Trench Warfare: Kurt Sutter vs. Critics, Round Infinity
January 4th, 2012
As a vocal critic of the third season of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, I was apprehensive going into its fourth season, and found myself more or less pleased with how the season went down. By dialing down the number of storylines, and focusing more exclusively on the inner-workings of SAMCRO (with additional storylines intersecting with the club dynamic quite successfully), the strong performances rose to the surface and the “plot mechanics” largely proved quite effective even if I would agree that the finale was a major step back in that department, ending up too cute for a show that purports to being so dark. Ultimately, while it didn’t make my “Top 20” at The A.V. Club, it probably would have made a Top 25, which is more than it would have managed last year.
I didn’t have time to write about the show this fall, and I wouldn’t say I was particularly disappointed by this at the time: while the show was better than last season, it was better in ways that were not particularly surprising, and which other critics reviewing the show week-to-week were capturing well in their own reviews. Similarly, while I did have my issues with some of the plot developments, people like Alan Sepinwall, Maureen Ryan, and Zack Handlen were effectively covering the ground I would have covered, nicely capturing what proved to be a solid (if flawed) season of television that cemented the show’s future as a solid (if flawed) staple of the basic cable landscape.
However, when the season ended amidst a flurry of dismissive comments from creator Kurt Sutter regarding the critical reception of the season, I changed my mind. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to pick a fight with Sutter, who rang in 2011 by insulting me over Twitter, but rather that it felt wrong to be sitting on the sidelines while Sutter waged trench warfare on hardworking critics who were being criticized for doing their jobs (and doing them well). While I remain convinced that Sutter has a point regarding the limitations of weekly criticism with a serialized show, to suggest (despite his best efforts to suggest otherwise) that these limitations are a function of individual critics as opposed to the form made me wish that I had reviewed the series if only so I could stand alongside my fellow critics in support of critical analysis that reflects a personal, subjective approach to television.
One Past, Two Perspectives
July 26th, 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.
Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter has said that he has no intention of ever using flashbacks for the FX series, which some might find odd considering how much of the series is based on an earlier generation of conflict regarding SAMCRO’s founder, John Teller. However, each season of the series has a tightly constructed arc, and so much of its drama depends on capturing the intensity of the Sons’ daily lives that flashing back would likely disrupt any sense of momentum.
And yet, for network series with similarly complex backstories, flashback episodes are almost a necessity: with 22 episodes to deliver each year, as opposed to the 13 offered on cable, flashbacks are a good way to kill some time between major story arcs, or fill in some necessary exposition heading into a new story arc, or to simply have some fun by featuring a character who everyone seems to enjoy. “Fool to Love” and “Darla” are both flashback episodes, and even flash back to the same scenes in two instances, but they represent two distinct types of flashback episodes, which becomes clear when watched together (as they would have originally aired).
I want to talk a bit about how each series uses its respective flashback episode as a standalone piece, but I also want to look at how they work as parts of their respective seasons: while “Darla” is very clearly part of the series’ narrative arc, “Fool for Love” has a unique relationship with the momentum built by “No Place Like Home” and “Family” which offers a different take on the potential function of flashbacks.
The Trick is to Actually Watch TV: The 2010 Emmy Nominations
July 8th, 2010
The Emmy nominations (which you can find in full here) are less a sign of what’s truly great on television and a more a sign of what the Emmy voters have actually been watching.
Series and performers are nominated for Emmys for one of two reasons: either the Academy members watched episodes carefully and saw them deserving of an award, or they looked at their ballots and chose a familiar name, a much buzzed-about series, or the first name on the ballot. And, frankly, most years the latter seemed to be their modus operandi, to the point where I’ve started to disassociate voters with any notion of television viewership – I’m not even convinced most of them own televisions.
However, for once, I’d say that the 2010 Emmy nominations seem to have been made by people who actually enjoy the medium, with plenty of evidence to demonstrate that voters actually watched many of the shows they nominated and discovered not only the most hyped elements of that series but also those elements which are truly deserving of Emmys attention. There are still plenty of examples where it’s clear that Emmy voters didn’t truly bother to watch the series in question, and all sorts of evidence which indicates that the Emmy voters suffer from a dangerously selective memory and a refusal to let go of pay cable dramedies, but the fact remains that this is the most hopeful Emmy year in recent memory.
