Archive | March, 2014

End of Season Report: Walking Dead, Season 4, Part 2

31 Mar


The second half of the fourth season of The Walking Dead (or as I like to call it, because AMC addresses it as such, AMC’s The Walking Dead) tried a new tack. After the characters’ home at the prison gets blown apart by the Governor’s invasion, because we know the main characters can’t be at any one place for too long, the remaining living characters are divided into five groups, each of which is unaware of the location of any of the other groups, or whether anyone else even made it out alive. The groups never all appear in the same episode and some entire episodes feature single groups and just a couple of characters. Full episodes featured only Rick, Michonne and Carl, only Daryl and Beth, and only Tyreese, Carol, Lizzie, and Mika (and Judith technically, though she’s not much of a character at this stage in her life).

Theoretically the idea was admirable and ambitious; there could have been something to be gained by laying out the characters as separate entities and lingering on their stories without letting different mindsets or moods interrupt singular narratives. In practice, however, the organizational device led to an epic slowdown of a show that’s had serious pacing problems over the years and which is better when it keeps moving at a hardy pace. The Walking Dead can’t pull off the epic slowness and deliberateness of True Detective or Rectify, for example. Instead, the episodes just feel needlessly stretched out.

I’m not a Walking Dead hater, but I do think The Walking Dead is the most uneven show on television. No current show has constantly produced powerful moments and at the same time undercut them with miserable pacing, poor characterization, and strange plot choices. This half-season would have really benefited from shrinking the length of many of these episodes, or, since every episode is forty minutes, more realistically from more cross-cutting in the episodes between the various groups of survivors. For example, the Beth and Daryl-centric episode in which Beth had her first alcoholic drink did have its share of warm character moments and bonding between two character who had previously not had a whole lot to do with one another, but it certainly didn’t need to be forty minutes. There was a whole lot of extra time spent that didn’t provide any additional punch.

On the whole, assuming we’re resigning ourselves to these general storylines and groupings, these eight episodes could probably have taken place in the space of four or five episodes without any noticeable loss.

There are serious continuing issues with The Walking Dead aside from its poor pacing, which are occasionally remedied but keep popping up. Characters can be remarkably slow on the uptake, making decisions that seem counter to everything we know about the universe in which they live, and the show can be painfully on the nose.

For example, even without hindsight, viewers could tell Lizzie was obviously unbalanced. Tyreese and Carol didn’t notice at all, and left her alone with baby Judith, which is hard to believe. In fact, The Walking Dead’s ability to be so on the nose with how off Lizzie makes it even stranger that Tyreese and Carol had no suspicions. This isn’t to say they could have expected her to kill her sister by any means, but not leaving her alone with a baby seems like sound and fairly clear advice.

The season finale contained entirely unnecessary flashbacks of Hershel convincing Rick to farm instead of fighting walkers to show Carl a better path. I love Hershel; he was one of my favorite characters and the moral center of the show. But, come on. We get it. We don’t need the reminder to know that Rick is now finding he has to behave savagely again to keep his son safe. The Walking Dead is consistently afraid to give its audience enough credit to figure out what’s going on. I’m not sure what they talk about on The Talking Dead; The Walking Dead provides more explanation than anyone could possibly need.

Too often it feels like The Walking Dead wants to make sure you know it’s about big ideas and not just zombies, and that takes away from both the power of the ideas and the plot itself; tell an interesting story in this lawless zombie-ridden universe, and the ideas will take care of themselves.

That said, there’s still something here worth watching even if The Walking Dead only really shows its best side in some of the episodes some of the time. Nothing that has happened has made me think that The Walking Dead doesn’t have the power in it to be as compelling as it is in its best moments more often, and no doors have been closed off through the direction of the show that would end any chance at improvement. The show just continues to meander back and forth from powerful moment to strange decision, from action packed zombie battle to walking on train tracks for forty minutes with nothing much happening.

Those powerful moments really do exist. Finding Lizzie with her dead sister was startlingly creepy, so shocking because even as relatively desensitized viewers have become to gruesome violence, this is still such a stunning act. Watching Rick rip the head gang leader’s  throat out in the finale was powerful; much more than anything gained through the flashback, that one single moment epitomized Rick’s new attitude and his willingness to get his hands (and mouth) dirty. When Carol lays the fact that she killed Karen on the table, and Tyreese forgives her, it was moving and actually made sense within the greater context of the episode; it would have taken something major to change Tyreese’s viewpoint around to that reaction, but the events in that episode qualified.

Also, no season long recap should go without at least quickly noting that the zombies are as always remarkably gross and well-rendered, and the people behind them seem to come up with more disgusting types of zombies every season which is impressive. The set piece zombie battles are still pretty damn cool.

So, another season ends, and I’m still in the same place I was after midseason, and after last season. The Walking Dead is a show with big, powerful moments that finds itself frequently somewhat lost between those moments. There’s still a lot of potential, and the world continues to be a promising and fruitful one, but it remains endlessly frustrating that the writers can’t put it all together for one really great season of television.

Spring 2014 Review: Crisis

28 Mar

Crisis time

Here’s the titular crisis. A bus containing a group of kids who go to a fancy-schmancy private school for the sons and daughters of the masters of the universe is stopped by armed men and the kids are taken hostage. On the bus is not only the President’s son, but also the kids of very important people in all walks of life, such as ambassadors, titans of industry, and more, including Gillian Anderson’s Meg Fitch, head of a huge global IT company.

The brilliant reasoning of the people behind this act is that they’ll use the leverage they have from kidnapping the children to force their powerful parents to do stuff. Each parent’s individual mission will be a step towards the kidnappers’ overall plan, which still remains a mystery.

The midway-through-the-episode-twist, which I’m going to give away right now, is that Dermot Mulroney’s character, who just seems liked a pathetic has-been parent chaperoning on the trip to spend a little time with his estranged daughter, turns out to be the mastermind behind the entire operation. The plan seems to be some sort of revenge for, well, something or someone, or lots of people who screwed him over a few years ago when he was in the CIA. The details are left unclear but we’re shown a flashback where a man he thought was his best friend threatens his daughter’s life if Mulroney doesn’t go quietly from whatever mysterious CIA position he held.

