September 14, 2018 · 12:00 pm
When American Vandal debuted last fall, it was a surprise: the show launched with little fanfare, and read as a sketch concept more than a television series. But if there were any questions about whether a satire of true crime documentaries focused on phallic high school vandalism could sustain a season of television, American Vandal answered them with an affirmative yes. Not only did the series find plenty of humor in the spray-painted dicks and the lead suspect Dylan Maxwell, but it also wove a complex story about the students who were documenting the attempts to exonerate him, eventually landing on some really honestly quite profound observations about both the ethics of true crime investigations and the daily challenge of existing as a high school student in our contemporary moment. That it did so while committing to the verisimilitude of its diegetic social media posts may have been what burrowed it straight into my heart, but the way the series unraveled into a quite meaningful study of adolescence made it one of my favorite shows of last year, and earned it a Peabody Award this Spring.
The idea of a second season came with a new set of questions, however. Although some (wrongly) insist that the first season came to an ambiguous ending, the story of Dylan Maxwell and “Who Drew The Dicks?” ultimately did end, meaning that the show moving forward would need to approach itself as a seasonal anthology series, wherein each season focuses on a different crime. Given that the true crime documentary genre remains incredibly successful, and has various iterations and formats that can be used to fuel further satire, I can see why all parties—Netflix with a successful series with young demos, CBS looking to leverage that success to increase their license fees as the show’s production studio, the producers thinking about ideas and styles they wanted to explore—would be willing to move forward with a second season.
Photo: Scott Patrick Green / Netflix
American Vandal season two taps into the same ideas that made the first season so surprisingly profound, telling another story about the minefield of modern high school existence told through a juvenile (in this case scatological) criminal act, this time at a Catholic high school in Washington. But in its efforts to try to replicate the success of the first season, the producers decided to retain a key piece of continuity: the men behind the camera, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, who travel to Saint Bernardine High School to produce the second season of American Vandal as their senior project. Given how critical Peter’s choices were in the consequences of the production of the documentary in season one, and how much Peter and Sam’s relationship fueled the later drama in that season, I saw the choice to retain the two filmmakers as an effort to tap into the interconnectivity that made the first season resonate the way it did.
Which is why it was so disappointing when I reached the end of the second season and realized that Peter and Sam might as well have not even been involved.
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July 16, 2016 · 10:43 pm
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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May 16, 2016 · 11:48 pm
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:
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.
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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February 24, 2016 · 10:58 pm
A lot of television criticism becomes a critique of execution. Good ideas are put forward, but something’s off: a performance doesn’t quite land, the character logic doesn’t quite track, or limitations of budget or time—basic realities of making broadcast television—stand in the way of telling the story the way they wanted to.
But then you have cases like tonight’s American Crime, which I believe is executing the story it wants to tell at a high level. It’s just not the story I thought they were telling, and dramatically alters the scale and focus of the show in ways that in my experience undercut what made the show so compelling earlier in the season.
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August 7, 2014 · 9:00 am
During Hulu’s presentations during this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, there was something new for the streaming service: shows going into their second seasons. After their first original scripted series Battleground came and went without even an official cancellation, the Hulu development process was something of a mystery, with most of their multi-season exclusive content coming through international licensing deals. And so 2013 was a big year for the company, as they debuted and renewed their first three series: animated series The Awesomes, Latino-focused teen soap opera East Los High, and improv comedy western Quick Draw, created by John Lehr and Nancy Hower, which debuts its second season on Hulu today.
The rise in streaming services has complicated the traditional way we measure television success, requiring new logics for why a show earns a second season given that we’re dealing with new data sets and lack the traditional data set—Nielsen ratings—that we consider more heavily in such analysis. As a result, I spoke with Lehr regarding the experience of “getting renewed” at Hulu, and the way the experience both does and does not reflect the traditional process with a broadcast network or cable channel, in addition to his experience as the creator of a show that lives in this still-emergent televisual space online.
Cultural Learnings: So when did you know you were getting a second season?
John Lehr: It was crazy. It was unlike any pickup I’ve ever experienced. We literally turned in the final hard drive for the first season, and the next day got the pickup for season two, which was just like—psychologically—“Yay! We’re employed!” Because usually it’s nailbiting, and that’s just horrible when you’re waiting. But on the creative side too, we dove right in that day and started thinking about season two. So I think it really helps in terms of the quality as well, because it gives us more time, and more time is always a good thing—well, not always, but in our case it is.
Given that you aren’t seeing traditional ratings, and Hulu had never renewed a series until after you premiered, did you have any idea going into the process what it would take to get a season two?
