“A Fistful of Paintballs”
May 5th, 2011
“That was a game. This is paintball.”
“A Fistful of Paintballs” is unquestionably a sequel to “Modern Warfare,” but I’d argue that it’s a fundamentally different episode on some level.
It follows the same basic principle from a story perspective: the school’s descent into paintball-related madness brings out some of the pre-existing relationships between the characters, specifically focused on Britta and Jeff’s consummation of their ongoing sexual tension. However, in terms of the actual methodology of the episode, it was a fairly extensive collection of pop culture references which only occasionally connected with the show’s overall mythology.
Now that the show is ending its second season, “A Fistful of Paintballs” is much more interconnected with ongoing storylines, building much of its structure around the season’s central conflict. While I have had my issues with how Pierce has been portrayed this season, believing that the character’s unpleasantness has not been funny enough to justify its omnipresent nature, this episode is much stronger in its use of the power structures within the latest paintball-based warzone to draw out ongoing character relationships.
With a more straightforward pop culture reference point paired with a more complex serialized component, “A Fistful of Paintballs” is the logical maturation of the “Modern Warfare”-template and a strong first half of what feels like a suitably strong finale.
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.
“Father Frank, Full of Grace”
March 27th, 2011
By the conclusion of its first season, I would argue that Showtime’s Shameless found something of an identity independent of its British predecessor. This is not to say that the show is better or worse, something I can’t judge given that I’ve seen only brief glimpses of the British series, but I felt as though the first season seemed driven by characters more than versions of characters. Between the work of Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan and Emma Kenney, the Gallagher siblings feel as though they (if not necessarily the world they inhabit) are real people who I want to see face the challenges that result from their position. Their story never felt like we were seeing someone else’s story transposed onto these characters, as each performer seemed to be driving the characterization as much as any sort of influence from across the pond.
That is a testament to the strength of the cast, and the writers for working with them, but it is only one component of the series’ future. The other side, the part where we consider the world that John Wells and Paul Abbott have created in Shameless’ Chicago, seems problematic as the show heads into an extended hiatus before a second season. “Father Frank, Full of Grace” has some strong moments, but it has already put into motion an enormously problematic return to the status quo which threatens to undermine whatever strong character work might be done.
Or, to put it in other words, it’s already threatening to be just like every other problematic Showtime series.
March 21st, 2011
“Is that why I’m here? To tell stories?”
In reviewing last week’s penultimate episode of MTV’s Skins, “Tara,” at The A.V. Club, I sort of offered my general take on the show thus far: while it has not lived up to the British original, it has made enough variations to define itself as largely independent from that series’ successes and failures. While it remained uneven throughout its run, things started to gel towards the end: actors improved, plots became more interesting, and the branching out into Tara’s perspective was a welcome departure from the British model.
Of course, just because the show is now being considered largely based on its own standards does not mean it won’t fail to live up to those standards in “Eura/Everyone.” In some ways, the finale is the ultimate test: as stories reach what more or less resemble conclusions, the strength of the series’ storytelling is challenged. Skins is a show that tells stories by limiting its perspective, as individual episodes are framed by one narrative while intersecting with others. As a result, an episode like “Eura/Everyone” where the frame character is notable in her absence asks the series’ collective cast to fill in the gaps, never quite allowing any one of them to fully take over (as evidenced by the “Everyone” side of the title).
Ideally, the characters will have taken on such a complexity that the ensemble feel should feel like a culmination of a season’s worth of development. More realistically, however, “Eura/Everyone” will reinforce the hierarchy between characters, their “resolutions” revealing which of them became three-dimensional teenagers and which were left to feel like characters in a story.
That hierarchy is strikingly evident in this finale, although I’d argue that “Eura/Everyone” is more successful than not when it counts the most.
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]
December 1st, 2010
In plotting the first season of Terriers, Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin made two key decisions which shaped the series into one of the year’s finest.
The first was their willingness to resist creating a season-long arc: after the first four or five episodes seemed to be towards some larger conspiracy, the show risked frustrating viewers by pulling up before things became too complicated. In an age where hyper-serialization is highly valued, the decision seemed strange until we saw the result. The residual energy from the near-miss mythology lingered in the subsequent standalones, as unfinished business meant a constant threat of its return – when it did return in “Asunder,” there were more pieces to the puzzle, and the re-entry was surprisingly elegant.
The second was that, throughout the various ups and downs, the show never concretely positioned its heroes within any definitive morality. While we could argue that Hank and Britt are inherently good men, their willingness to do petty, despicable, and reckless things has been refreshing. Hank’s jealousy has never been romanticized, and Britt’s violent outbursts have never been pitched as heroic; while we understand why they do the things they do, we are never asked to agree with them, and the result is two characters who we can relate to even when we don’t want to. They’re characters we like even in their darkest moments, but characters that we don’t necessarily forgive after the fact. They are characters that feel real, and thus characters that we become connected with.
