Tag Archives: Season 1

Smash – “The Callback”

“The Callback”

February 13th, 2012

As is evidenced by the limited output here at Cultural Learnings, I don’t have a lot of free time right now, which is why I’ve been prioritizing watching television (an exercise that I find particularly useful in teaching contemporary television) over writing about television (which, while still something I enjoy, often ends up taking up time that I simply don’t have). As a result, I didn’t review the pilot of NBC’s Smash beyond my initial thoughts after watching the episode on iTunes ahead of its airdate.

However, as Noel Murray has quite rightfully pointed out in his review of tonight’s second episode, “The Callback,” I wasn’t exactly quiet about the show last week. I’m not sure what exactly had me so punch on Monday evening as I watched the pilot for the second time, but I think Noel is right to suggest that I was being “provocative” in my attempts to boil down Smash to its most basic qualities. One of my Twitter followers actually called me on being evaluative so early on, but I did clarify that I didn’t see my tweets as evaluative: the show is still finding itself, which means I’m willing to give it time to grow.

That being said, there is something about the Smash pilot that seemed markedly prescriptive, clearly delineating how we were to feel about the onscreen action despite the inherently subjective nature of musical theatre (and performance in general). While I agree with Noel that parts of “The Callback improved on the exclusivity of the pilot’s narrative, grounding the dueling narratives of Ivy and Karen in more concrete performance styles, the show is still operating with a baseline: while it might be open to your opinion on which of the two performers is better, you need to accept that both of them are world class talents. It’s a notion that I’m still struggling with, and a notion that reflects the problems of narrowly defining and serializing a circumstance that would be considerably more complex (if less immediately marketable) in reality.

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2011: The Year That Wasn’t – Shameless and Strike Back

Showtime’s Shameless

Aired: January to March

With Shameless starting its second season next weekend, and with my parents recently gaining access to an expansive OnDemand archive featuring the series, I’ve taken the past week or so to introduce them to the “deranged” – my mother’s word –Gallagher family.

It’s not often that I rewatch dramatic series in this fashion, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I managed it. I didn’t write about Shameless more than a handful of times when the first season aired earlier this year, but rewatching the show has made me wish I had, both because I find myself really enjoying the show (more than my review of the finale would suggest) and because I think writing about it would have helped me confront my frustration with one half of the series.

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Cultural Checkup: MTV’s Awkward.

Cultural Checkup: MTV’s Awkward.

August 17th, 2011

In my head, MTV’s Awkward. has become this season’s equivalent of ABC Family’s Huge (which I covered last summer), although the two shows aren’t really that similar.

I mean, both are shows on teen-oriented networks that transcend their base demographics through strong execution and great casting, and both are shows that take potentially rote situations (summer camp and high school) and delve beneath the surface to show a different side of life as a teenager, and both find ways to involve an older generation without it seeming forced, but…well, when I put it that way, they sound pretty similar after all. Huh.

I think my resistance to my brain’s correlation between the two series is that while Huge subverted teen television stereotypes by embracing narrative complexity and featuring the kind of people (not characters) that you don’t normally see in these types of shows, Awkward. is more or less that type of show at the end of the day. While Huge was, at least in my mind, transcendent of its genre, Awkward. isn’t trying to be so bold: instead, it’s focusing on telling the kind of stories you expect to see, featuring characters you’ve likely seen before, just in a way that feels fresher than one might expect.

It’s a stealthier enterprise: while I felt pretty confident that people who gave Huge a chance would immediately see that it was going to defy their expectations (and encourage anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it to go buy the DVD – only 5 left in stock at Amazon, so they better be gone by the end of the day – and thank me later), I’m less convinced that Awkward. will be able to win over the skeptics. As much as I like the show, and as much as I appreciate what Lauren Iungerich is aiming for, and as happy as I am that the show is getting a second season, at the end of the day it’s a pretty basic sitcom about a teenage girl with teenage girl problems.

It’s also a helluva lot of fun, and probably the most enjoyable new show of the summer.

