Tag Archives: Review

Sorry, Not Sorry: NBC’s Timeless resists the “serialized rabbit hole,” and is better for it

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Timeless—debuting tonight at 10/9c on NBC—is a strikingly old-fashioned television show at its core.

This is not intended as a slight—the show is, inherently, a throwback to the likes of Quantum Leap or something like Sliders, where episodic time travel is used as an anchor for a combination of standalone adventures and ongoing thematic character work. And when executive producers Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan arrived to present the show as part of NBC’s press tour presentation, they weren’t hiding this old-fashionedness. Where some shows might have run away screaming from the idea of being a throwback to a late 80s time traveling procedural as three characters (a professor, a former soldier, and a technician) travel through time to stop a would-be terrorist, they were more than happy to cite Quantum Leap as an inspiration point, even as a contrast to a more “quality” time travel brand like 12 Monkeys.

It’s a refreshing position, although a somewhat uncommon one, and one that somewhat contradicts the way the show’s pilot contorts itself to assure the viewer that it contains meaningful serialized elements: like most modern pilots, Timeless ends with lots of complications that create questions for future episodes, an instant mythology that will play out over the course of the coming season. But whereas I could imagine a world where the producers promised that this wasn’t “just a procedural,” Ryan insisted something different on the show’s panel: “this isn’t a show that is going to fall down a serialized rabbit hole.”

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No one watched a great Emmys telecast, which really shouldn’t surprise us

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The 2016 Emmys were, quite objectively, a well-produced show.

They came in on time, helped by a couple of absent acting winners. They included a meaningful number of surprises, including wins for young stars Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) and Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), to help offset the predictable series wins for Veep and Game Of Thrones. They had a dynamic host in Jimmy Kimmel, who managed the combination of prepared bits and contextual quips admirably. They had a diverse array of winners, and Academy president Bruce Rosenblum used his speech to call attention to below-the-line workers, bringing out two craft winners from the Creative Arts ceremonies for a deserved round of applause. They even managed to find a way to mount specific In Memoriam tributes to television greats—the Garrys, Shandling and Marshall—without making the evening too somber. While there are winners I’d quibble with, there was nothing in the narrative of the evening that to me demonstrates a failing on the part of the producers.

The 2016 Emmys were also, objectively, the lowest-rated ever.

This dichotomy has to be frustrating for producers, who put on a show that I would identify as a successful celebration of television as a medium, but who were summarily punished for that. And so as CBS prepares to mount its latest version of the Emmys next year, the question becomes whether or not parties involved believe that there is a need to change the central goals of the Emmys to draw larger audiences.

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The strangest thing about Stranger Things is its (potentially) undefined future

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Stranger Things is the latest in a long line of originals from Netflix, a stable that is growing to the point where any one series is no longer really all that pivotal to their brand identity. Netflix doesn’t really put a significant promotional pitch behind a show like Stranger Things: they do some light marketing, some press (if critics/reporters are interested), and then season one becomes a litmus test. If it’s a “hit,” it goes into the list of shows that Netflix will push harder for a second season. If it’s not, it becomes like Marco Polo, which received almost no fanfare when its second season debuted earlier this month.

Stranger Things does pretty well in this litmus test. Critics embraced the show—although it received a slightly lower metacritic aggregate score than Narcos, it also had eleven more reviews in total, suggesting a wider interest in the series from the press. If I had to pinpoint a reason for this, it’s because Stranger Things feels different. Netflix’s series have at times slotted comfortably into existing genres: Narcos into the Breaking Bad anti-hero mold, Marco Polo trying to be a historical action epic, etc. And while Stranger Things‘ cinematic points of inspiration are none-too-subtle, it has less precedent in television, and thus feels novel even though one of Netflix’s first original series (Hemlock Grove) was a spin on the horror genre. The 80s period, Spielbergian, Stephen King-esque take on the material stands out amidst what I once dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” ongoing elsewhere in the genre, and the show overcomes some shoddy procedure—more on that after the jump—to construct a compelling milieu, fun characters, and a mythology that draws you in without getting overly complicated.

