Archive | December, 2013

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 44-41

30 Dec

Next four up – we inch towards shows that I actually like! A note that I may have forgotten to make early – differences between one show and the next are often slight; sometimes it’s the difference of which side of the bed I got up in the morning; if two shows are next to each other, which one I like more may switch on the day; if one show is 15 higher, I probably like it more. Moving on.

44. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.-1

You know that feeling, when you really just want a show to be better? I mean, of course you want every show you watch to be better, but some feel like they’re worse for a reason, or it would be more difficult to make them better, or they’re just tired out and honestly, although you want some new ideas, you don’t really have any either. And then there are those shows that just well, should be better, and it honestly shouldn’t be that hard to make them better, and that’s what makes them so frustrating. Marvel’s Agents of Shield is a new show with definite promise from the Whedon empire. There are seeds of interesting characters, but a disappointing lack of characterization and wit which have marked all TV shows Whedon has previously been associated with. It’s delivered on juuuust enough promise that I’m going to continue to watch because I decided I would at least until the end of the first season. After that, well, I’d rather just hope and say I’m glad I don’t have to make that call now. Be better, Marvel’s Angets of Shield. I know you can be.

43. Community

Season 4 Never Happened

If you read the internet, you know the basic deal surrounding Community this past season (and this upcoming one). Creator and genius Dan Harmon fired, but show kept on the air, taken over by new show-runners. Opinions of the fourth season range from mediocre to unspeakably make-you-want-to-kill-yourself bad, and Dan Harmon isn’t the only one to share that latter end of the spectrum. It’s not a good season and it’s worse because it’s Community, because it’s the characters and the universe we fanboys and fangirls (so few people actually watch Community that you’re a fanboy or fangirl by definition if you do) care so much about and are so deeply invested in. Still, I lean towards the season being mediocre. It’s not good; and it’s vastly disappointing but it’s not like it’s actually awful by regular TV standards, just by the high standards we’ve grown accustomed to as Community fans. More than bad, it’s just off; the tone felt different and not in a good way. The great cast made it watchable even when they could have used better material to work with. Still, let’s get excited for this year. Three years ago, I never thought Community would see a fifth season.

42. Downton Abbey

Residents of Downton Abbey

This has become one of those shows that I think I might stop watching, start watching a couple months after the season started, get just engulfed enough to finish the episodes pretty quickly, and then promptly forget pretty quickly after finishing. That sums up where Downton Abbey is at this point. It’s a soap that doesn’t have a huge amount of long-term thought-provoking value, but it does have redeeming qualities, and though I won’t think about it for a while and probably won’t watch any of the episodes remotely around when they air, I will actually watch them before the next season comes around. We Americans may mock the UK left and right for its aristocracy and royalty, and with good reason, but we can also admit to being mildly enchanted by it, and honestly, more than anything by the amazing buildings in which they seem to live and their endless sheer amount of rooms. As long as Maggie Smith remains, I’m probably not going anywhere.

41. Homeland

Carrie and Brody

I’ve expounded on this in great depth so I’ll spare you the grisly details. But suffice to say, I viewed this season as something of a make or break. I gave the show a partial mulligan for Season 2’s disappointment. They had stuck themselves in a tough place and I wanted to give them a chance to start something new with a clean slate. The writers chose not to go in that direction and instead retread old ground in not particularly interesting and more so not particularly convincing ways. They had a chance to start anew, to be different, to accept the successes of the first season but move on, realizing they couldn’t reach those highs the same way again. If they had gone in that direction, it might not have worked, but it would have been a real attempt. Instead, Homeland moved another step towards 24, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it didn’t want so badly to be more than that and I didn’t know that it once was. It’s still above some other shows because the acting is very good and even in the disappointing season there are isolated strong moments and plotlines. But it’s little solace from a show with one of the best debut seasons out there.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 48-45

27 Dec

Time to start these rankings in earnest – remember, even being relatively low on the list isn’t an insult – the fact that I’m watching the show at all probably means I think it’s at least pretty good. That said, there are a couple of exceptions, seasons of shows I didn’t particularly care for but I watched anyway for a variety of reasons, most often because it was a lousy season of a show that had been good in the past. The first couple of entries in the list should more or less sweep through that first bunch.

48. Dexter

Clean yourself up, Dex

Bringing up the rear is Dexter. The eight season of Dexter truly was a putrid, awful, horrible, terrible no good very bad final season of television. I try not to think about it to avoid a feeling of Lost-like instant frustration. I I actually believed the season to last season of Dexter had a chance to be good, but it wasn’t, and I already harbored pretty low expectations for the last season. Still, the season started not great. The season got worse as it went along, the finale was worse than the season, and the last two minutes of the finale may have been the worst part of the episode. The writers were clueless, lost, and wasted a chance to do something really interesting Dexter could have only done as it was ending. Alas. The last four seasons, and the last three seasons in particular (five isn’t really that bad) shouldn’t take away from Dexter’s stellar first four seasons, but as someone who hasn’t rewatched the series, the bad is fresh in my mind, and the good a long way off.

47. Under the Dome

Under the Dome or Under the Minidome?

