Archive | July, 2013

End of Season Report: Breaking Bad, Season 4 – Part 2

31 Jul

Season 4

This is part two of a look at Breaking Bad, Season 4 – part 1 can be found here.

Gus completely owns episode 10, in which he takes Mike and Jesse down to Mexico.  Jesse shows how far he’s come when he impresses the arrogant Mexican cooks with his formula, and the big scene everybody remembers is Gus poisoning all the top brass of the cartel with tequila.  Gus bided his time and played the long game for his revenge for his partner’s death, but it certainly seemed to be sweet.  The chaotic scene in which everyone is dying from poison, outside of its plot relevance, is another brilliantly filmed set piece, of which there are so many on Breaking Bad.

I remember having more sympathy for Gus during my first viewing than I did in this rewatch.  Gus has his reasons, and there’s certainly moments when you feel good for him, such as when he has his long awaited revenge on the Don.  At the end of the day though, Gus is a villain.  He’s a great villain, and he’s hardly evil, but he’s far more bloodthirsty and calculating than Walter White.  This may explain why he’s successful, along with his lack of ego.  He doesn’t equivocate or think twice before deicing to kill; it’s not a major decision that needs to be hemmed and hawed over.  He doesn’t need a rationale.  He’s willing to and about to kill Hank, a DEA agent, before the events of the last couple of episodes.

Walt tries to convince Gus that he is steering away Hank from finding out about his meth empire however he can, and Gus has him place a tracker on his own car, to try to fool Hank.  When Walt can’t do any more to slow down the tenacious Hank, Gus, unfairly in my mind takes it out on Walt, and threatens to kill Hank (I’m not sure what Walt is actually supposed to do here to continue to prevent Hank from investigating).

Skyler is focused on both laundering money through the car wash and fixing up a situation that resulted from her cooking the books for Ted.  There are two particularly excellent scenes that come up from this plotline.  First, there’s Skyler appearing to be a ditzy mistress of Ted’s who knows nothing about accounting, convincing the IRS to drop criminal charges as long as Ted pays the IRS the money their due in time.  Second, there’s the scene in which Saul has his goons convince Ted to send Skyler’s check to the IRS, making sure that Ted keeps Huell happy, which offers some great tragicomedy.

This is all leads us to the huge big epic final episodes. In episode 11, Gus has Walt driven out to the desert, tells him he’s fired, and that he’s only not being killed because Jesse won’t allow it, but that Gus thinks he can change Jesse’s mind soon, and that Hank will die, and if Walt attempts to prevent it, Walt’s family will die.  Walt is back at full helplessness mode; end times seem near.  He tries to arrange with Saul to hire Saul’s witness-protection-on-crack-disappearing guy, but it turns out Skyler has used the money he needs to have Ted pay off the IRS, a case of poor timing if ever there was, and masterful plotting by the writers.  Walt’s hysterical laughter in the crawl space once he finds out that the money is gone is the most abject display of his desperation yet, and he starts off the next episode sitting outside his house by a pool, playing with his gun, and waiting for death to come.

Walt executes his master plan, poisoning Jesse’s girlfriend’s kid, convincing Jesse that it was Gus who is responsible, and getting Jesse to distract Gus.  Walt’s first plan to blow up Gus’s car doesn’t work when Gus senses something amiss (I’m still not sure how, and I’d love an explanation, this has always been something that didn’t quite work for me, but adds to a Gus-as-superhero mythos).  Next, Walt recruits Tio, and that plan is a success, leading to the memorable explosion, zombie Gus fixing his tie, and Walt’s declaration that, “I won.”

The fourth season of Breaking Bad is no longer about regular people the way the first couple of seasons are.  Everything is on a larger scale, and Walt is no longer a regular guy trying to sell meth to pay for his medical costs, and bumbling around doing so.  The season is a 13-episode long battle between Gus and Walt, both of whom are superheroes rather than regular people in the comic book world of Breaking Bad.  When Gus walks through a storm of bullets, and doesn’t get shot, Mike rationalizes that the gunmen don’t actually want to kill Gus, but the implication to me is that Gus is simply some kind of superhero.  Mike is as well – see the cold open where he pops out of the truck to take out several cartel men by himself.  Breaking Bad, if it ever did, no longer takes place in the real world, but in a type of comic book universe.

I say this not as an insult; the fourth season is a suburb season of television, but rather to simply describe the change in the show.  What makes it work so well is slightly different from the earlier seasons; there are fewer of the moments where we can directly relate to Walt and his family.  Still, the acting is top notch, the characters are all extremely well-built, and the tension and suspense packed into nearly every episode is second to no other television show.

The plotting of the fourth season is immaculate – setting up Skyler to have to pay off the IRS so that Walt wouldn’t have the money to make his family disappear is well-timed and properly set up so that it doesn’t feel forced or like a cheap cop out that disappearing is no longer an option.  Nearly every decision characters make on the show I believe, because it’s been set up either through specific events that have transpired, and by motivations we know the characters have.  When Gus succumbs to Walt’s plan, it’s preying on the weakness we know Gus possesses, his desire for revenge.  I’ve heard complaints that Gus would never keep Walt alive after the events of the third season, and while that’s a reasonable argument, I think the show does a very solid job of setting up why he wouldn’t kill Walt; he needs a chemist, and he can’t afford to not have the superlab running at just about all times, which was alluded to over the course of the third season.