But there is another litmus test in Stranger Things that I want to focus on, which is this: what kind of television show is this in our era of limited series and seasonal anthologies? At only eight episodes, Stranger Things sits in a decidedly liminal position in an evolving TV industry, and the way the first season ends tells me that even those making the series aren’t entirely convinced where they want this show to fit. It’s a fascinating decision that creates an entirely new “postmortem” conversation about a season of TV: What, indeed, do we want a second season of Stranger Things—all but guaranteed given Netflix has never canceled anything, and certainly wouldn’t cancel something with reviews like this—to look like?

And, perhaps more importantly, do the show’s creators and Netflix feel the same way?

[Spoilers for “season one” of Stranger Things to follow.]

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “The Winds of Winter”

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[After spending this season, as with last, writing about Game of Thrones at The A.V. Club, I was in Europe during the finale, which meant my colleague Caitlin PenzeyMoog stepped in. But since I’ve reviewed every episode of the series, it seemed odd not to be weighing in, so below are my thoughts. They are from a book reader’s perspective, but ultimately carry no significant spoilers from material yet to be adapted into the series.]

Most television is didactic on some level: while ultimately no show can control how its audiences watch it, it embeds certain codes by which it should be interpreted. In early seasons, it teaches us things about itself, which we will then use to map out the journey as it gets deeper into its run.

Game Of Thrones’ early seasons—pulling from Martin’s own lessons in the novels—taught us that anyone could die, and that no one was immune from the type of tragedy that befalls those in or near or subject to power in Westeros. Its middle seasons amended this lesson to show us that there are no easy paths to power, sidelining characters like Daenerys and Arya on long journeys of self-discovery that distracted from their central goal. It trained us to watch Game Of Thrones as a non-linear exploration of power in its various forms, embracing its muddied morality and considering the consequences that befall all those who lay in its wake.

But television shows change, and with them their lessons. For five seasons, the show trained its audience to be on the edge of its seat wondering where the narrative could go next, but this season has been a retraining of sorts. Suddenly, there need to be easy paths to power (albeit with long roads taken to get there), because the show is near its end. Suddenly the morality needs to become less muddled in places, because the powers of Westeros need to be in a position to unite against the threat of the White Walkers (a “big bad” the show introduced in its very first scene, yes, but then trained us to forget about by developing so slowly). Suddenly, there are characters that can’t die, because the level of investment in their arcs—Jon’s rise from the dead, Arya’s two entire seasons in Braavos, Sansa’s torture at the hands of Ramsay—is too great for them not to play some type of role in the endgame ahead. Game Of Thrones has changed, and its sixth season was about retraining us to watch the more predictable show it’s become.

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Hate To Say I Told You So?: Jane The Virgin’s Finale Non-Shocker

At what point does a fan theory become so ubiquitous that it stops being a theory?

Back in January of last year, as Jane The Virgin was in the midst of its first season, I tweeted the following to my A.V. Club colleague Kayla:

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This was a week after the show’s Latin Lover Narrator told audiences that Michael would believe he and Jane should be together “for long as Michael lived, until he drew his very last breath.” It was a notable piece of foreshadowing for a show that had already shown its interest in exploring the high stakes of the telenovela, and antennae have been up ever since.

But it was later in the second season that Michael’s fate became a larger topic of conversation. And in this case, it wasn’t the kind of explicit foreshadowing that the writers introduced in the first season, but rather a practical reality of the situation that was being established: Michael was too perfect to leave the season unscathed. The life being set up for Michael and Jane following their engagement was too perfect: he was too understanding about the co-parenting with Rafael, he was too willing to accommodate Jane’s neuroses, and he was romantic in ways that are simply not sustainable for an ongoing television series. Jane can’t be as happy as Michael was making her for the show to move forward with wedded bliss as the status quo. Something had to give.

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And people noticed. Some of us simply trolled our Twitter followers, making sure they were prepared for the pending doom (it was what The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum was talking about on Twitter in the hours before she earned her Pulitzer). Vulture wrote a whole article about whether or not Michael was going to die. And the textual evidence was only kept mounting: the couple exchanged their vows before their wedding, for example, which is a telltale sign that something is about to go terribly wrong. And so by the time we got to tonight’s season finale, we were past the point where the antennae were up, and to the point where I turned to my mother—who has only seen the pilot, which I showed her earlier today while visiting—and told her flat out that Michael was about to die.

But as much as something terrible happening to Michael wasn’t a question going into “Chapter Forty-Four” wasn’t a question, I did have a question about it: is it a problem that we all knew it was going to happen?