Oh, also, Gillian Anderson’s estranged sister Susie is the head FBI agent working the case, and it turns out that Susie is actually the mother of Gillian’s daughter, but gave the baby up to Gillian because she was a teenager. In every show like this, it’s important to have a couple of personal crises that also just happen to bubble up at the same time the primary action crisis arises, to give the show more character-based oomph and the potential for the personal and the professional to collide.

The remaining primary character is a secret service agent who escapes with one of the kids and manages to take down one of the attackers. This secret service agent was shot by a rogue secret service agent, and the villains just let him lay around on the ground without making sure he was down for the count which seems like some pretty poor planning for the plotters behind such a complex overall plot.

Crisis is a long-form thriller action series. If almost every long-form supernatural/sci-fi based series of the last decade owes its existence to the success of Lost (which it does), almost every long-form serial thriller action show of the last decade owes its existence to 24.

24 is thus the template for success for this type of show. 24 is more focused on action, while this, and a show like CBS’s Hostages which Crisis immediately made me think of, are more thrillers, which basically means less hand to hand combat, but the blueprint is basically the same. Plots in these shows tend to be mind-bogglingly complicated conspiracies that go all the way to the top. Think about it: they have 22 episodes in which they have to continually be creating constant tension, cliffhangers, and reveals. It’s difficult to construct a truly coherent narrative that meets those standards of excitement.

So the ideal is to have the plot make enough sense in the moment that you are willing to get on board and be taken in by the twists and turns, even if they don’t make sense if anyone thinks too much about them. Because there’s not going to be a whole lot of deep themes or character development, it’s got to be fun; you’ve got to simply enjoy watching these shows in the moment. (24 may try to have you believe that debating the value of torture, etc, was a theme, but it was really just an excuse to realize how disturbingly enjoyable it was to watch Jack Bauer beat people up). Again, 24 is the model – 24’s plots were pretty stupid when you thought about them, and the characters acted in constantly stupid ways, but at its best, it didn’t matter because it was fun to watch Jack Bauer beat shit up, and yell “There’s not enough time!” to anyone willing to listen and for any given forty minutes it seemed like whatever task he was on was really important.

Does Crisis meet this standard? Not really. It’s serviceable. There was nothing offensive, and if somebody threw it on in the background I wouldn’t cringe. But there’s nothing that gripped me, or that made me feel like I absolutely had to see what came next. It’s constructed by the network machine, a competent product, but no more. It’s very much a paint by numbers for this genre; there’s a plan to make it long term – in this case Mulroney has some sort of secret revenge book (think, well, Revenge), that he’ll seemingly be moving through over the season, and there’s plenty of potential personal conflicts. Rather than being bad, Crisis commits perhaps the worst sin for an action thriller; it’s utterly forgettable.

Will I watch it again? No. There’s just no point. Honestly, I’d be shocked if anyone I talk to remembers Crisis’ existence in two years, which speaks more to its forgetability than its terribleness.

End of Season Report: Girls, Season 3

26 Mar

The Girls

Thankfully, the controversy that overwhelmed Girls has mostly (albeit certainly not entirely) died down by the third season, meaning viewers can concentrate on its merits as a show rather than as a stand in for any larger piece of our culture. For the most part, people who like it watch it and people who don’t stopped bothering to criticize it at every turn and moved on to something else. There’s still more talk about Girls than all but a handful of shows on TV, but compared to the first season, it’s nothing.

Underneath that mostly lack of controversy lays yet another promising but somewhat uneven season. Girls has a shot at being a great show, but it generally continues to come up a little short and merely be a good show. That may sound like an insult, but I don’t mean it to be.  Good shows are still relatively rare and Girls does indeed have a unique voice all its own. It doesn’t feel like every other or really any other show on TV in particular, which is one of the highest compliments I can give a show.

That said, the little things Girls struggles with are particularly frustrating, because with those problems eliminated, Girls could be be a truly great show. This is still absolutely possible; Girls’ flaws are not at all fundamental to its premise. It’s certainly worth highlighting both sides, which parts of this season went right and which went wrong, and I’ll navigate that character by character.

Overall, Hannah has and continues to receive the best, deepest, funniest, most complex, and most interesting arcs on the show. This is not particularly surprising as Dunham is the show’s creator and primary creative force, but it continues to be true to an overwhelming extent, which says in equal parts both how generally strong her stories are and how much they outrank everyone else’s. Hannah had lots of great, funny, and awkward moments. While the writers seem intent on making sure you don’t like the characters too much with moments like Hannah’s painfully awkward conversation with her editor’s wife at his funeral, there were also plenty of moments when Hannah was, by Girls standards, relatable. Her quitting GQ, or rather causing herself to get fired, irked me, especially since she seemed to have made her peace with her current position in an earlier episode, only to then come around again to how she was feeling just a couple of episodes before that (if that’s confusing, fine – I was confused watching it). However, most of her season long plot worked, particularly her relationship with Adam which I’ll get to next. I really enjoyed “Flo,” the episode in which Hannah went home to deal with her grandmother’s illness. “Flo” felt less exaggerated and more real and down to earth than most of Girls, which typically marks its ground as being one degree away from greater relatability.

