Archive | June, 2013

End of Season Report – Mad Men, Season 6

28 Jun

Don looking animated

Two statements to start off this report on the just finished sixth season of Mad Men: First, this was probably the weakest season of Mad Men yet. Second, even at its weakest, Mad Men is more interesting and provides more food for thought than almost any other show on television.

There’s one major reason for this season’s overall weakness: Don Draper. I’ve further broken down the problems with Don into two related issues. First, it too often feels like we’re revisiting old ground with Don Draper. This is never more clear than through the flashbacks we see this season to his childhood. These flashbacks are both way too on the nose regarding how Don sees woman, especially in the context in which they’re shown, and they don’t really reveal insight that we don’t already know. Don seems to be repeating behavior and storylines from the past several times during the season, falling back into the same cheating patterns, being needlessly mean to Peggy, and just making everybody’s life difficult in ways similar to what he’s done before.

Secondly, Don’s the worst. Don was never a great guy, and from the first episode in which we’re introduced to him, he’s stepping out on his wife, a pattern he repeats through two marriages. Still, while Don was no hero, there was still an essential humanity deep down that we could relate to and understand, even if not feel sorry for or sympathize with. Even when he was wrong, which was often, he felt, and he tried, or at least tried to try, and at work he was often the good guy even when he wasn’t at home.

None of these are any longer the case. It’s as if Matt Weiner set out this season with the goal of destroying every shred of humanity within Don and turning him into a full fledged monster, which is what Peggy calls him late in the season when he attempts to both sabotage a meeting for Ted and take credit away from Peggy in one fell swoop. He not only cheats on his new wife, but he’s also incredibly degrading to the woman he cheats with. Oh, and it happens, to add insult to injury, that she’s his neighbor, and her husband is one of the only men Don seems to genuinely like in the entirety of Mad Men. He makes constant trouble for the firm after the merger, seemingly going out of his way to frustrate Ted and belittle Peggy. The coup de grace may have been when his daughter catches him in flagrante with the neighbor, destroying what respect she had left for her dad.

There’s even more emphasis on what a drunk Don has become this season than in previous years. While he’s always been a serious drinker evolving into a borderline alcoholic, he’s clearly a full-fledged alcoholic here and sober in very few scenes over the course of the season ( (maybe more than borderline, I’m no expert at the diagnosis, but there’s never been as much emphasis on the destructive power of drink to his life). In the final episode, he seems to at least care about trying to give up booze, throwing out his bottles and not drinking at work, and even though he’s suspended by his partners, this could be the first step in a powerful redemption story. I’m not sure it’s a redemption story I want to see though. Don’s come so far, and we’ve come so far with him that I’m not sure I want to see Don redeemed at this point. Maybe I’m not giving enough credit to the plight of alcoholism, a very serious disease, and I apologize if I’m not, but his actions have seemed deplorable whether or not he was drinking. It would be great if he cleaned himself up for his character within the show, but I’m not convinced he’ll ever be a person I want to root for again.

If anyone came out worse than Don this season, it was Pete. Pete, who may have gotten the second most screen time this year after Don, has always been the anti-Don in a way. Don breaks all the rules, but, until this season, it didn’t matter, because Don always gets the breaks. He screws up big time, but makes up for it somehow by pulling a big pitch out of his ass or seducing the next woman to come along with sweet talk after he fails the previous one. Don finally does get his comeuppance here, but while it’s hard to feel sympathy for him, it’s hard to not feel at least somewhat sympathetic for Pete. Pete was the primary antagonist in the show’s early seasons but now that everything goes wrong for him anyway, it’s hard to continue to root against him. He wants to get away merely with part of what Don does effortlessly, but it never works. While Don gets away with cheating for years, Pete’s caught out in his first foray in his new apartment in the city. He think he solves an awkward situation in which he catches his father-in-law in a whorehouse, but the joke’s on him when his father-and-law would rather spill the beans on Pete’s infidelity, even if he knows that the same damning evidence will be visited on him. There was no greater physical symbolism for Pete’s stumbles than his quite literal stumble down the stairs midway through the season. It’s not that Pete doesn’t deserve a lot of what he’s getting, but it’s hard to feel like even he deserves all this misfortune in such a short period of time.