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Season Finale: Crazy-Ex Girlfriend – “Paula Needs To Get Over Josh!”

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Scott Everett White / The CW

There is no question that The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was among the year’s most ambitious shows, but it took me a while to warm to it.

The reason for this is actually fairly straightforward: I struggled with the fact that the “premise” of the show seemed so at odds with what made it compelling. Rebecca’s efforts to win the love and attention of Josh Chan were the central narrative engine of the show in the earlygoing, shaping her relationship with West Covina, and risking defining her character by a relationship I never bought. The show wanted to push against this, and uses its opening theme to give Rebecca a chance to articulate the intended irony of the show’s title, but the text and the title sequence didn’t always line up for me. The show was more about Josh than I wanted it to be, especially given that I thought Josh was kind of a dolt—I didn’t connect to the characters’ relationship, and so I didn’t connect to the primary way the show was pushing the story forward.

The show started to correct itself as it went along, and eventually it emerged with a fairly profound understanding of its premise: Rebecca may have come to West Covina because Josh lived there, but her actual “move” was focused less on what she was running to and more what she was running from: her unhappiness with her life in New York. And more recently, the show has approached a similarly profound realization that instead of moving toward Josh realizing that he was in love with Rebecca, his brief romantic moment with her would instead help him realize that he was unsatisfied in his relationship with Valencia. It was the show correcting my issue perfectly: Rebecca realizes that Josh was a means to an end of getting her into a healthier place, and Josh realizes that Rebecca was there to help him reach his potential (which extends into Rebecca helping him to get a job and believe in himself in other storylines).

And so I went into tonight’s finale believing that the show was heading in this direction, and was accordingly disappointed, although that’s as much on me as it is on the show. Basically, if everything had worked out the way I had wanted it to, there would be no show. Rebecca would be able to happily settle into a life of West Covina lawyering, free to pursue a relationship with Greg or anyone else. Josh could move on from Valencia, and pursue some of his various life goals in whatever way he saw fit. In the back half of the season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend basically choreographed its ideal ending, a realistic and honest consideration of the way we gain perspective in our lives, and so I went into this finale believing that this was imminent…which meant I also forgot that this was a television show.

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The Passion: New Orleans: #ThePassionHalfLive

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The word “live” has value in our contemporary television environment. As actual live viewing grows increasingly less common, events that can promote their liveness—sports, award shows, etc.—have an advantage in the current TV marketplace. There is a belief that those shows, more than others, will draw audiences who will tune in live, and thus consume ads live, and thus make money for broadcasters like Fox.

The trend toward live musicals is an extension of this, and this was undoubtedly the context in which Fox has positioned The Passion: New Orleans. After Grease: Live, Fox has entered into the genre rebuilt by NBC over the past three holidays, and the Tyler Perry-hosted contemporary retelling of the Passion Play certainly wants to be the same type of success. It also framed itself around the idea of liveness, promoting that the event would run rain or shine, and using #ThePassionLive as the show’s hashtag.

But The Passion: New Orleans is not a live musical. It is a live broadcast interspersed with a television adaptation of the Passion Play, recorded in advance and featuring what would appear to be pre-recorded performances. It’s a choice that those involved with the production have discussed in interviews, and lines up with the desire to stage the scenes throughout the city of New Orleans for dramatic effect—logistically, this was not possible to stage live while retaining its geographic diversity, maximizing the idea of tracing the story of Jesus against modern day issues such as police prosecution.

And yet the balance between live and recorded content was somewhat surprising, especially with the chosen hashtag. The broadcast came to resemble a PBS pledge drive, with brief musical numbers—musical videos, really—interrupted by cuts to Tyler Perry, reporting from the crowd following the large cross making its way through New Orleans, and occasional live performances by Yolanda Adams, Trisha Yearwood, and Seal (and eventually Jencarlos Canela, playing Jesus). It’s a practical issue on any level, interrupting any sense of flow and continually disrupting the “story”: while it’s true that the basics of the Passion Play are pretty much common knowledge, any ability for the performers to establish specific characters or create a complete “performance” were rendered impossible by the constant interruptions.

