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End of Season Report: Westworld

14 Dec


Westworld was a welcome new series in the peak TV landscape not because it was perfect right out of the gate; it wasn’t by any means, but because what it specializes in delivering is something that is very difficult to deliver on TV successfully, and what very little else currently is.

I’ve been sucked into, or wanted to be, into many a serial supernatural or sci-fi series over the past decade, and the series, often on broadcast television, have always without fail disappointed, usually sooner rather than later, from Heroes, to Terra Nova, to Revolution. It’s taken HBO to finally make a series in this vein work. Westworld has managed the difficult task of creating a brand new world with endless complex rules while at the same time weaving a relatively tight narrative that keeps us entertained and satisfied through smart and gradual twists and turns.

Even for someone who wouldn’t place visual effects near the top of his list of the most important aspects of a film or TV show, there are aesthetics that a big budget major premium cable television show can bring, transporting us to another world with this high-concept science fiction, that is such a pleasure when it works, because virtually nothing else on television fills that void (Game of Thrones is the only contemporaneous comparable I can think of). I love Rectify, and there can never be too many small shows of such quality, but one episode of Westworld probably cost more than the entire run of Rectify, and that look in Westworld really goes a long way towards selling us on the world that creators Christopher Nolan and Lisa Joy envisioned and making us feel and understand the position of visitors, hosts, and employees.

Lost is an obvious point of comparison for Westworld, a magical world of complicated and unknown rules and characters set in a limited geographic range. One article compared Westworld negatively to Lost, citing the lack of deep characterization in Westworld, a fair point, and the biggest weakness of the show. But I’d like to first make a positive comparison. Lost lost itself in its own complex mythology and contradictions. Before it knew what hit it, there are so many answers it needed to supply in a satisfying manner to reach a satisfying conclusion. By the end, either there were no answers, or the answers supplied were random and came from out out of nowhere, largely because they had to be; Lost had no plan.

Westworld has largely avoided this problem; not merely by plotting its first season carefully so that the reveals are grounded within earlier episodes of storytelling, but by keeping questions contained so that the first season finale feels like it could be a series finale, rather than a season finale. There’s plenty of mystery in the world and potential room for explanation, but there are no burning out-there questions that absolutely have to be answered, or the show is inherently not successful in one of its central premises. Being able to end a season with that sense of potential finality is a plus, rather than a minus.

There’s a clinical sense of detachment of from the characters, particularly the humans, that can be a problem in science-fiction shows in general, and particularly here, where so much work has gone into making sure we see at any given time only what the creators want us to see, limiting character interaction and character building. And if there’s some grander sense of the great paradox that the hosts are perhaps more human than the humans, it’s reinforced by simply not having a bunch of deeply developed humans. Despite making up half the cast, most of them couldn’t be ascribed with any qualities by viewers, and those that could be felt like everything about them existed more for plot than for anything else. This is a problem, and it will be a problem going forward, especially as Anthony Hopkins, potentially the most compelling human character in the entire show appears dead, and the second most interesting human character, the Man in Black (like Lost again!) could be (though he wasn’t shown explicitly as dying, so based on the rules of these type of shows, he’s probably alive). Everyone feels like they are primarily in service of the plot, rather than the character (unlike 21st century sci-fi standout Battlestar Galactica, which attempted to focus occasionally on character, but was terrible at it – Westworld just doesn’t bother try much at all). There’s a lot memorable about the show, but there isn’t a lot to dig in on the characters. The most talked about, like Dolores and Maeve are primarily talked about in sci-fi philosophical terms due to the battles between their programming and free will.

That said, if you can have a successful show without largely having successful characters, Westworld definitely did it. This sounds like a paradox but it doesn’t have to be. This may prevent Westworld from being among the absolute best shows, but it doesn’t prevent it from being quite good because it hits on a number of areas that other shows can’t and don’t.

End of Season Report: Narcos, Season 1

3 Mar


Narcos, Netflix’s show about the rise (and theoretically eventual fall) of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, and the attempts of his rivals and multiple governments to stop him, is nothing revelatory. It’s not a prestige drama steeped in metaphor and deep symbolism, it’s not going to make any end of year best-on-tv lists, and shouldn’t. It’s not going to have friends calling on each other enthusiastically screaming out that they must watch this show. But, and this is entirely not meant as the backhanded compliment it sounds like, it’s a fun, entertaining little show if you’ve got between 9 and 10 hours to kill.