Mad Men struggled to reckon with the almost mythic historical importance of 1968, a year with multiple assassinations, infamous riots, and the election of Nixon, which symbolically ended the decade in many ways. There were occasionally powerful historical scenes, including after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, but too often I thought the efforts to have the characters react to the specific events of the time fell flat. This, as has been noted in many blogs and media outlets, has been particularly true in regards to race. My biggest problem isn’t Mad Men’s failure to deal adequately with the race-related issues that pervaded the ‘60s, although the show certainly has been largely unsuccessful. My problem is that they make a half-assed effort. I’d rather the show largely ignore race than attempt to put a couple of toes in the water only to take them right back out when the water’s too cold. Mad Men introduced a black character Dawn, only to basically never use her.

Even for its faults, there’s plenty to enjoy in the new season. Peggy, Don’s one time protégé, may be well on her way to surpassing the master, and her rise is cataloged wonderfully, even with the surreal stabbing of her now ex-boyfriend Abe. Joan and Roger shine in every scene they get; one only wishes they could get more screen time. Joan’s turning what she thought was a date into a recruitment dinner with a potential client was a great step in her evolution as a businesswoman.

There were a handful of new characters this season. The shady Bob Benson, who generated more conspiracy theories than any other new Mad Men character, turned out so far to be a doppelganger of Don’s; a man without a past who has invented a future for himself. He’s helped out several people as part of his eager beaver please anyone he meets routine, but we’ve started to see a dark side when he sets up Pete for failure at Chevy.

Ted existed before this season but never as this meaty a character, and his contrast and competition with Don was one of the most enjoyable plots of the season. Ted has his weaknesses, which are on clear display in the last episode when he jerks Peggy around romantically. Still, the inclusion of Ted makes us realize just how unusual, and not in a good way, Don is. Being a creative isn’t an excuse for his treatment of his employees and his management strategy. Also, the scene of Ted flying Don in his tiny plane was a season-long highlight. Ted’s longtime partner Jim Cutler was a welcome minor character as well this season, adding notes of humor to a show that can easily be dragged down by Don’s (and Pete’s) unrelenting self-seriousness.

I look forward to a complete rewatch at some point where I can see if the material comes together better in a shorter period of time. As I said before, it’s still Mad Men. There’s so much to chew on, and the fact that there is, even if it doesn’t always work, makes Mad Men clear appointment viewing. Still, I hope the next and last season pulls together a little bit better.

Advertisements

End of Season Report – Downton Abbey, Season 3

26 Jun

Sisters Downton

I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly excited to watch the third season of Downton Abbey.  I waited until long after it aired in both the UK and the US to watch it.  While I never doubted I would get around to it, after the second season I was a lot less excited with the whole prospect. Saying I was disenchanted with the show is far too strong a word for a show that didn’t really change its essential stripes, but I was hardly looking forward to it either.

I’m making this point only to turn around and give Downton Abbey the backhand compliment that while the third didn’t exactly return me back into a state of excitement about the show, it also didn’t continue to deflate my expectations as much as it might have.  It represented a plateau-ing of Downton Abbey, as the third season was at least as consistent as the second season.  While I’m still not super excited about the fourth season, I probably won’t wait as long to watch it.

Everyone who watches this show should know this by now, but Downton Abbey is a primetime soap opera thinly disguising itself (and not even really disguising itself at this point) as a show about the dynamics of class politics in early 20th century Britain.  Watching Downton has made me think there could be a place for a really piercing drama about these class politics, but this certainly isn’t it.  It’s not entirely politically vacant, and to Downton’s credit, while they smooth most conflicts over fairly quickly, they don’t entirely ignore their existence.  Still, every seemingly political content is generally just used as a vehicle for personal drama.

Downton does cycle right through a series of issues which could really be reckoned with, but these difficult issues are generally introduced just to provide fodder for short term conflict between two or more main characters, and then solved an episode later, after which tea will be served.  Sybil’s marriage to a chauffeur was the stuff of scandal, but by the end of the third season, Tom has joined the family and just about entirely quelled his controversial talk about Irish independence.  The Catholic-Protestant conflict is solved in about 45 minutes after Lord Grantham eventually gives in.  Poor Lord Grantham has to play the conservative heavy in almost every conflict this season, counting on all the charisma and love he’s generated in the early seasons to prevent him from coming off as a total villain.  A scandal revolving Thomas Barrow’s homosexuality (which I had totally forgotten about) nearly ruined his life before a surprising number of empathetic parties, who have had their qualms in the past with the generally villainous Barrow, put pressure on the servant who was doing the accusing. The accuser was motivated less by hate than by the machinations of the scheming O’Brien.  Ethel, the maid who had given birth to the child of a solider who was recuperating at Downton (I had also totally forgotten about this) returns, as the always virtuous Mrs. Crawley hires her so she can rehabilitate from her life as a prostitute (things did not go well for her after Downton).  This sets off a major conflict but all’s well when the Dowager Countess helps get her a new job working for a family near where her child is being raised by the kid’s grandparents. Everybody wins!