“Hail Mary,” coming off of the rollercoast that was “Quid Pro Quo,” is hopelessly hopeful. Following the earlier pattern, it concludes stories without actually concluding them, leaving threads of story that can be picked up at a later date. It provides a sense of future that it must subsequently tear away, reunions that are either years or weeks too late. While you could technically argue that this is a happy ending, a sort of scrappy P.I. Casablanca, in truth the ending is as the season was: an exercise in dynamic delay, a true marvel of narrative form.
And a show that simply cannot be allowed to ride off into the sunset.
November 30th, 2010
Look, let’s get it out of the way: Sons of Anarchy was very far from the best show on television this fall. It was a season with a story to tell which seemed completely unwilling to tell that story, and when it finally got down to business it seemed as if everything was expedited and choppy. For a series that once delivered what I would describe as sick, twisted poetry, the third season lacked both rhyme and reason. While I perhaps understood what Kurt Sutter was going for by the time we reached the season’s penultimate episode, nothing about “June Wedding” made those previous episodes any more satisfying. In fact, the show sort of felt like it was following Stahl’s example: when you think a situation is going south, or you’re tired of playing a certain angle, you just shoot someone and call it a day.
I have some fundamental issues with the idea that Stahl could even come close to getting away with what she did in “June Wedding,” and the degree to which Stahl’s sociopathic behavior is being used to fuel the march towards the season’s conclusion, to the point where I’ve officially written off this season of television. Last week’s episode indicated to me that whatever Sutter was selling this year, it simply was not the show I want Sons of Anarchy to be, or the show that it had the potential to be coming out of its incredibly strong (and cohesive) second season.
In advance of watching “NS,” I had heard the buzz: this was a “return to form.” However, as Cory Barker wrote about earlier, the degree to which a solid finale (which “NS” arguably is) can overwrite previous struggles is fairly limited. And yet, I had no expectations that a legitimately enjoyable 90 minutes of television would actually make the season’s problems more apparent. “NS” is a smart episode of television which only confirms that the show’s third season was a wild miscalculation, an absolute failure of “Serial Narrative 101” that traveled halfway around the world and only got a lousy t-shirt with a bundle of letters hidden in it which only confirmed presumed details from the distant past.
I’m a bit busy now, though, to delve into all of the reasons why the season fell apart. I plan to come back to it at a later date, perhaps early next week, but for now I want to take “NS” as what it truly is: a launching pad to the future, and an opportunity for the series to move on with something resembling momentum.
Because on that level, “NS” is more or less a success.
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 12th, 2010
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.
As you may well have noticed, the conclusion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season within the Cultural Catchup Project has been a bit of an anti-climax, if only because of the long delays as we moved towards the finale. In fact, it was a good thing that the Netflix episodes had the “Previously On” segments intact, because I think there would have been some details (like, for example, the “Knights that say Key”) which would have been initially befuddling.
I think, though, that it’s also partially the fact that the fifth season doesn’t exactly follow a logical narrative pattern. I want to talk about both “Spiral” and “The Weight of the World,” but I will likely spend more time on “The Gift” due to its climactic qualities, or its somewhat sudden climactic qualities. I like Glory just fine, and think the season as a whole was quite effective, but we cannot deny that the overarching plot of the season sort of sat still for the back nine or so. Mind you, that was the period where Buffy was preoccupied with her mother’s death, so it’s not as if the show was boring or uninteresting during that period, but it sort of made the conclusion seem a bit sudden (although it does develop over the course of the last few episodes).
In other words, the challenge of “The Gift” (and the episodes before it) was bringing the seasonal arc to its conclusion in a way which ties it to the characters’ personal journeys over the course of that season, overcoming the sense that Glory’s story arc did not necessarily follow a traditional rising action pattern. And while I think that it lacks the sense of climax prevalent in “Becoming” or “Graduation Day,” I think the fifth season finale lives up to this task: it may not be the perfect conclusion to the season, or the perfect note for these characters, but it delivers a meaningful hour of television which demonstrates the complexity (or, depending on your point of view, the flaws) of the series’post-high school structure.
Heating Up Leftovers: Season 7 Finale
September 15th, 2010
Technically speaking, every Top Chef finale is meant to stand alone – for the remaining chefs, it all comes down to the meal of their lives. However, for the audience sitting at home the finale is the end of a journey, and usually the end of a season of narratives; whether they be rivalries or redemptive arcs, there should be some sort of story coming to an end during each season of the show.
However, Top Chef D.C. never quite found a narrative that it knew how to work with, and the finale is a perfect example of that. Despite the fact that there were a number of potential narratives to build upon, the finale was left to stand entirely on its own without any real connection to previous outings. Sure, the surefire rivalry ended when Kenny left early, but after last season’s finale felt like the show finally getting the showdown we had all been waiting for, the showdown between Angelo, Ed and Kevin felt like leftovers, except that they were leftovers that you don’t remember having but still seem old and tired regardless.
And while the cooking itself wasn’t impacted by this particular concern, my emotional attachment to the conclusion most definitely was.