Ick. Why did I watch this entire season of television? I don’t really have a good reason. The first episode really was not bad. I was telling a friend that, and he laughed it off. He rightfully gave me an “I told you so” just a few weeks later, after two or three weeks of me insisting the show still had upside. The concept may have but the show didn’t, and it just got worse and worse and more insipid and silly and stupid and it went on. Mysticism and mystery isn’t entertaining for its own sake, and the idea that the dome had a will of its own just seemed dumb rather than interesting or mysterious. There was a mystery, but that doesn’t do any good if no one actually cares about it, and no one should have. Dean Norris deserves better. It was possibly worse than this season of Dexter (possibly) but I’m giving Dexter the last slot because of the negative associations it created with something I previously liked; thankfully I had no positive associations with Under the Dome that the show could ruin right off the bat.

46. The Office

The Office

This was also a putrid, awful, horrible, terrible no good very bad final season, but with one exception that places it clearly ahead of Dexter (and Under the Dome). The season was awful but the finale was actually good. It’s almost as if the writers farmed out every other episode in the season to a bunch of six year olds or one terrible writer and spent the rest of the time working on the finale. It’s hardly an all-time classic finale, and has nothing on a couple of other finales we’ll get to later, but it served its purpose, was appropriately heartwarming and funny and cameo-filled, and it left a good taste in my mouth after a bad season, unlike Dexter. There were so many things wrong with the last couple of seasons, that it was nice to have the last moments we spend with the lovable Dunder Mifflin crew be joyous.

45. Luther

DCI Luther

I recently wrote an article which says my thoughts in far more detail than I’ll say them now. This is a show that I probably never would have watched if it wasn’t as short as it was and if it didn’t star Idris Elba, but it did have redeeming features that make me keep watching through the first two seasons. Sadly, these redeeming features were largely not present in this third season. The best character in the show barely appeared and her appearance was uninspired and felt forced, and Luther, the character, has run out of interesting things to do. The best part was always the villains and this season’s villains largely didn’t match up to previous years’.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: The Outcasts

25 Dec

The Men and Woman of The League

It’s time once again for my annual ranking of the shows I watch, my third edition. I’ve changed the eligibility slightly from years past. Because the TV season is no longer the fall to spring trajectory that it used to be, I arbitrarily rank things on a calendar basis, and that leads to strange situations where I’m occasionally ranking the end of one season and the beginning of the next season in the same ranking. It’s strange, and not ideal, but I have to pick some point in the year to do the rankings, so I’ll roll with the punches and mention within the article if there was a significant change in quality one way or the other between the end and beginning of seasons covered in the same year. In previous years I declined to rank new shows that hadn’t finished their season in the calendar year of the rankings, but I’ve eliminated that policy because it means I didn’t get to rank Ben and Kate, which had seemingly not finished its season by 2012, but was swiftly cancelled before airing any episodes in 2013. There’s just about no episode cut off as well; I’m counting Top of the Lake, a miniseries, here, because with seven, it already has more episodes than a couple of the ongoing series on the list.

I have a longer list than ever before, and I’ve talked about more of these shows in depth elsewhere than ever before so this will consist largely of a snapshot of where the show is now, with relevant links to previous discussions as they come up. We start, as last year, with the shows that made last year’s list but didn’t make this year’s for one reason of another.

The Outcasts

There are far fewer shows that are off the list than last year, and they’re largely less interesting than last year so I’m going to address them more quickly. Bear with me.

Louie, Sherlock

Both of these shows simply skipped last year but are coming back this year and I’ll be watching eagerly. Due to changing TV schedules there will probably be more of these types of shows just skipping years moving forward than in years past, though it’s still relatively uncommon.

Revenge

I stopped watching sometime through the second season. I don’t feel particularly strongly about this decision. Revenge wasn’t super well-positioned for multiple seasons and I wrote in last year’s entry here most of my thoughts about the show, which remain the same. I harbor no ill feelings and in another world I could have watched Revenge a little while longer. I both miss Emily VanCamp and go long stretches forgetting that the show is still on.

The League

I’ll probably catch up on this show at some point even though I haven’t watched this current season, largely because I can move through a season on a Saturday. It’s live action mid-period Family Guy, as I wrote in last year’s entry here, where there are funny jokes even as the overall show isn’t really above par. I feel pretty much the same way I did last year. I like the people; I wish it was a little bit better, but I’m trying to enjoy it for what it is.

Suburgatory

I feel pretty much the same way I did last year except that I had many more shows to watch this year and didn’t really get around to watching by default a show I don’t like quite enough to begin with. Star Jane Levy is great and I’m sure I would enjoy this show well enough if I watched it, but I don’t, which probably says more about how I feel than my words.

Top Chef

I have considered marathoning this most recent season set in New Orleans and have avoided reading the results in case I do. However, the fact that I haven’t watched yet shows how it’s fallen on my personal list, which is not a huge surprise considering its place last year. It’s a show best watched in quick succession because when you start getting into it, it can be addictive but I got tired of some of the gimmicks and the seasons can be very uneven.

That’s it. Next up, shows I actually watched.

End of Season Report: Masters of Sex, Season 1

23 Dec

Masters and JohnsonMasters of Sex offered an ultimately strong first season that was overly ambitious and marred with inconsistencies and overreach but was on the whole better for the leaps. The first season got stronger, if somewhat in fits and starts, as it went forward and I hold out great hope for the series as a whole as it continues. Masters of Sex is new and interesting, which already puts it in relatively slim company by modern television standards. It’s a doctor show, but it’s not really a doctor show; the focus is on the sex research and relationships rather than any doctoring the way Doctor shows are (you know, House, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.). It’s also a show that takes place in the past, which has been a recent trend all over cable (Boardwalk Empire, The Americans, Mob City, etc.), but it doesn’t feel like it fits in the bucket with those retro-shows. Masters of Sex is certainly influenced by the generation of auteur anti-hero shows that dominated the last decade – Mad Men, particularly, but it’s not an antihero show itself. William Masters is the closest the show has to an antihero, but he’s not that; he is flawed but not nearly comprised morally enough to be lumped in  with the antihero characters of recent years, and that’s a good thing..

