Archive | December, 2012

Homeland: End of Season Report, Part 1

25 Dec

Brody sits pensively Season 2 of Homeland has been an interesting and somewhat unsatisfying journey that has had plenty of both up and down moments and was hurt overall by comparison to the absolutely genius first season of the show.  Here’s some random notes on the season on the whole, including the finale, and where it goes from here.  I have a whole bunch of thoughts, so I’m going to split this into two entries.

At its best season 2 was just as gripping and emotionally riveting as the first season, and the tense moments were unequaled.  The second episode of the second season was action packed but with a type of action that felt Homeland-like; it was about tracking and surveillance and deception, and double crossing, and rested on Carrie’s fragile mental state holding up. The second half of the season often turned too close to the show Homeland show-runners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon were most associated with before Homeland, 24.   There were huge action sequences with our heroine Carrie Mathison doing her best Jack Bauer, most notably when she leads a team of agents into the tunnels by herself, searching and finding major terrorist and series antagonist Abu Nazir in a maze of tunnels where all the special forces could not.  I have a lot of love for 24, but what was great about Homeland at its best is not what was great about 24.  Homeland was about Carrie and her colleagues conducting surveillance from afar, tracking down terrorists with pieces and clues, rather than making the actual apprehensions and engaging in hand to hand fighting with the terrorists.

A second 24-like similarity was Carrie’s tendency to be the best CIA agent ever of all time; like 24 hero Jack Bauer, she barely ever gets anything wrong, even when her calls are unorthodox, and when she does, she quickly corrects herself and gets it right.  If people call her out, it’s usually that they’re the wrong ones, and she just has the wrong information. Early in the season Homeland boxed themselves into a corner with Carrie and Brody; Brody either had to be arrested and locked away, killed, or had to turn and act as a double agent.  Locking him away right there would have been daring, but made less sense in the context of how much the showrunners seemed to want to get out of Brody’s character, so eventually the double agent plan went on; not necessary a terrible plot point, but a predictable one a mile away. Carrie’s coming back to work for the CIA felt like a bit of a cop out as well.  Although the fact she was ever out of the CIA was forgotten by the fourth or fifth episode of the second season when she was all the way back in, it was a pretty fucking big deal at the end of the first season that she was told she would never work for the CIA ever, ever again, and although I understand the idea that she was right the whole time was being used to justify it, I still think having her come right back relatively easily undermines the power of that scene in the first season.

The love story really got old pretty fast as well.  Brody and Carrie have an undeniable chemistry but after the intrigue and danger were lost, the relationship was not interesting to us at all, and the scene at the cabin in the last episode was painfully boring.

I hated Dana’s car crash in the middle of the season; it just felt out of nowhere and uncalled for and so far away from the central tenor of the show (what I was hoping for was the Dana spin-off where she is in a love triangle with Finn and Xander (remember Xander?)).  I do love that Everybody Talks by the Neon Trees was the song playing in the car crash scene; I can think of no song more perfect.

While we’re digging back to old decisions made earlier this season, I absolutely hated the Brody plot where he was strangely assigned to drive the tailor from Gettysburg, and ended up killing him.  I kind of understand what the writers wanted to get out of Brody from that scene, but the entire endeavor seemed ham fisted and out of character for the type of job Brody would be given on the show by his handlers.

I don’t like that it seems like the CIA is made up of four people; more characters doesn’t always equal better in a show, but to some extent it often does.  Fewer characters limits what you can do with every character, and even with fewer main characters, it’s possible to feel like a real world by at least having minor characters buzzing around, instead of just four people. I don’t expect the show to be real life believable.  It’s not The Wire; very few shows have that feeling of being absolutely real.  But I did feel the show expanded its bounds for realism in the second season beyond the barriers it had set up in the first.  Abu Nazir’s hands on treatment, of not only being in the states but kidnapping Carrie, believability aside, just felt more 24-like than Homeland-like.   It’s not that shows can never been implausible  it’s that once they set the boundaries for the relative level of implausibility in the show, they shouldn’t exceed that.