Walt is trapped for much of the season, and he fights tooth and nail for a way out for him and his family, and finally he finds it, which leads to the natural fifth season question of, you win, then what next.  His entire fourth season was defined by Gus Fring, who is now out of the picture, and he’s on top, a position that seemed exceedingly unlikely until the moment it happened.

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End of Season Report: Breaking Bad, Season 4 – Part 1

29 Jul

Season 4

A sense of helplessness and desperation pervades Breaking Bad’s fourth season.  Walter has temporarily staved off his, and Jesse’s, death, thanks to having Jesse shoot Gale, but he knows his days are numbered once Gus finds a new chemist, and he’s absolutely terrified.  Sure, he made some peace with living with seemingly terminal cancer before, but the ticking clock of cancer has nothing on the ticking clock of Gustavo Fring.  After making it through contemplative bottle episode The Fly and the end of the third season, Walt’s deep will to live and survive is renewed, and his terror is ongoing and present during the fourth season even when not at the fore.

Re-watching the season quickly was a significantly different experience than watching weekly; some parts really slowed down, and the end game, which I had remembered as lasting about four episodes only really lasted two.  It’s basically impossible to sustain the constantly abject hopelessness that the fourth season begins with for 13 episodes, fortunately for the viewer, so the tone comes out most continually in the first two and last two episodes of the season, but it’s felt throughout, and everything Walt says and does in the entire season is best viewed through this prism of outright desperation.

In case it wasn’t obvious that Gus was a man who means business and that Walt needed to be terrified of him, Gus slits his associate Victor’s throat in front of Walt in a first episode scene which occurs right where the third season left off.  It’s possible that this is punishment for Victor getting seen at the scene of the murder, but it has the added effect of showing Walt how serious he is; if he killed Victor only for this purpose then Gus is even more bloodthirsty and cutthroat than I realized.

Walt’s trying to figure out an approach to survival, and all he can think of at first are the obvious ones – killing Gus directly or getting Mike to help him out.  He buys a gun, and is foiled trying to go Gus’s house to simply walk in and shoot him.  After suggesting a plan to Mike to help get Walt in a room with Gus, Mike beats him up right in the bar where they’re meeting.  It’s a great scene, and Walt is foolish for making suggestions that he should know Mike is never going to accept.  However, I think Walt is hardly crazy.  Walt sees his own death as something that could be coming any day, any week, and he’s going to go down swinging.  While this approach shows off some Walt’s lesser qualities, it always displays one of his best; his tenacity.  One method fails; find another.  Get beat up in the process if that’s what it takes.

The immediate danger recedes after the second episode in what a way all immediate danger has to; one can only be on the absolute edge of anticipation for so long.  The feeling rather, then, settles into a dull numbness which lasts through the middle of the season, occasionally heightening after particularly frightening moments to let Walt and the audience know that he should be, and is, scared out of his mind.  The much-talked-about “I am the danger” scene is one of these moments.

A couple of incidents throughout the season show off Walt’s single biggest weakness, his ego.  What’s the point of being the best darn meth cook in the southwest if nobody knows it, and you can’t even show off your winnings.  Walt drunkenly muses that Gale’s probably not Heisenberg to Hank at a dinner party and he buys his son an expensive car, which he blows up, when his wife smartly makes him return it.  He can’t get the concept of behaving modestly in his head; someone needs to know what a great job he’s doing.  Jesse wants to be Walt’s ally, but Walt constantly mangles their relationship due to his ego and his poor social skills.  It’s extremely frustrating to watch him drive Jesse away over and over when if he would choose his words and expressions more carefully he could make his point without a fight.

Jesse begins his seasonal downward spiral in the first half of the season, the weight of shooting someone heavy on his conscience.  It’s a moral undertaking that Jesse is unequipped to bear; he doesn’t have Walt’s facility for easy rationalization.  Gus, using his talent, as we’re reminded he possesses, of reading people, sees a spark in Jesse.  Jesse’s far more malleable than Walt; with strong mentorship, Jesse has qualities that would make him a valuable asset, and might imbue with him a sense of loyalty towards whoever the mentor was.  Of course, none of this would have mattered a whit to Gus, who wanted Jesse dead, just a couple of weeks ago, if a relationship with Jesse didn’t also allow Gus to finally put the meddlesome Walt out of the picture.

Mike begins to mentor Jesse, without Jesse exactly realizing what’s going on, until Gus sets up a situation in which Jesse will either be killed, or come out triumphant with new confidence and purpose.  Walt confronts Jesse about the situation, suspecting far more presciently than he could have possibly known, that Gus staged the attack to pump up Jesse’s confidence and begin to drive Walt and Jesse apart.  However, Walt’s brilliant intuition is rendered useless due to the ham-handed way he discusses it, turning Jesse more against him than ever before.