So many shows try desperately to be prestige dramas – important shows that want to put their stamp on the medium in an indelible way. When they succeed, that’s great; Mad Men is rightfully revered for a reason. But, as I was talking with a friend about recently, when they don’t succeed, even when they’re halfway decent rather than bad, they often feel not worth watching. There are simply enough superior versions of that type of show around on TV to bother with shows in the second and third tier. Narcos, thankfully, doesn’t try to do that.

Narcos is low-rent Scorsese, heavy on plot and the back-and-forth deadly chess match between Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel and the Colombian and American governments. Steve Murphy, a DEA agent new to the fight in Colombia at the beginning of the show, narrates in a Henry Hill-in-Goodfellas style, with lots of exposition, explaining what Pablo’s up to. As I said when I wrote a review of the first episode, it’s a story that’s been told before, but there’s a reason for it; it’s simply a fascinating tale, how one man could acquire so much, so relatively fast, and more than that how one man could be as powerful as an entire country.

Narcos is almost enjoyable largely because it doesn’t try to be great; it’s finds goodness where greatness would likely elude it. It’s a fun ride on a fun, genuinely interesting subject that had me doing my best to wait until the end of the season to jump on wikipedia and find out what was true and wasn’t, and what happened to all of the real characters in the show. Calling a series merely diversionary can sometimes sound like an insult; but there’s something pleasurable about watching a show that you can just marathon through, a show that brings recent history to life and makes you wonder how crazy and terrifying our world is from afar.

End of Season Report: Making a Murderer, Season 1

25 Jan

Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer is probably the most frustrating and depressing program you’ll watch this (or late last) year, primarily because while, at the end of the day, whatever happens on most shows happens to fictional characters, fictional characters you’re deeply invested in, but fictional characters none the less, Making a Murderer leaves two possibly innocent people who were at the least surely not given a fair shake at justice in prison.

And while of course I want to talk about the quality of the show and not get up on my soapbox, it’s just about impossible to do one without the other, and that’s kind of the point. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction series of events, two people are sent to prison for decades for committing a gruesome murder, and the documentarians catch nearly every flaw in our American adversarial criminal justice system along the way: overzealous cops and prosecutors more motivated to get a conviction than get the truth, a law & order jury cowed and skewed in favor of conviction, regardless of the actual evidence, local elected judges willing to generally defer to prosecutors, incompetent defense counselors who don’t have their clients’ interests at heart, and a prioritization of incredibly unreliable witness statements and confessions over scientific evidence.

Oof, that’s a laundry list, and even for a cynic like me, Making a Murderer was able to generate, episode-by-episode a renewed lack-of-faith in the system. On top of everything mentioned above, the series also shines a light on our utter and unflinching trust of police and prosecutors and how “innocent until proven guilty” is basically thrown out the window when defendants are convicted in the court of public opinion by savage media reports that build off of speculation rather than facts. Confirmation bias leads well-meaning cops and lawyers to commit themselves so deeply to the fact that Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are guilty that they can’t see the obvious problems with the cases that the audience can.

And of all the utter mockeries of justice shown over 10 or so hours, the most tragic and troubling is the story of Brendan Dassey. Stephen Avery’s case is problematic on many levels, but Dassey’s is a complete joke. The only, and I repeat only, evidence the state has on Dassey is a confession, given to two cops when he had no lawyer, where he obviously was cowed into saying things he didn’t believe, very clearly making up fanciful stories to desperately please the investigators. There can be no doubt about this. It’s appallingly obvious to anyone who watches the confession on tape. Forget the blatant malpractice of Dassey’s first lawyer. The mere fact that police officers, prosecutors, judges, and 12 members of what had to be a unanimous jury could watch the tape of his interview and believe he did what he said he did is mind bogglingly troublesome.

So yeah, to sum up, I liked the show. If there’s such a thing as an “important show” without being intolerably pretentious, this might be one. It’s very difficult to sit through at times,and I yelled at my screen like a mad person, but it really provides a no-holds-barred reality based look at our criminal justice system, so when you hear and see claims about how every man and woman is treated equally under the law, and the truth will win out in the end, and the adversarial system serves justice better than the alternative, well, it’s good to be reminded sometimes that that’s just a load of bullshit. And while that’s depressing, it’s better to know than live under an illusion.