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Ads Watch: Kia Optima Blake Time Travels

19 Dec

Blake Griffin, pitchman, is so uncharacteristic in these ads, that it kind of flips all the way around, making him seem charismatic.

There are two versions of this commercial so far, and the model plays out so well that it would make a lot of sense to make a couple more; unlike the Aaron Rodgers State Farm commercial which came together on a number of magically impossible to replicate details, the formula here seems pretty easy to assemble.

In short, both begin with Blake Griffin using the fancy voice activated system for the Kia, which apparently controls, among other things, a time machine, to go back in time to a year in the mid’90s, and then, again using the voice activated system, puts on an appropriate period pop song.  He visits himself as a kid and impresses his younger self with his car.  He gives the kid an idiosyncratic piece of advice, and returns.

Let’s start with the 1995 edition for further detail.  The song, on the way back in time, is “This is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan, a perfect choice to epitomize the period of time.  He comes back and visits six-year old Blake, who’s hanging on the rim of a basketball hoop attached to his garage.  How did he got to be hanging on the rim?  Who the fuck knows.  He asks 2012 Blake who he is, and Blake responds that he’s himself from the future, and the kids asks if big Blake’s car is a spaceship.  Why in the world would a six year old think a car, that looks like any other car, is a spaceship?  Because it came through some sort of time portal?  I suppose, but still.  2012 Blake tells him that the Kia is way better than a spaceship, and I like how blunt and unhesitating he is; there’s no way a spaceship could be better than this car.  Blake shows a solid self-aware sense of humor in telling the kid to practice his free throws, and proceeds to fling a free throw towards the hoop and miss it badly.  (Where did the basketball come from?  I’ve watched this ad a dozen times and I still have no idea).  He doesn’t consider the fact that six-year old him is dangerously hanging from the rim, or the even more disturbing fact that flinging a free throw could dislodge the six-year old and cause a dangerous fall.  He just turns around, leaves him hanging, and heads back to the future as “This is How We Do It” returns and the screen turns to white.

The 1997 version functions similarly and is every bit as good, if not better.  He tells the car to take him back to 1997, and play jukebox, which here plays OMC’s “How Bizarre”, an equally appropriate choice to summon up memories of that year.  He shows up to find eight year old Blake playing football in the park and immediately instructs him, “Wrong sport” and punts the football far away.  Young Blake looks up confused, asks who he is, and 2012 Blake informs his younger self that he’s him from the future (apologize for the confusing pronouns but this is what happens when you have a future version meeting a past version of the same person) and tells him a little bit about his futuristic car; this part is the most ad-like piece of the commercial, but I enjoy that the Kia features he brags about really don’t sound all that futuristic.  He pauses and shares a sublimely awkward three second pause staring at his younger self, and then issues him the advice to “Stop Wearing Jean Shorts.”  When the kid looks down confused, older Blake says, “Just Trust Me,” and the screen turns to white, and How Bizarre resumes playing in the background.

I’ve mentioned some of my favorite parts in the descriptions, but I’ll sum them up here.  First, as I started up top with, Blake makes this ad.  He’s not charismatic, and he doesn’t even try, but his matter of fact, lack of inflection tone is simply perfect.  In that tone is his utter lack of empathy; he doesn’t try to connect with his younger self at all, and is, really, kind of a dick.  In the 1995 ad, he leaves his younger self hanging on the rim, and in the 1997 version, he boots his younger self’s football away from him.  Even his bits of advice are given entirely without emotion.  The song choice is absolutely spot on for both ads, and I still love that the five year old thinks the car is his spaceship.  All in all, it makes for the rare tolerable car commercial.  More, please.

Mid-season Report: The Walking Dead

19 Dec

Welcome, Michone

I’ve been harsh on this show at times.  Many times.  In fact, throughout much of the second season, when I felt like this show constantly didn’t live up to its full potential.  That’s what made it so frustrating for me; while so many TV shows have no chance at greatness from arrival, The Walking Dead constantly seemed like a case study in potential only realized in spurts, like a naturally talented athlete who gets by on talent alone, but could be a star if he hit the gym more often.  There were a number of different issues, but there two stood out the most (at least that are occurring to me now).  First, the pacing was terrible; the show consisted of absolutely epic moments sandwiched between long periods of inactivity or activity that no one cared about.  Second, half the characters were either boring, incredibly irritating, or not fleshed out at all.  I posted this at last season’s midseason, and these problems remained throughout the season; there were always just enough glimpses of what the show could be to keep me watching, but also enough problems to make watching frustrating and occasionally exasperating.