I’m making these points not to vent against these happy endings; they’re quite fine, but rather to much as to make sure we’re clear on what we’re watching.  It’s a visually gorgeous soap opera that happens to involve some really rich people and not rich people who work for them in their awesome house.

As I pointed out above, poor Robert serves as the unchanging conservative force who is having trouble adapting to the new times, more than his wife, and even more than his mother.  It’s kind of sad watching him fight against everyone else, especially when he’s usually the only one on his side.  His poor decision making is evident, after earlier in the season discovering he lost all of his money in bad investments, he tries to argue for reinvesting in the fund of a one Charles Ponzi.  Even Downton Abbey can’t resist a pointed historical joke from time to time.

Fitting for a show that’s really about personal drama rather than political conflict, the most moving moments by far involved the death of youngest daughter Sybil right after she gives birth to a daughter.   While the political conflicts often like they’re lacking juice, the reaction from Sybil’s death felt authentic by all parties. After Sybil’s death, there’s a bizarre turn in Edith’s character in the second half of the season when I felt the strange sensation of rooting for her, which made me entirely uncomfortable.  That said,  kudos to whoever decided they wanted to make Edith stop being horrible.  Shows aren’t served well by characters that are irredeemably terrible, and Edith has never been quite that bad, but she’s come close.

There’s lots of little drama between the characters that is hardly edge-of-your-seat suspenseful but is enough to care about at least for as long as the episode is.  There’s a love quadrangle among the servants as Daisy likes Albert who likes Ivy who likes James who likes, well, who even knows.  In filling up just eight episodes, it seems like sometimes the writers don’t have a ton of ideas left but Downton is surprisingly watchable for a show where a lot of the subplots aren’t particularly captivating.  It is, if I haven’t said, a really fucking nice house.

This season was definitely a little bit looser and more relaxed now that Matthew and Mary are finally married.  The will-they won’t-they between the two of the them was charming initially, but got tiring as it seemed like the show was just inventing excuses to keep them apart.

I don’t want to leave without saying how hilarious I thought the impression of Americans was on the program.  Shirely MacLaine plays Cora’s mother and makes constant quips about quaint British traditions and how allergic to change the British are.  In the last episode, we’re introduced to a new young female character named Rose for some reason.  I think Rose is introduced only to help portray the ‘20s as we Americans know them with loose women and flappers doing the Charleston while black musicians play.  When it’s discovered she’s visiting these clubs with a married man, Rose has embroiled herself in s a scandal that everyone at Downton can agree on!

Spring 2013 Review: Maron

24 Jun

Marc Maron is Maron

It’s hard to imagine Maron existing in a world without Louie.  Louie is a good show and an Important show (the capital I was on purpose) but until now has yet to be an influential show, at least in terms of its direct impact on other television programs.  Maron is the first sign of a television world that comes after Louie.

There’s plenty admirable about imitating what Louie does, but it’s dangerous as well.  It’s hard to pull off Louie’s combination of ludicrous and poignant as well as his ability to switch on a dime from comedic to serious and back again.

It’s tough to live in a post-Louie world because sometimes it feels like instead of relaxing watching a television show and just looking to laugh like when watching a New Girl or a Bob’s Burgers, I have to scrutinize every little exchange between Maron and each other character for meaning. Honestly, I’m probably thinking a little bit too hard, but this is what happens when I spent a full season trying to figure out what Louie was about, and now I’m trying to bring that thought process to bear here.

You’re probably not going to laugh a whole lot.  Shows in a post-Louie world by comedians aren’t necessarily designed that way.  It’s as if the comedian has a higher calling, and to some extent, I think it’s admirable not to just be boxed in a corner as funny, even though funny is not inherently a bad place to be.  There’s a couple of solid quips, but there aren’t very many jokes or real laugh lines, certainly not like you’d find in clear comedies like Parks and Recreation or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Marc Maron’s a little bit edgier than Louie.  He’s less awkward than Louie but more narcissistic.  Louie wants to be liked, but Maron needs to be.  Louie tries desperately to be nice, while Maron has no problem being mean and combative.  Instead of daughters, Maron has cats.  If Louie is the everyman, Maron plays the id, the man running around with a little less control over himself.  An early scene has Maron run into his ex-wife in a coffee shop with his sick cat.  He previously had made a point about how he wouldn’t know what to do if he ran into his ex-wife. He acts like a dick when he does, being needlessly hostile to her years after their relationship ended.  If Maron needs to be liked, he’s also kind of a jerk, and the show seems to be dealing a lot with that central contradiction.  He addresses this straight on at the end of the pilot when he mentions that he’s okay with the world thinking whatever they want about him, even though we know the opposite is true.