Next, Adam. Adam and Hannah’s relationship was a very important part of season three, and Adam was the second most developed character of the season, moving past any of the other Girls. I liked Adam much more this season than I had in the previous two, both in terms of sheer likability, and as a character. I think that’s because we got to know him a lot better and he was significantly deepened and filled out. In previous seasons, we had either seen his dark sides or his overbearing obsessiveness, for good and for not so good, and here we finally got to see him just be. In addition, his career success made Adam feel like less of a weirdo – he found some people he actually seems to genuinely get along with and something he’s passionate about, both attractive qualities. Earlier, it had always bothered the hell out of me that not only could he not seem to stand Hannah’s friends to the point where he couldn’t even tolerate them in small doses, but he didn’t have any of his own. Adam and Hannah’s relationship overall was a highlight of the season, and it produced plenty of moments that showcase Girls, and TV relationships generally at their best, by putting characters in situations of conflict without either side being obviously right or wrong. Both Adam and Hannah consistently had valid points in their arguments, even when one or the other was self-serving. When Hannah’s mother confronted Hannah endearingly but overbearingly about Adam, both she and Hannah were right. He’s an exceptionally caring person with serious issues who offers a great deal of both positives and negatives.

Now, everyone else.  Marnie’s plot changed completely when the actor who played the on again off again sad sack boyfriend Charlie with whom she had finally reunited in season two’s finale, Christopher Abbott, announced he wouldn’t be returning. I was glad upon hearing the news, because Abbott’s Charlie was one of my least favorite characters on the show. Unfortunately, his departure led to Marnie’s continual decline. She was inconsolable for the first half of the season, and was just starting to have a couple of things go her way by the time the season ended. Marnie’s faults were also in full display all season; full of herself, controlling, haughty, and judgmental. Although we peeked through that occasionally to see someone struggling and hurt who was used to life going her way and unsure what to do when it wasn’t, we just didn’t get enough of Marnie on the whole to go any deeper than that. More time with Marnie would have highlighted this struggle, and while some of her constant judging of everyone else in her life is pretty indefensible, other of her more negative qualities would have come out as symptoms of her current situation in life making them more palatable and understandable.

Of all the characters short on screen time this season (everybody but Adam and Hannah), I probably enjoyed Jessa’s plots the most, which surprised me, because Jessa’s been my least favorite character through the first two seasons of the show. What made them work in this season is that, given the lack of screen time for Jessa, Girls didn’t even seem to attempt a coherent arc for Jessa. Instead there were little vignettes that were entertaining and instructive individually. In terms of the big picture, I’m not sure I really buy it; Jessa’s a drug fiend, and then she kind of just isn’t because well, it’s not really clear. But in terms of single episode stories, Jessa’s are compelling, particularly her discovery of an old party buddy who had faked her death to get away from Jessa’s negative influence. While Jessa’s very different negative qualities are as evident as Marnie’s, at least Girls has done a much better job digging in to the root causes and the pain behind Jessa’s fuck-the-world facade.

Shoshanna is the least well serviced character this season. She has been for the entire series, but this season even more than ever before. She doesn’t get a whole lot to do, and she seems dafter than ever. Even school, the one area in which it seemed Shosh was ahead of the curve, betrayed her. Her role in this season, rather to be a character, so often seemed to be to point out what the viewer was thinking about a situation, particularly in the first episode and “Beach House”. I’m not sure we’re ever going to get more from Shoshanna, and unlike Marnie and Jessa, instead of having a story that wasn’t really fleshed out, there just wasn’t much of a storyline for Shoshanna at all this season.

Ray is my favorite character and the favorite character of just about all my friends. He’s the only person on the show who seems to be able to figure out what issues everybody on the show is dealing with, himself included (outside of Shoshanna’s occasional savant-ish moments). He doesn’t always have the most to do but I enjoy just about every moment he’s on screen, even when he’s being kind of an asshole.

Two standout episodes this year were the aforementioned “Flo” and “Beach House.” It was great to see the four girls interacting after they really hadn’t all season in “Beach House”, and though it showcased all of their worst qualities, there was a lot to like about the episode. It helped take stock of where everyone was at that moment; everybody progressing in some ways and unchanging in others. The dance scene at the end was well done and a well-deserved warm moment after the constant fighting that came before, showing that their friendships are stronger than one fight, no matter how vicious. “Beach House” also reintroduced Elijah, who was quickly brought back into the fold for the rest of the season. I greatly enjoy the humor his character brings especially when the other characters are tense and stressed out. He’s welcome back into the world of Girls anytime.

Here’s where Girls stands after three seasons. It’s a good show, which is absolutely worth discussing and talking about in significantly more positive than negative ways. It’s a flawed show as well, but one that has a potentially perfect season in it. Girls, even not at its best, is noteworthy enough to remain canonical television, and while its flaws prevent it from being great to this point, it’s not so far away.

Spring 2014 Review: Resurrection

24 Mar


I just finished watched the first season of a French show called The Returned (actually the French words for “The Returned” (Les Revenants) but you get the idea) about a small town in which people start coming back from the dead at the same age at which they died and with no memory of what happened between their death and their resurrection. Resurrection, which Wikipedia assures me has no connection with The Returned, has an almost eerily similar premise (In fact, Resurrection’s pilot is named “The Returned,” named after a book titled “The Returned” which makes it even harder to believe the appearance of these two shows within a few months of each other is just coincidental).

Resurrection starts with the appearance of an eight-year old American boy appearing out of nowhere in China. It turns out he’s Jacob Langston, who drowned 30 years ago in his hometown of Arcadia, Missouri, a relatively small town out in the boonies. Everyone struggles to accept that he might by the real thing and not just an impostor, coached up with Jacob’s memories for some undisclosed reason, particularly his parents, for whom his death understandably remains a sore subject even so many years after the fact. His mother is quickly willing to believe while his father finds his unexpected return from a watery grave far more difficult to come to terms with. When the DNA test matches up, the residents of Arcadia and Customs Agent Marty Bellamy (Omar Epps) who was pegged with the responsibility for the boy when he came in from China, face the fact that they have no explanation for the reality of the situation. Besides Jacob’s parents, there is Jacob’s uncle, whose wife also perished with Jacob, and Jacob’s one-time younger cousin, Maggie, now a doctor. Additionally, Jacob claims that the details of his and his aunt’s death differ from what everyone believed at the time, and may have been more sinister and less accidental.

