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The Crow Flies Straight(er): Sons of Anarchy Season Four

Review: Sons of Anarchy Season Four

September 6th, 2011

I sat down to watch the first three episodes of the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy a few weeks ago, just a few days after Kurt Sutter’s decision to leave Twitter and his decision to, well, repost an entire article I had written on the subject on his personal blog.

It is not exactly a secret that I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with Sutter regarding the role of the critic, as Dave Chen’s documentation of our most notable squabble would indicate. It’s also not exactly a secret that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with Sutter on the quality of the third season, which I found quite unsatisfying. Given these two points, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a bit of baggage going into the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy, baggage that could easily overwhelm a half-hearted return to Charming.

To be honest, though, I didn’t think much of the baggage when watching the first three episodes (which includes a 90-minute premiere tonight at 10/9c on FX). The show sidesteps many of the events from the third season, picking out the important pieces of information and building them out into more substantial storylines, and a return to a focus on the interrelation of the Sons as opposed to their external battles has reinvigorated the narrative to the point where “Kurt Sutter” didn’t feel like a character within the drama despite the off-season “war” we waged (and the effective resolution we reached in recent weeks) and despite the fact that Sutter actually plays a character on the show. It was just me and a compelling drama series, a series which is returning on a stronger footing after a season filled with missteps and an off-season filled with controversy.

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A Televisual Love Letter: Reveling in HBO’s Game of Thrones

A Televisual Love Letter: HBO’s Game of Thrones

April 3rd, 2011

When I sat down to watch the first six episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones – which HBO subscribers can preview tonight at 9/8c when the first fifteen minutes of the pilot air before the third part of Mildred Pierce (and arrive streaming online shortly after) – I knew that I would be viewing them from a particular perspective.

As someone who has read the first four books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – the fifth comes out in July – on multiple occasions, I knew my way around this story. I would not count myself among those who have an encyclopedic knowledge of Westeros, and I’ll readily admit that the density of the books means I often misplace particular story events within my memory, but the fact remains that I am very familiar with the world Martin created and the characters that inhabit it.

Accordingly, I expected my view of the series to be influenced by this perspective: I would know more about these characters than the show would expect me to know, able to fill in details and see foreshadowing that some viewers would not even know was foreshadowing. I would be more excited about seeing things come to life than I would be about seeing things happen, surprised not so much by the events transpiring but by the decisions made in giving those events physical form. However, I also presumed that I would ultimately remain the stoic critic figure, my familiarity with the series presenting less as a “fandom” and more as an extra layer that would contribute to my experience.

So imagine my surprise when my experience became defined by this familiarity, my fairly casual “fandom” transformed into a giddy reverie by the time the credits rolled on the show’s pilot. Game of Thrones is not precisely Martin’s books come to life fully formed, but I would argue that this is a love letter to A Song of Ice and Fire and those who hold it most dear. It does not just stumble its way into bits of foreshadowing: it fully embraces the scale of this narrative from the word go and begins to craft a tale worthy of the source material. It does so not just through strong performances and evocative production design, but also through tapping into the very qualities that made the source material so compelling on a structural level: this is not just an instance of plot and character being spun into a new medium, but rather David Benioff and D.B. Weiss drawing inspiration from a man who knew how to build something.

The result is a rare adaptation which compounds, rather than challenges, our appreciation for the franchise in question. Game of Thrones may not yet be the finest show on television, but it is well on its way to being one of the most rewarding television experiences I’ve ever had, and certainly shows the potential to be found in continuing to explore Martin’s – and now Benioff and Weiss’ – Westeros for many seasons to come.

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Papacy without Purpose: A Review of Showtime’s The Borgias

Papacy without Purpose: Showtime’s The Borgias

April 3rd, 2011

Things do come in threes, don’t they?

As critics across the country confront a trio of drama series which all fall into the broad category of costume drama (albeit with some divergence in terms of additional variation), comparisons are inevitable. While I have yet to check out Starz’s Camelot (in part because I fear what they’ve done to Malory’s Morte, and in part because I just haven’t had the time), I watched the first four episodes (two of which debut Sunday night at 9/8c) of Showtime’s The Borgias after having watched the first six episodes of Game of Thrones over the course of the previous day, and…well, it was not a helpful comparison for the Showtime series.

I’ll have more on Game of Thrones in the days ahead, but I actually think that The Borgias is worth some time – while it starts slow and struggles to find a particular “purpose” as a result, there are moments which betray an actual interest in exploring the political complexities which result from the Borgia family’s winding path to power. The problem is that they are both too infrequent and too brief, giving way to a paint-by-numbers historical costume drama which fills in the blanks instead of coloring outside the lines.

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Now What?: Advance Screeners in the Digital Age

Advance Screeners in the Digital Age

March 31st, 2011

It is hardly a secret that television critics often receive advance screeners of popular television programs: after all, the role of the traditional critic has been to produce pre-air reviews of programs, which would necessitate seeing the program in question before publication.

However, we live in an era where the awareness of screeners is cultivated through more than simple logic: through Twitter, engaged users know when networks are sending out particular programs, as journalists/critics/bloggers often tweet when a screener package arrives (sometimes even taking pictures if the packaging is particularly novel). It’s like a wave if you’re following enough of these professionals, as various unboxing tweets fill our feeds.

