Cultural Checkup: Season Eight
August 8th, 2011
[This week, I’m going to be checking in on a number of shows that I’ve been watching but not writing about this summer. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking back at an uneven season of USA’s White Collar.]
I didn’t hate the seventh season of Entourage.
After six years of wishing the show would stop trying to be a bawdy comedy and start embracing its dramatic potential, the show finally listened to me at the point where it had run out of goodwill. The show had driven itself into the ground, to the point where there was no hope of it truly evolving into a more interesting series, and yet it was finally telling the kind of stories it should have been telling from the beginning. It took Vince down a self-destructive path, it explored his relationship with Eric (to the point of almost ending it), and it seemed to find a more comfortable balance between Vince’s career and his entourage’s own lives.
Now, the show stopped being funny along the way, but I never found it all that funny to begin with, so to see the show trying something new excited me. And so I’m equally excited to see that the show isn’t screwing around in its eighth season, taking some “risks” based on its own precedent and exploring the challenges of new beginnings instead of exploring the thrills of excess.
It’s still not funny, but I’m surprisingly invested in where they intend to take the show in its final season.
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.
“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.
“I’ll Fly Away”
June 20th, 2010
“I’m just a player.”
I’ve fallen into an unfortunate trap over the past month or so with Treme, and it’s quite a common one: with a show this dense and devoid of traditional plot development, and where the professional critics are receiving screeners and I am, well, not, I haven’t been able to work up the drive to write about the episodes when I’ve been seeing them a few days late every week (as a result of the conflict with Breaking Bad, which was so great this season). I’d hate for this to be read as a slight on the series as a whole, but I do think that I’ve avoided writing about it because I’ve felt uncomfortable offering a verdict on how the series has progressed.
I think what I’ve discovered is that Treme is constantly defined by fallout, both in terms of the overarching impact of Hurricane Katrina and the individual tragedies and events which define each character’s journey. When something happens on Treme, like the conclusion of last week’s penultimate episode, the real interest for David Simon and Eric Overmeyer seems to be the consequences. The Wire’s finales were always denouements, but Treme has been one long denouement from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, and living within that space has taken these characters to some dangerous places and created consequences that will not end with tonight’s season finale. While The Wire was interested in how one small decision or one bureaucratic inefficiency could snowball into tragedy, Treme captures the spirit of a city fighting to overcome inescapable tragedy, and the result has been some great television.
“I’ll Fly Away” is a powerful and riveting finale, one which emphasizes the central notion of how these individuals fit into the world around them. Treme is filled with characters who either struggle against the script they’re given (the creators) or who simply play the sheet music placed before them (the players), and after Katrina hit New Orleans everyone was forced to ask how far they would follow their desire to take control of their own future, and at what point they would simply let themselves be washed away by the storm’s aftermath towards a new path in life. At the conclusion of Treme’s first season, we see numerous characters reach the point where they’re forced to make a choice, and yet it is never presented as a judgment (either positive or negative) on New Orleans culture.
Regardless of whether these characters choose to fly away or stay in New Orleans until the bitter end, they will always love this city, and that infectious love is so apparent in the production of this series that no amount of tragedy can outweigh the strength of spirit shown in these opening episodes. While the series’ highly recognizable subject matter could have overwhelmed the individual characters that Simon and Overmeyer have created to populate their historical fiction, these characters have instead become a powerful way in which we as an audience come to understand the life of New Orleans, and the sheer weight that they were forced to carry once Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke.
And Treme is that much more accomplished for carrying that weight with such confidence.
“Vincent and the Doctor”
June 5th, 2010
Last week’s “Cold Blood” was one of those episodes which required some time to decompress, for us to see the consequences (or the consequences of the lack of consequences, to speak more accurately) of the events at its conclusion. Of course, the complicated nature of those events (which I’m avoiding spoiling above the fold so that those following the American schedule don’t see something they shouldn’t) means that the show isn’t necessarily going to act as if something terrible has happened, and the characters (for various reasons) will be moving on with their lives as if it hasn’t happened at all.
It puts “Vincent and the Doctor” in a legitimately fascinating position, and lends Richard Curtis’ compelling standalone story a weight it may not have otherwise achieved. While you could consider the episode’s visit with Vincent Van Gogh and his encounter with an invisible creature to be a solid little piece of storytelling separate from its place within the season’s narrative, its subtle moments of serialization and its broader thematic position within the series make it more accomplished than it may have been otherwise. It doesn’t necessarily surprise us, nor dazzle us with anything particularly amazing, but the notes it hits feel like the right ones for this stage in the series as we march towards its conclusion.
April 4th, 2010
For the second straight week, the real-life events of the Pacific war have made for an interesting interlude of sorts for The Pacific. Last week’s episode used their extended shore level in Melbourne, Australia in order to demonstrate the home front without traveling back to the United States, and “Part Four” is very much designed to analyze the psychological challenges that soldiers face in these kinds of conditions. Cape Gloucester, we learn, was only very briefly a war between the Americans and the Japanese, and soon became a war of the Americans against the torrential rainfall and the psychological toll that that experience would have on them.
If “Part Two” was a fairly concentrated glimpse into the heroism of John Basilone, “Part Four” is a frank portrait of a man (Bob Leckie) who feels entirely disconnected from those notions of heroism, and struggles to maintain any sense of humanity (and masculinity) in the face of both the turmoil of war and an embarrassing medical condition.