The episode ends with the return of another Arcadia resident, the father of Maggie’s best friend, indicating that this resurrection is not a one-time phenomenon. People are coming back, and no one knows why.

That’s pretty much all that happens. Kid comes back. Relatives struggle with the revelation that this could actually be the kid they had written off as dead thirty years ago. Confirmation that he’s for real their kid. Friend’s dead father shows up.

It wasn’t revelatory or great by any means, but it was actually better than I thought it would be, which is still a relatively rare phenomenon, especially in network television. Mentioning that this was because my expectations were so low is an overly harsh backhand additional to that compliment. Perhaps unfairly, I had conflated Resurrection in my head with Believe, and after a largely negative experience with Believe, I was relatively pleasantly surprised after watching Resurrection.

Exactly as I felt after the first episode of The Returned, I have no idea where this is going, but it feels more like a typical post-Lost serial mystery show rather than the unique unlike-anything-else feel that The Returned gave off. Particularly, Resurrection doesn’t have the underlying haunting feeling that pervades The Returned. Fortunately, it also doesn’t have the air of crusaders-on-a-mission that permeates Believe.

The mystery is medium level on the intrigue scale. Less happens than in most first episodes of serial mystery shows, making it harder to take a stab at what direction the show is going with. Much more epic shows, in comparison, like Terra Nova, Revolution, and The Event, all went through much more premise information in the initial episode. The set up isn’t quite interesting enough to hook me in, and nothing about the setting, style, or writing, was noteworthy enough to demand following up, but the sum total was pretty decent, and I could imagine the show painting a fairly interesting mystery.

Will I watch it again? Probably not. While its plot was very similar to The Returned, it lacked the style and mood which made the first episode of The Returned more compelling in comparison and there are only so many TV hours in the day. That said, I could imagine a world in which Resurrection is actually pretty good, and even having that possibility exist is an underrated state of affairs.

Spring 2014 Review: Believe

21 Mar

I Want to Believe

I’ll be honest. I try and hope I did my best to evaluate this show fairly after viewing it, but it rubbed me the wrong way right from the title and poster. Call me a cynic, a pessimist, a Rust Cohle, but I’m kind of sick of being asked to Believe. It’s not entirely that I don’t want to believe, though that’s probably part of it. Shows earn belief, they don’t ask for it. Believe checks off a bunch of boxes that happen to be personal pet peeves – it ties in big time with fate, it simplifies life to essentially good and evil, and it uses some magic to make us believe big things are happening. No lesser than Oscar winner Alfonso Cuaron directed and co-wrote the pilot, and I hate to disappoint Cuaron, whose work I admire, but this was not for me.

Let’s step back a bit. Believe stars a little girl (eight years old maybe? I’m terrible with ages), Bo, with powers. Why, how, and the extent of the powers are unclear, but they’re super powerful and she is only just beginning to learn how to harness them. She can definitely at the very least read people’s minds, see the future, and scream loud enough to make a flock of birds go all The Birds on someone.

The girl is naturally the target of interest for forces good and evil, among the select few who even know about her existence. On the side of good is Milton (Delroy Lindo) and Channing (Jamie Chung). We know nothing about them except that the two have been tracking and interacting with the Bo for a long time and seek to protect her and use her power for good, whatever that means, somehow or other when she’s older.

On the side of bad is Skouras (Kyle McLaughlin), who wants the girl for, well, I don’t know, evil.  It’s not really clear other than he’s just a bad guy. He has an assassin who is attempting to steal the girl throughout the pilot, killing anyone in her path.

The good guys break out convicted death row inmate William Tate (Jack McLaughlin, unrelated to Kyle, but doing the best young Nick Cage impression I’ve seen in years, and I can’t decide whether I mean that as a compliment) minutes from being put to death and recruit him to find and protect Bo. He’s not really interested in spending his time protecting a young girl, but it sure beats the death penalty, and they keep him on the job with the threat of turning him into the authorities. Apparently they have the power to somehow ensure he doesn’t get caught if they don’t want him to, because, well, just because. He’s still pretty grouchy about having to babysit a girl, even if she has powers, and Channing wonders why Milton went through the trouble of breaking him out of prison (which was surprisingly easy). It turns out that he’s her birth father, so he’ll go on presumably learning to love her while still being a bit of a whiner.

Believe was oddly reminiscent of Fox’s touch, another show about a kid with powers and fate gone overboard, and I don’t mean the comparison as a complimentary one.

Maybe there’s someone who finds this heartwarming, but it’s not me. I have nothing against the girl but it the show seems vaguely full of itself and simplistic. At one point, Milton tells Tate that they don’t use guns, because they’re the good guys. What? What does that even mean? You won’t find a stronger gun control advocate than me, but I don’t understand at all why good guys use other weapons by not guns. What are the rules? That line just ticked me off in a way that’s emblematic of what bothers me about this show and shows like it. I’m supposed to feel inspired but I just feel bored and confused.

Will I watch it again? No. I don’t want to believe. Well, that’s not really true. There are plenty of things I believe in. But Believe is not one of them.

End of Season Report: Downton Abbey, Season 4

19 Mar

Downton's upstairs folk

Downton Abbey has somewhat struggled as it has aged, desperately trying to come up with a whole bunch of new compelling plotlines each season, and finding the well a little dryer each time. This report comes a little bit after the season ended here in the U.S., and it’s not because I needed time to compose my thoughts, but because it took me a while to get through the season, which has become a big of a slog. The characters feel like they’re repeating patterns and the show no longer feels as engaging as it did when it first aired. It’s hard to keep a show interesting over the years, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth remarking on. There are a couple of plotlines that I’ll address one by one, and then follow that with a couple of overall season comments.