Relationships,sex, and the intersection or lack thereof between the two are naturally at the forefront of a show about revolutionary sex researchers, and occasional attempts at opening up other themes feel half-assed and not nearly as successful. Still, there’s more than enough juicy themes there to fill up hours and hours of television. Relationships explored were not just the sexual variety. and an exploration into gender roles was natural in a show featuring a female sex researcher in the 1950s, America’s answer to the Victorian era.

Masters of Sex, although a character-driven hour-long show, faces some issues comedies usually face in their early episodes. The writers, over the course of Masters of Sex’s first half, had to learn what worked, figure out who the characters were, what the actors’ strengths were, and what the emotional resonance was between different characters as the show went on. The show clearly fell more in place as the season went on, and that continues to give me hope that the show will continue to grow.

For example, Masters of Sex hit the point somewhere around halfway through the season when a solid portion of the conflict between characters became if not relatable than at least understandable through the context of what we know about the characters and their backgrounds and personalities, which is a mark of a good show. Masters seemed like an impudent jerk early in the season who didn’t practice what he preached, but learning about his background and his relationship with his father in particular deepended our understand of particular patterns of behavior without seeming too hackneyed. Later in the season, Masters was just as obstinate but the reasons why were easier to tease out from what we’ve been given.

There are only five actors listed in the credits, a relatively low number for a showcase premium cable show, but several recurring characters play out some of the season’s best arcs. Beau Bridges and Alison Janney, as closeted provost Barton Scully and his wife Margaret are both season long highlights, offering a challenging alternate portrait from the primary relationships of Masters and Johnson, and both enriched the show greatly, and hopefully will be back even with potentially other sitcom commitments. Pioneering female doctor Lillian DePaul (portrayed by Julianne Nicholson, who also plays a female professional in a world dominated by men in Boardwalk Empire) was also an excellent recurring addition, offering one of several alternative attempted routes towards female empowerment in a male dominated world..

Viewing everything through the prism of a time decades earlier when attitudes about sex were more repressed and gender roles that we consider crazily outmoded were the norm is an interesting and sometimes strange way to look at sexual mores and relationships. We viewers are watching old revolutionaries, a partly oxymoronic exercise that requires thinking through different relative layers; even people so on the cutting edge that they were chased out of the mainstream with pitchforks would be considered backwards-thinking in our own time. Shows set in the past always make me ponder how to consider relative versus absolute positions; how much should we consider their positions relative to the norms of their own time, and how much relative to the norms in ours.

There was definitely some scrambling from the early episodes to the later ones, and some gaps in characterization that seemed a little bit abrupt but the show was better off for by the end. Ethan, in particular, hits Virginia early in the season because she’s not in him the way he’s into her, a vile action which marks his chivalrous veneer as nothing but a fraud. This action paints him as a bad guy (sophisticated term, I know), but then by the end of the season he seems to come around as the most forward looking male character on the show. It feels a little bit jarring and incongruous, but I think for the best in the end. The decision to focus on making their characters better and more complex over the course of the season even if this ended up not quite feeling right with the first episodes will leave a superior palette to work with moving forwards.

As mentioned above, sometimes the show’s vast ambition has it jolting in directions and the show doesn’t really know what it’s doing or where to go from there. This is particularly noteworthy on the area of race. Perhaps seeing how Mad Men, another show set in the same general time period, choose largely to avoid the subject and struggled when it did, Masters of Sex seems to want to jump in and say something on the subject a couple of times in the first season, but doesn’t really know what to say or how to say it.

It’s okay, though. It’s a first season, and there is time to get better. Overall, the show hits the right notes when trying to explore love and sex and everything in the middle. There aren’t any easy answers and there aren’t any right answers. What one person wants isn’t necessarily what another wants, and it’s not because one is right and one is wrong. People take harsh actions but with reasons. These seem like basic parameters to most serious discussions, but they’re still shockingly hard to find on television.

When I reviewed the first Masters of Sex episode a couple of months back, I noted, with my enthusiasm from the pilot, and my disillusionment with Homeland, that I thought there was a distinct possibility Maters of Sex could be the better show by season’s end. And although it’s due to at least as much as how much I didn’t like this season of Homeland, that measured prediction entirely came true. Masters of Sex is now the banner show on Showtime, and I look forward to meeting back up with Masters, Johnson, and crew next fall.

Ranking Fall 2013’s New Shows

20 Dec

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

It’s time to rank this fall’s new shows. I’ve seen every new network show and many new cable shows though I’m still missing a couple (Ground Floor and Ravenwood come to mind) that hopefully I’ll catch up on for posterity’s sake during a down period. Additionally, keep in mind this is mostly from one episode of viewing – I’ve only yet seen multiple episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Masters of Sex, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s important to note that, and it’s possible some of these shows have sped up or slowed down since. However, I still think this is a useful exercise, for me if for no one else. Ranking with some short notes below.