Walt thinks of one more brilliant way to eliminate Gus.  He creates ricin, puts it in a cigarette, and convinces Jesse to look for an opportunity to put it in Gus’s food or drink whenever he has the chance.  Jesse’s reluctance and inability to do so quickly enough spurs Walt’s anger and frustration and drives the two apart.  Walt’s manner of complaining to Jesse is another example of Walt’s poor people skills.  It’s understandable why Walt is so frustrated; he thinks every opportunity Jesse misses increases the likelihood of Walt’s own impending death.  But he has trouble conveying this fear in a constructive way.

We enter what I call the Gus portion of the season, which lasts from approximately episodes 7 through 11.  For this brief span, Breaking Bad almost portrays Gus as the protagonist.  We learn some of Gus’s past, when his partner was killed by the Don and Hector “Tio” Salamanca, and his desire for revenge that has lasted decades; he returns to Tio’s nursing home to taunt Tio when his nephews die (side note: I think it’s ever so slightly cheap to allude to Gus’s mysterious past as the reason the Don doesn’t kill him and never come back to it – it’s not important enough to be a terrible omission but it’s worth mentioning).  We learn Gus’s weakness, which is his desire for revenge against Tio and the cartel.

Come back soon for part 2 of the Season 4 breakdown.

Summer 2013 Review: Camp

26 Jul

Camp time

Camp is set in, well, a summer camp, of the sleep away variety, that is pretty much exactly what you think of when you think of a summer camp.  It’s remarkable; because camp exists as a two month vacation from technology and the pressures of today’s modern world, the camp in Camp, and anywhere else, looks almost identical to camps of twenty and thirty years ago, such as the one featured in Wet Hot American Summer.  The only significant differences are the fashion and the presence, in Camp’s camp, of “We Run the Night” by Havana Brown.

Talented actress Rachel Griffiths (best known for her portrayal of Brenda on Six Feet Under) plays camp director Mackenzie “Mac” Granger.   While the beginning of the camp summer starts in some respects like any other, it isn’t business as usual at the camp this year, because Mac’s husband (Jonathan LaPaglia, who is a younger ,poor man’s Anthony) cheated on her with a much younger Eastern European woman, and left her, and on top of that, because of him, the camp is on extremely shaky financial ground.  She may be forced to sell her beloved camp to smarmy Australian rival Roger, who runs the fancy camp for rich jerks down the road where they have lobsters and jet skis.

Of course, there’s a bevy of kids as well for us to care about.  There’s a couple of kids who are new to the camp this year. There’s Kip, a punk outcast city kid, whose leukemia is in remission and who wants no part of summer camp until he meets Marina, a girl who the cool camp veteran girls, who seem to be mean girl-ish, refuse to give the time of day.  The two of them unintentionally keep hanging out with Buzz, Mac’s half-idiot son who is constantly getting into trouble and desperately wants to sleep in a different cabin than his mom, and have sex by the end of the summer, though the former prospect seems a lot more likely than the latter.  Cole is an older guy, probably in his late ’20s, and seems to be in charge of something (maintenance, wikipedia tells me) and greatly respects Mac and her hopeful and optimistic spirit which keeps the camp afloat.  Robbie who is also a veteran in charge of something (activities, says wikipedia) has a yearly summer fling with Sarah; they don’t communicate all year outside of Camp, and tensions brew when he tells her he may be attending law school where she goes to college.

Camp is a  dramedy, for whatever that genre word is worth. It’s as not a comedy – it’s not funny, and there aren’t that many jokes.  It’s tone is light and airy and occasionally sentimental.  There’ll be some crying, but then some heart-warming moments to redeem said crying.  There’ll be some sex, but it’ll be fun sex, rather than dark sex or sleazy sex or really emotional sex.  There are soapy elements to attempt to keep viewers interested but what Camp would like to be is something that makes you smile as you pass the time.

There’s nothing particularly new or interesting, and for what it’s worth I doubt the creators are attempting to be particularly groundbreaking.  The characters are your regularly rag tag summer bunch, and they’re definitely trope-ish but not over the top, to their credit – the tropiest characters are the side characters that provoke, like some bullies from the rich camp that harass some of the characters.  Camp, to be a success, would rely on developing and strengthening the characters over time, and while it’s eminently possibly that these characters could become something one could care about, there’s not quite enough in the first episode to hook us in further to find out.

It’s fairly unmemorable summer programming.  Nobody knows this show exists, it will be cancelled before the month is out mostly likely, and no one will know that it’s gone.  If a program airs on a network that not that many people watch anyway, and no one watches it, was it every really on?

One note – the first episode is notable if nothing else, for a little public service announcement moment.  Teenager Buzz calls something “faggy” and his buddy/possible future love interest Grace, who has two dads, is naturally offended.  Buzz attempts to defend himself to two of the other characters by saying, as many teens do, that “faggy” and “retarded” just mean lame, that he has no problem with gay people, but they, rightfully, tell him otherwise, and he actually apologizes.  It’s kind of a nice teaching moment for an issue that hasn’t yet gone away.