First, the most talked about plotline of the season, Anna’s rape and the ensuing consequences. I’m not the first to say it, but this arc was deeply flawed and it didn’t work for me at all, with the exception of Anna’s anguish, portrayed by Joanne Froggatt, who consistently does a very good job. The main problem is that instead of being about Anna, the plot ends up really being about Bates – how will he react, how will he view Anna. Bates is one of my absolute least favorite characters on the show. I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to think of Bates as a stoic loyal gentleman, but to me he comes off as an broody emo, anti-social, anti-fun character, and the only thing worse than the fact that Anna has to worry about whether Bates would kill the man who raped her if he found out is the fact that she was totally right to worry. Is that the kind of man anyone would want to spend the rest of their life with? One who doesn’t actually care what his wife’s opinion is on the matter, but just does it because it fits his own personal code of justice. Obviously it’s tragic to see the rapist go unpunished; I don’t think anyone thinks that is the ideal state of affairs. Still, it’s not Bates’ call to decide what the punishment will be, and act as judge, jury, and executioner. It would be one thing if he called upon extralegal means with Anna’s assent, but without it, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on (Mr. Bates’ cripple pun unintentional).

Can we also spend a second to talk about how in the world Bates didn’t throw out his train ticket to London after MONTHS? There’s just no good answer to this, other than Downton wanted the characters to figure it out, so I’m not even going to attempt to address it because it’s so obviously ridiculous.

The Alfred-Daisy-Ivy-James love quadrangle (one could say rectangle, but I won’t) has gotten stale, and I’m glad it’s finally broken up by the end of the season, particularly by Alfred, one of my favorite characters, moving up in the world to chef.  Some things just remain the same too long. We get it, Daisy likes Alfred, Ivy likes James, James and Alfred both like Ivy, but James is a bit of a cad. It’s fine that this exists – to expect otherwise is to not understand what kind of show Downton Abbey is – but to just go over it again and again is tiresome.

Why is Thomas still working at Downton? Can someone please explain this to me? Nobody likes him. He’s always obviously scheming and by now it’s not like anybody doesn’t know about it. They admittedly mostly toned him down but still remind us every once in a while that he’s mostly just kind of an asshole. His trying to constantly pump the new lady’s maid for information throughout the entire season was largely uninteresting.

Poor Edith just can’t catch a fucking break.  Edith is one of the few character I’ve actually grown to like more over the course of Downton, and it’s almost cruel at this point how misfortune just seems to follow her around. She actually finds someone who cares about her, and he knocks her up and then disappears off the face of the Earth in Germany. Oh, and Mary is still constantly mean to her. This is less a straight criticism of the show as much as just a commentary on how much I’m rooting for Edith, which would have shocked watching-first-season me.

The arc dealing with Rose and her black bandleader boyfriend, Jack, didn’t really work for me.  I do appreciate the effort to diversify the cast, but I think Downton would probably have been better off not even attempting a meaningful commentary on race as a show that’s by its nature poorly equipped to do so.  Downton simply wouldn’t have been diverse at that time period, so it would have been realistic to see nothing by white people everywhere these characters went.  The story wrapped up too neatly, and it felt like a story rooted in modern attitudes tweaked for the times rather than an honest portrayal of what would have happened if this situation occurred at this time in real life (though I’m not a historical expert, so I certainly can’t say for sure).

Mary is back to choosing between suitors. Not that I don’t think Mary can’t be charming or don’t like Michelle Dockery, but it sometimes seems a bit much how every single man of eligible age seems to melt directly at the sight of Lady Mary. Again, it’s not that I can’t believe it would happen, but it just seems to happen every single time.  One of the two prime potential suitors dislikes Mary, spends one night in which she shows her mettle by getting down and dirty with the pigs, and is henceforth in complete and utter love with her. The series was so invested in the Matthew – Mary coupling that it’s hard to get reinvested in one of these new suitors for Mary that we don’t know nearly as well as Matthew.

The Lady Crawley – Dowager Countess tet a tet continues to give us the best parts of the series. Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith are both jewels and are delightful as the old liberal and old conservative, a classic combination.

As for everything else? It just feels like the series is running in place. It’s not bad, really. Bad is too harsh. Downton, as I’ve said before, is a soap, masquerading occasionally as a serious drama of some historical importance, but that’s really nothing more than a facade. A fascinating façade, and one that draws some of the interest in the show, But a façade still. A soap needs new blood. The show needs fresh storylines and new likable characters and I’m not sure Downton can deliver that anymore.

Spring 2014 Review: Mind Games

17 Mar

Mind Games

Over the years, as more and more networks have started showing scripted programming, and this fragmentation has led networks to aim their programming certain niches, house styles have developed which have become strongly associated with said networks. For example, CBS and police procedurals; it’s not as if no other network has them, nor is it as if these preconceived notions can be changed, but since CSI’s emergence, CBS and police procedurals go hand in hand.  Sometimes it’s the subject matter that’s significant, sometimes it’s the character focus, sometimes the mood, sometimes the style. With the emergence of these house styles, it’s easy to watch a show and say it feels like an NBC show or an FX show or a TNT show and have that actually mean something.

Sometimes, then, it feels like a show is simply on the wrong network; they’re not a match. Either the show doesn’t really fit with the network’s other programming, or just as important, it would fit far more snugly somewhere else. I’ve been considering a post on shows like this, and though I don’t know whether or when that will happen, it’s been on my mind. Hannibal set me off on this recently; it’s on NBC, but clearly belongs on Showtime. Mind Games is another example of this phenomenon It airs on ABC, but it clearly belongs on USA.

Mind Games hews to nearly every basic tenet of USA programming, sharing some traits with many of the shows currently or recently airing on the network. The two main characters are two brothers with very opposite demeanors and personalities. (think Neal and Peter in White Color, Gus and Sean in Psych, Evan and Hank in Royal Pains). In this case, it’s brothers Clark (Steve Zaun) and Ross (Christian Slater). Ross is a hard, to the point, businessman, not particularly concerned with acting ethically to get what he wants, while Clark is a goofy bipolar academic who is loud, passionate, and with a firmer moral center.