  1. Brooklyn Nine-Nine – the best new show and comedy of the season. Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur shows that he learned the lessons from Parks and Rec’s slow start and hit the ground running with Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
  2. Masters of Sex – very ambitious, new and interesting, could use a little more polish but easily worth adding to the schedule of any serious TV viewer
  3. The Returned – I’ve only watched one episode but I’m intrigued and look forward to more – a show with a tinge of horror but not so easily definable
  4. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – I really want this show to be better, and the fact that it’s in the fourth position says a lot more about the weakness of the Fall field, compared to a stellar Spring TV season than it does about this show. Absolutely not a must watch, but I try to maintain hope for what it could be
  5. Sleepy Hollow – the next three shows might all have been above Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. if I had watched more of them but I haven’t – Sleepy Hollow’s blend of insane supernatural was surprisingly captivating
  6. Dracula – within the horror genre, the inverse of Sleepy Hollow but about as successful, subdued and Victorian to Sleepy Hollow’s modern American form, but also sharing in love of crazy conspiracies
  7. The Blacklist – a procedural done well, The Blacklist is also a little nuts, and James Spader being himself makes a difference in this being a solid show to a lousy one
  8. Back in the Game – A surprisingly charming already cancelled comedy with a child actor I surprisingly didn’t hate
  9. Trophy Wife – pretty much ditto Back in the Game except for the already cancelled – both I didn’t quite like enough to watch more but they were certainly cute
  10. Reign – we’re switching tiers right around here – a CW-y historical drama starring the would-be Queen of France, it was attractive to the right audience which wasn’t really me
  11. The Michael J. Fox Show – surprisingly decent show except for the fact that all the jokes were bad
  12. The Originals – so-so vampire show, we’re in average territory
  13. Welcome to the Family – surprisingly decent, Mike O’Malley has grown on me a lot over recent years
  14. Almost Human – the future and androids – not particularly interesting but watchable enough
  15. The Tomorrow People – the future and genetic mutation – not particularly interesting but not awful
  16. The Goldbergs – we’re starting to get to the shows that are distinctly below average – supposedly heartwarming but I found it to be too much
  17. Mom – this could be good if it was not made by Chuck Lorre in his laugh track-friendly style
  18. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland – it started out with a chance to be better than the uber-cheesy Once Upon a Time but finished seeming like more of the same
  19. Hostages – a really uncreative attempt at making a tense 24 like show without any of 24’s sense of fun
  20. The Crazy Ones – Robin Williams does not turn it down one iota, and that’s a problem for me
  21. Sean Saves the World – Sean Hayes hams it up – he’s a fine ham, but the show is way too hammy for me
  22. Super Fun Night – a show about losers that unfortunately seem like they’re kind of losers for a reason
  23. Lucky 7 – I thought this was a halfway decent premise about lottery winners but the reality is terrible uninspired
  24. Betrayal – leader of this year’s “why does this show exist” balloting
  25. We Are Men – disgusting terrible male stereotypes
  26. Ironside – just bad, bad, bad – it should be hard to make a procedural this hackneyed but Ironside manages it
  27. The Millers – so many talented actors making such a bad show it’s impressive – everyone involved can do so much better
  28. Dads – disgusting everyone stereotypes

End of Season Report: Homeland, Season 3 – Part 2

18 Dec

HomelandSeason3-2Phew. I just disposed of my central infuriating point from season three. Let’s now get down to some odds and ends.

Homeland’s showrunners  clearly think Carrie and Brody’s romance is the center of the show. If they didn’t, I’m not sure what Javadi’s monologue in the finale, which seemed directed to viewers at least as much as to Carrie was about, where he convinced her that it was, as it fairly obviously was to viewers as well, always about him that she did everything she did. I think this was a central misreading of what made the first season work that explains some of the missteps of the past two seasons. Carrie and Brody’s relationship is important undoubtedly, and their chemistry in the first season was one major asset. Getting chemistry confused for romance is a dangerous thing though; there was something there, but once Gansa and Gordon put their finger on what it was, love, the relationship lost what made it so intriguing. This sounds like more of the type of complaint you see in a comedy – the sexual tension is more interesting than the relationship itself, and it’s related but that’s not exactly it. The issue is that the fucked up chemistry worked for those two characters, where the idea of love never really did. The breakfast in bed scene at the end of the second season was one of the most excruciating in the series because it didn’t really make sense for either of the characters, and placing that love at the center of Carrie’s motivations was misguided at best.

More on Brody – I’ve said this before, but Gordon and Gansa killed Brody at least a year too late. Brody was a great character, but a character with a necessary expiration date. The longer they kept him around, the less it really worked, and the more they had to concoct hard-to-fathom explanations for why he’s still out there. He ran out of reasons to be interesting. Damian Lewis does his best with Brody throughout but the character was out of life and paralyzed the show, keeping the show in stasis when it needed to be moving beyond Brody. There’s a natural desire to keep around interesting characters for as long as possible, but usually in hindsight it’s better to kill them or remove them while they were at their most charismatic rather than after they lost the luster they had and felt used up.

The second season ended with a bang, and the third with a whimper, and as confused as I was with where Homeland was going to start the third season, I have even less idea for the fourth season. The showrunners have a clean slate more or less to work with, but I have less confidence than ever that they will do something interesting. If I was in their shoes, I would consider the ballsier moves of either moving on at the CIA without Carrie and Saul, or moving on with Carrie and Saul in their different respective roles, but I can’t imagine there’s any chance of that happening. The only part I feel confident in, and massive respect if I’m wrong, is that something will happen that forces the gang to get back together in Washington.