End of Season Report: The Comeback, Season 1 – Part 2

19 Aug

The Comeback

Juna, the budding superstar of Room and Bored, and Paulie G, one of the co-creators of the wretched sitcom, represent opposite poles within the show’s universe. Juna, no matter how big and popular she continues to get is unceasingly nice and generous to Valerie. Valerie is generous in return, but half in an attempt to relate everything to herself, to how she was once the up and coming talent. To prove it, she brings in a sexy picture taken of her back in the day when she sees Juna’s sexy magazine shoot and wants to prove that she once had that too. She does have useful advice to offer Juna, and Juna is graceful, always flattering Val. Val is most interested in related to Juna how popular and loved she once was.

Paulie G is Juna’s opposite. He hates, hates, hates Val. There are good reasons to occasionally dislike Val; she has some dislikable qualities. She can be a diva, and it can be irritating for everyone to deal with cameras everywhere when they’re intereacting with her. Director James Burrows, for example, is frustrated with Valerie occasionally but also offers her solid advice. Paulie G’s hatred goes far beyond that. He’s simply a giant asshole to Val at all times. He pretends to have sex with her in the writers’ room, and is just a huge, huge dick, and Val puts up with it and takes it. It’s a strange victory when she eventually punches him in the stomach causing him to vomit. It’s the wrong thing to do; we know this, unquestionably, but he’s just such an utter asshole. He’s particularly cruel at that moment when she’s trying so hard for a laugh, and he makes her do a whole bunch of painful falls for absolutely no reason, that it’s hard not to smile when he gets his. And yet the ultimate twist of the knife is when he gives a lying, bullshit interview to her producers that makes it sound like he was a real nice guy, making her the bad guy on her own show.

And really the story is greater than Valerie. The Comeback is incredibly ahead of its time on reality TV, but it’s correct then, and correct now, regarding the plights of older actresses. I hate using the word older; Valerie is 40, when many male stars are just hitting their strides. But Hollywood does and has for decades marginalized actresses as they age; not only not writing good roles for them, but writing roles like Valerie’s Aunt Sassy. She has to wear an abominable running suit all the time, and the thought of her as a sexual being is disgusting, fodder for jokes, not just within the show, but to the young male writers that nearly exclusively populate the set. If there weren’t other reasons to feel for Valerie, and there are, there’s this, which she has to stand up against. When she tries to challenge the stupid decisions made by the writers on this terrible show (the joke about her eating dog wasn’t even a matter of merely poor taste – it was obviously not funny), she is the one hassled for not being able to take a joke.

I can’t leave this review without talking about the incredible prescience of The Comeback in terms of reality television. Reality when The Comeback aired was dominated by Survivor and early singing competitions, all game-show like reality with winners and losers. This was before Andy Cohen and The Real Housewives and The Kardashians ruled the roost. The Comeback foreshadowed all of that.

I’m going to save more talk about the ending for a piece comparing The Comeback and BoJack Horsement which I alluded to above, but a couple of words in brief. In the finale, everything in Val’s reality show is blatantly misconstrued and taken out of context. She’s furious and upset until it turns out that its outrageousness is exactly what ends up making it popular. And thus it’s a strange kind of mixed victory. In Val’s world, it’s better to be popular and embarrassing than a dud which tells an honest and more complex and accurate story.

End of Season Report: The Comeback, Season 1 – Part 1

17 Aug

The Comeback

I just finished the first season of the Comeback, as part of my effort to catch up on some HBO series I missed the first time around. The Comeback was never hilarious or particularly funny but it was enjoyable, phenomenally interesting, and surprisingly prescient. I’ve broken my lengthy comments into two sections, of which this is obviously the fist.

The Comeback is a show-within-a-show. Valerie Cherish (the excellent Lisa Kudrow) is a forty-something actress who, over a decade ago, was a hot young star of a successful but not life-altering sitcom “I’m It.” Since then, she hasn’t found a lot of work, and as she’s gotten older, she’s not longer seen as the hot young actress she once was, or that she still sees herself as. She gets another chance at the spotlight however, when she’s up for a supporting role in new sitcom Room & Bored, and as part of that process, is invited to star in a reality show called “The Comeback” about her return to TV. The entire series is framed as raw footage for this reality show.