It isn’t that every nominee is perfect, but rather that there is evidence of Academy voters sitting down in front of their television and watching more than a single episode of the shows in question, making them less like soulless arbiters of quality and more like actual television viewers – it might not stick, but for a few moments it’s nice to finally see some nominees that indicate voters aren’t so much different from us after all.
Why I’m Not Writing 2010 Emmy Nominations Predictions
July 7th, 2010
Like anyone who follows the Emmy Awards, I have accepted that I will derive equal parts pain and pleasure from this particular interest. While I pride myself in remaining objective about the awards, I wouldn’t follow them the way I did if I didn’t get giddy on Nomination morning and if I didn’t spend the hours after the announcement bemoaning the mistakes the Academy has made. While my interest in the awards may be more intellectual than emotional on average, the fact remains that my analysis comes from a genuine love for the flawed and frustrating notion of award shows rather than simply an outsider’s curiosity surrounding a fascinating nomination system.
And so when I sat down to write out my final predictions, I balked: I’ve handicapped the major categories in comedy and drama, looked at the individual changes for a number of series of interest, and chatted about it on Twitter, and I sort of feel like I’ve run out of momentum. I think I have made most of the points I really wanted to make, and staking my claim on particular nominees doesn’t feel necessary or particularly valuable to me personally. It’s not as if I begrudge those who predict every category, or that I feel they are degrading a complex process: rather, the part of the process in which I have the least interest in is trying to consolidate all of the potential circumstances into a set of predictions that will be almost surely wrong.
You wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that I’m effectively copping out of this particular process, but it isn’t because I’m worried about being wrong: rather, I just feel like I’ve written so much already that going into every individual category seems like a daunting task which would make me less, rather than more, excited about the nominees and the process of sorting through the lists seeing how the races are shaping up.
However, since I don’t want to appear to be flaking out too much, here’s my basic feelings heading into tomorrow’s nominations in terms of who I’m hopeful for and who I’m hoping doesn’t make it onto the ballot, which best captures my state of mind as we enter the next stage of the process.
Official Ballot Miscellany
June 4th, 2010
Earlier this evening, Emmy voting officially began; this isn’t particularly important to us non-voters, but it does mean that the official ballots were released (PDFs: Performers, Writing, Directing), which means that we know who submitted their names for Emmy contention and can thus make our predictions accordingly. In some cases, this simply confirms our earlier submissions regarding particularly categories, while in other cases it throws our expectations for a loop as frontrunners or contenders don’t end up submitting at all.
For example, Cherry Jones (who last year won for her work on 24) chose not to submit her name for contention this year, a decision which seems somewhat bizarre and is currently being speculatively explained by her unhappiness with her character’s direction in the show’s final season. It completely changes the anatomy of that race, removing a potential frontrunner and clearing the way for some new contenders (or, perhaps, another actress from Grey’s Anatomy). Either way, it’s a real shakeup, so it makes this period particularly interesting.
I will speak a bit about some surprising omissions and inclusions in the categories I’ve already covered this week, but I want to focus on the categories that I haven’t discussed yet, including the guest acting categories, writing, and direction, which are some interesting races this year.
Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: Drama Acting
June 3rd, 2010
On the drama side of things, there’s fewer trends that we can follow through to the nominees than there are in comedy. There, we can look at Glee and Modern Family and see some logical directions the awards could take, but in Drama there’s really only one new contender (The Good Wife), and the other variables are much more up in the air in terms of what’s going to connect with viewers. Lost could see a resurgence with voters in its final season, or it could be left in the dust; Mad Men could pick up more acting nominations now that its dynasty is secure, or it could remain underrepresented; Breaking Bad could stick to Cranston/Paul, or it could branch out into the rest of the stellar cast.
That unpredictability isn’t going to make for a shocking set of nominations, but I do think it leaves a lot of room open for voters to engage with a number of series to a degree that we may not have, so it’s an interesting set of races where I’m likely going out on some limbs.
Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: Drama and Comedy Series
June 1st, 2010
What’s weird about predicting the Emmy nominations (which are on July 8th, for the record) is that it really doesn’t have anything to do with quality: sure, a bad season can certainly hurt your chances at getting an Emmy, and a good season is sure to be of some assistance, but the objective quality of a series doesn’t really matter until they’re nominated. Until that point, it’s one big popularity contest, combining old habits, much-hyped new series, and those nominees who seem particularly newsworthy.