Will I watch it again?  No, it’s not going to happen.  It was fine.  I have no particular qualms with the show, which is far as I’ll go, but shows have to give you some reason to keep watching besides not being bad, and there isn’t one.

The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame: Gerald McRaney

24 Jul

Gerald McRaney

(The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame is where we turn the spotlight on a television actor or actress, and it is named after their patron saint, Zeljko Ivanek)

Here at the Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame, we often like to celebrate character actors who don’t get their due.  But, occasionally, as today, we’re celebrating the career of an absolute TV titan whose work we still believe is underrated.

McRaney’s sheer amount of work is unbelievable.  His first TV role was in 1972 in an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.  In the early ‘70s he appeared in episodes of Alias Smith and Jones, Cannon, The F.B.I., Sons and Daughters, The Waltons, and Mannix.  He was the last guest star to meet Matt Dillion in Gunsmoke.  He was an incredibly busy guest star in the second half of the decade as well, appearing in two episodes of Petrocelli, Police Woman, and The Streets of San Francisco, three of The Blue Knight and Barnaby Jones, and single episodes of CHiPs, Eight is Enough, Switch, Hawaii Five-0, The Oregon Trail, The Six-million Dollar Man, Baretta, The Dukes of Hazzard, and in a series adaptation of Logan’s Run.  He was in four episodes each of The Incredible Hulk and The Rockford Files.  He appeared in TV movies The Jordan Chance, Women in White, and The Aliens are Coming.

Rick Simon

After appearing in TV movies The Seal, Where the Ladies Go, and Rape and Marriage: The Rideout Case, McRaney got his first huge break, starring in detective series Simon & Simon, as Rick Simon.  Simon & Simon operated as a classic partners-are-opposites set up.  Rick was the tough, street smart, brother; he was formerly a Marine who fought in Vietnam, while his brother AJ was book smart, financially savvy and fashionable.  Rick was a free spirit who liked pick up trucks and lived on a boat in his brother’s yard.*  The series lasted an incredible 8 seasons and 157 episodes, and yet no one can still remember the actor who played AJ (Jameson Parker – and don’t act like it was on the tip of your tongue).

While busy on the series, he found time to film a series of TV movies, including Memories Never Die, The Haunting Passion, City Killer, Easy Prey, A Hobo’s Christmas, The People Across the Lake, and the sublimely named Where The Hell’s That Gold?!!?  He crossed over as Simon into an episode of Magnum, and showed up in two Designing Womens.

Major Dad

Immediately after Simon & Simon ended, McRaney showed his range by starring in his next successful show, the four season sitcom Major Dad, where he played Major John D. “Mac” MacGillis, a commander of an infantry training school who falls in love with a liberal journalist who has three daughters.  For the second time in two shows, he played a Marine.  The show lasted four seasons on CBS.

During Major Dad’s run, he still found time for TV movies, including Murder by Moonlight, Blind Vengeance, Vestige of Honor, Love and Curses..And All That Jazz (I don’t look into every one of these TV movies because the entries would become thousands and thousands of words – but I couldn’t resist this one – IMDB lists the premise as “A private investigator and her husband, who is a doctor, investigate rumors of a dead woman who was brought back to life by a voodoo spell.” and it also features Delta Burke, who is McRaney’s real life wife playing that role as well as Elizabeth Ashley), and Fatal Friendship.

He basically spent the rest of the mid-90s filming a ridiculous amount of TV movies, none of which you will have ever heard of, but which I will list, because as I’ve said many times, TV movies have the best names.  Scattered Dreams, Armed and Innocent, Motorcycle Gang, Deadly Vows, Someone She Knows, Jake Lassiter: Justice on the Bayou (this may be the best name of this list), Not Our Son, The Stranger Beside Me, Nothing Lasts Forever, Home of the Brave, A Nightmare Comes True, A Thousand Men and a Baby (this may have now taken over as best title) and a Simon & Simon reunion entitled Simon & Simon: In Trouble Again.  He appeared on single episodes of Burke’s Law, The Commish, Diagnosis Murder, Coach, and Murder, She Wrote.

He appeared in seven episodes of Darren Star created one-season CBS primetime soap Central Park West, which starred Mariel Hemingway and Raquel Welch and he appeared in seven episodes of the much more successful CBS drama Touched by an Angel.  His recurring character on Touched, Russell Greene, was spun off onto his own CBS drama, Promised Land, which lasted three seasons, and which I don’t even remember existing.  The show was the story of Greene and his family traveling throughout the United States in their airstream trailer, even though everything was filmed in Utah.

The early ‘00s was possibly the least fertile period of McRaney’s career, and he still collected several series appearances and TV movie roles.  Movies included Shake, Rattle, and Roll: An American Love Story, A Holiday Romance, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story, Danger Beneath the Sea (new best title contender!), Becoming Glen, Tornado Warning, The Dan Show, Going for Broke, and Ike: Countdown to D-Day, where he played Patton.  He was in two JAGs, two Third Watch episodes, an episode of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and two West Wings.