This season, I’m happy to say, was a revelation.  By far the best season yet of The Walking Dead, the third season mostly dispensed with the least interesting aspects of the show, and moved at a far brisker pace than the second season; as much occurred in the first half of the third season as happened in the entire second season.

I haven’t read the comics, though I’m considering it, and thus, I don’t know how much is taken from the source material, and how much is original for TV, but either way a series of smart decisions were made along the way towards assembling this season.  An important part of a show like The Walking Dead is keeping fresh blood (brains?) coming in in terms of new characters; since there aren’t 20 major characters like in Lost, if characters die, they need to be replaced, or we’d be down to 3 characters in no time.  Thought of in a different way, the advent of new characters allows the creators freedom to kill off whichever characters they believe are the least interesting, have become irrelevant due to storylines, or would just provide the most punch, plot-wise.  This character refreshening was achieved smartly with the death of Laurie; Laurie had become of limited usefulness as she descended into depression over her inability to have Rick forgive her.  Her death packed a huge emotional punch, and also led to difficult reckonings for her son Carl, who, even I must admit, has become far less irritating than he was in season 2, growing up to become, dare I say, somewhat competent, as well as Rick, for whom Laurie’s death put him off his game more than any other time previously in the show.  In addition, I liked the new characters who were added, mainly Michonne, the Governor, and his cronies, including Merle and his scientist Milton, who have all helped keep the show interesting.

Having the two storylines (the prison and the governor’s town) side by side completely worked.  The multiple locations probably played a role in the much improved pacing, since the show could dance back and forth, and it paved the way for the eventual central conflict of the half season.  Although the governor was and is clearly evil, because, hey, it’s TV, and it would have been a shock if he wasn’t, he’s definitely seemed like a more of a real kind of complex person than I thought he might.  I think this could possibly be done even more deftly, with making him a slight bit less evil, but David Morrissey has certainly handled it well enough that it feels like the Governor is a regular guy turned hard ass, rather than a mere psychopath bent on the destruction of those who stand against him.

I thought for sure it would take us an entire season for Rick’s gang and the Governor’s to meet but was extremely pleasantly surprised to see that it happened within half a season, with major events and reveals seemingly occurring in every single episode.

I’ve already commented on its similarities to Lost, and many of the questions The Walking Dead deals with – how far is it right to go to protect certain remnants of society from surviving – what civility, and what rules are left in a crumbling society, are similar to those handled by Lost at its best.

Overall, I feel as energized about this show as I ever have, and I’m glad to report that I’m actually really excited for the second half of the season to begin, an outcome I hoped for at various points during the second season but began to stop expecting.

End of Season Report: Treme

10 Dec

Father and Son Lambreaux

The Wire, my favorite hour long program of all time, is what David Simon’s legacy will always be tied up with, and on balance, The Wire, though it has its share of happy stories, is more soul-crushing than optimistic, especially in the last couple of seasons, with a ballpark ratio of maybe 65% soul crushing to 35% optimistic (note to self:  make a ledger of major season ending events in The Wire and come up with an actual ratio).   The point here is that it’s a great show, but it’s also a depressing show, and David Simon made his mark because of many of the great aspects of The Wire, one of which is that he took on a city, Baltimore, warts, and all, and wasn’t afraid to paint a pretty bleak picture.

Treme isn’t that.  Treme is probably the flip of Wire, optimism-wise, with the results being 65% positive.  There’s plenty of negative, particularly with David Simon’s two favorite areas to hammer on, the police department and politics and government, but there’s far more stories about regular people overcoming adversity, facing down difficult obstacles, and more often than not coming together and triumphing at least slightly more than they fail in the end.