One brother, Clark is savantish – he’s kind of a genius, but there’s something holding him back (Neal in White Collar, Michael in Burn Notice (the whole being burned), Suits). Clark is bipolar, which makes the business environment particularly difficult for him, He goes through highs and lows, and is on and off his meds, complaining that while he’s more even on his meds, he can’t think as clearly. Clark’s specialty is behavioral studies, and he wants to use this expertise to figure out how to change people’s minds but using visual and other behavior cues he learned from his research.

The two have to make a fresh start after experiencing some personal failure. Slater just got out of jail, and Clark was just fired from the school where he was teaching for sleeping with a student (Hank and Even again in Royal Pains, Michael in Burn Notice). They’re starting over with a joint venture, a firm that uses Clark’s specialty to change people’s minds. Ross handles the business, Clark handles the science, and they’re off and running.

There’s a clear procedural element with an ongoing plot (literally every USA show). Every episode is likely to feature a situation the gang will have to solve with their revolutionary mind-bending psychological techniques, while they’ll slowly move forward in the continuing story line. Aside from the general growth of the firm from being bankrupt upwards, he learn that Ross paid the student who slept with Clark to sleep with her, and that even though it started as work, she fell for Clark. Obviously, that reveal is a Chekov’s gun bound to go off a some time, many episodes away, were the show to last that long.

The two brothers have a motley crew of side characters surrounding them. Clark has an acolyte, Slater has his own business development acolyte, and they employ an actress named Megan. They also soon employ Slater’s ex-wife, Claire, because she’s expert in keeping Clark calm. Every week presumably, the gang will take on a new case, help some people, make some money, face some obstacles, but prevail over them by the end of the episode.

Interestingly, Mind Games is from Kyle Killen who struck out in his first two times as a broadcast network showrunner with two far more ambitious shows, Lone Star, and Awake. It’s almost as if he’s choosing to continue dumbing himself down until he finds a hit. Admittedly, dumbing down is harsh. Less ambition on television certainly isn’t a good thing, but it doesn’t have to be an outright bad thing. Still, like most USA shows, Mind Games occupies a world of decently high floors but also fairly low ceilings. By ensuring it meets a minimum set of criteria, Mind Games becomes an absolutely competent show but also a show unlikely to progress above competence. Because of this, as well as the procedural nature, there’s nothing compelling about it. It’s just a show that’s on TV, no more, no less.

Will I watch it again? No I don’t see anything that elevates this above any other USA-type show, and as I am two seasons behind on White Collar, I’m probably not going to start watching this version which doesn’t really seem better in any way.

Who Are Those Guys: True Detective, Season 1

14 Mar

Tree of Life

Episodes of TV shows are filled with tons of “that guys” – character actors, tv veterans, up and coming actors, main characters from other shows looking to branch out.  At “Who Are Those Guys” we’ll go through a season of a show and point out notable actors and actresses who appeared in that show over the course of the season, what role they played in the show, and where you may have seen them before.  There’s obviously going to have to be some discretion in the choices, as there’s more than enough noteworthy actors and actresses in any season of a show to write about, so please let me know if I miss a personal favorite in the comments.  Because there are so many, we’ll focus only on actors appearing for the first time in the season, and we’re not including main cast members.

This time it’s True Detective, Season 1. Before we get going the only note I want to make is that, a high proportion of these actors have appeared on HBO before, which I feel like is probably not a coincidence. Let’s get to it.

Episode 1 – “The Long Bright Dark”

Alexandra Daddario – She’s court reporter Lisa Tragnetti, who’s having an affair with Marty and eventually breaks it off only for him to drunkenly accost her and a dude she goes home with. White Collar fans know her as Neal Caffrey’s long-lost love Kate, and she was Annabeth in both of the Percy Jackson & The Olympians movies. She also appeared in the video for Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.”

Kevin Dunn in Veep

Kevin Dunn – Dunn is Ken Quesada, Rust and Marty’s boss with the Louisiana State Police. Dunn has a long, long career that could be described over pages. He appeared in the Transformers movies as Ron, as Charles Colson in Nixon, in Dave, in Godzilla, and most recently as White House Chief of Staff Ben Caffrey on Veep.

Clarke Peters – Peters plays a rural minister who identifies the devil’s nets. Peters is an HBO veteran best known for his turn as Lester Freamon in The Wire, and also as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux on Treme. He also appeared as Dave Pell in the second season of Damages and as recurring Mayor’s Chief of Staff Alonzo Quinn in Person of Interest.

Jay O Sanders – Jay O. Saunders plays Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle, who wanted to form a special task force to go after faith-related crimes. Sanders is a veteran character actor who has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows. Recently, he’s had recurring roles as Special Counsel in Person of Interest and as Captain Joseph Hannah on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In the recent Green Lantern adaptation, he plays Carl Ferris, Blake Lively’s character’s dad, and he played scientist Frank Harris in The Day After Tomorrow.

JD Evermore – He was Detective Lutz, another one of the seemingly incompetent detectives in Hart and Cohle’s unit. He’s been in a number of small roles here and there. He was the Sheriff on Rectify, a biker named Harley on this season of The Walking Dead, and Detective Thomas Silby in six episodes of Treme,

Michael Harney in Orange is the New Black

Michael Harney – Harney played Steve Geraci in True Detective, a detective who Cohle got into a spat with early on,and who Hart and Cole held at gunpoint much later on. Harney plays Piper Chapman’s bane, correctional officer Sam Healy, in Orange in the New Black, he was Detective Mitch Ouelette on Weeds, the drunkard Steve in Deadwood, and Detective Mike Roberts on NYPD Blue.

Episode 2 – “Seeing Things”

Lili Simmons – Beth, the hooker who Marty donates to; she later repays him back in full, and more. She’s made a few one off TV appearances, but her other current prominent role is as Rebecca Bowman on Banshee, where she portrays an Amish girl by day, but an adventurous party girl by night.

