Archive | July, 2017

End of Season Report: GLOW, Season 1

24 Jul

There has been much complaint after much initial acclaim about the cascade of half hour television programs that masquerade as comedies (some more than others, some merely because they’re 30 minutes, a length that traditional denotes comedy) aren’t really comedies; and more than merely not making you laugh, these are usually pretty dramatic, lacking even the patina of comedy. Transparent, one of my favorite current shows, holds the banner for that movement; it’s by no means somber or humorless, like AMC’s The Walking Dead, but a classically designated “comedy” it is not either. The natural antecedent of these half-hours wrapping themselves in comedy’s clothing is the comedy that is designed to do what comedies were originally designed to do: elicit laughs. New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Veep all fit well into this class, levels of storyline and feels and seriality aside.

There’s a third type of half hour program, though, that lives in between these two poles. There’s the half hour program that isn’t quite a comedy but isn’t quite a drama either. This type of program doesn’t have the laughs that you would normally expect from a comedy. There aren’t out and out jokes. But it has all of the underlying elements that generally support most comedies, laughs aside. If it doesn’t exist to make you live, it does live to make you smile. It’s not too heavy, there’s some drama, but it’s never too tragic, and at the end of the day you feel better after watching than you did before you started. GLOW lives in this third category.

GLOW isn’t really funny; there aren’t jokes, but it’s light on its feet. There are dramatic moments and some real pain but it’s not heavy in the way a Transparent or an Enlightened is. I never had anything less than full confidence that things would work out and that the season would for the most part end with lots of positive moments. The show makes it onto the air, Debbie participates and stands up against her somewhat bumbling husband, Carmen battles her stage fright, Sam makes peace with his newfound daughter. As a born pessimist, I’ve certainly enjoyed reveling in the depression and terrible people of a Transparent, but exactly because of that, it is nice to have a contract; a fun, clean, light-but-not-too-light respite like GLOW to actually kind of make you feel like the world’s going to be okay.

The low point for the main characters of GLOW actually comes right away, early in the first episode, when Ruth sleeps with her friend (her best and/or only friend as far as we see in the show) Debbie’s husband, for the second time as it turns out. It’s an awfully shitty thing to do, and she knows it, but she does it anyway, and Debbie chases Ruth down to the wrestling ring and confronts her. She ruins her friendship and her friend’s relationship, appreciates the magnitude of what a shitty thing she did and her season’s arc, besides trying to create the kind of meaty female part she’s been unable to find in traditional acting, is trying to make up for her misdeeds with Debbie. In fact, the only unresolved tension at the end of the season is Debbie’s pointed response to Ruth’s drink offer that they’re not there yet as friends, but the fact that they’re talking shows the amount of progress that has happened since Ruth did one of the worst things someone can do to a friend.

Wrestling started out as something silly on GLOW; nothing but a job for everyone involved (except for Carmen and maybe Bash who was funding it), but over the course of the show the characters began to take it seriously; for the career opportunities it offered, for the soap opera narratives, for its ability to tell a story and stoke an audience (not so much for the stereotypical foreign heels, but hey, it was the ‘80s, and they’re still doing that today).

There were pretty much three main characters, Ruth, Debbie, and Sam, but the whole ensemble were delightful in their interactions, some more limited than others. Over the course of the show, Carmen got a nice arc about being willing to break away from the wishes of her family for her hard-won personal fulfillment, and fighting her stage fright to succeed and eventually win the admiration of her family. Cherry, likewise, had an arc about winning Sam’s respect, taking control over her character and making it a success, and impressing enough to win a part outside of wrestling.  Both were smaller, more peripheral stories, than those of Ruth, Debbie, and Sam, but felt satisfying on their own merit.

At the end of the day, GLOW isn’t really super complicated or confusing or complex and there are no layers on layers on layers. It’s a warm, fun, show,with solid well-constructed characters that leaves you with a smile on its face. Bob’s Burgers has been my stand in for the type of show that I love to watch before I go to sleep, that leaves me happy, and hopefully leads to good dreams.  GLOW fulfills that promise, and that’s no small thing.

 

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End of Season Report: Fargo, Season 3

19 Jul

There’s nothing new under the sun. Or at least under the sun beating down on the wide and snowy plains of Minnesota, or so you might be led to believe after watching the third season of Fargo. Unlike its two excellent predecessors, season 3 started out okay before being bogged down in fits and starts, with flashes of characteristic filmic genius underlain by fundamental character flaws which prevented it from reaching those previous seasons’ heights.