The specific issue, however, comes from the fact that The Passion: New Orleans is not really a live musical despite being discursively understood as one by news outlets and audiences. To Fox’s credit, I can’t find any evidence of them ever calling it that—it has always been framed as a “live musical event,” which is a fair description for the concert/scripted combo that they aired earlier tonight. The “live” segments are comparable to “concert” stagings of Musicals, with minimal staging and focus on the songs themselves. But between the #ThePassionLive hashtag and the recent trend of live musicals, I at least expected more of the actual plot of the Passion Play to take place live, and so there was an aesthetic shock when they cut to the first main number—“Love Can Move Mountains”—and it was clearly taped in advance.

I understand why they would make this decision, logistically speaking, but some of their other choices are more confounding. Why, for example, would they still give the performers headset microphones and ear monitors in these pre-taped segments as though they were performing live, when either the aesthetic distinction (liveness has a clear aesthetic that the overly “cinematic” pre-taped segments diverge from significantly, especially given the huge variety of camera angles) or the time of day would betray the fact they were pre-recorded? Why use #ThePassionLive as a hashtag if the majority of your musical numbers were going to be pre-recorded, and #ThePassion would have served more or less the same purpose?

The answer is that the “promise” of a live musical has marketing value, even if that’s decidedly not what The Passion: New Orleans is. It’s undoubtedly false advertising to focus on the show’s liveness and then have the majority of musical numbers be pre-recorded—some performers never even appeared live under the curtain call—and Twitter chatter certainly reacted negatively when it became clear that the show wasn’t as live as they presumed. But that actually proves Fox’s point that the idea of a live musical will convince people to tune in, and whatever negative reaction comes from those who know enough to understand the difference between live and pre-taped aesthetics will likely be a very small percentage of the audience.

The Passion: New Orleans is not designed to be understood through an aesthetic lens: whereas Grease: Live reveled in its complex staging and choreography, The Passion: New Orleans is about the idea of community and spirituality. It’s about the procession of the cross through New Orleans, and the audience who are there to witness the live concert—it is about feeling, in other words, something that is tougher to achieve at home and certainly tougher for me to engage with given my lack of connection to the Passion Play. It wants to use liveness as a short-hand for togetherness, making us feel like we’re on the streets with the cross (hence the live check-ins), or that we’re among those crying or singing along to the vaguely spiritual pop songs chosen for the show’s jukebox soundtrack.

But while it would be disingenuous to take that experience away from those who felt it, the staging choices were a barrier for me. Too much of the story was told through Perry’s narration, limiting the ability for the songs—already, I must admit, facing barriers created by some questionable choices with the likes of Creed, Evanescence, and Hoobastank—to tap into the meaning of these characters and their story. As someone who knows the basic story but has no particular attachment to it, I would argue The Passion: New Orleans was on some level designed to appeal to me—Perry has framed his involvement as a desire to spread the gospel, rather than just preaching to the choir, but the disconnected narrative limited the ability for the music to communicate the emotions of this story. Specific moments tapped into the symbolic effect of the cross processional and the live audience—Yearwood and Seal’s numbers had the most impact—but too much of the story was trapped in screens, and weakened by the lack of flow (which was inevitable with commercials, but made worse by Perry’s scripted intros and outros from that footage).

I can see why The Passion: New Orleans became a hodge-podge of live and pre-recorded content. The actual story would have been better told if this had been entirely pre-recorded, with Perry’s narration playing over footage from the story instead of interrupting the flow of events. It would have been more focused on character, and it would have avoided the aesthetic dissonance that pulled me—if not its target audience—out of the narrative. But then it wouldn’t have been “live,” and they wouldn’t have been able to use both the commercial appeals of that term as well as the emotional appeal of seeing the cross work its way through New Orleans, and building this as a local event that can be viewed nationally (and internationally on Netflix).

The resulting production fails even basic tests of flow, and I still view too much of the soundtrack ironically to take the production wholly seriously, but it is ultimately a fair representation of Fox’s goals: to tap into a faith-based audience increasingly hailed by the film and television industry, and to extend a reputation for live events that draw advertisers interested in reaching those and other audiences. And so while The Passion: New Orleans betrays principles of liveness, it does so to balance its commercial goals with its spiritual ones, a legible mess instead of an incomprehensible one.

Cultural Observations

  • As far as I can tell, the amount of pre-recorded content is unprecedented for the format—while the report following the procession and the “host” are also in the Manchester Passion (the U.K.’s rendition of the same concept), the earlier numbers are staged nearby, and clearly live.

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