George Hearst

In 2005, he made his first of 13 appearances on David Milch’s HBO western Deadwood, where he played George Hearst, a villainous mining baron who unites the town of Deadwood against him.  In 2006, he starred in cult CBS post-apocalyptic series Jericho as Johnston Green, Mayor of Jericho, father of main character Jake, and again, a military veteran.

In the past few years, McRaney, now in his 60s, has been as in demand as ever.  He was in two episodes of Women’s Murder Club and a CSI.  He co-starred in JJ Abrams’ short-lived spy drama Undercovers in 2011, as CIA handler Carlton Shaw, who brought back the two main characters into the agency.  He played a recurring judge in five episodes of USA’s Fairly Legal, who had a grudge against main character Kate for switching from law to mediation. He was in two episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards as Raymond Tusk, a wealthy industrialist and long-time friend and confidante of the president.  He was in two episodes of Justified as Josiah Cairn, friend of the hillbillies and of Raylan’s dad, who claims to know where Drew Thompson is.  He was in five episodes of Southland and six of Mike & Molly.  Most recently he’s appeared in three of A&E western Longmire.

Phew.  That was a long one.  What’s also kind of incredible is just how few movies McRaney has been in relative to his television work, which has been more or less completely constant since 1980.  What a career, and it shows no signs of slowing down.  Welcome to the Hall, Gerald.

*I erroneously originally put that Rick lived in a trailer on his brother’s property, rather than a boat.  Thank you for correcting me, commenter – my boneheaded error.

Reviewing My Fall 2012 Predictions

22 Jul

Who remembers this one?

Many months ago, last September, I predicted the success of every new broadcast network series.  Unfortunately for me, I feel that predictions are cop outs unless they’re reassessed later on.  Let’s take a look back, and see what went right, and mostly what went wrong, with some hindsight thoughts about why I picked the shows, or whether I regret the picks.  These picks were made before I saw the first episodes, so they were primarily based on some combination of network, trailers, descriptions, promotion, general buzz, and some good old fashioned gut feeling.

I originally predicted one of three outcomes for every new series – 13 or less episodes (13-), 14 or more, but not renewed (14+), or Renewal.  We’ll break it down by network.  Links to my original predictions will be attached to each network name.

ABC

ABC

666 Park Avenue

My pick: 13-

Reality: 13-

It’s nice to start with a correct pick!  This is probably why I chose to go through the networks in alphabetical order.  This was a guess; I would have said I was less than 50% confident in this outcome.

Last Resort

My pick: 14+

Reality: 13-

Last Resort had a good premise, a strong cast, a heralded creator in Shawn Ryan, and was one of the best, if not the best, fall network debut.  I hoped my guess was conservative, but it wasn’t.  I don’t think this was a terrible pick.

The Neighbors

My pick: 14+

Reality: Renewal

Honestly, I think I was generous and this should have been a 13- call.  In the biggest “Huh?” decision of this year, The Neighbors was renewed.  This is one of those times where I insist I was right and ABC was wrong.  Sometimes reality gets it wrong.

Nashville

My pick: Renewal

Reality: Renewal

I felt pretty good about this pick.  There are a couple of series every year the networks really push hard, and Nashville was one of them, plus it was actually pretty good, if not quite as good as it could have been.  I took the smart money and the smart money won.

Malibu

My pick: 13-

Reality: 14+

This one actually got a small additional episode pick up before being cancelled.  In a post-Last Man Standing world, you can’t doubt any ABC comedy no matter how lousy, but I’m not too annoyed with myself here.  Acceptable loss.

CBS

CBS

Made in Jersey

My pick: 13-

Reality: 13-

Probably the easiest single pick of the year.  It’s CBS, so you never know what will get some eyeballs, but that also means the standards for expected number of viewers was high.  No drama seems as obviously cancellable as Made in Jersey this year.

Partners

My pick: 14+

Reality: 13-

Was I delusional?  What planet was I living on that I didn’t immediately give this 13-?  To be fair, I hadn’t seen the awful pilot at that point, but come on.  I think I overrated the CBS effect, because I can’t think of another explanation.

Vegas

My pick: Renewal

Reality: 14+

This one was cancelled, but I’m still happy with my call.  Although it isn’t horseshoes or hand grenades, so coming close doesn’t really count, this show could have been renewed, and I feel perfectly fine with my prediction.

Elementary

My pick: Renewal

Reality: Renewal

If I had seen the pilot I would have been even more confident, and I’m not sure how obvious this was as a hit before the year started.  I think this was a smart pick, but not as crazily obvious as it seems now by any means.

CW

CW

Emily Owens, M.D.

My pick: Renewal

Reality: 13-

So I screwed up the CW bad, real bad, and two out of three picks I actually feel bad about.  I wouldn’t have picked renewal if this was on any other network but the CW, and thinking back I understand my logic that this fit their brand real well (the somewhat similar Hart of Dixie is going into a third season next fall) but I still should have erred away from renewal.