The show is hooked around the most successful thing Marc Maron’s ever done, which is his WTF podcast, which he records out of his LA garage (it’s smart to set his show across the country from Louie’s NYC).  In this first episode, Dave Foley is over to record a show with Marc, and Marc does a couple of a little segments with Foley, as if recording them for his show.

In this episode, Maron and Foley drive over to a comic book store where a guy who has been bashing Maron on Twitter is playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons.  This plot feeds directly into Maron’s needing to be liked, and his reckoning with modern technology, as he must know why this random dude doesn’t like him and insists on shouting it to the world.

Maron, the show, ventures into very dangerous ground by presenting these extremely nerdy looking guys dressed in costumes playing a campaign.  Maron does try to not play it straight, and at least kind of flips the situation on its head by having Maron, the person, come out as the bad guy rather than the nerds.  He’s the one who had to find them in person, and they love Dave Foley who defends them later.  Still even acknowledging the existence of nerds so extreme, strikes a couple of boxes on my Nerd Defamation League checklist.  The primary nerd character is portrayed by Erik Charles Nielson, who plays ubernerd Garrett on Community.  If they didn’t want to drive that point home about how stereotypically nerdy this character was, they could have cast someone else.

I reasonable enjoyed watching the show, but I hardly felt compelled to watch another episode.  I didn’t particularly care for the character of Marc Maron, and I’m not sure whether that is how I’m supposed to feel or not.  I think a show like this can both take more than one episode to really get into, and very likely may need a few episodes to really get running at maximum capacity.  Thus, I’ll try to at least check it out down the line.  But the way it is right now, I could imagine watching, but probably won’t go out of my way for.  It has a little bit of a lot of qualities, but no one aspect really made a strong enough impression to make me immediately want to come back.

Will I watch it again?  Honestly, I doubt I’ll watch every episode of Maron, at least anytime soon.  Since it appears like it will be fairly episodic, there’s a fair chance I’ll catch another episode, and I can imagine marathoning it one day down the line over a couple of days.  It doesn’t really capture me, though to be fair, the first Louie didn’t either, and I now greatly enjoy that show, even if I still don’t think it’s necessarily the best on TV.

Power Rankings: Arrested Development Characters, Part 2

21 Jun

The gang, again

In our continued coverage of all things Arrested Development in the wake of the long-awaited new season, we’ve been ranking the characters.  Part 1 can be found here.  This is part 2, five through one.  Moving on.

5. Tobias – Though everyone gets their share, Tobias and Buster are the physical comedy 1 and 1A of Arrested Development.  Many of Tobias’s funniest moments revolve around bits that sound stupid or infantile when explained, and it’s vastly to David Cross’s credit that he makes them hilarious when viewed.  A top two character in my early viewing of the show, some of Tobias’s bits don’t stand up as well on repeated viewings, particularly the continued poor choices of language he uses and the constant Tobias-is-gay harping.  It’s funny for a while, but sometimes it seems as if Arrested Development doesn’t know when to pull back on a joke and go in another direction.  Still, he sits here because plenty of the bits do work, like his simple awkward getting up on the stage when he’s directing a high school play, and because the writing is so clever that even though you wish they would pull back, they still manage to make his inappropriate language frequently hilarious.  His performance as Mrs. Featherbottom is a highlight. It maximized Tobias’s awkward potential and played on his obliviousness without necessarily smacking you in the face with “Tobias is gay.”   The Arresetd Development line that comes up most often for me in day to day situations is the tail end of Tobias’s ” “No, it never does. I mean, these people somehow delude themselves into thinking it might, but… but it might work for us.”  But for funniest in the moment, it falls just behind the line below.

