resulting in some of the most substantial deviations from the source material to date. As someone whose interest in writing about the show comes in large part based on how the series approaches narratives, characters, and themes from the book in a different medium, we are on the verge of one of the most exciting periods for the series, one where the discourse will take on considerably higher stakes. Will readers embrace the changes? Will non-readers even notice that something is amiss?
“Two Swords” marks the calm before the storm, hence the evaluative limbo—although we are approaching the moment when I expect we’ll see far more interesting ranges of critical response to the series, the season premiere has the series firmly in transition, still holding onto the familiar instability we’ve come to understand. It’s a delicate transition, mind you, and one that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—who doubles as director—handle extremely well, but it’s ultimately a familiar feeling returning to Westeros in season four.
“The Wolf and the Lion”
May 15th, 2011
“How long can hate hold a thing together?”
One could argue that Game of Thrones tells the story of two houses – this would be categorically untrue, especially given the ways in which the series expands in subsequent volumes (or seasons, considering its renewal), but the battle between the Lannisters and the Starks is obviously at the heart of this particular narrative. Even those who were fundamentally confused by the pilot, and perhaps even by subsequent episodes, were likely able to draw out that these two families are what one might term “a big deal.”
“The Wolf and the Lion” obviously makes this distinction clear, to the point that the story follows the two families almost exclusively – ignoring The Wall in its entirety, and foregoing a trip across the narrow sea, the episode narrows in on the mutual hatred which fuels these two families as they each try to go on with their lives as members of the other families attempt to either kill them or bring them to justice. And yet, at the same time, this narrowing is misleading on at least a few levels, given that this episode also delves a bit further into a few other houses which will become more important as a the series goes on.
In other words, despite technically being narrower in its focus, “The Wolf and the Lion” actually does some important work in broadening the scope of the series within these two particular areas. It’s a necessary step forward for the series, a strong statement for its commitment to the depth of this story.
April 24th, 2011
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
In chatting with one of my colleagues who has not read A Song of Ice and Fire earlier this month, he raised an interesting question: why, precisely, do some Stark children go to King’s Landing while others remain in Winterfell?
It was a question that never occurred to me while watching “The Kingsroad” since I already knew the answer before I popped in the screener, but it’s one that strikes me as important during these early episodes. There is no avoiding the fact that Game of Thrones has a dislocated narrative, with various locations (highlighted in the opening credit sequence) housing storylines that are often operating on their own frequency, and such dislocation risks feeling arbitrary. It is, arguably, the greatest challenge that Benioff and Weiss faced with the adaptation, and facing that challenge will require more than a clever title sequence that places the various locations into context.
“The Kingsroad” is the first stab at really tackling this challenge through thematic material, something that embraces the parallel storytelling that the series necessitates (as compared to the books, which go long stretches without visiting particular locations/characters). While the shifts in location were minimal (and very strategic) in “Winter is Coming,” with “The Kingsroad” we see a more traditional structure wherein we consistently shift from one location to another, a structure united by a growing sense that these characters may wish they had taken a different fork in the road.
It doesn’t quite bring the entire episode together, but the maps drawn for each of the show’s numerous storylines are at least all on the same piece of paper, and focus on the degree to which each individual character is prepared for the path that they have chosen (or that has been chosen for them).
August 4th, 2010
New York Magazine’s Art Critic Jerry Saltz is aware that Work of Art is less than revered within the art community, a response which Carolina A. Miranda nicely captured at TIME this week. In his review of last night’s final episode before the finale, Saltz reflected on the experience as he saw it, partly out of an effort to convince his critics that he wasn’t sullying his name through his participation and partly to convince himself of the same:
I know that much of the art world is appalled that an art critic would even be on a reality show. I feel this way sometimes, too. Yet, leaving after this episode I felt more as I do when I’m teaching, and get totally involved with students whose names I will not remember in 24 months. Only, I was pouring everything I had into this TV show and these artists…I began to see that with only one week to go that this whole experience, weirdness, wildness and all, was forming into some sort of larger whole.
I’ve written a great deal about how the show has been a mess of contradictions, so tonight’s episode was a key test of whether or not it would reach some form of cohesive conclusion; as Saltz notes, “involvement” is a key factor in any reality show, wherein we get caught up in each character’s journey and it becomes less about the general premise (finding the next great artist, or the top chef, or the next great fashion designer) and more about choosing which of the final contestants deserves their shot at stardom. It’s a key difference, and I think that Saltz nicely captures what I’ve witnessed from the comfort of my couch: through all of its contradictions, Work of Art is a competition which intensely focuses on the creative process, which makes its conclusion seem like far more of a personal journey than other reality series.
Or, at least it does for the artists who embraced the idea as Saltz did.
October 27th, 2009
There has been an odd lack of excitement surrounding “The Plan,” which isn’t exactly surprising. On the one hand, the show’s finale proved somewhat divisive, which could have turned some fans away from revisiting the series. On the other, there is more long term interest in a project like Caprica which could run for multiple seasons than a one-off movie, which might have fans focusing more on its impending premiere. However, I really shouldn’t fit into either of these camps, as I’ve yet to get truly excited about Caprica (although I am certainly intrigued) and I quite loved the finale. And yet, nonetheless, the DVD release of The Plan (in stores today, October 27th) snuck up on me in a way I had not anticipated, and its release seems to lack the fanfare one would expect for what will be our last time spent with this universe (or this time period in this universe).