Arrow

My pick: 14+

Reality: Renewal

For what it’s worth, I didn’t think it was going to get quickly cancelled, but I blame myself for underrating the superhero appeal from a network that broadcast 10 seasons of Smallville.  If I judged this after the pilot, I’d like to think I would have changed my mind but I can’t be sure.

Beauty and the Beast

My pick: 14+

Reality: Renewal

The only pierce of my 0-for-3 CW record I’m not particularly ashamed of.  It wasn’t very good, and definitely seemed third in the pecking order to me after Emily Owens and Arrow and I figured the network wouldn’t renew three shows.  Not a crazy guess.

Fox

Fox

The Mindy Project

My pick: Renewal

Reality: Renewal

The comedy equivalent of Nashville.  Lots of buzz, general critical like, if not quite love, and push from the network.  A smart bet, and a correct one.

Ben and Kate

My pick: Renewal

Reality: 14+

I’m not angry about this pick, only the fact that Ben and Kate wasn’t given more of a chance.  It was probably better than Mindy, and though I’m glad at least one of them was picked up, this is the show I’m probably most bummed about not getting a second season this year.

The Mob Doctor

My pick: 13-

Reality: 13-

One of the easier guesses for 13-.  Not a ton of promotion, everything just reeked of not trying that hard and not caring very much about this wholly mediocre show.

NBC

NBC

Go On

My pick: 14+

Reality: 14+

Hey there, I nailed this one exactly.  I bet on Perry’s star and heavy promotion extending the series, but attention fading later on, and that’s exactly what happened.  It got okay but not great reviews, and it wasn’t enough even on NBC.

Animal Practice

My pick: 13-

Reality: 13-

Probably the easiest comedy call of the year.  Come on, did anyone actually think this was going to last?

Chicago Fire

My pick: Renewal

Reality: Renewal

My best arbitrarily guess of the year.  I had no idea what to make of this show and it was a little bit of an under-the-radar surprise for NBC.  If only Omar Epps could star in a show on CBS, all three initial House assistants could be starring in shows on Fox’s rivals (Jesse Spencer here, Jennifer Morrison on ABC’s Once Upon a Time).

Guys With Kids

My pick: 13-

Reality: 14+

Until I just looked this up, I didn’t realize this got a small additional episode order.  Why, I’m not sure, it’s produced by Jimmy Fallon and was advertised as such and that’s the only reason I could imagine this lousy show having a chance.

The New Normal

My pick: Renewal

Reality: 14+

I’m fine with getting this one wrong.  Ryan Murphy’s been hot of late with Glee and American Horror Story, and considering NBC renewed Smash, I thought the buzz and hot start might be enough to carry the show to another season even with a sharp decline in interest.  Oh well.

Revolution:

My pick: Renewal

Reality: Renewal

I screwed up Terra Nova last year, but NBC, like Fox for that show, put a lot of money, time and promotion into this show, and it actually got surprisingly good initial ratings even as the show got worse.  A pleasant surprise for NBC, that, like Smash, last year, I could easily see fading and being cancelled after its second season.

Summer 2013 Review: Orange is the New Black

19 Jul

Orange is indeed the New Black

Before I say anything else, I want to say that I absolutely love the title, “Orange is the New Black.”  Most titles are just fine; they describe the show or feature the name of the main character or characters and occasionally a show’s title will be out and out bad.  I rarely come across one I like enough to single it out for praise and when I do, I want to make sure it’s noted.  Great title!

Moving on.

Orange is the New Black is the story of the 15 month imprisonment of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling).  Chapman is a middle to upper middle class early-to-mid thirty-something white person who is engaged to Larry, played by Jason Biggs (yes, it’s hard to try to take him seriously; but it’s hardly his fault, so let’s try).  Right after college, a decade ago, she agreed to carry some money to Belgium for her drug dealer girlfriend she was in love with at the time.  That period in her life passed, and now she’s in a much different place, but it comes back to bite her when she gets indicted for her role carrying the drug money, just before the statute of limitations has passed.  Chapman made a deal, based on her lawyer’s advice, to agree to a sentence in prison, rather than fight the charges, and she has to put her life on hold for over a year while facing a terrifying challenge she could never have imagined happened, especially as her single transgression took place so long ago.

Piper Chapman is a character that I, and probably most of the target demographic for the show, can easily relate to.  She’s middle class or higher, bright, college educated, erudite, who made a mistake as a recent graduate in love which is coming back to haunt her years later.  Jail isn’t something that would enter her world as a serious possibility in life. Piper read a book about prison before she went in, detailing strategies for survival, like one might read before entering college or grad school.  It’s exactly what someone like myself might do in the same situation.

Piper’s not like most people we see in prison on TV.  Most movies and television series set in jail either feature what we think of as career criminals types, white collar criminals who committed murder or major fraud, or someone framed after a complicated conspiracy or miscarriage of justice.  Many television and film prisons are the worst of the worst; places where you’d be lucky to survive a day, let alone a month.  Piper’s prison is a scary place but not Oz-terrifying, which adds to making her predicament feel all the real. It’s so terrifying because it is less over the top.