The Comeback is a great parody of Hollywood culture, and specifically how Hollywood treats older actresses. The supporting cast is excellent, but everything rests on Cherish, who due to the format as a faux reality show focused on her big comeback, is featured in almost every scene. She has some classic cringeworthy qualities. She’s part Michael Scott, although since The Comeback debuted before the American The Office, you might say Michael Scott is actually part Valeria Cherish. Valerie has none of the stupidity of Scott or the utter insensitivity of Scott’s British equivalent David Brent but she has the awkwardness, the lack of awareness at how constantly uncomfortable she makes people, and the desperate insecurity and need to be liked.

Valerie peaked early, reached fame easy, and was treated to a world in which she was famous, loved, and respected. Everyone was a fan, and everyone wanted to be her friend. The Comeback has a striking amount of similarities with BoJack Horseman, which I coincidentally I watched immediately before. (I hope to write another post specifically comparing the two). Valerie is desperate to be liked. She’s not hip, but wishes she was; not enough to try to actually be, but enough to claim she is.

The show actually hits Valerie’s attitude and personality right on the nose in an episode in which Valerie goes to Palm Springs with her husband and hangs out with a couple they know casually. The wife, who has survived cancer, sees what we, and what ostensibly everyone in this world sees, and actually speaks to Valerie straight about it, which just about no one else does. This friend notes that ever since she recovered from cancer, she’s been unabashed and unafraid to be herself, and that Valerie ought to try to do the same. Valerie is incredibly uncomfortable in her own skin; she wants so desperately to be liked, to be loved, to be needed. She’s passive aggressive all the time. She’s constantly afraid to just speak her mind, which might make her more unlikable to someone else, but to others it might just sound human.  She’s not hip with the kids, but she tries desperately to be. She tries to insist so strenuously that she can take a joke, while sometimes she should rightfully be angry. She is constantly looking towards the camera, saying yeah when she means no, having her every move securitized but being okay with it because she wants so badly to be relevant again. She wants to prove that she’s cool, that she’s still got it. But she wants it so badly, that she can’t.

For all of her personal frustrations, her relationship with her husband is stable and happy and never dramatic which is both surprising and welcome. Her businessman husband is startlingly comfortable in his own skin. He knows he’s not cool. All he wants is to relax, have a steak, have a drink, play a quick nine, and listen to Cheap Trick. He doesn’t like the cameras, but he puts up with them, because he’s supportive of Valerie and wants what she wants. He’s not the most interesting guy in the world, but he genuinely loves and cares for Val, and knows who he is, and the contrast with Val is sharp.

Valeria is constantly frustrated but tries to mask this frustration with an overabundance of good cheer. She’s at various times both incredibly jealous and narcissistic, but tries not to be obvious about it, even though it’s clear. She doesn’t understand she’s not the star anymore – like an older athlete who can’t realize she’s a supporting player now. She acts extra nice, even though she’s primarily interested in supporting people in exchange for them supporting her, but then again, niceness is still niceness, regardless of the agenda behind it, and Valeria does do real favors and show genuine appreciation to others because it’s what she would want. In fact, she’s most empathetic when others are desperate, because it’s a language she can understand. When only female writer Gigi breaks down because she desperately wants to go to the Golden Globes, Val extremely generously offers to take her as her guest.

The Comeback hues very closely to a line where you are both constantly aggravated by Valerie but also feel really terrible for her. She has to deal with networks and writers and directors who  really don’t care about what she thinks. Room and Bored is a hilariously obviously terrible sitcom that everyone has to pretend is funny all the time because the alternative is admitting that they’re wasting away their year working on utter dreck.

More in part 2.

End of Season Report: Game of Thrones – Season 5, Part 2

17 Jun

Cersei Lannister

This is Part 2 of my thoughts following the ending of the fifth season of Game of Thrones. Part 1 can be found here.