Best Line:  “You know, first of all, we are doing this for her, because neither one of us wants to get divorced. And second-of-ly, I know you’re the big marriage expert – oh, I’m sorry, I forgot, your wife is dead! ” – Season 2, Episode 3 “Amigos”

4. Lucille – Lucille bumped up into the top four for me after rewatching the first three seasons.  I had her ranked lower in my memory from years ago but after watching all of the episodes again I have absolutely no idea why that could be.  Her acidic put downs of her family members are consistently hilarious and her haughty sense of entitlement is clearly where Lindsay gets hers from, but Lucille’s is funnier.  She’s frequently in top form and gets to rip all of the characters apart. It’s easy enough to insult a Bluth, but no one gets the freedom to say things like Lucille does.  My favorite recurring Lucille bit may be her constant referral to her not caring for G.O.B.  The new episodes show off her personality perfectly when she has the attitude and ability to lead her little prison gang, but soon gets on the nerves of all of the other gang members so much with her constant sniping that they want her out desperately.  She’s far and away the meanest Bluth, which is some shows might be a detriment, but here gives her the freedom to speak her mind.  Her surprise at seeing Gene Parmesan provides a wonderful rare gleeful Lucille moment.   For her line, I’m actually going to cheat and use a snippet that has a Michael response in between, because most of her best quotes involve her responses to other people.

Best line:  Lucille: “I’ll be in the hospital bar.”

Michael: “Uh, you know there isn’t a hospital bar, Mother.”

Lucille: “Well, this is why people hate hospitals.” – Season 1, Episode 4 – “Key Decisions”

3. Michael – In the first three seasons, Michael acted largely as the straight man, but he was far more hilarious than comedic straight men often are.  The elements that turn him away from straight man in the fourth season to just another unsuccessful, troubled Bluth were present the whole time.  The self-absorption and inability to listen to what anyone else says or thinks may not have largely affected his position at the Bluth Company in the first couple seasons but is largely responsible for his downfall in season four.  His frequent retort “I’m leaving this family” turns into self-parody in an oft-repeated scene in the fourth season, as it turns out no one cares except Micheal.  He’s no longer keeping the family together.  This allows Michael even further to show off his comic chops.  I don’t blame him that he got stuck with the difficult job of anchoring the exposition-heavy first episode of the new season. Rather, I credit the fact that he was the most logical character to start off any story of Arrested Development with and make the most out of it.  His series of jokes at not being able to recognize George Michael’s girlfriend Ann is my favorite running bit.  Hilarious moments in the new season include his constant retelling of the four person elimination vote and his extremely extended lie about traffic to his son.

Best line: “Jessie… No, I was just saying your name as you walked away. I didn’t… I have no follow-up.” – Season 1, Episode 11 – Public Relations

2. George Michael – One of the only changes that occurred after viewing the fourth season was that I swapped Michael and George Michael.  They’re still incredibly close, but the first George Michael episode may have been my favorite of the season, and both of his episodes came towards the end which may have skewed my thought process.  I know awkward comedy doesn’t work for everyone, but George Michael’s awkwardness is incredible and consistently leads to laughs.  George Michael was the last character in the new season to realize that he couldn’t break out of being who he was.  We’re led to believe he’s become a successful internet start up founder but learn later that it’s the same George Michael who is only marginally more successful than the other Bluths. The lie about Faceblock grows and grows as George Michael, like his father, tries to continually lie his way out of it rather than tell the truth, putting himself in situations in which the truth is harder and harder to reveal.  His moments with his father are often strong, and their position next to each other on this list is no coincidence. There was surely something unsubtle about the pointing out by narrator Ron Howard of how long it took him to respond to people in the new season, but it was still funny, and his “solve for x” attempt to hit on Maeby was amazing.

Best Line: “Say what you want about America – thirteen bucks can still get you a hell of a lot of mice!” – Season 1, Episode 21 – “Not Without My Daughter”

GOB and Franklin

1. G.O.B. – George Michael and Michael are both high on this list largely because of their relatively subtle humor.  G.O.B. isn’t.  His lines are often over the top.  He’s much more nuts they either of them, and willing to go a lot farther in pursuit of anything (see: pretending to be in a gay relationship with his nephew).  Arnett is so good at this character that he’s portrayed it in other shows, but it’s best here.  He’s constantly insecure and wants to be both liked by Michael and be better than Michael at the same time.  He’s the most easily manipulated Bluth, and perhaps the most incompetent.  He gets many of the best lines, and he turns them into classics with his delivery.  Some of his stupid lines that really have absolutely no reason to be funny are still hilarious.  For example, I keep finding myself repeating or thinking of how he sings to Michael, in the new season, “It’s so easy to forget” when trying to give Michael a forget-me-now, and then calls him out as “Stupid forgetful Michael.”  Honestly, almost all of his bits are hilarious, including nearly everything associated with his magic career as well as his puppet Franklin.  His description of trying to pick up women at a pageant is phenomenal, when he explains that the “First place chick is hot, but has an attitude, doesn’t date magicians. Second place is someone weird usually, like a Chinese girl or a geologist. But third place, although a little bit plain, has super low self-esteem.”  I’m picking one line because I have to, but there’s so many others that spring to mind that are equally hilarious.  I could do a top 10 of G.O.B. without thinking too deeply before I could name two equally funny Lindsay quotes.

