April 12, 2015 · 9:22 pm
“The Wars To Come”
April 12, 2015
Over the past four seasons, I’ve very much enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones here at Cultural Learnings, and have been privileged to have a wide audience for those reviews. The subsequent conversations have been among my most rewarding, and I want to thank everyone who has read, commented, or otherwise engaged with my reviews during that period.
However, I was given the opportunity to take over from my friend and former colleague Emily VanDerWerff writing the “Experts” reviews for The A.V. Club, and therefore there will be no more reviews here at Cultural Learnings. It also means that if you are someone who has not read the books, these reviews may potentially be something you do not want to read—while they will not explicitly spoil future events, they are written for those who know what’s coming, and may occasionally make references to foreshadowing and other forward-looking developments. I apologize for this, but it’s a byproduct of the opportunity.
However, given that the comments can be a bit more fast and furious over there, I will be posting a link to the review each week, and I encourage anyone with any specific questions or comments to leave them here, and I’m happy to create a side dialogue if anyone desires it. Thanks for reading, and hopefully you’ll still find something of value in the new reviews in the new location.
Game of Thrones (experts): “The Wars To Come”
“We have reached a stage where reader and non-reader are closer than ever before. Each group comes to the text with similar levels of expectation, shaped by their respective understandings of this world and its characters. Readers, admittedly, still come with expectations that are based on what unfolds in the novels past this point, but those expectations have been destabilized such that some of them hold no clear authority over the expectations that non-readers have developed on their own. Where once readers had lengthy emotional connections to the text that outstripped those only recently encountering the story, non-readers may now have been diehard fans for four years, growing in number as the show evolved into a mainstream phenomenon. And while there are more readers than ever before (I certainly didn’t use to see people reading the books on public transit before it premiered), they’re a different kind of reader, one for whom the show was likely the entry point.”
April 6, 2014 · 8:57 pm
April 6th, 2014
“Killed the right people, I suppose.”
The beginning of Game of Thrones’ fourth season is caught in evaluative limbo.
We are past the point where it is a critic’s job to tell you what Game of Thrones is. At this stage, the show is the show, and nothing in the first three episodes of the season—which were sent to critics—changes that. To write an advance review of a season of Game of Thrones is less about evaluating its quality and more about offering vague previews of what’s to come for those who haven’t read the books but nonetheless want some sense of where their favorite characters are headed in the early-going, or for those who’ve read the books and want a basic gutcheck on how certain details were translated. If something in these first three episodes actually changes someone’s mind regarding the series, it would shock me not unlike the Red Wedding shocked non-readers.
This might be the last time I say this. The fourth season marks the first that will begin to actively and aggressively merge material from multiple books, likely resulting in some of the most substantial deviations from the source material to date. As someone whose interest in writing about the show comes in large part based on how the series approaches narratives, characters, and themes from the book in a different medium, we are on the verge of one of the most exciting periods for the series, one where the discourse will take on considerably higher stakes. Will readers embrace the changes? Will non-readers even notice that something is amiss?
“Two Swords” marks the calm before the storm, hence the evaluative limbo—although we are approaching the moment when I expect we’ll see far more interesting ranges of critical response to the series, the season premiere has the series firmly in transition, still holding onto the familiar instability we’ve come to understand. It’s a delicate transition, mind you, and one that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—who doubles as director—handle extremely well, but it’s ultimately a familiar feeling returning to Westeros in season four.
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Filed under Game of Thrones
Tagged as Analysis, Arya, Episode 1, HBO, Jaime, Needle, Nudity, Oberyn Martell, Review, Season 4, Season Premiere, Television, The Hound, TV, Two Swords, Tyrion
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
April 1, 2012 · 8:54 pm
“The North Remembers”
April 1st, 2012
“For the night is dark and full of terrors.”
Game of Thrones is a very different show now than it was when the first season began last April. “Winter is Coming,” the series premiere, was an introduction to the world of Westeros, the characters who inhabit it, and the basic principles of honor which would be torn asunder over the course of the next ten episodes. It was a hint at the dangers that lurked beyond the wall, a glimpse of the paths being forged for those south of it, and a beginning of what would become a much larger, and on some level never-ending, journey.
By comparison, “The North Remembers” tells a very different story. Those dangers are now more real, those paths well trodden, and that journey more expansive than that first episode could have established. Where there was one king there are now four, each staking a claim on power that might well lie in the hands of those who wear no crown and yet play their games behind the scenes, and there are more Kings and Queens waiting in the wings for their opportunity to strike in the future.
However, the strategies of these two episodes are nearly identical, each tasked with providing a bird’s eye – or, rather, comet’s eye – view of the narrative map of the series as it stands at this very moment. While “Winter is Coming” was introducing characters for the first time, “The North Remembers” is fittingly enough about restoring the audience’s memory. Using similar strategies to the series premiere, the episode drops in on the various story threads we left back in June, a helpful reminder for those who haven’t revisited the first season on DVD or HBO Go.