We start today with Dorne. Dorne was an utter and total mess, the worst running storyline of this season both from a book reader’s perspective and I believe, from a viewer’s perspective. It introduced several new characters, but without the chance to get to really know them. Doran Martell, Dorne’s leader, the three Sand Snakes, bastard children of the Red Viper and Ellaria Sand, and Aero Hotah, Doran’s chief guard. In the books Doran is smart, calculating, even-tempered and patient. In the show, I believe they tried to somewhat portray that as well, but any positive character development is undone by the stupefying last scene where Ellaria is allowed to kiss Myrcella, delivering some sort of poison. Why would Ellaria, who tried to assassinate Myrcella earlier, be allowed to touch Myrcella? From that scene, Doran’s clearly a total moron, defeating any other work the show put in to that character. Even beyond this bizarre and logic-defying ending, nothing else in Dorne worked. Jaime being there never quite made sense, Ellaria and the Sand Snakes’ plan never quite made sense, and the Sand Snakes scene with Bronn felt like some of the pointless nudity that critics like to understandably occasionally call Game of Thrones out on. While I’m thrilled to find ways to keep Bronn around, this whole adventure did not work.

Cersei’s downfall was a long time coming and well-deserved, and the show, with a huge help from Lena Headey did an admirable job of depicting a depth to Cersei that could easily have been missing giving the underlying story. Cersei is an antagonist and a villain, and her negative qualities outnumber her positive. She’s paranoid, delusional, and while smart, is not as smart as she thinks she is, which makes all the difference. Her comeuppance was earned and sweet, but there’s also another side to Cersei, that while she’s certainly not qualified to rule the seven kingdoms, makes one feel for her. She’s utterly devoted to her kids, she really believes in her paranoia, and while it’s often wrong, there’s enough intrigue and lies in Westeros to believe that some of it is correct. She carries herself with dignity at all times, even during her walk of shame. Because of the ability to showcase the levels of Cersei’s character in ways that aren’t there for other antagonists like Ramsay Bolton, Cersei’s arc was one of the more complete and successful in the fifth season of the show from beginning to end, .

Sansa and Theon. Game of Thrones is definitely partly an exercise in suffering. When I read comments complaining about the constant suffering and misery faced by nearly every character, especially the beloved ones (and oppositely how evil characters like Ramsay continue to triumph), I have contrasting thoughts. On one hand, I think, well, who says characters are supposed to end up doing all right, or that there’s supposed to be a balance between how good and evil characters are treated. On the other hand, I understand that you watch television shows largely for some measure of enjoyment, and it’s just not enjoyable to see your favorite characters get raped, tortured and killed one by one, and over and over again. To try to decipher the space between those two lines, the question is always does it work in the show, does it make sense in this world, and even if it does theoretically work, does showing it add something. I don’t think the answers to these questions are always obvious.

Ramsay raping Sansa was a difficult and painful scene to watch, and was for many a bridge too far. This one, as awful as it was, worked for me in context; it would have been unfathomable in this world for Ramsay not to expect to have sex with Sansa after their wedding to consummate the marriage, Showing it may have been unnecessary, but I don’t think it was a mere unnecessary torture. Rather, it continued to hammer home the realities of this world and difficult choices for Sansa. A legitimate concern was whether that rape would then be used in terms of its effect on Theon, and not on Sansa, but I don’t think that’s what’s happened. Sansa and Theon are rather bonded by Ramsay’s cruelty, and share something that they didn’t when Sansa arrived. Like the world of Hobbes’ Leviation, Westeros can be a truly nasty place. I’m a big Sansa fan and I have a strange amount of likely misplaced confidence, considering Martin’s world, that she’ll use this adversity to her advantage and become stronger.

Meryn Trant’s pedophilia on the other hand, seemed completely unnecessary to me; we already know he’s a terrible dude, and Arya already has plenty of reason to hate him. When you look at every instance of terribleness through this lens, everyone will still come out on different sides, but it’s an instructive and helpful way to think about it.

Going forward, where does Game of Thrones stand? It moves into uncharted territory for book readers like myself, which is both exciting and scary, and I’m still not sure how much I trust showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss without George R. R. Martin’s words to work from. My faith in them has gone up and down over the course of the series, and while they’ve earned enough trust to build on their ideas going forward, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat wary. Their touch has been too heavy and on the nose on occasion, subtlety not their strong suit. Still, they’ve done a great job overall in the very challenging task of fitting thousands of pages and dozens of characters into 10 hour-long episodes each year and the show must go on. There are worse things than simply two separate versions of the story, one televised, one read; the books, as long as they take, will still exist, no matter what the show says.  On and at them, crossing my fingers that not all of my favorite characters die next season.