[Laughs] You know, that is an intriguing question. We didn’t know. I mean, we knew that no matter what, it’s about viewers—whether you’re on network, cable, or broadband, it’s all the same. It’s just “Do people want to watch this show, and how many of them are watching, and who are they, and what is their age, and what kind of things do they buy?” That doesn’t change. You don’t have the Nielsens, but somewhere there’s a counter going on, or some sort of understanding of how many people are watching this thing. And from the get-go, we were shocked at the response we were getting from Hulu and from people online about how many people liked the show, so almost out of the gate our Facebook blew up, there were tumblr pages. The response from fans was really, really good.
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December 17, 2012 · 2:35 am
December 16th, 2012
When Homeland’s first season ended, it offered what some viewed as a clean slate: Carrie’s memory was wiped, Brody’s secret was safe, and it seemed to set the table for everything to go back to normal as though nothing had ever happened. And when the second season began, there was certainly some semblance of stability, every character going on with the new version of their lives.
“The Choice” draws a similar picture of the post-Nazir era for Brody and Carrie, in that they believe they have a clean slate, that this is the second chance Carrie referred to earlier this season in the motel room. And yet just as the early part of this season exploded any sense of stability more quickly than we would have imagined heading into the season, so too does any post-Nazir calm disappear with great efficiency.
It’s a thematic parallel that fell into place for me as I was watching the finale, one which did little to assuage my frustrations with a central principle of the season but did much to piece together how and why certain storylines were constructed leading up to this point. The season makes more sense as a result of the events in “The Choice,” but it didn’t necessarily become any more successful than the mixed bad heading into the finale, capping off a season of television that I admire for its commitment and question for its choices.
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September 30, 2012 · 10:00 pm
September 30th, 2012
Carrie’s life is just getting back on track when we rejoin her narrative. She’s living in her sister’s house, spending time with the family and teaching English as a Second Language. And so when the CIA comes calling, asking her to fly to Lebanon and engage a former contact, it asks her to return to the life she’s been trying to avoid.
Similarly, Brody is moving forward with his life as a congressman hoping that his relationship with Abu Nazir won’t become an active part in his life. He wants to believe that his subtle influence of policy is his role in the larger game, that his way of protecting Isa’s memory is to find ways to keep the same kind of attack from happening again. And so when he is contacted by one of Abu Nazir’s people to play a role in the planned attack in retaliation for the Israeli strikes on Iran, he’s forced back to that moment when he almost pulled the trigger. There, he was killing men responsible for the killing of innocents; now, he’s being asked to play a role in the killing of innocents in response.
“The Smile” asks us who these characters are in light of these new circumstances, testing their new identities based on their old lives. Does Brody still believe what he used to believe? Does Carrie still desire to live on the edge even once she’s spent time on stable ground? By combining the introduction of the season’s over-arching plot with this character study, “The Smile” serves as the perfect reintroduction to this world and the characters operating within it.
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Filed under Homeland
Tagged as Analysis, Beirut, Brody, Carrie, Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Dana, Episode 1, Estes, Lebanon, Muslim, Review, Saul, Season 2, Season Premiere, Showtime, The Smile
June 27, 2012 · 9:00 am
Awkward. has been successful with MTV’s key market, drawing significant fan response for its relatable teen characters among young female demographics. It’s a show that fits comfortably into expectations for a show in the age of social media, eminently hashtaggable, and it’s become a key cornerstone in the channel’s original programming efforts.
However, it would be wrong to reduce Awkward. to its hashtags. In a diverse first season, creator/showrunner Lauren Iungerich explored a wide range of storylines, balanced characters from different age groups, and successfully managed to keep a love triangle from becoming either a foregone conclusion or a waste of time.
In this second part of my conversation with Iungerich—you can find Part One here—we explore what worked in Awkward.’s first season, how that’s changing in the second season, and a slight digression into the show’s southern California setting.
Is there a story in Awkward.’s first season that you felt best captured the show you were trying to make? The moment where it all clicked for you?
LI: The moment in “Queen Bee-atches” with Sadie, where we really sort of humanize her, where we understand her powerlessness to her weight, was something I was really proud of. The moment in “Fateful” where Lacey gives her daughter that dress, that sort of recognition of acceptance of her kid, and realizing she had made a lot of mistakes. The journey of Lacey in the first season was about going through the five stages of grief, and that was her coming to that phase of acceptance, of realizing how much she loved her daughter, and how precious she was. In “My Super Bittersweet Sixteen” when Matty shows up at the back door on her birthday, on this terrible birthday, and wants to be more than her friend. That is such a romantic tenet. And Dead Stacy [in “Over My Dead Body”], being able to take something and not make a particular TV trope, to do something that hadn’t been done before. That’s a real tenet of our show: we try not to do anything that’s super tropey.
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Filed under Awkward.
Tagged as Interview, Lauren Iungerich, Love Triangle, MTV, Palos Verdes, Season 2, Setting, Team Jake, Team Matty, Television, TV
June 3, 2012 · 10:36 pm
June 3rd, 2012
“You’re not the man you’re pretending to be. Not yet.”