Best line:  “Michael if I make this comeback I’ll buy you one hundred George Michael’s you can teach to drive.” – Season 2, Episode 15 – “Sword of Destiny”

Power Rankings: Arrested Development Characters, Part 1

19 Jun

The gang's all here

I promised more Arrested Development posts, and I meant to deliver.  Here’s my power rankings of the nine main characters in the show, in order from least favorite to favorite.  This covers the course of all four seasons, so spoiler alert is in effect if you haven’t finished yet. My opinions have largely remained the same since I watched the first three seasons years ago, but with some slight tweaks due to both rewatching the old episodes recently and watching the new ones.  I’d like to add the important caveat that they’re all great.  There are no bad characters, but, like ranking Beatles albums or Sopranos seasons, something has to be last.  In addition, just for your special edification, every character will be accompanied by a favorite quote of mine. The rankings became slightly unwieldy as I was writing them so I broke them up into two – this is part one.  Now, on to the rankings.

9. Lindsay – Sorry, someone has to be last.  I know I pointed it this out just a couple sentences ago, but I think it’s important to say again.  There are no bad characters.  All nine are great and I love all of them! So think of this less as an insult and more as well, the ninth best compliment. Lindsay is the vainest and the most entitled Bluth (which says a lot for a family with G.O.B.. in it).  Lindsay doesn’t get as many chances to be as funny as a lot of the other characters, but she has her best moments playing on both her vanity and her sense of entitlement.  She also draws from her constant inner conflict between her idealistic dreams of activism and the fact that she’s uninterested in giving up any of the entitlements required to pursue activism, or in learning about what she’s advocating for or against.  Her highlights from the new season involved exactly these contrasts, including her interactions at the Four Seasons Mumbai. In her interaction with the shaman there, which she turns to to speak for spiritual advice, she assumes he is hitting on her.  She tries hard and partly falls for mega activist Marky Bark, but eventually instead succumbs to the glamour of Herman Cain-like conservative candidate Herbert Love who showers her with gifts.

Best Quote:  “He was the house shaman at the Four Seasons Mumbai, so you figure he’s got to be pretty good. Oh, and he turned into an ostrich at the end, so … they’re not gonna have that at the Embassy Suites.” – Season 4, Episode 3, “Indian Takers”

8. George Sr. –   George Sr. doesn’t get quite as many great laugh lines as some of the other characters (a trait the characters that sit at the bottom of these rankings share), and his plots and personality seem to vary the most among the characters, as he gets into some of the weirdest situations.  He goes from a white collar criminal surprisingly loving his time in jail to a sham prophet hawking a series of DVDs to a stir crazy prison refugee hiding out in the model home attic.  His level of competence seems to bounce back and forth more than any other character, and he alternates brilliant prison escapes with believing that he and his wife can’t be convicted of the same crime (to be fair, he had the worst lawyers). Probably my favorite of these phases is his attic hide out, which leads to his wonderful tea parties with the dolls left up there and his wearing of Michael’s dead wife’s maternity clothes.  Tambor’s more impressive acting job may actually be as George’s hippie twin brother Oscar, who gets a pretty juicy part in the fourth season.

Best Line:  ” If you play me, you got to play me like a man and not like some mincing little Polly or Nellie! I get those names confused. Apology. (to dolls) Apologies all around.” – Season 2, Episode 13, “Motherboy XXX”

7  Maeby – Maeby gets the shortest shrift throughout the show, even moreso than Lindsay and George Sr..  She can be very funny when she gets a chance to shine, but she generally gets slightly less of a chance than everyone else.  She’s one of only three characters not to get two starring episodes in the most recent season. While reading over many of her lines, a surprisingly small amount stand out for a show so quotable.  My favorite Maeby plot, which is pretty much what gets her above George and Lindsay to begin with, is her time as a movie executive which began in the second season.  This plotline both gave her a chance to put her superior bullshitting skills to good use and gave her a chance to venture outside of her original gimmick of liking Steve Holt and desperately wanting her parents to notice her. The new season made the most of Maeby’s talents in her episode.  Her continued lying and her ability think on her feat continued to get her far, but also brought her down.  My favorite recurring quote of hers in the series is “Marry Me!” interspersed with the occasional “Babysit Me” but since that works at least in part because of its repeated nature, I’ve chosen a quote I enjoyed from the new season below.