Mrs. Pinkston

Tess Harper – She played Dora Lange’s fingernail obsessed mom. Harper has had an impressively long career as a character actor, and was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for 1986’s Crimes of the Heart (10 points if you can tell me anything about that movie). Honestly, her appearances are too numerous to even attempt to begin to summarize or chroncle here. However, most importantly, what viewers may recently remember her from is her four appearances as Jesse Pinkman’s mother on Breaking Bad.

Episode 3 – “The Locked Room”

Shea Whigham – Whigham plays Joel Theriot, a revivalist preacher in 1995, and a drunk former preacher later on. He’s yet another example of True Detective digging into the HBO well of actors, as Whigham is best known for his role as Eli Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, main character Nuckie’s younger brother. He also appears in small roles in a billion movies, like American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silver Linings Playbook, Non-Stop, and more.

Glenn Fleshler – The green-eared spaghetti monster, the man with scars on his chin, serial killer Errol Childress. Like Whigham, he’s best known by viewers for his recurring role in Boardwalk Empire as third-person using bootlegger George Remus. He also had a recurring role in season 3 of Damages.

Episode 5 – “The Secret Fate of All Life”

Elizabeth Reaser – Laurie Spencer, Cohle’s girlfriend of several years, after being set up with one another by Maggie Hart. Reaser prominently played Esme Cullen in all five Twilight movies. She was in The Ex-List, and appeared as Tammy in seven episodes of The Good Wife. She was also in 18 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy as a patient from a ferry accident named Rebecca Pope.

Brighton Sharbino – She’s the older version of younger Hart daughter Macie on True Detective. Walking Dead fans know her as Lizzie, the older of two blonde sisters at the prison.

Episode 6 – “Haunted Houses”

Spiros Vondas

Paul Ben-Victor – Ben-Victor is Hart and Cohle’s supervisor in 2002, Major Leroy Salter. He’s probably best known as drug supplier Spiros Vondas from The Wire. He’s also been a main cast member on In Plain Sight, and appeared in recurring roles in Entourage, John From Cincinnati, and Everybody Hates Chris.

Episode 7 – “After You’re Gone”

Jay Huguley – A consummate character actor, Huguley has a brief scene in True Detective as Jimmy LeDoux, the non-psycho relation to Reggie and DeWall. Huguley appeared in six episodes of Brothers & Sisters and six of Treme as Will Branson, a power broker who tried to persuade Delmon Lambreaux to come aboard and help with the New Orleans Jazz Center project.

Spring 2014 Review: The Red Road

12 Mar

The Red Road

First impression: The Red Road is a drab, depressing show.  There are not a lot of laughs to be found, I’m warning viewers outright.

Well, let’s get into a little more detail than that. From the pilot, The Red Road seems like something of a two hander. Kiwi Martin Henderson plays Harold Jensen, a cop in a small town in exurban New Jersey right by the New York border with a large Indian population. He’s got two teenage daughters and a wife. His wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson of Masters of Sex) is a newly sober recovering alcoholic and struggling tremendously, flying off the handle at all sorts of stressors. His older daughter Rachel is hooking up with an Indian named Junior, and that in particular is driving Jean, who has some sort of tragic history herself with a high school love affair with a local Indian, up a wall.

Philip , our other protagonist, is a half-Indian who is clearly a member of the criminal element. He’s done some time and he’s apparently now working for his criminal father who lives in New York City and is involved in, well, it’s unclear the extent of his criminal activity, but certainly drugs at the very least. His significantly younger brother is Junior, the boy Rachel is keen on. We learn early on in the episode that some teenage kid from NYC who was dropped off in this town has gone missing and we’re led to believe that Philip had a hand in, or at the least knows about and is covering up, the circumstances behind the kid’s death.

How are these two men from opposite sides of the law connected? Well that slowly comes together over the course the episode. Jean’s bad experience with her own Indian sweetheart growing up somehow led to the death of her brother. Thus she holds what seems to me an incredibly unreasonable prejudice against all Indians, but maybe it’s more particular to this tribe or this family and I just missed that. Unraveling and apparently drunk again she steals her husband’s gun and takes her SUV to hunt down Junior and threaten him if not more. She never finds them, but runs over someone while driving drunk.

Philip calls Harold and sets up a meet. It turns out that Phillip was the man Jean had an affair that went bad with. He also happens to know that Jean was in the car, and he knows some Indians who witnessed the crash. He offers, surely not out of the kindness of his heart, to make sure the witnesses make the right statements. Harold is obviously uncomfortable with the arrangement, but is in a bit of a bind, and seems willing to get ethically dubious to keep his wife out of trouble and likely prison. Thus, the two embark together, I suppose upon the titular red road, which I assume is red because of blood, but it could be clay, or I don’t know, ketchup.

Okay, that was a longer summary that I originally intended. The show is certainly not a fun ride; it’s depressing, and everyone’s pretty hard to root for. Even Harold, the ostensible good guy who would be the obvious candidate to root for, comes off as unlikable when he threatens to kill Junior if he ever goes near his daughter again. Overreaction, much?

It’s a serious show, both in that it attempts to be serious, compelling television, and that is simply incredibly serious in tone, as in implying an utter lack of lightness.  It’s a little be oppressive to watch a full hour of at once. While I didn’t know where the show was going for the vast majority of the episode, the uneasy partnership between Philip and Harold did make me a little more intrigued. It felt like a potentially interesting avenue to travel on, albeit one that probably holds nothing but terrible things for everyone involved.

I’m honestly not sure if there’s something here after one episode. There are some good ideas, and I have a higher tolerance for depressing television than most.   I’m willing to extend my leash somewhat especially since the real crux of the premise, that these two are going to have to work together in spite of having nothing in common with each other, only came out in the last couple of minutes of the show and I still may need some more time to discover what I’m getting into. The fact that I’m curious is promising; I’m not dismissing it out of hand and I think I want to know more before making a decision.

Most shows are easy to discard after one episode with no regrets. Another subgroup are so compelling that I’d sign up for a full season right away. In the middle are those that require two, three, four episodes to really suss out if they’re worth watching. The Red Road falls in this class.