The Shield: Thoughts and Opinions, Part 2

10 Jun

The Strike Team

Welcome to part 2 of my thoughts on The Shield. Part 1 can be found here. Plenty of spoilers follow.

Vic was constantly, constantly, making a big show about how high his arrest numbers were, and how the police needed him, and that’s why it was worth putting up with his off-color brand of policing. But that was always a smokescreen. This isn’t Hampsterdam, The Wire’s example of stepping way beyond the established rules in service of an idea that had tangible general benefits towards lowering violent crime which affects civilians. Vic makes a show about caring about cleaning up the streets, and keeping them safe, and for whatever it’s worth I do think that deep down he really and truly believes that. He’s a megalomaniac who believes in his reputation. But this wasn’t making unorthodox but innovative tradeoffs to get criminals off the streets. It was all about Vic doing what was best for Vic.

It was beyond welcome to see how by the last couple of seasons nothing Claudette could hear from anyone could sell her on Vic Mackey’s utilitarian proposition that the occasionally police higher up would try to push on her – that you put up with a  lot of his shit, but sometimes you needed a guy like Vic to get results. As everyone realized when Vic made his heralded confession in order to lock in the immunity, no one ever needs a guy like Vic. They’re taking on way more than bargained for.

There might be some occasional talk about police practices in The Shield, in terms of how to best combat crime, and the bureaucracy and inabilities of police departments to function and work with the community, like much of The Wire, and season 4 contained a hearty discussion about some practices, but mostly that’s not really what The Shield was about. That was an afterthought to the personalities, and the levers of power, ego, loyalty, and trust, that brought the strike team together, and eventually set them apart, These themes were also on display in the interactions between Danny, Julian, Dutch, Claudette, and Acevado. Trust was in short supply in The Shield in general, and the relationships that eventually functioned best – Claudette and Dutch in particular, but eventually Danny and Julian as well, worked because they were based on that bedrock, even if it took a while to get there. They had their spats in the open, and while they were ugly occasionally in the moment, they got over them because of that, The strike team buried their disagreements deeper, deeper and deeper, under the façade of family, and that was one of the factors that tore them apart in the end

Claudette and Dutch in fact are the anti strike team. They keep clean, and they make sure they’re both at it. When Dutch suspects Billings of setting up a pedophile, having a fellow cop plant evidence, even though Dutch is innocent himself, Claudette blows up at him and orders him to set it right. It’s a small thing in the big picture sure, but these are the little mistakes that can build on one’s record and start leading to the compromised position of the strike team. By keeping each other honest, even if it requires yelling and berating and arguing from time to time, Claudette and Dutch assure themselves clean consciences and records, but also the unlimited freedom of going forward without a history to be exposed. Dutch and Claudette’s working relationship is everything the strike team’s isn’t. Build on actual trust, it lasts in the end.

And last, that ending. This series of musings wouldn’t be complete without a few thoughts there, particularly as to Vic’s fate.

Everyone suspected Vic was dirty. Everyone knew he played fast and loose with the rules, and the department loosed him on the streets knowing this a few times a season. People suspected individual elements; the Terry Crawley shooting, the money train robbery, but when listed out one by one, the sheer volume shook to the core both the feds, and Claudette, Vic’s primary adversary by the end of the show.

Losing his kids was a blow, one of the only things that actually mattered to him. And of course, Vic would never have hurt his kids intentionally, but that’s beyond the point. Vic did things which hurt them all the time in practice. He was as self-delusional as any of the gang leaders he policed. This is the last time, he said, after any given transgression. One more day.

With Shane and Lem dead and Ronnie about to be locked up for a long, long time with the same people he put away, Vic makes it out relatively unscathed. Of course, there are still consequences; his kids up and move away, to never see him again. He gets the government immunity deal, and after pulling a fast one that embarrasses everyone who agreed to make the deal with him, he’s stuck with monotonous desk work for the length of his contract; one slip up, and immunity is off. While jail is what he deserves, desk work is the opposite of what Vic Mackey stands for; he’s a shark, he needs to be on the street, always moving, never still, never stuck filling out paperwork in an office.

And so Vic gets a kind of poetic justice that’s simply too good for him; it’s almost too perfect, but what would be more appropriate but less exactly fitting would be to see him rotting in a jail cell next to those he put away.