Senator Lockhart, I believe, is supposed to be the villain, and while I started out viewing him as the antagonist because Saul is the best, the longer the season went the more I thought that he’s totally right, and this CIA is totally dysfunctional. It’s not so much that I felt like his approach was better as much as I felt his critique of the competence of the old school CIA people doing it the way they wanted to wasn’t working. I think this conflict could have been much better served by portrayed it more deeply as a battle between two valid points of view rather than with Saul as our hero and Lockhart as our villain. Shows are usually better when there are merely two different plausible ways of seeing things, rather than a clear right and wrong.

Plausibility was a major issue for me throughout the season, largely on Carrie’s end (as mentioned exhaustively in my previous Homeland post) but really greater than that. The insanity and audaciousness of Saul’s plans boggled the mind and just seemed way too far-fetched, and though Homeland did do a lot of lampshade hanging throughout this season, I still wanted more reality, and frankly, at least one of their plans to fail, to appreciate just how risky they were. The plan was too big, the CIA carrying it out consistently seems too small. It has always bugged me that the CIA on Homeland feels like it employs six people at any one time. There was no greater example of the plausibility problem than the cheap trick fake out that basically turned the first few episodes of the season inside out. Beside the within show unlikeliness of the plan’s success, many scenes of Carrie by herself didn’t really make sense if she knew she was on part of a plan rather than actually trapped in a mental hospital.

I was actually intrigued by the direction of the first few episodes of the third season. Homeland seemed to be dealing with the notion of consequences, something I think very few television shows do, and something I thought provided an intriguing direction. The potential of a near-permanent falling out between Saul and Carrie, well, it was sad, but damn if it wasn’t interesting, and it was a powerful way of saying the show may be good and it may not be, but it’s moving forward and away from the status quo. The CIA made a whole lot of dumb 24-ish mistakes the first two seasons, and it’s time to pay the piper. Instead, with the twist, the show went disappointingly in the exact opposite direction.

I almost forgot to write anything about Brody’s family, largely because they basically disappeared from existence halfway through the season. I don’t think that was a bad thing, and the fact I entirely forgot about them probably says a lot, but I didn’t hate them by nature as much as most people I knew. I did think the way they were used was poor, but I also thought there was something there in exploring the relationships of a family broken so completely between getting their husband/father back and then discovering he’s not who he once was, going from loss to ecstasy to tragedy so quickly. The family’s done, and since I don’t trust Homeland’s writers, I think that’s the right decision, but I think this was an opportunity lost.

This has been a largely negative write up, and as happens after I type for a while, I feel even stronger than before about what a disappointing season of Homeland this was after the show had a real chance to get away from the problems of the second season. However,  to leave on a positive note, I’ll briefly talk about the one aspect of this season I liked most.

Javadi is the best new character the show has introduced in ages and was exactly the type of character the show could use more of, and I hope the show doesn’t fuck him up. He’s a cagey character who gives with one hand and takes with the other, a perverse parallel of Saul who made different choices and who is willing to do what it takes to get away, but not without an occasionally magnanimous side when it suits him. He’s in many ways a villain but he’s a pragmatic nontraditional villain who serves the heroes when it suits him.

End of Season Report: Homeland, Season 3 – Part 1

16 Dec

Carrie swears in

There’s plenty to talk about, and my various complaints about Homeland have changed over the course of the season. There’s really one that’s been slowly building and peaked in the last couple of episodes and has just been driving me so crazy that I’m going to devote a full post of this report to it, and then come back with a second post about everything else. Homeland has a major plausibility problem all around, but there’s one aspect of that issue that gets even deeper to Homeland’s core.

Carrie Matheson is a brilliant, brave, and daring operative. She’s undertaken dangerous missions on behalf of the CIA, made intelligence breakthroughs, and had correct instincts on a deep cover American traitor when no one else did.

She’s also an absolutely terrible, unreliable and untrustworthy employee, who was fired supposedly irrevocably at the end of the first season after it was discovered she had an unreported serious mental condition she’s only part of the time willing to seek treatment for. She should really never be working for the CIA again.

In the third season, Saul, and thus the entire CIA (for some reason, the CIA in Homeland seems to employ six people, but that’s something else entirely) have placed their most important mission in the hands of someone who is far too completely compromised to be an agent they can place any reasonable trust in, someone so in love with the agent she’s monitoring that she can’t possibly react like an agent needs to.

At the end of the first season of Homeland, Carrie was fired because it was determined she had hidden her only occasionally treated bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a serious condition, and it’s easy to feel for Carrie, but it’s also easy to understand why the CIA wouldn’t want a loose cannon walking around with access to extremely classified information. I wondered what her firing would mean for the show because I believed it would feel cheap to have her rehired after a huge deal was made about her never working for the CIA again after her breach. There were no loopholes left in that scene, no two ways about it, she was out, for good.

Sadly, my concerns were well-founded. The writers didn’t have an ingenious plan to either find another line of work for Carrie or focus on new characters. Somehow, of course, the CIA found a way to her come back, first, through a cheap loophole as not a member, but as an outside consultant to help with Brody because of their bond. The bother to even hang the lampshade felt half-assed. Soon, however, Carrie was just back for good and the fact she was fired just a season was sort of forgotten about and relegated to the past.

After being rehired, Carrie went on to constantly disobey orders over the course of the second season. Her superiors would constantly tell her not to do something, she’d do it, they’d reprimand her, and then eventually they’d simply let her back out there for some reason, even in situations when there wasn’t even some stretch of an imperative that she was the only person who could do the job.