April 6th, 2009
There’s really no point in discussing this without spoilers, so read on below for some quick analysis of what is perhaps the most blatantly “shocking” episode of House in a long time – there’s also spoilers in the tags, so don’t read those either.
Yes, I’m Still Watching…Damages
February 25th, 2009
When the show debuted in 2007, there was something very fresh about its structure, something that I couldn’t really put my finger on at the time. It was a show that brought to the table some great acting talent, in particular strong work from Glenn Close and a career re-making role for Ted Danson, and a flash-forward plotline that at the very least kept you guessing of how the show was going to traverse from Point A to Point B. I never had a problem with either of these two elements: I thought the show started on a good note with the introduction of Ellen Parsons as a naive young attorney in the cutthroat world of Patty Hewes, and I felt the end of the season was similarly sophisticated in its handling of the long known climax.
But when Damages began its second season, I was reminded that the journey between Points A and B was more than a bit meandering, and while a few stops along the road were worthwhile (Hi, Zjelko Ivanek!) there were other storylines that felt like killing time. I began to think back to another show that had followed almost exactly the same road, a show that I once thought quite fondly of and now have very little interest in. But I didn’t want to, early in the season, so quickly link Damages with 24, a show that I have more or less written off.
As the season has gone on, however, the similarities are getting tougher to ignore: the show has become about a constant state of well-acted but poorly executed elevation. Characters and storylines are tossed aside at the writers’ whim as soon as they find something more interesting, and mysteries are solved without resonance but instead with a sense that one can’t linger on one moment too long before the next storyline needs to get started. If each of these arcs felt like they were being sufficiently wrapped up, that we got out of them all that we could, I’d be fine with this: but Damages, like 24 in its hey day, is all about leaving you wanting more, and the bad news for Damages is that I’m starting to see through it all too clearly.
Which says more for the writers’ reliance on the same ol’ bag of tricks than it does for the actors who are at their whim, a disconnect broad strong enough on the latter end to keep me watching but weak enough on the former to keep me at an emotional distance.
February 18th, 2009
“We’re all convinced sooner or later, Jack.”
There is a point in “316” where Ben tells Jack the story of Thomas the Apostle, a man who is best known for doubting Jesus’ resurrection. What we take from Ben’s explanation is that Thomas was a brave man, who stood up for Jesus during his life and was unwilling to back away from threats against him. And yet, he isn’t known for that: he is known for not believing, for not welcoming Jesus back into this world under circumstances that he couldn’t grasp immediately. While he did eventually believe once he felt Jesus’ wounds with his own hands, that doubt has defined his existence.
In many ways, “316” is a study of Jack Shepherd’s willingness to believe, and whether or not fate and history will remember him as the person who rebuffed John Locke when he first came to Jack off the island or as the person who eventually became a believer and got on Ajira Airways Flight 316 in order to return to the island. The same pattern goes for the rest of the Oceanic Six: are the decisions they made, the sacrifices they take in order to go back to the island, enough to overcome the fact that they ignored Locke when he first came to them? They were all convinced, sooner or later, to return, but where they sit on that timeline could be very important to their futures.
What this week’s episode, scripted by Lost overlords Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, doesn’t do is give us the ability to answer these questions, presenting a labyrinth that is complex not because of some sort of twisted time warp but rather because we are still missing parts, human parts, of this story. While we got to see what brought Jack to the end of this episode, we do not yet understand the context of the letter he receives, or how the rest of the Oceanic Six resolves this conflict. These questions aren’t going to be solved by Mrs. Hawking spouting off techno-babble, but rather an investigation into these characters, their motivations, and the kinds of questions that have formed the foundation of the series since its opening.
Perhaps its fitting, then, that we begin this episode the same way we began the pilot, a close-up of Jack’s eye as he wakes up in a whole new world for the second time.
“You’ve Got Yale!”
January 19th, 2009
After starting the season seemingly boosted by summer buzz and showing positive growth, Gossip Girl has been on a ratings and creative slide for quite some time. It is not so much that the show was great to begin with, but rather that it was showing an odd sort of complacency: rather than trading a period of angst and contrivance (mostly surrounding young Jenny) the show rights itself by introducing a mysterious son given up for adoption and by insisting that its central relationship is worth testing even when I, as a viewer, am convinced that it was dead a long time ago. “You’ve got Yale!,” despite its usual movie title-pun charm, feels like the show just doesn’t get it: whatever fun we might get from Blair going back on the warpath can’t possibly overcome the idea we’re supposed to care as much about Dan and Serena as Gossip Girl’s readers.
The funny thing is that House is in many ways going through the same problem: for weeks, the show has been focusing on Thirteen as a central source of drama and interest in a series that has always been most interesting when focused on its eponymous doctor. While it is ostensibly an ensemble, the show is really about House, and while the show’s tendency to have patients who reflect their doctor’s problems can on occasion be frustrating I was just kind of glad to finally have a patient who is about House instead. What “Painless” does wrong, though, is feel as if it needs to pile on the drama: House’s pain is enough reason for the show to stop and consider his illness, compounding that with more drama for Thirteen and Cuddy’s complete and total breakdown seems both false and overkill.
Neither show is going off the rails enough for me to be disinterested, but I remain skeptical about whether they know what they are doing isn’t working.