Last season, Game of Thrones ended its penultimate episode with a shocking moment. With the swing of a sword, Eddard Stark was dead, and the ecosystem of the series had changed forever. The finale, “Fire and Blood” was largely left to pick up the narrative pieces that were left behind, selling viewers on a show without its lead. As a result, last season’s finale became about journeys forward: Tyrion’s journey as the King’s Hand, Robb’s journey as King in the North, Dany’s journey as the Mother of Dragons, Arya’s journey back north with Yoren, Bran’s journey as the Lord of Winterfell, and Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall with the Night’s Watch.
By comparison, “Valar Morghulis” has a greater burden to resolve ongoing storylines, with more of the season’s climax left to be explored given the contained explosiveness of last week’s “Blackwater.” While any simplistic analysis of the season’s narrative would identify the battle in Blackwater Bay as the season’s climax, the disjointed nature of the various journeys means that each character has been headed towards their own climaxes which were promptly delayed by last week’s events. Dany is still looking for her dragons, Jon is still a captive of the Wildlings, Arya is on the run from Harrenhal, and Bran remains hidden in his own home as Theon reigns over Winterfell. And these are only the storylines that we could identify most cleanly, as we could also consider Jaime and Brienne’s journey, or Robb’s relationship with Talisa, or any number of other threads that “Valar Morghulis” is expected to contend with.
For the most part, however, “Valar Morghulis” follows the example of last year’s finale, largely focusing on pivoting towards future storylines. This is not to say that it is anti-climactic, with Dany’s storyline in particular reaching a strong conclusion and the final moments of the episode delivering the equivalent thrill to last season’s reveal of Dany walking out of the fire with her dragons around her. Indeed, both episodes also spent a lot of time with characters taking stock of what has happened, settling on a course for the future, and then largely disappearing as other storylines took over.
The difference, though, is that there is something more substantial to take stock of. These characters are all older, mostly wiser, and each more clearly placed on a particular path. If last season’s finale was designed to solidify that these characters are not simply meant to live normal lives, consigned to a life at the heart of this conflict whether or not they choose that life, “Valar Morghulis” was about how that experience has changed them, and how the beginnings of their journey will prepare them for what’s to come.
It may be the same structure, in other words, but the result is a stronger finale, and a good burst of momentum into a third season.
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Filed under Game of Thrones
Tagged as A Song of Ice and Fire, Adapation, Analysis, Arya, Brienne, Daenerys, Dany, Episode 10, HBO, House of the Undying, Jaime, Jon Snow, Power, Review, Robb, Sansa, Season 2, Season Finale, Syrio, Television, TV, Tyrion, Tywin, Valar Morghulis
May 27, 2012 · 9:53 pm
May 27th, 2012
“The worst ones always live.”
The discourse around this week’s episode of Game of Thrones has been fascinating to watch. For fans of the series, particularly those with familiarity with George R. R. Martin’s novels, “Blackwater” was always going to be the season’s high point: scripted by Martin himself, and focusing on a large-scale battle central to A Clash of Kings (and A Song of Ice and Fire as a whole), no fan of the series needed to be convinced to tune into this particular hour.
And yet HBO has very much promoted the episode as though people needed convincing. Press were alerted to an extended promo in advance of last week’s episode, an interview with producers Benioff and Weiss hit Entertainment Weekly as soon as “The Prince of Winterfell” concluded, and the Game of Thrones twitter account has been pushing the “#Blackwater” hashtag throughout the week, retweeting responses from those anticipating the episode.
I’ve found all of this fascinating because this feels strange when promoting the ninth episode of the second season of a television show. While this promotion serves the show’s fanbase, building further anticipation and increasing engagement and attachment to the series among those fans (as the Twitter account aims to do every week), it seems hard to imagine that the expanded discourse around this episode would convince anyone who hasn’t seen the previous eighteen episodes to tune into this one. HBO’s promotions have positioned “Blackwater” as “Event Television”—or perhaps “Event NOT Television” if we want to get take their slogan at its word—rather than simply an eventful episode of Game of Thrones, placing further expectation on an episode that was already burdened with both fan anticipation and the narrative pressure of serving as the season’s penultimate hour.
“Blackwater” answers these expectations by steering away from most of them. Isolating Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing and the storylines found within the city, the series tells a contained story about a war and the people who fight it. It would be a dangerous move if the episode had disappointed on that front, abandoning the other half-dozen narrative threads left hanging at the end of last week’s hour, but “Blackwater” is a tense, thrilling hour of television that lives up to its event billing and delays—rather than interrupting—the narrative climaxes which will now carry into next week’s finale.
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Filed under Game of Thrones
Tagged as Analysis, Battle of Blackwater Bay, Blackwater, Blackwater Review, Bronn, Cersei, Episode 9, George R.R. Martin, GoT, Review, Sansa, Season 2, Television, The Hound, The Rains of Castamere, TV, Tyrion, Wildfire