In the beginning of the third season, events were repeated with Carrie being apparently fired for sleeping with Brody after Saul rats her out to the Senate. I applauded this direction. I didn’t know what they’d do with Carrie, and sure, it was a personally mean thing to do for Saul, but Carrie really had this coming through her repeated patterns of behavior. Saul never lied or framed her; he made her take the hit, sure, but all of his accusations were entirely correct. This extremely satisfying discovery that actions have consequences was undone by the revelation that everything that transpired in the first couple of episodes was part of an extremely elaborate long con between Saul and Carrie, one that really made less sense the more you thought about it. I didn’t think Carrie deserved to be an asylum, certainly, but there was some middle ground between being locked in an asylum with the key thrown away or being part of a million to one insanely intricate plot.

Back in the fold, yet again, throughout season three, Carrie continued to disobey orders. This would be problematic in almost any field, but as an intelligence agent for the CIA, she’s putting lives and missions at risk. Just because she thinks her orders are wrong is not an excuse to disobey. Honestly, if it really felt like she was getting unjust orders all the time, then I’d still feel for her even if she was technically doing a bad job by disobeying them, but that was not the case at all. The orders Saul gave may not always have worked out, but they’re always well thought out and carefully considered, and made it extremely hard to feel sympathetic for her. She disobeyed an order halfway through the season that required her own organization to shoot her to prevent her from moving further, and she nearly ruined a vital CIA operation in the last couple of seconds only to be bailed out by an extremely, extremely unlikely outcome when Brody kills his target rather than giving up Javadi. Even if Carrie made the right call, it wasn’t her call to make, and Saul’s call was as equally well thought out and valid as hers.

And then, when this is all over when it all works out against absolutely any odds, instead of getting reprimanded for almost blowing up the mission several times out of making judgments based on her love of Brody rather than her best operational judgment, or obeying extremely reasonable orders from her superiors, instead of getting fired or demoted, she gets PROMOTED. Carrie gets a huge PROMOTION for doing an absolutely terrible job. What am I missing?

Carrie is akin to the coach who makes the wrong decision at the last minute which works out and gets rewarded for the result rather than the process, leading everyone to ignore both the fact that she made the wrong decision and the fact she made so many wrong decisions before the last minute that her team should have won easily. And maybe the argument is that, well, those coaches get rewarded, for being lucky, rather than for being good, but I don’t think that’s the argument we’re getting her. I could be wrong certainly, but I really think we’re supposed to getting the notion that she deserves this promotion, it just drives me up a wall. Again, Carrie is very smart, ambitious, daring and talented, and I can imagine there are lines of work in which her skill set would be rewarded handsomely but she’s clearly a hugely irresponsible wildcard in the intelligence field

I’m basically tiring of living in this backwards world which refuses to deal with characters and consequences and plausibility. Carrie pegged Brody as a traitor, and absolute points for that, but then she went out and slept with him, multiple times, and let him escape. She may have been right about his role in the Langley bombing, sure, but she violated so many protocols it’s mindboggling.

If this was 24, where Homeland showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa used to work, the correct response would be, who gives a shit? Jack Bauer did that, and yeah, Jack Bauer was pretty awesome, but he would never get away with any of it in the real world.

The difference is that Homeland still wants us to treat it as a serious show; a show about issues in the modern surveillance state facing difficulties balancing privacy vs. danger. Homeland set itself up as a show that was going to be real about the CIA and the intelligence community more broadly, and one that was going to hew if not to the letter of reality, at least much closer than most sensationalist spy shows and movies. But it’s impossible to take it seriously when they don’t take it seriously. I’ll have more related points and other notes in part two.

Fall 2013 Review: The Returned

13 Dec

A returned

The Returned is a French show, which first aired in the fall of 2012, but which recently made its stateside debut on the Sundance Channel, a channel which has already seen strong outings this year from Top Of the Lake and Rectify.

I love shows that are not easily characterized or categorized because that usually means that they are new and interesting and The Returned is both. It may be more clear what direction Returned is heading in after a few more episodes, and there are a few logical general options but I have absolutely no idea which and I’m glad.

Let’s take it from the beginning. Four years ago before the show’s present, a bus full of children embarking on a school trip topples over a cliff on a tricky piece of road, killing everyone on board. Or so it seems.

In the present, all is not well, and the people of the French town in which The Returned takes place are still grappling with the tragic events of four years prior. The parents are meeting in a regular group where they discuss a memorial being built in honor of the dead children. Tensions are still high, and some parents are dealing better than others. Clearly these adult relationships have been shaken up and some broken up by the events. Camille, one of the girls who died in the crash, seems to be the central figure in the show, and her parents have separated, while her twin sister, who feigned illness to get away from the trip is a fun-loving but possibly guilt-ridden 19-year old.

Camille, four years after she died, just picks up and walks into her house, the same age she was when she died, remembering nothing, and her mother is terrified, overjoyed, and above all confused, displaying the entire array of emotions one would expect to if faced with a similar situation. She calls Camille’s father, who naturally doesn’t believe her, until he sees Camille with her own eyes. He leans more toward the scared beyond belief side of the scale with his reaction.