The start was promising, but in hindsight, that might have been because I had faith in Noah Hawley, and because frankly, beginnings are easier. Soon, the show had two primary fatal flaws; it too closely resembled the first season, but with all of the elements inferior, thus highlighting its lesser status, and primary antagonist V.M. Varga was an absolute swing and a miss and a mess of a character which tainted the whole season.

Let’s start with the antagonist, V.M. Varga, or whatever his real name was, who was the biggest single reason the season broke down. It might well not have been great with a more consistent, more charismatic villain, but it sure would have been better. Here’s the problem.  The logic of his villainy was inconsistent at best, snaking from episode to episode depending on what individual scene’s dramatic monologues called for, without actually making any sense in the broader picture. At first, Varga was played off as a certain type of antagonist. The silent killer, who is brilliant and only cares about the money; without ego or drama, he does exactly what he needs to do as simply and under the radar as possible sliding in and out without you ever knowing his name. This is a scary type of villain because he’s smart and he’s least likely to get caught and he’s always a step ahead. Then, later, he played the loud, talky, arrogant, brutal villain, unafraid of bloodshed. This is a scary type of villain because he’ll kill you or your loved ones if you make the wrong move, sometimes impetuously without thinking through the consequences. But it’s a different kind of scary villain. The quiet, efficient, sly villain doesn’t offer more and more brutality when less flashy steps would be more efficient. The show kept acting as if Varga was the first type of villain when he increasingly became the second, taking more and more risks, and inflicting more and more violence for absolutely no reason. This guy flipped over a fucking prison bus and shot federal guards – is that the kind of action of a man who wants to keep himself under the radar takes?

The show mistakenly through that Varga was so charismatic, that he oozed that cinematic magic that would make his character work, despite the underlying flaws because he was simply so magnetic on the screen. He wasn’t. This was doubly so for his quirky two primary henchmen who were intentionally idiosyncratic and odd, as if purposely Coen-ing them up would make them interesting. It didn’t. Characters aren’t compelling simply by being odd. Those idiosyncrasies have to work part and parcel with the characters and the wider plot and they simply don’t here.

I’ve not wanted a villain to get his just desserts more than Varga in some time, and while that can often be the sign of a deliciously evil villain, here it was merely because I was so frustrated at the sheer incompetence of the folks chasing him. Sure, that police incompetence is an important part of the Fargo world, but surely higher powers would be called in after a fucking prison bus was overturned?

This season of Fargo mirrored season 1 in several ways, to its detriment. Gloria Burgle, though played about well as the part could be by the wonderful Carrie Coon, was a less interesting version of Allison Tolman’s season 1 character Molly Solverson. Varga was an inferior and worse used Lorne Malvo, and Ewen McGregor’s Emmett and Ray felt almost like a split take of Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard. Obviously these are loose analogues but they were showing up in the back of my head while I was watching. The only character there’s no straight analogue for is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango, who unsurprisingly was the best thing about the entire season. Lorne Malvo in season 1 was also crazy and dramatic, but season 1 worked because he wasn’t the antagonist; he was chaotic neutral, a man on the side who was the catalyst for Nygaard to break bad and become the true antagonist of the season.

This was also the most on-the-nose season. There was a theme, right from the first scene in Communist Germany, which was premised around the idea that truth is relative and malleable; it’s whatever who has the power says it is. There’s nothing wrong with this theme (I was simultaneously reading the Orphan Master’s Son, which was great and worked very much around this theme), just the way that Fargo decided to shove it down our throats in unsubtle ways having Varga and other characters more or less repeat that premise word for words in situations where surely us intelligent viewers would pick up on the subtext without having it explained for us.

There were heights. The cinematography was gorgeous as always and the acting was excellent, but in the age of Peak TV that’s not enough. The third episode, “The Law of Non-Contradiction”  in which Gloria Burgle visits California, chasing a red herring about the killer of her step grandfather was the highlight of the season, its separation from the main plot insuring its excellence remain untarnished. Within a bubble, this episode was everything great about this show and a window into the Coen’s world. Within less than an hour, it told a story that was both weird and charming, interspersed with animated scenes from the novel; a beautiful mini-movie whose ending may not have been final or satisfying but which told a story in and of itself. This red herring felt like it contained more of the truth than the rest of the season. For a show that was so unsubtle about what the truth is and isn’t this season, that episode was a perfect antidote.