I’d love to believe that Vic is going to do something stupid, like start missing office work, or not turn in his reports, and I do think there’s plenty of chance he gets messed up in something, or can’t simply resist the pull of the street. Still, he’s a survivor. He’ll mess up one day, but it won’t be easy. He knows what he has to do to survive, and he’s willing to do it, no matter the consequences to himself or others.

The Shield: Thoughts and Opinions

5 Jun

The Shield

Over the course of approximately three months, I watched seven seasons of The Shield, and the thoughts bouncing around my brain are too numerous to mention, especially after still processing the crackerjack series finale, generally considered to be one of, if not the best ever. There’s a lot to like, and a little bit not to. In the first season I worried I wasn’t really going to be on board with The Shield at all. I absolutely did warm up to it, though I’m still not sure how high on my all-time list it would actually ascend. Because I just have so much to say and I want to get it out there, I’m going to bounce around, focusing mostly on Vic and the strike team. Please don’t read further if by chance you’ve started this and have not seen The Shield because there are spoilers aplenty.

Vic Mackey, one of the great antiheroes in television history, had the good fortune to come at the beginning of the antihero era, when his only primary competition was Tony Soprano. Having to follow his antics after the runs of Walter White, Don Draper, and other lesser antiheroes who played a huge role in prestige drama in the past decade put me in a distinctly different viewing mindset than those who followed along with The Shield as the show aired. I had less patience with Mackey than I might have, and I hated, hated him, from day one. Still, his charisma is impossible to deny, and I became invested in his increasingly complicated plans and plots, even while rooting for him to fail.

The problem for me with the first season, which gradually improved over the course of the show, was that in the first season everyone treated Mackey as if not only was he a model cop, but that he was one of the best. What drove me crazy was the fact that no one at the department could see that this guy was trouble, that he was a problem, that he didn’t and wouldn’t listen to anybody, even aside from the far worse deeds he had already committed that no one even knew about or suspected at the time.

Vic Mackey was poison to himself and everyone he touched. He was morally compromised beyond the point of no return in the pilot. In Breaking Bad, Walter White starts off a relative innocent; a mild-mannered science teacher with cancer and everything starts to ramp up very slowly. Not so with Vic. What may, even after all the crazy and illegal and detestable shit he pulled over the course of seven seasons, have been the single worst and most severe act happened right at the end of the first episode. This wasn’t a crime serving a convoluted and unethical but justice-minded attempt to keep the streets safe or round up bad guys. This wasn’t even taking advantage of others’ illegal activity, thieving from thieves, like the robbing of the Armenian money train. Nope, this was a murder of an innocent fellow police officer who had done nothing but look into Vic and his team. There was never any coming back from that.

And so that was the story of The Shield, when boiled down. The four members of the strike team, who dabbled in all sorts of illegal activity trying to keep out ahead of their misdeeds, believing they could as long as they stuck together, while pausing to occasionally do some police work.

It’s all about that strike team, and the dynamics between the core four. They’re a family, until they’re not. Family, we hear that term so often. Lem, Vic, Shane, and Ronnie.

Vic is the ultimate narcissist, messianic, with a god complex; he believes he’s well above the law. Nothing can stop him. He has a plan for everything, and he’s gotten away so many times, that the law is his own personal play thing.

Shane was the Vic’s closest friend; he had been with Vic the longest. He was the weakest member, he would have caved fastest, he was the most foolhardy member, and he was the biggest follower. At the start of the show he would have followed Vic anywhere in the world. Unlike Vic, he’s open to what they are; corrupt and willing to take advantage of their position for a buck whenever the opportunity strikes; he’s more craven about it, but more honest. When he thinks Vic is being unnecessarily pious he calls him out, but his lack of caution gets him into trouble with Antwon Mitchell. Maybe that’s what helped put him on the path towards his assassination of Lem, which was the single key moment in the strike team’s downfall. Shane was never quite able to shake Vic, and what he said in his murder-suicide note in the finale was poignant. Once he met Vic, his road to ruin began. He was a born follower and Vic a leader, and they were set from there. The murder-suicide at the end was probably the most heartbreaking moment in the finale, and was another sign of Shane’s weakness, and his inherent tragedy. No matter what he tried, he could never beat Vic at his own game; he would never be as far ahead.