Camille isn’t the only one who comes back; there’s also a young man seeking his girlfriend, who appears to have moved on without him, and there’s a young boy who returns to the apartment in which he believes he lives, leaving the current resident who doesn’t recognize the boy frustrated and confused.  People are returning from not just the bus crash but from earlier deaths as well. An old man is disturbed when his wife returns from the grave; he burns his house down and kills himself in reaction.

There’s a lot bound up here. There’s obviously supernatural and horror elements, as people coming back from the grave pretty much rules out reality or likely science fiction (yes, there’s a way to make this premise science fiction – but this isn’t that).

The story is intriguing on its own without any deeper themes, as it should be to keep the viewer involved. This is a slow, subtle supernatural show. There’s no huge opening event involved comparable to those in the bloated supernatural and sci-fi broadcast network shows like Lost, The Event, Revolution, or Terra Nova. It’s quiet and makes you figure out the questions, which are, to be fair, pretty obvious, rather than asking them extremely loudly. And those big questions are there just as they are in those other shows – namely – why are these people coming back, and since I’m not sure there’s a way to answer that satisfactorily, at least, what does this mean for the town?

There’s also, and this is what separates merely suspenseful shows which can certainly be enjoyable but depend heavily on satisfying answers and conclusions, with shows one tier greater, a deeper personal level to the drama beyond the plot, through strongly written characters, dialogue, and stories. The grappling of the parents with their tragedy reminds me of the all-too real situation faced by the people of Newton, Connecticut. Fissures break under that type of pressure and tragedy.

The big thematic question seemingly dealt with is in The Returned, at least through one episode, is how people respond to the return of something they had thought lost forever, and which they had made, if not peace with, at least some sort of resolution. They had survived by slowly but surely moving on. Early in the episode, during the parents’ support group, one parent makes that exact point; the tragedy is still poignant but things have gotten better – people simply can’t linger in that tragedy at those initial depths forever and live with themselves. Even in this episode everyone deals with the returned people in different ways; happiness, denial, confusion, fear, and any number of emotions in between and combining these.

This combination of mysterious, subtle suspenseful story with fascinating characterization and personal situations is a winning one, one episode in.

Will I watch the next episode? Yes. I’m curious. I’m not sold the show will be amazing yet, but very few shows can that confidently promise that in one episode. I am honestly curious where the show is going and what’s going on, and if a show can make me feel that way after its first episode it’s doing its job.

The Negatives of Narration

11 Dec

Kids...

I’ve railed in public and private, in writing and in talking, to friends and to random strangers, about the overuse of narration on television. Don’t get me wrong; when done right, narration can add to a show, and I’ll list my favorite example of narration done right at the end to finish on a positive note. Ninety percent of the time, though, narration is a lazy narrative gimmick choice for a television show which saves the writers some work but takes away from the show. Here’s several reasons why.

1. Narration eliminates subtlety

As I mentioned above, I think narration on television is almost always a bad idea, but my most recent bete noire for the cause is How I Met Your Mother, which stands as a shining example of just about every rule against narration. Narration is often a patronizing device to help explain to viewers concepts and jokes that the show is not confident we’ll figure out otherwise. A character will explain something, and we, as smart 21st century viewers, can figure out what’s going on, and of course,if we can’t, our friends and the internet will tell us. Not to worry though, if you don’t, because the character chimes in with some narration explaining what just happened, illuminating something to a small section of the audience while making most of the viewers smack their heads. Dexter is a champion of this kind of narration. An interaction between Dexter and someone else will happen which the viewers will obviously understand and then Dexter will chime in explaining needlessly what just happened. Not only is this patronizing, but it eliminates any sense of ambiguity and subtlety which good television thrives on. There is such a thing as being too subtle, but it’s always never a problem on television, while the opposite is a constant problem.

2. Narration is a lazy, easy way to send a message, by telling when the show should be showing

Television shows are called shows for a reason. How I Met Your Mother, Sex and the City, and Scrubs are just three of the shows that engage in this behavior constantly. While my first complaint applies mostly to plot points and actions within a show, this applies to the giving of greater meaning behind those plot points. The show is trying to explain to us something about life, from finer small points ot the big picture. This is patronizing as well, but more lazy than patronizing. If a smart, quality show has a message it wants to send, it tries to craft its story and dialogue to get that message across through the normal events of the show. A lazy show has events and dialogue but makes sure to just straight out tell you want it wants you to learn, concerned that you won’t be able to get it from the events and dialogue.

3. Narration wrecks comic timing and overtells jokes.

This is particularly true, really for comedies, and is similar to point 2. There’s a comic timing that dialogue has that is hard to mimic through narration. I know I keep picking on How I Met Your Mother, but their narration-based jokes are amongst the worst jokes the series has to offer, including the recurring “What I did say” bits where a character says something that they didn’t actually say, and then Bob Saget introduces what they actually said, and it’s supposed to be funny because it’s the opposite. It is possible to make solid narration jokes but it’s more common that narration ruins the natural timing of dialogue and drives an obvious joke into the ground. Even Arrested Development’s narration, which is among the better examples in television, happens up this occasionally when the narrator says the opposite to make a joke that is better off unsaid because everyone can get the point without it.

4. Narration is often used for heavy moralizing

This is related to 2 as well, and is a particular pet peeve of mine. Many shows have some sort of message they’re trying to get across, but some shows really try to teach you a lesson. Good messaging doesn’t feel like getting taught a lesson, but bad messaging lays it on really thick and feels like a lecture. How I Met Your Mother, once again, is a particularly bad offender. I don’t want advice from older Ted about the right way to live my life. Related to point 2, even if they felt How I Met Your Mother felt it really had to teach us something about the right way to live, it should do it through its storyline and not through older Ted just blurting out what’s right. That said, this point is more towards the fact that I never want a show straight out telling me what’s wrong or right and that rarely happens as clearly on shows without narration.