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Cultural Checkup: USA’s Suits and White Collar

Cultural Checkup: Suits and White Collar

August 12th, 2011

Although I’ve stopped watching Burn Notice, and ceased my bizarre commitment to the dull Royal Pains this summer, and didn’t bother with Covert Affairs’ second season, and didn’t even bother with Necessary Roughness (which I thought looked terrible), I remain really quite interested with USA as a network. With White Collar, they have a show that I think hits a lot of interesting buttons, and with Suits you have a show that seems to be aiming for the same goal. They’re shows that I like a great deal in particular moments, and that are in two very different stages of development.

However, as I drop in on both shows this week, I’ll admit that I find them a bit frustrating. While Suits has a lot of potential, its youthfulness shows signs of uncertainty in regards to questions of genre and narrative, problems that White Collar continues to carry even as it clearly leads the network’s offerings in terms of quality. I know that the general approach to USA programming is not quite this hyper-critical, but I’ve stored up a few too many things to say about the two shows, so I figured the Cultural Checkup was a good way to get through them.

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Review: FX’s Wilfred is Weird (in More Ways Than One)

I am very curious to see how people respond to FX’s Wilfred, which debuts tonight at 10/9c on FX.

On the one hand, I’m interested in how divisive the show’s premise will be: this is a decidedly weird premise, and the show doesn’t spend any time trying to explain or justify it in tonight’s premiere. “Happiness” begins with Elijah Wood’s Ryan imagining his neighbor’s dog Wilfred as a bipedal, pot-smoking dude in a dog suit – creator/producer Jason Gann, to be specific – and simply moves on from there.

However, on the other hand, I’m wondering what those expecting something truly bizarre are going to think when they discover that Wilfred isn’t as weird as its premise might indicate. Now, don’t get me wrong: this is still a weird show, and all three episodes sent to critics feature moments which play on the premise quite directly. And yet, at the same time, all three episodes boil down to some pretty general themes, and this is at its core the story of a depressed man exploring his identity with the help of a friend. That the friend is imaginary, and that he is actually a dog, is not really the point of it all, which was kind of surprising given that “Guy in a Dog Suit” was pretty much all I knew about the show going in.

While I find Wilfred to be occasionally amusing, and certainly think that the premise holds narrative potential, what I’ve seen so far ends up coasting on the premise without really exploring it to any large degree. Individual setpieces may signal where the show may succeed in the future, and Wood and Gann may be strong anchors around which to build a larger comic world, but this is a surprisingly small show given its larger-than-life premise.

And while that may benefit that show in the end, it has resulted in a bit of a slow start that might engender a mixed reaction.

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Hiding Behind the Brand: How The Killing Threatens the Future of AMC

I haven’t seen the first season finale of AMC’s The Killing.

In fact, I haven’t seen the last five episodes of the show’s first season – I fell behind a few weeks ago, struggled to find the motivation to continue, and then traveled away from my DVR before I could get around to catching up.

Accordingly, this is not a piece about the emerging debate regarding the show’s first season finale, which has sharply divided the show’s viewers (and created some extremely strong reactions from some television critics, with Maureen Ryan’s being the most pointed). While it is quite possible that I will some day watch those final five episodes of the season, and that I will have an opinion regarding the show’s finale (which I’ve willfully spoiled for myself) at that time, this piece is not about the finale.

What I’m interested in is the way that this response reflects on larger questions of brand identity that are unquestionably caught up in this response to The Killing. This weekend, I read a piece on AMC’s growing dominance at the Emmy Awards at The Hollywood Reporter in which Sud was quoted quite extensively as she waxed poetic on the freedom of the AMC model. Her first quote was perhaps the one that stuck out most, as she notes that the AMC approach is perhaps best defined by the following: “Always assume that your audience is smarter than you are.”