Best Line:  “So you can all go (bleep) yourselves! What? Sure. Please welcome the talented voices of Phineas and Ferb. Go (bleep) yourself!” – Season 4, Episode 12: “Señoritis”

I'm a Monster!

6.  Buster – Buster’s a great introductory character character, particularly because his humor is often loud. A lot of his best moments involve physical humor, particularly once he has a hook for a hand as well as his giant hand in the new season.  His devotion to his mother veers well into creepy territory, and he’s probably the most disturbing of any of the main characters, which in this show is saying a lot.  This is particularly on display in the new season, when he puts on a Psycho routine, constructing his own Lucille while she’s away in jail, and making her cocktails.  Many of the characters in Arrested Development are horrible people but Buster is the only one where I occasionally worry if there’s actually something wrong with him.  Of course there are plenty more lighter moments, where Buster’s just being a clueless idiot.  The early introduction of Buster in the first episode seems to indicate that, due to his continuous graduate studies, he’s book smart, but has no common sense. As the show goes on though, it’s hard to imagine him being even book smart.  He gets a little bit short-changed in the new episodes, largely I think because he was busy filming Veep, but he has some good moments with his new giant hand, even if it’s no hook.  His refrain of “I’m a monster”  after he acquires the hook is his best repeated catch phrase.

Best Line: “These are my awards, Mother. From Army. The seal is for marksmanship, and the gorilla is for sand racing. Now if you’ll excuse me, they’re putting me in something called Hero Squad.” – Season 2, Episode 6, “Afternoon Delight”

5 through 1 on Part 2, coming soon.

End of Season Report – Rectify, Season 1

17 Jun

Everyone gets ready to eat dinner

Rectify had an excellent first season overall and may have been the best new series from the past year.  In discussing the season, I’d like to start with the end, the powerful and vicious scene that closed Rectify’s debut season.

Few recent television scenes have incensed me with the furor that the last five minutes of the final episode of this season of Rectify did.  A pack of masked small-town middle-aged men descended on main character and freed death row convict Daniel as he visits the grave of the woman he was convicted of murdering and simply beat the living tar out of him.  Daniel, helpless, lies on the grass as blows are rained down on him by the masked men.  One of the men, the older brother of the woman whose gravesite Daniel is lying by, finishes the job by peeing on him.  Rectify had previously shown threats to Daniel by angry townspeople, including a damaged mailbox, but nothing even close to this extent. As I watched Daniel lie doubled over in pain before an ambulance arrived, I wanted to for someone to come and make these guys pay for what they did, legally or extralegally, but they just got back in their cars and went back from whence they came.

This scene triggered such strong emotions largely because so few shows aspire towards the level of realness of Rectify.  Moments in shows like Game of Thrones certainly supply anger and a visceral gut punch, but there’s always a detached perspective of a fantasy world.  Even shows like Breaking Bad take place in our world, but in a heavily stylized version of the world.  Not so with Rectify.  Few shows this side of David Simon truly feel like reality.  Everything in Rectify feels like it could actually happen in our world, a view enhanced by the gentle pacing and the emphasis on seemingly mundane events, like eating pieces of cake and taking trips to the store. Rectify led me to believe that I could drive down I-95 for a day and reach the town from the show, and it’s because of that sense of reality that each blow Daniel took raised my blood pressure and made me want to sock each and every man in masks.

The minimalism of the show also helped increase the power of that scene.  Unlike shows in which episodes routinely feature action and fighting, a punch means something in this world.  Violence isn’t something handed out in every episode.  This beating was an extraordinary event, that stood out starkly from the every day.

This reality is one of the factors that separates Rectify from everything else on television.  The whole season takes only a couple of days, and few shows make so much out of so little plot.  Little emotional moments are at the heart of Rectify, and they consistently hit.  The last scene was so powerful because you come to empathize with the characters.  We don’t yet know what really happened to the girl Daniel allegedly killed, but we do know that Daniel is a man who suffered deeply for two decades and who is honestly trying to face up and reckon with the opportunity for freedom he’s been given.  He still hasn’t quite figured out how to do make that peace, but his attempt at finding it stands in sharp contract to the simple-minded physical violence eye-for-an-eye strategy employed by the punks who beat him.