Certainly not all narration is terrible and while assembling entire list of my favorite examples of narration might require an entire other article, I’ll at least note my favorite recent television narration, which is on Peep Show, a British sitcom. In Peep Show, the narration is a stream of consciousness from both protagonists Mark and Jeremy, and instead of feeling like a high school essay being read, or a well-rehearsed story told dozens of times, the narration truly feels like their ongoing thought process and is an extremely important element of what makes the show hilarious, rather than an extraneous and unnecessary aspect

End of Season Report: Luther, Season 3

9 Dec

Luther and his nemesis

British cop drama Luther aired its third season this year, although it’s a very British season, made up of just four episodes. The first two seasons were solid but unspectacular fare that largely relied on television police tropes, particularly the cop-that-breaks-all-the-rules-but-is-always-right. Still, the seasons had their moments, starred the always wonderful Idris Elba, featured one really interesting character named Alice, and well, there weren’t that many episodes so the quality didn’t have to be as high to make the seasons worth watching (I’m aware that’s a very backhanded compliment). 

Normally I try to make some broader points in these end of season reports and hit on a number of key plotlines. Here, though, there was one element of the third season that basically ruined it for me and that’s pretty much what I’m going to focus on.

Here’s the problem with Luther season three, the most frustrating and worst season of the show to date. They took a good idea and executed it exactly the wrong way,which led to a season which was worse than if they good idea had simply been absent altogether.

Let me explain.

Here’s the good idea. Luther is an unethical police officer who violates both ethical and legal boundaries to solve cases and punish guilty offenders. This is something that would be extremely controversial in real life, is fairly controversial in the show, but it’s something viewers have occasionally been taught to root for in their television heroes. Heroes don’t play by the rules and they get things done anyway they have to; technicalities be damned. Thus, this season, the Luther writers smartly decided they were going to introduce someone who looks into Luther’s  misdoings and tries to find out if they’re true, and if so to take him down within the system.

That’s a good idea. Here’s how you do it right. The internal affairs-type people looking to get Luther are completely neutral and simply interested in finding the truth. They’re not interested in personal vendettas; they’re interested in people following procedures that exist for a reason. Internal affairs-type people always tend to come off as bad guys in TV shows for the same reason borderline unethical cops come off as they good guys; the cops are trying to get results, while the internal affairs people are worrying about bureaucratic bullshit while the real cops go after criminals. So, the key to have this plot thrust work is ensuring that the agents coming after Luther are trustworthy and passionate, so they’re on an even playing field with Luther, and it makes you think, well, maybe Luther, this character that I’ve been rooting for, maybe there are good reasons that he should go down and get investigated and possibly punished for his indiscretions.

Here’s what they did. The head internal affairs person investigating Luther, George Stark, is a drunk absolute nut job who cares much more about railroading Luther than he does about justice or law or really anything. It’s unclear why he cares so much since we’ve never seen him before and it’s unclear what kind of official permission he even has to be conducting his investigation. At least his helper and second in command has been at odds with Luther for some time and has a legitimate beef. Stark comes out of absolutely nowhere, despises Luther for reasons that are unclear, but is far from being above using the same exact underhanded tactics to get Luther that Luther might use against a criminal. Not only is it unbelievably hypocritical, but Stark has an insufferable superior attitude about the whole ordeal which makes him all the more despicable.

I’m open to rooting against Luther. I could be convinced. He rubs me the wrong way often and I’m tired of that cop-who-disobeys-the-rules being portrayed as the hero . Still, when this is the other option, I’ll root for the devil I know any day of the week. I know this show can do better. Luther is already a show with many limitations and a not particularly nuanced view of crime or policework, but it could craft a more convincing and compelling investigation into Luther’s misdeeds.

This investigation into Luther was all leading to the final episode. I was already kind of fed up with this plot by this point which was ruining most of the enjoyment I had from the other angels of the first three episodes. Stark’s investigation into Luther in the final episode became unbearable and almost made me stop watching then and there. Luther’s partner is killed, and the killer comes after Luther’s girlfriend. Somehow, however, Stark believes that Luther conspired with the criminal to come kill his girlfriend for some reason, well, I obviously can’t even fathom what reason. Come on. How are they taking this seriously? Say what you want about Luther, and there’s a lot to say, there’s a lot that he’s actually guilty of that he should be fired for and maybe more. But that he arranged a deal with the villain to kill his girlfriend? What? How does that even make sense for two seconds?

I’m aware plausibility only goes so far on TV often, but there has to be limits. Stark is also mindbogglingly incompetent and his utter confidence that Luther is behind every plot in the show ends up leading to his death and almost several others.

Also, everyone who watches Luther loves Alice. Alice is the best character. But her coming in out of absolutely nowhere to steal him away from his convey with grenades? Come on. A poisoning? Sure, I’d believe that. But this seems more than a bit much, as does Luther walking away with her at the end of the show, still barely a day, if that, after his partner died.

This is a much more minor note, but the dialogue between Luther and his new girlfriend Mary when they get together at the end of the second episode is just terrible.

Honestly, this is just a very disappointing season of television. I’ll have to consider whether I want to watch any more if a fourth season comes about.