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Filed under Game of Thrones
Tagged as Analysis, Arya Stark, Comet, Daenerys Targaryen, Direwolves, Episode 1, HBO, Jon Snow, Premiere, Review, Season 2, Season Premiere, Television, The North Remembers, TV, Tyrion Lannister
September 6, 2011 · 1:34 am
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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Filed under Sons of Anarchy
Tagged as Analysis, FX, Kurt Sutter, Preview, Ray McKinnon, Review, Rockmund Dunbar, Season 4, Season Premiere, Television, TV
July 17, 2011 · 11:32 pm
July 17th, 2011
It has been over thirteen months since Breaking Bad finished its third season, which isn’t something that happens all that often. Of course, AMC will be dealing with this issue twice in one year when Mad Men returns early next year, but that show didn’t leave on an arresting cliffhanger. “Full Measure” was a thrilling hour of television, creating suspense through uncertainty as opposed to mystery. We know what happened, and the sequence of events that allowed it to happen were delineated without any sudden twists or turns, but the finale left us with a sense of disbelief: we were haunted by that final image more than we were shocked by it, and we desired its conclusion less to have something resolved and more to see something begin.
“Box Cutter” picks up where “Full Measure” left off, although not immediately. The episode is very interested in the dramatic power of delay, lingering in those moments of waiting for the other shoe to fall. It doesn’t seek to surprise us so much as it seeks to make us reconsider: it knows we spent a year thinking about the various possibilities, so it lays out a likely scenario and then basically sits back and lets our own anxiety drive this story forward. The result is bracing in its minimalism if a wee bit writerly, further cementing Breaking Bad’s reputation as one of the most distinctive dramas on television.
And, yes, one of its finest as well.
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Filed under Breaking Bad
Tagged as Aaron Paul, AMC, Analysis, Anna Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, Box Cutter, Bryan Cranston, Cliffhanger, Dave Costabile, Dean Norris, Episode 1, Gale, Giancarlo Esposito, Gus, Hank, Jesse, Mike, Premiere, Review, Saul, Season 4, Season Premiere, Skyler, Television, TV, Vince Gilligan, Walt
July 9, 2011 · 1:41 am
“The New World”
July 8th, 2011
It’s a familiar story by now: like a large number of other critics, Torchwood was pretty far off my radar until Children of Earth (which I reviewed here), the show’s third series/season that took the critical world by storm. In fact, I saw Children of Earth before I started watching Doctor Who, so it also stood as my first engagement with Russell T. Davies and the somewhat spirited debate that surrounds his televisual output.
Miracle Day, the subtitle for the show’s fourth series/season (although I guess season might be more apt given that it is aired in the U.S. ahead of its U.K. premiere), comes with a great deal more baggage. While I believe Children of Earth would stand on its own merit, I do think that the element of surprise was part of its appeal two years ago. Not many shows suddenly make a dramatic leap in quality in their third season, and the unique miniseries structure (five parts airing over five days) made for a real sense of “Event” programming that stood out in the crowd. It wasn’t just that Children of Earth was good, it was that it seemed perfectly designed to make a real statement, a statement that creates definite expectations for Miracle Day.
In truth, those expectations are sort of unfair for two reasons. The first is that the show is returning to a weekly format, and a ten-episode format, which means that the pacing of the show will be dramatically different – this isn’t going to come out of the gates with the same swagger, which will likely dampen its impact. The second, meanwhile, is just a matter of hype: thanks to the increased attention created by Starz’s involvement in the production and critical appreciation of Children of Earth, this project has been on the North American cultural radar. Going into tonight’s premiere, I pretty much knew everything that was going to happen, meaning that “edge of your seat” was transformed into a much more passive viewing experience.
This is not to say that “The New World” isn’t good television, or that the show is heading in a weak direction, but there’s just nothing here to really make us sit up and take notice – instead, we’re meant to sit back and enjoy the ride, which does reveal some of the procedural mechanisms that get Miracle Day off and running…or, more accurately, jogging. However, at the same time, there are some questions related to the production of the miniseries that are somewhat intriguing in their deployment here, which is what I want to discuss in relation to tonight’s premiere.
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Filed under Torchwood
Tagged as America, Analysis, BBC, Bridge, Captain Jack Harkness, Children of Earth, CIA, Co-Production, Episode 1, Gwen Cooper, Mekhi Phifer, Miracle Day, Review, Rex, Russell T. Davies, Season 4, Season Premiere, Series Premiere, Starz, Television, The New World, TV, Wales
May 18, 2011 · 6:42 pm
May 18th, 2011
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.
There’s a bit of whiplash in covering “Bargaining” and “Heartthrob” back-to-back. Whereas Buffy seems to be heading into a period of intense transition, dealing with a whole lot of plot development that necessitates an eventful and complicated premiere, Angel is in a far more stable place without any of the same broad upheaval.