In the interest of full disclosure, although this won’t be a surprise to those who follow me on Twitter, I’ve had my fair share of screeners this year; currently, for example, I have received considerable chunks of new series from Showtime and HBO, including United States of Tara and Game of Thrones. I point this out not to brag, although that seems like an inevitable byproduct of this discussion. Rather, I share in order to express my central dilemma, which is quite simple:

What, precisely, am I supposed to do with them?

And I figured I would turn the question over to you.

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Offseason Shenanigans: The Return of Glee

Offseason Shenanigans: The Return of Glee

February 6th, 2011

For a show which has yet to air an episode in 2011, Glee has been awfully ubiquitous.

No, this isn’t surprising: people can’t get enough of Glee, so it is inevitable that a brief hiatus with a much-hyped post-Super Bowl episode on the other end would result in an infinite number of stories relating to the series. However, what struck me as particularly interesting is the degree to which the series’ absence created a vacuum for something approaching controversy. Ryan Murphy announced that he was breaking up one of the show’s couples because he was bored. Ryan Murphy started a flame war with Kings of Leon. Ryan Murphy claimed that Glee is at least partially aimed at seven-year-olds (in the same sentence, no less).

There were a few moments when people wondered why I, as someone who “deigns” to cover this series from a more critical perspective, wasn’t commenting on these numerous stories. In truth, I just didn’t have time to respond to every piece of new surrounding the show, but I also never felt any sort of impulse to do so. Yes, I could comment on what it means for a showrunner to admit to a show’s fans that he makes decisions based on things which bore him, and there’s certainly analysis to be done of the impact of public flame wars; there is also most certainly a lot to be said about Murphy’s perception of the demographic makeup of his audience, an audience which I would presume is more for the show’s music (a sort of pop culturally-driven Kidz Bop) than for the show itself.

However, maybe because of my scholarly approach, I didn’t feel particularly moved by any of these stories. I wasn’t angry that Murphy was bored because I’d rather showrunners be honest than not. I wasn’t aghast at Murphy’s battle with Kings of Leon because I don’t have the time to care about celebrities sniping at one another over a misunderstanding. And while I raised an eyebrow at Murphy’s comments regarding demographics, that seems like a more detailed, long-term study than it does an instant reaction.

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15 Minutes in Westeros: Previewing HBO’s Game of Thrones

15 Minutes in Westeros: Previewing HBO’s Game of Thrones

January 12th, 2011

There were two things which struck me as particularly strange while watching the fifteen minutes of footage from Game of Thrones which HBO has made available to critics (and which debuted at the TCA Press Tour last week).

The first was that it seems almost unfair that I’m seeing this footage while the majority of the show’s fans must deal with only detailed rundowns. I understand why it isn’t being made publicly available (it is unfinished, with temporary music and effects), but even as someone familiar with the books I know that there is a much larger audience out there who are much more anxious about this footage. Accordingly, I take on a sort of additional responsibility, knowing that the audience for my impressions (which are, of course, provisional based on the temporary nature of the footage) has an insatiable desire for information makes watching it a unique experience.

The other bit of strangeness is that it’s weird to see bits and pieces of a narrative, even when you know the rest of the story. Alan Sepinwall, who is going in without knowledge of the books by his choice, chose not to watch the footage simply because he didn’t want to see brief glimpses of a story that will, in the future, be a complete whole. And so while I might be in a position to fill in the gaps, knowing the meaning of each of these scenes and how they place within the larger narrative, there’s still the sense that we’re missing key pieces of the puzzle that would allow us to put to rest all of our curiosities surrounding the adaptation.

However, let’s not bury the lede here – it might seem weird to be sitting there watching this particular collection of scenes from Game of Thrones, but the more we see the less “weird” this adaptation seems. While the fandom has largely avoided snap judgments, resisting the urge to outright reject casting choices and waiting to see the final product, I still didn’t think that it would seem quite this natural. There are little hiccups here or there, but the world that’s been built is showing that a bit of faith, and plenty of talent and financial support, can go a long way in making a story work.

And, even in fragmented form, this story’s working.

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Making History: The Amazing (and Reductive) Race for an All-Female Winner

Making History: The Race for an All-Female Winner

December 12th, 2010

Tonight, there is a 2 in 3 chance of history being made on The Amazing Race.

For a show in its seventeenth season, it sorts of seems like it should be past the point of “making history,” but the fact of the matter is that no all-female team has ever won The Amazing Race (or at least the American version of the Amazing Race).

The show has been building towards this piece of history for a while now: Dustin and Kandice, arguably the “strongest” all-female team the show ever had, had two shots at the title before eventually losing out in the finals of their All-Star season (Season 11), while Jaime and Cara are the most recent team to make it to the finals in Season 14. However, the narrative hasn’t been particularly strong within a given season, I would argue, since the All-Star year: there, Dustin and Kandice had no other narrative but the notion that they should have been the first female team, and their eventual loss was one more step back for gender balance within this program.

For the record, I do not particularly care who wins tonight, which probably sounds like I haven’t been invested in this season. However, it’s more that I have no real preference: I like both Brook and Claire (who grew on me as the season went on) and Nat and Kat (who don’t need the money but have proved fierce competitors) enough that I’d like to see them break the streak, but Jill and Thomas rode that fine line between intensity and enjoying themselves which makes them a perfectly acceptable winning team along the lines of Meghan and Cheyne as opposed to a dissatisfying winning team like Freddy and Kendra.

But after the jump, I do want to look at this “all-female team” narrative, specifically the ways in which that narrative could overwhelm all other narratives as they race towards the finish line. [Note: now updated with post-finale thoughts, so Spoiler Alert]

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