When Jerry Seinfeld hosted Saturday Night Live in 1999, he did a parody of Oz, through the observational comedy lens of an episode of Seinfeld.  It was funny because Oz is a fairly humorless brutal show where nearly every episode features a murder and a rape, and the humor felt so out of place.  That incongruity is a part of the prison in Orange is the New Black.  Prison is both a cruel and terrible place and a place with seemingly misplaced moments of lightness, because, hey, you have to make it through the day to day, and any place people have to do it, they find a way to make light occasionally because the alternatives are a shitty situation and sulking 24/7 about it.

I’ve read the word dramedy used to describe Orange is the New Black and as much as that word is a clear hedge for shows that don’t meet our preconceived conceptions of comedy or drama, in this case, it’s about right.  It’s not laugh out loud funny but it makes you smile and occasionally chuckle (chortle even maybe?).  The genius of Orange is the New Black is i’s ability to make prison seem both amusing and terrifying at the same time.  Not even amusing because it’s so terrifying, but generally amusing. We’re discovering the little quirks of being a prisoner along with Piper.  Adjusting is extremely difficult and there’s no getting around that; Piper has to partially successfully hold in tears constantly during her first day and making it until her fiancé can visit is extremely rough.  Still, the most shocking thing about the prison is that both all the stories are and aren’t true at the same time.  All the lesbian sex, the racial tribalism, the you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours, the little tricks to escape the attention of the guards.  But at the same time, people have a capacity for standing by one another, a bond, and there’s plenty of seemingly incongruous light moments when prisoners help each other out, or make a joke at her expense, but to be lighthearted, rather than to be cruel. This is about the day to day.  How do you make it through within wanting to kill yourself?  She’s learning and so are we.

So often I beg television to prove me with something new, and something new Orange is the New Black delivers.  New doesn’t always have to mean revolutionary.  Sure, we’ve seen jail before but never with a protagonist like this, never with a tone like this, and never in a jail like this.  It’s interesting, it’s surprisingly not too heavy for a show about a “regular” person going to jail and it’s frankly delightful.  Netflix, you’re on a bit of a hot streak.

Will I watch it again?  Yes.  It’s new, less so in the place than in the concept, and of course more importantly than new, it’s good.  Dramedy is a difficult area; for some reason, we as a culture have decided to demarcate this line between comedy and drama, and with the exception of maybe Aaron Sorkin, it’s often been difficult to find a place in the middle that isn’t just a comedy which isn’t really funny or a drama where people don’t die.  There’s a bitterwsweet tone that is unique on television, seems incredibly appropriate to the premise.  Her situation is terrible; but in the day to day she has to get on. And adjust the way people apparently do.

End of Season Report: Enlightened, Season 2

17 Jul

Amy looks onAs I mentioned in my review of the first season of Enlightened, when I watched the first episode, I didn’t like it.  Even after watching both seasons and enjoying them greatly,, I still don’t think my initial impression was wrong.  The primary problem I had was that I didn’t like the main character, Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe.  After watching two seasons, I still don’t, in so much as she would drive me crazy if I ever had to hang out with her.  She has a number of qualities that drive me crazy, including a quasi new age outlook and never knowing when to stop talking. That said, over two seasons of really getting to know her and her life, it’s hard not to both empathize and sympathize with her.

Enlightened is about the sense of powerlessness felt by the average person into today’s modern corporate suburban world.  Amy Jellicoe struggles in a pointless office job working at mindless tasks at a computer. The only purpose of her department is to put other people out of work, and eventually to put herself and her colleagues out of work when they’ve done enough.  The series begins when after fifteen years climbing the corporate ladder, she has a breakdown, and comes back only to realize what a meaningless life she’s been living.  She’s surrounded by poor, sad individuals who have simply lost any desire or ability they once had to make something more out of their careers, led by Mike White’s Tyler, who simple gave up on trying years ago.

However, while the first season is about just how powerless the characters are, the second season instead decides to give them a fighting chance.  Every character, with the possible exception of Amy’s mother, is given a shot to actually come out of things a little bit better than they started out.  Additionally, the second season is more serial than the first, as there’s a running plotline focused around Amy trying to take down her evil corporate overlords Abaddon, headed up by CEO Chalres Szidon, played by the ultimate white collar man James Rebhorn.

Amy, high off of her ability to convince her drunk and drug-addled ex-husband to go to rehab at the conclusion of the first season, must go back to her mind-numbing day job at Abaddon.  What chances is that her one friend one the job, computer expert Tyler, knows how to crack into corporate e-mails, and with that information Amy believes she can finally do what she’s sought out to do since the beginning of the series.  Prove herself as a force for good.  Take down an evil company, lifting up the little people, and making planet Earth, on balance, a better place.  She hooks up with, both figuratively and literally, an LA Times investigative reporter, who seems initially put off by Amy but is exicted about her reputed ability to get top secret e-mails from what he’s long theorized was a criminal corporate enterprise.  As she uses her hacked computer access to contribute, he invites her to an event where she sees a woman who was able to start a website and influence the world from a position even worse than hers.  She sees world outside of herself.  One person can actually make a difference. She’s naive, but she’s not crazy.  It’s difficult not to sympathize with her wanting to actually make some positive change in her life, even if it can be occasionally cringe-inducing the way she goes about it.