Given how often I felt The Killing insulted my intelligence as a viewer, this quote struck me as odd. And then I read the rest of her quotes in the article, and discovered the same issue: when she was only spouting a series of platitudes regarding the genius of the AMC brand that we hear from other writers (including a Breaking Bad writer in the same piece), I could take none of them at face value given the fact that The Killing has done little to earn them. In a climate in which The Killing has squandered nearly all of its critical goodwill, Sud’s comments were charmlessly naive, and this was before she made many similar comments in defense of the season finale.

I have nothing against Sud personally, and I think she is entitled to her opinion that her show wasn’t a failure. However, so long as her defense of the show is being framed in the same terms of the AMC brand, the network has a serious problem on their hands. This is a network that feeds off of critical attention, and that has been very protective of its brand identity, but it now finds itself becoming represented by a showrunner who has none of the credentials or the evidence to back up her rhetoric.

It’s a scenario that risks turning AMC into just another brand hiding behind rhetorical statements of superiority, and which should be creating some big questions within the network’s executive structure as they head into an important period for their future development.

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Fire and Blood”

“Fire and Blood”

June 19th, 2011

“There you will see what life is worth when all the rest is gone.”

Earlier this week, I rewatched last week’s penultimate episode, “Baelor,” with my brother who was seeing it for the first time. Generally, I’ve been watching Game of Thrones alone, and any interaction with other viewers has been done online (or, if done in person, was done with people who I had previously interacted with online). For the first time, I was sitting in the same room as another viewer as we watched the show, and the experience made clear what I had known from the beginning but had never seen quite so clearly visible: Game of Thrones is a show that every single viewer likely considers differently.

It is not just that we can separate between readers and non-readers, although that is certainly the most obvious distinction to be made. Rather, we need to also consider questions of genre, gender, sexual content, race, and other qualities which have been called into question over the course of the season: regardless of whether I individually had concerns with the show’s use of fantasy, or its sexposition, or the Othering of the Dothraki, the fact is that those concerns existed, and have created a divisive response even among those who generally like the show.

In a piece earlier this week, friend of the blog Cory Barker wrote about his ambivalence towards the series, and kept trying to find reasons for it within the text. While his process was enlightening, he couldn’t find the silver bullet: there was no one part of the show that was creating a lack of an emotional connection. How we view the series can be defined by issues like genre which are inherent to the text itself, or issues like viewing patterns which are entirely extratextual but can define one’s experience with the text. My brother, for example, watched the season on a staggered schedule of short marathons, while my parents watched it on a weekly basis; as a result, they remembered different things, retaining different parts of the show that were highlighted by their personal experience with the text.

I raise all of these points because after a season of open interpretation, at least for those who hadn’t read the books, there is something almost prescriptive about “Fire and Blood.” While “Baelor” delivered a fatal twist, and suggested a certain degree of carnage to come in the weeks ahead, “Fire and Blood” steps back to serve as a more traditional denouement, laying out the various threads which will be followed into a second season. Rightly treating the fate of Ned Stark as the season’s climax, it seeks to explore the scenario that Mirri Maz Duur lays out to Dany early in the episode: what is the worth of each of these characters and these storylines in light of recent events? It’s a moment where the show actually has to step forward and proclaim its identity in order to convince the skeptics that this is a show worth watching, and to convince the believers that their faith has not been misplaced as the show transitions into the next stage of its narrative.

“Fire and Blood” doesn’t beat around the bush: it shows its hand from its bloody opening to its fiery conclusion, laying out a pretty detailed framework for what the second season of the show will look like. However, it never feels like an artificial framework, and that sense of interpretation never disappears even as the storyline becomes less open-ended. Serving as a fitting bookend to what I personally feel was a very strong first season, “Fire and Blood” reinforces central themes and delivers on what matters most: reminding us why these characters are following the path they’re on, and informing us why we want to follow that path next season.

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Game of Thrones – “Baelor”

“Baelor”

June 12th, 2011

“I learned how to die a long time ago.”

It has been a bit of an adventure tiptoeing around the events of “Baelor” over the past eight weeks.