When searching for something or other regarding the show, I came across an Atlantic Wire article bashing Treme.  There were a number of complaints in article, but they ultimately boiled down to the central complaint that Treme is boring and the reason for is this is because it is too much of a love letter to the city of New Orleans; that Simon should have given the The Wire treatment to the city, the way he did to Baltimore.  I think his argument is both wrong and misses the point.  You know what?  Treme isn’t the Wire, and it shouldn’t have to be.

What Treme is is just about everything that’s right with this type of long term serial show, a serial show not based on action or tension or adventure, but built around the everyday lives of an ensemble of largely unrelated characters in a number of professions.  In fact, Treme could easily be boring; and the writer tries to make that point here by using the HBO online plot synopses, which sound like, “Antoine Batiste is doing right by the young people” and “Janette Desautel has found her groove at Lucky Peach” or “Sonny is moving forward on all fronts.”  He’s right as far as these descriptions absolutely do sound boring.  But that’s as far as it goes; it really is the genius of the show, that these boring sound events add up to a full hour episode every week that’s absolutely not boring at all.  About half the plots revolve around New Orleans music, a scene I could not care less about, and yet, it’s still not boring at all.

It’s because the characters are so rich.  There’s lots of emotion and feel-good moments, but it’s earned over the course of getting to know the characters for three seasons; it never feels manipulative.  It’s okay to be happy for characters.  I love The Wire and it’s soul-crushingness, and I like when some things don’t all end well and everything doesn’t work out perfectly but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like for things to work out for characters sometimes.  What I don’t like is when it’s cheap, and when it’s easy or when it happens to characters that I don’t care about at all.

David Simon knows how to make characters that are deep, compelling, and interesting.  It’s a true ensemble show in the sense that there’s really no main character, and most of the major characters get approximately equal screen time.  All of them are treated with care, as are many of the slightly more minor characters and seem like real living people.

Does David Simon have his peccadilloes?  Sure.  Treme too preachy and sanctimonious sometimes, but honestly, far less than The Newsroom in my opinion (obviously, that’s not saying a whole lot).  His characters do tend towards being too good and redeemable maybe sometimes, but that’s a minor sin at best.  He obviously loves New Orleans a lot more than I ever could or ever will but even though I don’t, the infectiousness and enthusiasm rubs off.  I don’t think it means he loves the city too much or that the people within are faultless, and if he romanticizes a little bit, that’s okay by me.  It’s a love letter, but one that’s built on fantastic writing and strong characterization.  If real life New Orleans isn’t really this great, that’s fine; I’m willing to watch a show through the filter of someone who genuinely loves it and I don’t think that takes away from the show’s quality at all.

There’s plenty of great shows on television now, but nobody else right now is making long form TV that invests in regular people real-life type characters in a not overly stylized way as well as Simon (and his partner on this endeavor, Eric Overmeyer) does on Treme (for example, some of the other current best hour longs:  Breaking Bad, science teacher-turned-meth-overlord, Homeland, CIA, Mad Men, crazily stylized ’60s advertising office, Game of Thrones, fantasy kingdom).  I loved Friday Night Lights along with everyone else, but in my mind, distilled to its essence, Treme is a similar show done even better.  Plenty of people loved Friday Night Lights who couldn’t care a whit about football, because it was really about the characters and their relationships and personalities, and the same is true for Treme, but with New Orleans instead of football.  Treme has the touching moments that anchored Friday Night Lights but feels like a full world instead of one with 12 people in it.  Anyway, I don’t really want to get into a full blown comparison, though that’s an idea for another entry.  What I wanted to get at is that fans of Friday Night Lights should give Treme a try.  Treme is the story of a city, sure, but it’s also the story of families and relationships that feel realer than anything else out there and if more than 10 people would ever watch it they’d find that out.

Ranking Fall 2012’s New Network Shows

6 Dec

RIP Last Resort

I’m finally finished watching at least the first episode of every new network show this fall.  Now that I’m done, it’s time to rank ’em, all 21 of them, with some quick notes.  Let’s begin.