While her quest to get a muckraking expose published certainly provides Amy with the feeling that she can actually do something, several times over the season it feels as if Amy is in over her head. Amy forms a romantic relationship with the reporter, which goes sour when the reporter dismisses her before the story is published because of the appearance of  impropriety it might create, noting that both he and Amy knew what their relationship was. Amy didn’t.  Amy actually gets an incredible opportunity she’s always wanted towards the end of the season when she gets to meet with the CEO of Abaddon and is offered a position designed around making company socially responsible.  While it seems like Amy’s acceptance of this position should be the dream ending, it’s a cruel tease.  By this point in the season, it’s too late for this half-measure of working within the corporate structure. The expose on Abaddon that specifically mentions Amy is about to come out and there’s no putting on the breaks on it just because she’s gotten an opportunity which offers her the potential to make change and be financially stable at the same time.  You can’t have everything though, and it would have felt like a little bit of both a cop out and a sell out for Amy to accept at this point, even if she could.  She made her bed with her choice to reach up and a grab a chance to make a deeper permanent mark at the price of sacrificing a potential comfortable position and for better or worse, though hopefully better, she now has to lie in it.

Vastly needed comic relief comes in the form of wonderful boss character Dougie Daniels played by Til Death’s Timm Sharp.  He’s hilarious throughout as the douchey, tech-savvy boss of Amy’s basement unit, who thinks a lot more of himself than just about anyone else does.  He’s all about following the corporate order until he finds out the corporate order is about to fire his ass, at which point he’s all about revenge.  While Amy persuades him to help her out with her espionage mission in pursuit high-minded ideals, Dougie is willing to go only as far as simply to screw the fuckers who are letting him go.

Luke Wilson’s Levi Callow doesn’t get a ton of time to shine in the second season, but he uses the time he gets well.  The third episode, which focuses on his plight attending rehab in Hawaii, is one of the better episodes of the season, if not the best, and features Christopher Abbott of Girls fame having a lot more fun than he ever does in Girls.  For people who can’t get into the show due to Amy’s character, I would highly recommend a viewing of this episode even without context, for the powerful storytelling and writing Enlightened brings to the table.

Mike White’s Tyler also gets an unexpected opportunity for happiness.  He interacts with executive secretary Eileen, played by Molly Shannon, as part of the conspirators’ attempts to gain access to some deeply hidden documents, but ends up falling in love.  Tyler’s quest to bond with another human is lonelier but just as moving if not moreso than Amy’s.  It seems like guaranteed tragedy once Eileen learns why Tyler ran into her in the first place. Surprisingly, however for this show, this potential disaster is turned around when Amy’s insistence that Tyler wasn’t in on the down and dirty details of the conspiracy brings the two of them back together.  No one on the deserves a happy ending more than Tyler.

And that brings me what was remarkable about the second season. Enlightened, one of the most depressing shows in the past few years to air on television, actually has a happy ending.    In some ways it’s certainly unexpected for a show that sometimes just feels like it’s beating you down, letting you get slightly back up, and then bating you down again, but it doesn’t feel cheap.  Amy doesn’t have a great time over the course of the series, but she earns the peace of mind she gets at the end.  I’m not sure how much of an idea series creator Mike White had that this would be the final season, but even though I’d prefer more episodes, it’s hard to believe if there were more, it wouldn’t end at a lower point.

In the last episode, Amy, when her identity as the source of scandalous leaked documents breaks out, is pulled out of her job and brought up to see the CEO and a bevy of executives and lawyers.  She’s fired of course, among other negative consequences, but they’ll sue her brains out if she doesn’t tell them exactly what documents were leaked.  I half-expected Amy to fold, realizing she had made a mess of what could have been a great situation for her.  She doesn’t though.  This is Amy’s moment of triumph.  It’s to her advantage here to be a little person.  Sue away, she says.  She doesn’t own anything and is deeply in debt.  For a moment, her terrible situation is turned into an asset.  Only someone who had been in her position of hopelessness could have had the desperation to topple this corrupt CEO.  And about that, she wasn’t wrong either.  The CEO really did do some terrible things, and she really is the one to be responsible for restoring a little balance to the world.  Seeing her photo on the cover, she earned that.

Amy is annoying.  Amy is irritating.  That never really changes over the course of the show; she never curbs all the activities that drive me crazy when watching her.  That said, her life is rough.  She had a marriage fall apart after a miscarriage, she has a depressed mom, and the person she thinks as her best friend kind of hates her, and well.  She deserves a win, and it’s gratifying to see her get one.