Flashbacks are difficult to use well, and in the past I’ve called out many shows for unnecessary flashbacks, which I think can be a crutch for exposition or character development best handled in the present.  I absolutely love the flashbacks in Rectify though, which show Daniel’s time in prison.  Daniel interacts primarily with another prisoner in the cell next to his, and their contact seems more free and natural than Daniel’s contact with anyone in the outside world once he gets out. Over time, this one fellow prisoner becomes his link to the remainder of humanity. The last episode features a moving scene in which Daniel’s friend is finally taken to die, and in his last moments finally sees Daniel, after years communicating only by sound, and confidently pronounces that he is sure that Daniel is innocent of murder.  It’s difficult to even imagine the very real plight of being released from prison after twenty years. At least in regular prison there’s at least a yard and some connection with the outside world, unlike death row.  Daniel has been in a box for twenty years, which has to have a huge effect on his ability to communicate with people who haven’t been.

People don’t know how to react around Daniel, and that difficult to bear awkwardness comes right through the screen.  People expect him to have trouble adjusting, but to have less trouble than he actually does, and to get over it real fast.  They project what they imagine twenty years in prison must be like onto him, even though it’s absolutely impossible for them to really understand. When he doesn’t sound unabashedly enthusiastic to be out of prison, people think he must be guilty.  He’s so haunted by the idea that he might be guilty that he’s convinced himself, over the years, that he’s not even sure what happened.  The difficulty that even simple person to person interaction poses Daniel is beautifully rendered and can be difficult to watch and enthralling at the same time.

As mentioned above, it’s often the little moments that really make Rectify stand out.  My favorite of the season was Daniel playing Sonic on Sega Genesis and rocking out to Cracker in the attic, dancing around in the way people only do if there’s no one else around.  It’s one of the few moments in the season where Daniel seems to be actually enjoying himself, appreciating the moment without the heavy emotional burden that every personal contact seems to take on him.  For a couple of minutes at least, Daniel can relax and really appreciate being free.

Summer 2013 Review: Motive

14 Jun

It's all in the eyes.  Or something.

Of all the generic police procedurals in the world, Motive may be the most generic yet.  Motive debuted recently on ABC, but it aired in its native Canada earlier in 2013.  Its one hook which is theoretically supposed to separate it from the glut of police procedurals on television is encapsulated in its title.  Like in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the viewer learns the killer right at the start of the episode.  In fact, to make these easier for the visual learners amongst us, some nifty writing appears on screen labeling “The Killer” and “The Victim” and lingers on the screen for a moment so that we don’t miss it.  What kind of suspense is there then, if we already know the heart of any mystery, the whodunit? Ah!  It lies in, if you haven’t been able to figure it out yet, the motive!  As the police slowly piece together the crime and identify the culprit, the last piece of information to expose itself is the reason for the crime.

The crime itself in the pilot is painfully uninteresting, as if the eventual motive, which is anticlimactic at best.  The least you can expect from a procedural are some decent murder stories, especially in the pilot, which is your first and biggest showcase to the world. A teen outcast kills a popular teacher.  There are some red herrings; the police briefly believe the wife did it, because she was sleeping around, and that the kid’s friend did, but these diversions lack suspense entirely because we know who did it, and because it’s a police procedural, so we know there’s no chance they’re going to end up accusing the wrong person.  It turns out he did it because he had some weed and a notebook with lots of outcast-y thoughts, like wanting to hurt other students and such, and the teacher found it.  The kid snuck into the teacher’s house to grab it back, but when the teacher caught him and was about to call the police, the kid hit him over the head with a trophy.  It really was one of the more boring TV murders I’ve seen recently.

As per police procedural standards, our lead detective, played by former Zeljko Ivanek nominee and canuck Kristin Lehman, is smarter than the average cop. She has a number of gut instincts which end up all being correct, even when her partner points out that the evidence leads in a different direction.  She continues to sniff out incorrect leads and misdirection.  There’s lots of witty banter between her, her partner, and the new guy, whose taking notes on her behavior. Both her and her partner give the new guy tasks and advice.  There are also bizarre sections of the episode showing her cool mom relationship with her teenage son, as she watches him win a car race.  I have absolutely no idea how these fit into the scope of the show or why these sections are here, but you get to him and his girlfriend and his mom let him drive her car.

To say that it’s bad really misses the point.  It’s not good, but it’s taken genenicism (not a word, I know) to a new level.  It’s mind-blowingly bland.  You wouldn’t cringe after watching it.  You would just not realize you were watching anything.

Before I go, I should note that former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre plays the deceased high school teacher.  Also, former Jim Carey wife Lauren Holly plays the coroner and the actor who portrayed 24 agent Curtis Manning, Roger Cross, plays a cop.

Will I watch it again?  No.  Or, if I have nothing else to do for years, and I run out of every Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, and Criminal Minds, and am looking for more.  All this says to me is that there’s a lot of space to fill on television and the easiest way to do it is with police procedurals.