1.  Last Resort – the series I was most interested in through a few episodes and was subsequently most bummed when it was cancelled, it’s too bad it will never get a proper chance to plan an ending, which even a full season could have given it – it had a genuinely fascinating premise and managed to sustain it well in the episodes afterwards

2.  Ben and Kate  – the best comedy of the fall, which hopefully will last more than a year, Ben was always funny even from the get go but the other characters have gotten funnier as the show has gone along

3.  The Mindy Project – I was hesitant at first, but it’s funny.  The most recent episode may have been the best yet and they’re slowly figuring out how to use their pieces, which I think is a great sign, increasing and decreasing different cast members’ screen time, based on how well they work

4.  Nashville – this started higher but has been going down, as every episode seems kind of like the previous one – still, this is where things get choppy, and a solid premise with solid acting already gets you a pretty good ranking

5.  Elementary – it was surprisingly good, and I just don’t watch non-original Law & Order proecurals, but if I did, I would watch this one; I’ve thought about watching another episode, which is pretty impressive in and of itself

6.  Arrow – I’ve only see one but I plan to watch at least a couple more which means this show could move up or move down, but just based on the one it’s really here – it was fun and made me want more

7.  Revolution – I watched a few, and really wanted it to be better; the characters, particularly Charlie started to grate on my nerves, and compared to Last Resort, the other big serial sci-fi type show, it really paled in comparison, but even that fact that I wanted to watch more keeps it above most shows

8.  Vegas – This show was actually not bad in the one episode I saw; hardly great, but more enjoyable than I had anticipated

9. The New Normal – was it bad?  No, it wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t really good either though and the grandmother character was particularly irritating

10.  666 Park Avenue – it wasn’t a terrible idea at going after the magic that worked for the first season of revenge, but it wasn’t handled as deftly as it could have been either, John Locke does not himself make a show

11. Emily Owens M.D – It had one or two parts that made me half smile but it was a pretty boring and pointless show – its rank at 11 is more a tribute to the badness behind it rather than a credit to Owens

12.  Go On – there were a couple of parts that were funny, but that’s negatively balanced out by a couple that kind of irritated me

13. Chicago Fire – do you remember one thing about this show?  I don’t and I watched it.

14. Beauty and the Beast – this show had no imagination and wasn’t written particularly well

15.  The Mob Doctor – this happened?  it featured Zeljko Ivanek and that’s probably why I’m giving it this slot

16. Malibu Country – southern country people move to southern california and hijinks ensue!  there’s your show, and it’s really not any more complex than that

17. Animal Practice – there was a cool monkey, and that’s pretty much what gets it to 17

18.  Guys with Kids – Jimmy Fallon has a pretty hip reputation these days, but this show isn’t helping it – it’s too bad Anthony Anderson and Zach Cregger were wasted on this drek

19.  The Neighbors – it was fun to watch an episode of because it was so bizarre, but it was also very bad

20.  Made in Jersey – I got a much bigger kick out of watching this than a couple of the shows above it because it was so over the top about her jersey-ness, but I don’t think in this case it necessary makes it better

21.   Partners – a terrible, terrible show, is it a sign of progress that we can now have a show featuring a gay main character and only focus on its terribleness

End of Season Report: Boardwalk Empire

5 Dec

Nuckie and Friends

This was certainly the weakest season of Boardwalk Empire’s three year run (the second was definitely the high point, the first is just a little better than this one), and it ended with a not entirely unsatisfying conclusion, but a not entirely satisfying one either.  I hashed out a much longer article breaking down this season of Boardwalk character by character a couple of episodes ago, and I still may post that, but I’d like to post some general thoughts on the Boardwalk finale and third season in general while it’s still fresh.

One of the primary reasons for the inferiority of the season on a whole is the lack of focus.  Nuckie, the star, continues to be the strongest character; he’s generally treated with the complexity and depth he deserves, and Buscemi carries it off well.  Beyond him, however, the show is a bit of a mess.