This is why it’s possible to predict the nominees, or at least the long-list of contenders who could logically garner a nomination on July 8th, before the eligibility period even ends (which isn’t really that big a deal this year, as any series which aired the majority of its season before the deadline [like Breaking Bad] will still be able to submit their concluding episodes). And while it may seem a bit premature, I’m pretty Emmy obsessive, and wanted to take some time this week to run down the potential nominees in each category. In the case of the series and acting categories, I’ll single out some who I believe are guaranteed nominations, while I’ll likely be less able to do so with Writing and Directing (which are often much less predictable, outside of a few exceptions).
We’ll start with Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Comedy Series today, both because they’re a bit easier to handicap and because they’re the “big” races. They’re also the categories where I’m willing to put money down on a majority of the nominees, leaving only a few spots remaining for the other series to fight over in the months ahead.
And what a fight it’s going to be.
[Before we start, hats off to the great work of the Gold Derby forum members, especially moderator Chris “Boomer” Beachum, whose work continues to make projects like this a lot easier. Check out their Official 2010 Emmy Campaign Submissions thread for a full list of submitted nominees; you’ll end up there for at least a half hour before you realize how much time has elapsed.]
The Shows of the Year
December 21st, 2009
When you’re selecting the Top 10 shows of the year, you reach the point where you have to ask yourself: what would the year have been like if this show hadn’t been on the air?
And this criteria oddly kept a few shows off this list that I thought would have been here, shows which felt like they made a fairly substantial impact at the time but eventually felt defined more by a single episode than by the season as a whole, or by a single performer rather than the entire ensemble. And then there were shows which I love, shows that hold a special place in my heart and held special places within my End of Decade retrospective, but delivered seasons this calendar year which felt as if they were relying on rather than building on previous success. And then there were shows that I know are objectively better than some of the series which are on this list, but yet never felt integral to the year in television as we know it, that never felt as if they had made an impact on my experience with this medium over the past twelve months. Throw in the shows I just don’t watch, and those which just barely missed the cut despite meeting my criteria, and I’m sure there’s plenty of shows which you would contend should have a place on this list.
However, the shows on this list are a reflection of what was a really great year in television, a year where shows with intense fan support proved to withstand critical scrutiny and where shows with strong reputations delivered seasons that demonstrated intense control over their characters and their journeys. It was also a year where we recognize the joys of the Sophomore Season, where a network shows enough faith in a series to give it a second kick at the can and is rewarded with a creative explosion impossible to ignore. And it was also a year where, according to the list below, the network with the worst track record somehow managed to be affiliated with five of the best shows on television, demonstrating that there are some shows capable of transcending industry finagling to simply be great television.
Episodes of the Year
December 20th, 2009
[This is the second of three lists recognizing the best of 2009 in Television: Performers of the Year has been posted, and Series of the Year will be posted tomorrow morning. These other lists will recognize parts of some of the shows missing from this particular list.]
When you review individual episodes all year, you might presume that it’s easy to be able to then categorize those episodes for the sake of an end of year Top 10.
You would be right…and wrong.
See, on the one hand, I have a pretty good memory of individual episodes that really made an impact, ones which stood out from the pack and connected with me. However, on the other hand, comparing an episode of Lost to an episode of 30 Rock doesn’t feel particularly natural, and more importantly you can’t actually create a list like this in a bubble. You have to consider which shows are making it onto other lists, and whether the sum of their parts are perhaps more worthy of recognition than a single episode. And you also need to consider whether a single performance was more likely the cause of an episode’s greatness as opposed to its collective influence. Throw in concerns about nostalgia or proximity clouding your judgment, and you have just as large a challenge whether or not you write episode reviews for the heck of it.
As such, my Top 10 Episodes of the Year are not, perhaps, the best episodes that aired this past year, but rather those which either really connected with me, or felt incredibly important to their individual shows’ success, or those which are on the list so that I’m not so embarrassed as to have those shows represented on none of the lists I put together. It’s not an exact science, but it eventually created a list (which is ordered by air date, in case that isn’t clear) of ten television episodes that really stuck with me this year.