Will I watch it again? Maybe. That’s a cop out – I’ll say yes just because I feel I should say yes or no, but the fact that I’m deliberating here tells you about what I think of the show.

End of Season Report: True Detective

10 Mar

True Detective

While it took some people until the already legendary six-minute one shot that ended episode four to get on the True Detective bandwagon, I was more or less on board from day one. I loved what the show focused on right in that first couple of episodes. Some found these episodes slow before things really picked up, but I found them deliberately paced, but enthralling. It’s because the show came back around in its finale to focusing on what I liked about it its first couple of episodes, before I knew to look up the conspiracies and the yellow king and so forth that I liked the ending. Perhaps the best way to start talking about True Detective is to say that I’ve never seen a murder mystery show where the murder mystery mattered less than in True Detective, and I mean that in a purely positive way.

If you’ve read interviews with True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto, you know that he’s assured viewers throughout that the show isn’t out to fool anyone; he has a healthy distaste for M. Night Shyamalan-style twists and reveals that seem to overshadow the majority of the work and make the viewer feel jerked around. In attempting to keep the show grounded and real, he may have, however, inadvertently jerked viewers around, due to the expectations modern TV viewers have. Pizzolatto’s outlook, which I found refreshing, is the exception rather than the norm, and 21st century TV and movie viewers we’re trained to be obsessive and expect dramatic twists and changes of pace. If you didn’t know better, you might have expected True Detective, with its layers of references to Carcosa and the Yellow King, and religious iconography, to veer if not full out into Lost-like supernatural, then at least to a full-blown cult or deep within a conspiracy that goes all-the-way-to-the-top. None of these were the case, though I don’t think the references and imagery was put in to fool anyway; it was merely part of a rich tapestry of themes and symbols that can exist without having the weight of a much bigger, more epic plot behind it; something that I don’t think would seem so shocking if we didn’t have the weight of expectation that other epic shows have trained us with (take the disastrous ending of The Killing – it wasn’t the potentially somewhat straight forward ending the first season could have led to – it was a much more complicated conspiracy we had to watch a season more and be jerked around with to get to).

So if the show fooled you with its obsessions, and if you had different expectations, maybe you felt jerked around by the relatively anticlimactic nature of the conclusion. While I’m sorry that you had that impression, it’s somewhat understandable that you did, and if you did, well disappointment with the ending was equally understandable.

Fortunately, though, as I mentioned above, that’s not how I viewed the show. Don’t get me wrong; I loved all the obsessive angles of the show – pondering about the meaning behind Carcosa and the Yellow King, but that’s just an aspect of the greater mood. Dark, eerie, ominous, rural Louisiana in Marty Hart and Rust Cohle’s world was a dark, run down, and dangerous place where the bad often outran the good.  What the show was at its heart, though was the story of two partners, of two men.

Yes, this show, as director Cary Fukunaga pointed out, doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Its depiction of women was not particularly complex, and sure that’s a shame. But True Detective only had eight episodes to work with that’s simply not what True Detective was about. Not everything can be about everything. True Detective is about the relationship between Woody Harrelson’s Mary Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. They may not be Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, but don’t be fooled: This is a bromance.

Break through the clutter ,and it’s the story about two men from opposite sides of the tracks. Rust is an intellectual, nihilism-inpsired cop, who believes that the human race is going to hell in a handbasket. There’s no hope for anyone, he surmises. Marty, on the other hand, is a relativist; he plays by his own rules, or tries to, his own rules which dictate that him sleeping around is the best thing for his family, because he needs to takes care of his dark impulses before coming home to hang out in a wholesome fashion with his daughters and wife. These points of view should be diametrically opposed, and they are, but the two men meet cute, find common ground and drift apart, only to come back together again after ten years without speaking.

There’s lots more reasons to love the show. The cinematography are direction are top notch and among, if not the best of TV. The one-shot from the end of season four is rightfully renowned, and the beautiful vistas of coastal Louisiana give the show a distinctive sense of place. I can count off memorable shots with ease; the terrifying, jock-strap wearing and gas-masked Reggie LeDoux from far away that ended the third episode, for example, or the baroque and angelically lit shot of Rust Cohle holding up a devil net in the school to end the fifth episode (the show has a lot of memorable episode ending shots).  There’s the fantastic choice of palate which contrasts the sharp present day with the blurrier past.

But again, that’s not the heart of the show, without which True Detective wouldn’t be what it was. The show ends the way it has to – or at least with the people it has to  – Marty, and Rust, together again – and that pairing is why we’re watching. Because in eight hours, we can’t know everything but we do get to know these characters and we grow to love them. They desperately both try to be good men, even Cohle, who claims otherwise. They don’t always succeed, and we certainly don’t have to feel bad for them; that’s the not the point. They’re not asking our sympathy. But they both try to do one good thing for they legacy, something that at least partially compensates for their failures if nothing else and that’s worth celebrating. Marty realizes why he lost his family; he stopped begging, and he’s right that he didn’t deserve them – but he tries – he tries in the only way he knows how. There’s a nobility to their pursuit, and something notable in that it takes the combined efforts of both Cohle and Hart to actually catch their killer. Maybe there’s something cheesy about an ending in which Cohle, relentlessly negative Cohle, actually sees a small sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, but to me that pleasant sentiment is well-earned – even someone as utterly heartless as myself occasionally enjoys a happy ending.

True Detective celebrates the ethereal, the philosophical higher plane, but it also celebrates the ground floor, the people and their earth-based, contentious relationships. The cult, the ritual, are what generation forum discussions, and with good reason: they’re a meaningful part of what True Detective is about. But if you just want that, you’re missing the point – this isn’t Lost. There’s no higher level questions that absolutely need to be solved to avoid a let down aside from who did some of the killings we’ve seen; this is eight episodes, not five seasons.

Rust Colhle and Marty Hart, two brilliantly developed, written, and acted characters developed over the course of eight episodes, I wouldn’t ask for anything more.