It’s been a bit of a game, honestly – from the moment the show was announced, people who had read the books were well aware that this episode was going to come as a shock to many viewers. This was the moment when the show was going to be fully transformed from a story about action to a story about consequences, and the point at which the series would serve notice to new viewers that this is truly a no holds barred narrative.

On some level, I don’t know if I have anything significant to add to this discussion: as someone who read the books, I knew every beat this episode was going to play out, and can really only speak to execution as opposed to conception. The real interest for me is in how those without knowledge of the books respond to this particular development, and how it alters their conception of the series. While I don’t want to speak for them, I am willing to say that “Baelor” was very elegant in its formation, rightly framing the episode as a sort of memorial to that which we lose at episode’s end.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll save my other thoughts for after the break so that I can finally talk about this without fear of spoiling anyone.

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Game of Thrones – “The Pointy End”

“The Pointy End”

June 5th, 2011

“Written by George R.R. Martin”

The credits for Game of Thrones has always read “Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss,” but the question of authorship has always been considerably more complicated. The fact is that this is very clearly George R.R. Martin’s world, and George R.R. Martin’s characters, and even George R.R. Martin’s story – while we can certainly argue that Benioff and Weiss have taken certain liberties, adding scenes and shifting character allegiances, it has not utterly transformed Martin’s vision. And yet, at the same time, we can’t say that this is Martin’s show, as he was ancillary to the myriad of decisions which move beyond the initial creation to the execution and design. A Song of Ice and Fire may be his story, but Game of Thrones is not his television show, and there’s an odd shared ownership of Westeros that has been evident throughout the season.

I say evident, mind you, and not problematic. The scenes that have been added have been strong, and the decisions made have been mostly logical if not necessarily ideal in every instance (or for every fan). However, here you have an instance where the person doing the adaptation is Martin himself, given a chance to return to key moments and characters and tell the same story all over again. And yet, he’s now working within someone else’s show even when he’s working within his own story, an intriguing scenario that I thought going in might make for an intriguing case study.

However, there’s honestly nothing to really see here: while this is a very strong outing, and maintains the momentum from last week’s episode quite brilliantly even as it hits the fast forward button on the narrative action (and thus risks missing key pieces of the puzzle), I don’t think we see some sort of crisis of authorship. Martin’s return coincides with the period where exposition goes out the window, and where major story events are starting to take shape. It is a period where characters are making decisions instead of pondering them, and where key themes are beginning to filter throughout the storylines at a rapid pace, and so any authorship is swallowed up by the sheer presence of the realm and those outside its borders who threaten it.

In other words, it’s just as Martin intended it, and thus as Benioff and Weiss intended it as well.

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Game of Thrones – “You Win or You Die”

“You Win or You Die”

May 29th, 2011

“It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on.”

[You can also hear additional thoughts on this episode in a special edition of the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast that I participated in.]

[Also, for more on “Sexposition,” check out my review of Season 2, Episode 2, “The Night Lands”]

There has been a lot of conversation surrounding the question of exposition with Game of Thrones, understandable given the high volume of material that has been revealed through conversations in an effort to capture the complexity of George R.R. Martin’s world.

“You Win or You Die” is not particularly exposition heavy, although there is one example that I will break down in greater detail, but the function of exposition is to provide a sense of history and context and I would argue that this episode is very interested in this idea. Some have argued that flashbacks might be considered another way to provide insight into history, and that it would beat the somewhat sloppy exposition that has to this point been deployed, but I would ask this: is the point of exposition to inform or remind the audience of particular information, or is it designed to inform the audience that the particular information in question is, in fact, important enough to be discussed in this context?

The answer, as always, is that it is meant to function as both, but I think those decrying the very existence of exposition in its current form should consider the latter more carefully. The role of history within this world is an important theme that is highlighted in “You Win or You Die,” as various threads comes to a point where the past is either given new meaning or forgotten entirely.

Or, rather, forgotten in some circles and remembered in others.

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