His wife, Margaret Thompson, is clearly the second most important character, and in her vast amount of screen time, she provided the worst and least interesting major multi-episode plot this year; her struggle to fight within her limited means as a woman at a Catholic hospital towards medical progress in women’s medical care.   It’s the stuff of a an hour and a half Julia Roberts movie, “The story of one woman’s fight against the government and the church to make pregnancy safer for women” and while it certainly could be inspirational, it was boring, repetitive, didn’t belong in the greater scope of the show, and felt like it was just there to show us that Margaret wasn’t useless, and that she was a powerful women who could fight the man.  Again, I’m not saying this general story couldn’t have ever worked in some form, but it didn’t work in context, and it was clumsily handled.  Her other major plotline was her affair with Owen.  This only interested so far as the effect it could have had on Nuckie, and frankly kind of took away from the other Owen storylines.

The lack of focus was especially clear in the finale when side characters who were largely absent most of the season all of a sudden came back to play large roles, while other characters to whom much more time was devoted during the course of the season were entirely absent.  I by no means believe every character needs to be in every episode or have an equal amount of screen time, but if certain characters are going to be more important at the season’s climax, they should get some more screen time, and I think the time was parceled out very poorly this season.  Additionally, I don’t think the creators necessarily understand which of their characters deserve more screen time in general.

For example, Chalky White, who was basically a non-entity through the vast majority of the season, comes around to play a crucial role in the last two episodes.  I would go so far even to say Chalky has been a non-entity for the vast majority of the entire run of the show; in my longer piece, one of my pieces of advice was that since the writers have decided he’s not important enough to devote more time to, that they should just trim the fat and cut him out entirely.  I do think Chalky can be an interesting and worthwhile character, but I think the writers should have shown more dedication to him over the course of the show if they want us to care about him and treat him as an important character, like they try to in his maybe one showcase episode a season.

Richard Harrow has become a fan favorite, and for good reason; he’s one of the few characters that seems to get just enough screen time and have just enough going on to keep him both interesting and relevant.  While his relationship to the main storyline was often tenuous, it was still significantly closer than say Nelson, and it was easier to take because his arc was compelling enough to live on its own.

Arnold Rothstein, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky; these are all sideline characters; they’re great to have in a show, but they’re characters who are important mostly in how they alter the behavior and decisions of our more major characters.  Capone, for example, gets a small little moment where we see him interacting with his son, but for the rest it feels largely like the show is just telling us to keep watching as Capone moves up to conquer Chicago, like we all know we will.

Primary season 3 antagonist Gyp Rosetti was that was as well; he was a force to be reckoned with, but there wasn’t much going on with his character other than he was a violent psychopath determined to take down Nuckie.  There were some beautifully rendered hyper violent scenes showing just how crazy he was (it seemed like one an episode) and Bobby Cannavale handled the part very well.  Still there wasn’t much going on in terms of motivations or subtitles with him; he mostly existed to put Nuckie in a jam.  Again, it’s fine to have characters like this, who are pretty cool but relatively one-dimensional, but Boardwalk could do a better job investing either more time in the characters on the map that have a little more emotional depth going for them, or add some more subtle layers of depth to these characters.

Nelson Van Alden, who may have gotten the third most screen time during this season after Nuckie and Margaret, didn’t even appear in the finale.  I would have eliminated Nelson’s plot if I was planning out the third season.  Not because I don’t think his character could have any value, but because it just didn’t seem to fit and I don’t find his character in and of itself compelling enough to support his own entirely unrelated subplot, especially when I think focus is such a pervasive problem on the show.

Overall, I think the finale represented a smarter blend of characters than the majority of the season.  Margaret and Nelson’s being largely absent was notable more because they’ve occupied such huge roles over the course of the season than because they were missed in the plot or the flow of the episode.

Okay, these couple of thoughts have gone on far longer than I intended, but I’ll wrap up here.  The second season really came together in the last few episodes over the rise and fall of Jimmy Darmody and Nuckie’s ability to stand up against a series of ultimate betrayals by people he trusted.  The third season felt far more haphazard, zigging and zagging in odd ways to make sure that it reached a resolution after exactly 12 episodes.  Going forward, I’d advise Boardwalk Empire to plan better from the start of the season, to trim the fat, and to take more time to consider who the show is spending what amount of screen time with.