This may be considered a viable reason to watch the two series entirely separately, but for me it offers a nice juxtaposition that does much to highlight the strengths of both series, and the strengths of Angel in particular. While “Heartthrob” ends up being pretty simple, and more than a bit on the nose in regards to its central theme, I think there’s an economy to the storytelling that is equally matched with a certain swagger (which was understandably absent in “Bargaining”). While Greenwalt has to deal with questions of grief after the conclusion of Buffy’s fifth season, he’s far enough removed to be able to have a bit of fun at the same time.
Although “Heartthrob” may not have the same emotional resonance of “Bargaining,” it also feels more finely tuned in its shorter running time and in its thematically (rather than narratively) convenient standalone storyline which also proves a stealth transition into the budding mythology introduced at episode’s end. “Heartthrob” is in no position to become an all-time great episode of the series, at least based on what I’ve seen of the series thus far, but it quite comfortably lives in this particular moment while laying the groundwork for the season that comes.
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Filed under Cultural Catchup Project
Tagged as Amy Acker, Analysis, Angel, Buffy, Charisma Carpenter, Cordelia, Darla, David Boreanaz, Dennis, Elisabeth, Episode 1, Gunn, Heartthrob, James, Pregnancy, Premiere, Review, Season 1, Season 3, Season Premiere, Television, The Host, TV, Wesley
April 23, 2011 · 9:00 pm
“The Impossible Astronaut”
April 23rd, 2011
“Human beings – I thought I’d never get done saving you.”
As Doctor Who enters its sixth “series” (which I refer to as season above to avoid confusion with similarly titled posts on the blog), I find myself an an interesting crossroads.
As a viewer, “The Eleventh Hour” was my first experience with the start of a series (if not my first experience, as I watched the relevant Moffat-oeuvre episodes beforehand), and that episode served a very clear introductory function for Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor. It was also a contained episode, extending beyond the traditional running time to complete a single story alongside the introductions of both a new Doctor and a new companion.
By comparison, “The Impossible Astronaut” finds Matt Smith’s Doctor well-established, and despite the “official” addition of a second companion there is not much groundwork to be laid with either Amy or Rory given their importance to the previous series. It is also the first part of a two-part premiere, meaning that its full meaning has not yet been fully understood, and its role in shaping the remainder of the series remains fairly abstract.
When I suggest I find myself at a crossroads, it is because “The Impossible Astronaut” is a test of sorts for those of us who are new to the Who, so to speak. With the introductions out of the way, Steven Moffat has wholly embraced the series’ atemporality and put together a premiere which finds poetry in tragedy and tragedy in just about everything, breaking rules that we didn’t know existed and inventing rules that we can’t be sure exist. It renders viewers like me, those of us who only recently jumped on the bandwagon, not unlike the Doctor’s companions, forced to place our trust in Moffat’s vision while the questions pile up and the speculation overflows.
It says a great deal about the success of the fifth series that I barely blinked at “The Impossible Astronaut,” slipping easily into the giddy theorizing that this show can inspire and fully embracing my deep appreciation for something that I only started watching a year ago.
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Filed under Doctor Who
Tagged as 1969, Alex Kingston, Amy Pond, Analysis, Arthur Darvill, BBC, Episode 1, Fez, Karen Gillan, Mark Sheppard, Matt Smith, Premiere, Review, Richard Nixon, River Song, Rory, Season 6, Season Premiere, Series 6, Series Premiere, Stetsons, Steven Moffat, Television, The Doctor, The Impossible Astronaut, The Lodger, The Silence, Timey-Wimey, Utah, White House
March 28, 2011 · 9:59 pm
March 28th, 2011
When United States of Tara entered its second season, the Gregson family thought that everything had changed: Tara had defeated her alters through the use of medication, and the entire family was ready to move forward with something approaching a normal life. Of course, normalcy proved unattainable: the old alters returned, new alters emerged, and turmoil between family members left Max, Kate and Marshall confronting their own identities in light of their mother’s struggle.
What is immediately clear in the show’s third season premiere is that there is no such false normalcy. For better or for worse, the Gregson family has embraced (or will be forced to embrace) that they are in no way, shape, or form normal, and it shows in “…youwillnotwin…” It is a confident premiere on a number of levels, but primarily because it embraces the stabilizing influence of instability. By embracing the cyclical nature of life, and by placing the characters in positions to be impacted – but not defined by – those cycles, United States of Tara is in a position to continue to evolve without having to introduce dramatic new elements into the equation.
All it takes, it appears, is a bit of a push in the right direction and a willingness to ride the wave.
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Filed under United States of Tara
Tagged as ...youwillnotwin..., Alters, Analysis, Buck, Charmaine, Diablo Cody, DID, Dr. Jack Hatteras, Eddie Izzard, Episode 1, Kate, Lionel, Marshall, Max, Neil, Patton Oswalt, Pregnancy, Premiere, Review, Rosemarie Dewitt, Season 3, Season Premiere, Shoshana, Showtime, Somatization, Suicide, Television, Toni Collette, TV