Perhaps it is best that one goes into this one with low expectations, however. As someone who loves this show, having written an undergraduate thesis about it and spending four hours writing about the series finale into the middle of the night with no regard for my personal health, the purpose of this film should excite me. Promising to explain the Cylon plan to destroy humanity, and to detail how the individual Cylon models came to play their roles in the first two seasons of the series, one feels as if there is some really compelling material to be had here, the kind of stuff that would have me wishing I could go back and rewrite my chapter on the Cylon/Human binary all over again.
And yet, “The Plan” is a qualified failure, raising some intriguing issues but in an indulgent fashion that in its relentless need to fill in the gaps of where this is happening relative to the show’s narrative proves more distracting than informative, more confusing than enlightening. I feel as if there is an intriguing narrative waiting to be found somewhere in this mess of a two-hour television movie, but that narrative is lost when it is so clearly segmented to fit into the series’ existing structure. While we’re busy playing the game of “spot which footage was from the show and which was shot new for the movie,” there’s something interesting going on here that’s just not coming through as clearly as it needed to.
In individual moments, this feels like Battlestar Galactica – as a whole, it feels like a DVD extra where you can click a button and see what the Cylons are busy plotting at that particular time, something which would be more interesting if they hadn’t tried to turn it into a motion picture event.
October 25th, 2009
When “Dirty Harry” begins, the problems start before the episode even does. After the exciting finale to “Dex Takes a Holiday,” which was a strong episode which really connected with the qualities that make the show work and which ended on that cliffhanger of Deb and Lundy bleeding on the pavement, things seemed exciting in a way that the show was struggling with early on.
However, the lengthy “Previously on Dexter” sequence reminded us that the things that made that episode great were an exclusion (of Rita and the kids) and a shock (that won’t be recreated in the next episode), which means that “Dirty Harry” is immediately handicapped. And while there are some stories that seem legitimately compelling, those seem to be at a standstill while the “drama” comes from conflicts that are either entirely uninteresting or which feel like the sort of simple “Dexter meets Suburbia” type stories the show has been dealing with this season.
It proves once and for all that Dexter is a series best watched in extended bursts on DVD, because the hype is going to create expectations that this season isn’t able to live up to.
“Megan Fox and U2”
September 26th, 2009
Saturday Night Live was last Fall’s biggest pop culture sensation. With Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression saving the show from a weak Obama impression, and Thursday timeslots building the show’s reputation, it built to some of its best numbers ever and its cache went beyond viral internet sensations written by Justin Timberlake/Lonely Island and into the show itself.
But suddenly, coming back this Fall, there is no election to provide a new impression that will keep people tuning in, and the Thursday shows are less a chance to built momentum and more a chance to burn material that might have been saved for the Saturday show under different circumstances. So while this week’s Weekend Update Thursday was somewhat tepid, it was still pulling away people and ideas that could have been put to use here.
This is all relevant because the start of Saturday Night Live’s thirty-fifth season is a collosal failure of comedy, an endless string of one-joke sketches which feel the exact opposite of culturally relevant. If the goal of this episode was to remind us that Saturday Night Live was capable of being funny even without Sarah Palin or a political climate which welcomes satire, then they have not succeeded: perhaps unfairly handicapped by a host who can’t actually act, and perhaps feeling too secure with a musical act that knows how to put on a good show (but, really, didn’t live up to that), the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live delivered a complete and total dud, one where we expect a Judy Grimes-style “just kidding” at the end that says what we’ve seen is some sort of big mistake.
And that’s probably not the best way to reassert your cultural relevance.
“Yes I Can”
July 28th, 2008
The title of “Yes I Can” refers to both Sammy Davis Jr. famous autobiography and the drive of Nancy Botwin to remain independent within the existing operation. This storyline drives most of the episode, and while it suffers from some stretches of logic (including the entire purpose of a “front,” but never mind that) it does give Mary-Louise Parker plenty to do and has some potential.
But, really, this episode is about the moments when Silas and Shane Botwin, officially speaking, stopped being the characters they once were. In the beginning, Silas was a teenager of innocence, certainly sexually promiscuous but certainly still finding his footing so to speak. Shane, literally, was a child, someone whose naive world view was tempered with an intense knowledge of its inner workings – he was always smart, but he was still removed from the reality of it all.
This week, though, it’s officially over: these two are not kids anymore, not in the way they once were anyways. Silas’ conquest of Mrs. Rad, Lisa, is forceful and mature: his newfound confidence is almost beyond belief, but the show seems intent on turning him into a sexual animal even weeks before the character’s eighteenth birthday (nudity and all). And Shane, who has had his bouts with insanity in the past, has officially transcended to a whole new realm with his choice of jerk-off material.
Both transitions aren’t beyond the stretch of the imagination, but I’m not quite sure I’m on board enough to trot out Sammy’s answer to the question of “Can you tolerate this?”