May 18th, 2011
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
There’s a bit of whiplash in covering “Bargaining” and “Heartthrob” back-to-back. Whereas Buffy seems to be heading into a period of intense transition, dealing with a whole lot of plot development that necessitates an eventful and complicated premiere, Angel is in a far more stable place without any of the same broad upheaval.
This may be considered a viable reason to watch the two series entirely separately, but for me it offers a nice juxtaposition that does much to highlight the strengths of both series, and the strengths of Angel in particular. While “Heartthrob” ends up being pretty simple, and more than a bit on the nose in regards to its central theme, I think there’s an economy to the storytelling that is equally matched with a certain swagger (which was understandably absent in “Bargaining”). While Greenwalt has to deal with questions of grief after the conclusion of Buffy’s fifth season, he’s far enough removed to be able to have a bit of fun at the same time.
Although “Heartthrob” may not have the same emotional resonance of “Bargaining,” it also feels more finely tuned in its shorter running time and in its thematically (rather than narratively) convenient standalone storyline which also proves a stealth transition into the budding mythology introduced at episode’s end. “Heartthrob” is in no position to become an all-time great episode of the series, at least based on what I’ve seen of the series thus far, but it quite comfortably lives in this particular moment while laying the groundwork for the season that comes.
May 4th, 2011
In what has been a truly spectacular second season, Justified has more or less followed the same pattern as the first season: serialized elements are introduced gradually over the first half of the season before exploding in the final episodes.
What seems different this time around, though, was the nature of that explosion. While both seasons feature conclusions defined by a three-way battle (Miami/Crowders/Raylan in S1, Bennetts/Boyd/Raylan in S2), the second season had given each of those groups an incredible level of detail and history. With the Bennett/Givens feud having been established early on (and most evident in Dickie’s daily reminder of Raylan’s baseball bat handiwork), and with Boyd having risen into a position of power in opposition to the Bennetts, “Bloody Harlan” lives up to its title by giving us the big action climax to these ongoing feuds.
And yet, on some level this still felt like a denouement, or at least a futile attempt at a denouement for a show purposefully designed to avoid such efforts. With so many storylines featuring so many characters with a great deal of agency (and a multitude of motivations), Justified is always reaching the climax of one story or another, but it’s never truly allowed to have that moment to pause and reconsider. There is a brief moment early in “Bloody Harlan” where it feels like Raylan and Winona are going to be able to look to the future, but within minutes another loose end is picked up and another bloody firefight begins to unfold, before being replaced by contemplative scenes almost begging to serve as resolution.
In other words, Justified is a show of false parlays, which this season has focused in on the qualities that will make its constant search for futile resolution one of the finest shows on television.
March 28th, 2011
When United States of Tara entered its second season, the Gregson family thought that everything had changed: Tara had defeated her alters through the use of medication, and the entire family was ready to move forward with something approaching a normal life. Of course, normalcy proved unattainable: the old alters returned, new alters emerged, and turmoil between family members left Max, Kate and Marshall confronting their own identities in light of their mother’s struggle.
What is immediately clear in the show’s third season premiere is that there is no such false normalcy. For better or for worse, the Gregson family has embraced (or will be forced to embrace) that they are in no way, shape, or form normal, and it shows in “…youwillnotwin…” It is a confident premiere on a number of levels, but primarily because it embraces the stabilizing influence of instability. By embracing the cyclical nature of life, and by placing the characters in positions to be impacted – but not defined by – those cycles, United States of Tara is in a position to continue to evolve without having to introduce dramatic new elements into the equation.
All it takes, it appears, is a bit of a push in the right direction and a willingness to ride the wave.
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.
“The Mermaid Theory”
December 6th, 2010
“The Mermaid Theory” is interesting in two ways. And since they’re not particularly substantial ways, I’m just going to cut the introduction off here and we can get into the meat of it.
October 17th, 2010
“Are you kidding me?!”
I’m extremely glad that Faye Miller actually said this during the episode, so I could pull quote it instead of saying itself myself. But, seriously: is Mad Men kidding me?
“Tomorrowland,” like its namesake, was supposed to be about potential: it was supposed to show us a way for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to survive, and a way for Don Draper to reconcile his identity crisis and move forward. It was about charting a new path after tobacco, working with the Cancer society and making plans for whatever the future might hold.
Instead, “Tomorrowland” drops us off with ten weeks of no business, a vacation conundrum, and a series of circumstances which is precisely the opposite of last season’s closer: instead of building excitement, “Tomorrowland” builds nothing but dread, creating scenarios that test our patience with these characters, and even the show itself.
Unless you’re a huge fan of total uncertainty and absolute chaos, chances are “Tomorrowland” was more disturbing than enlightening – the question, of course, is whether it is still good television.
And I think that answer, despite my frustration, is yes.
October 11th, 2010
This is precisely the kind of episode which is particularly dangerous for a show in How I Met Your Mother’s position. “Subway Wars” feels like a gimmick from the very beginning, and the show is at a point where it risks seeming unsubstantial. Back in the second season, something like “Subway Wars” might have seemed novel, but in the context of a sixth season it seems almost a bit desperate.
That being said, I think “Subway Wars” ends up working because it quite successfully ties the race towards Woody Allen into a personal journey for each of its characters. By grounding the journey in Robin’s belief that New York is turning on her, and Marshall and Lily’s struggles to conceive, the episode manages to make broad subject matter transition into legitimate character stories without too much difficulty.
It isn’t quite as well-oiled as it may have been four seasons ago, but I think that the risk ended up enough reward to make “Subway Wars” a solid entry.
“Chuck vs. the Anniversary”
September 20th, 2010
I didn’t realize it until I sat down to write this review, but I think this might be the last weekly Chuck review for quite some time here at Cultural Learnings.
This is not so much a reflection of the relative quality of “Chuck vs. the Anniversary” as it is a reflection of what kind of show Chuck has become over the past season. When I posted my review of NBC’s Chase earlier today, someone commented that Chuck similarly lacks character and consequence: they were joking, of course, but the latter point (consequence) stuck with me heading into tonight’s premiere.
This is still a show I enjoy, and a show I plan on continuing to watch, but I think Chuck has reached the stage where it no longer interests me critically. The season seems like it is onto a solid start, but it is a start which takes absolutely no risks, taking some potentially interesting new ideas and quickly absorbing them into the show’s existing structures.
And as pleasant as that is, I think it might be the point at which weekly reviews no longer feel like a good use of my time.
“The Good News”
August 8th, 2010
I spent a good half hour stumbling over how to start confronting this episode before eventually deciding to sleep on it, and upon waking up this morning I discovered why. “The Good News” is a tremendous episode of television, but it’s an episode of television which confounds how I normally confront these reviews. It’s difficult to write about, for me, because its continuities are largely unrelated to the season thus far: while parts of Don’s story theoretically connect with his behaviour thus far this season, it connects even more with his past as Dick Whitman, and since Joan Holloway and Lane Pryce are getting their first showcase of the season we’re required to dig back into the third season as if this were their premiere.
There are connections between the two sides of this story, but the episode is so clearly divided by Don’s time in Los Angeles (or Dick’s time in Los Angeles, more accurately) and Don’s return to New York that it’s not unlike two entirely different episodes – that it still feels cohesive is a definite accomplishment, but it’s something that makes tackling every minute detail of the episode as I tend to do more challenging.
However, it also makes it entirely possible to address it more briefly while leaving some material for a “Mad Men the Morning After” later today or tomorrow, so let’s get to “The Good News.”