The Americans it the Direct Answer to the Great Male Antihero Show

6 Jul

The first generation of Peak TV was ruled, at the very highest levels, by the white male middle-aged antihero. Personified by three of the titans of the genre, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, these shows starred a singular man above (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, respectively), one who was, for the most part, very competent as his work, while correspondingly often neglected his family. These shows were so good that they allowed all the lesser characters surrounding these leads to flourish as well, and the characters were complex and fascinating, the writing sharp and insightful, and the direction illuminating. That said, these three spawned imitators which highlighted their limitations of the mini-genre, and many, myself included, while revering the triumphs of these shows, tired of this formula centering around the difficult woe-is-me man who faces existential mid-life crisis problems.

After the end of Breaking Bad, the era sunsetted, and a number of other TV trends have dotted the landscape, on an entirely separate plane from that antihero model. A show like Orange is the New Black – a wildly diverse dramedy ensemble might be the most direct opposite of these show, or the biggest rebuke to what they represented. The Americans, however, starts with the male antihero formula and turns it inside out.

The stars of those shows – Soprano, Draper, White, are narcissists, who are volatile, can’t control their anger, and are uncomfortable being vulnerable or open about their emotions. They are usually selfish assholes who are charismatic but time and again make you angry that people constantly crave their respect and love. Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Sopranos are not good guys or good people; two of them work in illegal enterprises, and Don Draper cheats on his wife with abandon and doesn’t really understand how to deal with his children or coworkers. They’re larger than life, magnetic and we’re drawn to them in spite of their flaws. All three have family life on one side, work life on the other, and keep a firm separation between the two.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings turn this dynamic exactly on its head. Like all three of those antiheroes, they have a hard line between their home and family lives. Unlike the three, their home lives are loving both between each other and their children. They’re model parents who put in all the time and effort we would expect and whose relationships with their children, work difficulties aside, resemble more of the family relationships in a laugh-tracked suburban comedy than a typical prestige drama.  The attention, love, and understanding for their kids, and really Paige in particular, is so much more intimidate than any of the parental relationships in those other shows.

On the flip side, what they do in their jobs is far worse. Philip and Elizabeth don’t merely commit crimes; they kill not only spies and other military figures but also many many civilians when they’re in the way of the necessary goals and objectives they’ve been given, and ruin many others’ lives with blackmail and manipulation.

That said, they’re not doing it for greed or for profit or for fame or their own self-indulgence and ego. To them, even these terrible things are for noble ends; they’re patriotic. More than that, and especially for Elizabeth, they’re altruistic methods whose ends justify the means. Not only are they for her country, but they’re for the world. She truly believes that Russia cares more about people than the US does, and helping her country helps the most people, in a John Stuart Mill utilitarian sense. They’re not profiting at all form their work; they live in relatively modest circumstances, and in fact it’s making life very difficult for them. They only do it because they believe it’s right, and in Philip’s case, out of love for his wife.

Philip and Elizabeth are incredibly likable doing incredibly terrible things, much more likable than Soprano, Draper, and White, while killing many more people and ruining many more civilians lives; which creates a set of scenarios which is so different from those of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, but with similar echoes, making The Americans one of the best shows of this second generation of peak TV.

The Five Worst Series Finales of the Last 10 Years

5 Jul

I ranked my top 10 series finales since the Sopranos ended ten years ago. Now for my five worst. The top three are the worst in a tier of its own, and four and five are also bad for their own reasons. Let’s start it up with the most infamous.

1. Lost

The only saving grace for the Lost finale was that I had given up on Lost long before so expectations were low; and yet it still blew those expectations under the water. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the final season; I read recaps and Wikipedia entries to keep up on the goings-on (and it gets crazy – remember that Japanese other who gets killed by Sayid? That’s what I thought), but decided I had spent enough time and energy on this journey to be there for the finale. And it was every single bit as awful and stupid as I feared. Let’s move past the Jack on the island bit, which was rife with problems (the explanation for Desmond’s doings in that stone chamber just seem invented on the spot but everyone acts as if they obviously make sense) but even that isn’t really the reason this is here, it’s just a nice bonus. This is at the top because of the awful conclusion to the awful idea of the flash-sideways, which really started as a sliding-doorsesque fake out after Juliet set off the nuke at the end of season 5 (even this sentence follows my iron-clad rule that you can’t talk about Lost for more than 30 seconds without sounding like a crazy person). They’re in magical purgatory. Why are some characters here and not others? Who knows? Who cares? I know this is supposed to give you all the feels but it was mindbogglingly ill-conceived and the details break down after any amount of thought. This is on top of the fact that Lost led us to believe they were at least going to try to answer some questions asked early on, almost none of which they did. This was the ending a show this disappointing deserved.

2. Battlestar Galactica

There are so many things wrong with this finale it’s hard to catalog them all and I’ve gone back and forth many times between this and Lost. It’s really 1 and 1a. I never liked BSG as much as I once loved Lost. On the other hand, I never became as fully disillusioned with BSG even though the ups and downs as I had with Lost, possibly because I never quite cared as much. I knew I was going to be disappointed with this finale before it aired, because I knew they telegraphed the fact the planet they reached was Earth, but I still hated that decision because it was just incredibly stupid to bring the BSG world into ours and it just made no sense. So they had sex with cavemen and thus propagated modern humanity? Shouldn’t we have found their bones? What about the English language? They just got rid of their technology because all technology bad now? Lee suggests they do it and everyone agrees like that’s obviously a great idea. Oh, and Kara’s an angel because of course that’s a thing that obviously requires no explanation whatsoever and she just disappears off the face of quite literally the Earth. And just when you think it’s all bad, which you do, there’s one last, possibly most terrible part. Ghost or angel or whatever they are, Baltar and Six appear in OUR TIME, look at all the TECHNOLOGY we’re using and declare IT’S HAPPENING AGAIN!

3. Dexter

This might actually be the worst finale, minute-for-minute.  It’s quite possible that other shows had a finale this bad but I simply stopped watching those shows long before those series concluded. But, for reasons which I can’t quite fathom at present, I stuck it out with Dexter to the bitter end no matter how utterly execrable the final three seasons were. And that, ironically, is one of two reasons why this isn’t number one. The expectations was just so low by this point, the show was already so awful, that the finale caused me merely to laugh and laugh and laugh rather than be angry or disappointed. The second factor was the lack of series long plots that needed to be dealt with. Dexter was generally an extremely seasonal show, so that the first four seasons were not affected at all by the terrible finals seasons and the finale itself. They attempted to wrap up a bunch of stupid shit with a bunch of terrible decisions, but there was nothing I really cared about that had to be dealt with at that point and for that I just hate the finally rather than resent it with all my heart like the first two. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least offer a reminder of what was so awful about this finale rather than a mere explanation of why it’s not higher on the list. Dexter steals his dying sister from the hospital with nobody noticing because of hurricane, honors her remains by dumping them where he dumps the bodies of the killers he kills, and then fake dies before returning as a lumberjack. Fantastic.

4. Entourage

Entourage dated worse than almost any other show in the last 15 years, seemingly coming of age when many people my age were growing up and slowly coming to terms with the line between light male escapism and misogyny. Entourage straddled that line often, to be generous, but by the final season, it was way past it, and extremely ridiculous to boot. This finale follows the Dexter rule of having already been a pretty lousy show by the end (albeit not as laughably lousy as Dexter because the gap between the best Entourage and worst Entourage was never quite as wide). But the finale definitely was more than just the cherry on top of an already lousy season; it put in the work to be an offensive finale above and beyond what came before. This was highlighted by the absolutely absurd engagement of Vinny to a journalist played by Alice Eve, playing on the absolute worst tropes of female journalists sleeping with their subjects, and having this allegedly smart and confident woman who was just about the only woman previously to be able to refuse Vinny’s charms become engaged to him on a whim felt like adding insult to injury. Entourage had some genuine merit over the life of the show, but those positives seemed long gone after watching the finale, replaced by laughs at how ludicrous the show had become.

5. Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation will always be one of the best comedies of our time, a Hall of Fame show, and by all means the final seasons were much better than, say, The Office, always good for a laugh. But the show started losing the sense of scale that had made it so charming towards the finish line. That’s not to say Leslie shouldn’t be shooting for more; she can and did, but maybe when she moved past a certain point that was a good sign it was time for the show to end. The show was very much about Pawnee Indiana, and it being a small (well big enough to have an airport and its own television programs) town. This seemed odd when the National Parks Service decided to move an office there and a billion dollar tech company decided to come to town.  The Parks and Recreation finale was a classic case of more is less. I wanted to see all our friends warmly having a good time together, feeling good about their relationships with each other. That was the essence o Parks and Rec. The finale should be happy and have all the feels, that’s what the show was about, and true to its core. But I don’t need to see Leslie maybe become president. It’s not that I don’t believe she can but she can do it after the show. It’s too much. I didn’t need to see Andy and April disagree for about 30 seconds about having children, only to come around a scene later, defeating the point of having any interesting conflict, which, when you think about it, was emblematic of the final season. Tom becomes a nationally successful author for writing a book on failure. Not everyone has to have everything ever for a show’s ending to be happy.