Lem was the conscious of the strike team, which is a relative designation. Jon Kavanaugh couldn’t turn him because he was loyal above everything else, but he was right to target Lem. Lem had a heart, and though he was influenced willingly by Vic’s charisma, he remained softer, less coarse than the rest of the team, and is the member who would most likely have had his career run above board had he never met Vic and the crew. And it’s not a coincidence that Lem, who looks angelic by strike team standards, had no idea about Terry. He was innocent of this foundational event but when he bit the apple and found out, which might have turned him against Vic when it happened, it was already far too late, he had already done far too much to come back from.

Ronnie was cold and calculating and smart. Ronnie wasn’t as craven about hording money when he could as Shane, but he was always willing to pick up a cool buck, and was the biggest supporter of the Armenian money train robbery initially. The most risk-averse, Ronnie was the only member of the strike team who was smart with his money and didn’t show his hand to Kavanaugh. Of course, Ronnie’s personal mistake came in trusting Vic. Ronnie might well have turned on Shane or Lem, I think. Shane was weak, and Lem had a conscience, and both of those could have been considered flaws which Ronnie would capitalize on and then make the best deal for himself. But he never would have doubted Vic. Oh, he would have persuaded Vic to try another plan and he did, but when it came down to it, Vic was his leader. Ronnie wanted to run, and Vic wouldn’t let him. Ronnie says that Vic taught him everything he knew, and he’s not lying. He was in his debt up to the point where Vic stabbed him right in the back.

Vic seemed to engender that loyalty from many, but particularly from the strike team who over and over and over he said he considered family. This loyalty was the one so-called-admirable quality of Vic’s that remained by the end; he had done all these terrible things, but stayed true to his guys at all times, even when their mistakes had nothing to do with him. And then he turned on Ronnie.

Vic held out when many would have caved. There can be no doubt about it. When the time came, however, he showed his true colors. He sold his man out. I’m not saying this because I respect Vic’s loyalty, though I suppose if I’m forced to respect something about Vic, it would have been that. I’m saying this  because Vic cares about Vic’s loyalty, and though he’d never admit it, because he’d never admit a personal flaw, because he’s simply not capable of that level of self-reflection – always forward, never backward – and his betrayal of Ronnie shows that the emperor has no clothes. Claudette knew as much; that’s why she arrested Ronnie with Vic right there to watch up close and personal.

A second entry of thoughts will be coming soon.

End of Season Report: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

18 May

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

As the second season wraps up, I leave with very mixed feelings about Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is undoubtedly unfair, because it is unquestionably a good show. My immediate reaction speaks less to its overall quality than to the expectations I had before the season began. The first season was good, and left me feeling that the show could be great. The pieces were there but they just needed time to come together. After the second season, however, I came away still thinking that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a good show, but feeling that’s it more likely that the show will put together a string of good seasons without necessarily approaching greatness. There was no sophomore slump, rather merely a lack of a sophomore leap. Because I don’t want to convey a negative overall conclusion, but rather some constructive criticism, I’ll structure my thoughts in the form of a time-tested compliment sandwich, in which, I’ll note some good points first, follow it up with some problems, and finish up with some positives again.

First, and most importantly (and I haven’t written more than two lines about this show without saying this) Andre Braugher is a national treasure who should be vacuum sealed between takes so he can be preserved for future generations of television. He’s wonderful in general, and in this role, and I have nothing but acclaim for his Captain Holt.

There’s a great sense of unity in the squad room, and everyone, for the most part (Gina is not the biggest Amy fan) clearly likes each other. There’s a sense of camaraderie that feels real, and everyone, when push comes to shove, has each other’s back.

Now, for the criticism. The Jake and Amy romance feels both forced and predictable. One of my biggest more general criticisms of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that many of the characters and plots feel like they were conceived on the page as part of the premise of the show, and haven’t been changed enough in reaction to the natural rapport, chemistry, and strengths of the actors. The Jake-Amy romance is exhibit A for this in my mind; something planned far ahead of time which doesn’t really work in practice.

Two episodes before the season finale, Amy made a point about how she was not going to date cops. It would have been shocking, following that, if Amy and Jake had not gotten together in some way by the finale. I don’t expect Brooklyn Nine-Nine to be utterly unpredictable, filled with twists and turns, like Game of Thrones, but If it’s incredibly predictable that a character will do the opposite of what she says (and not because the character is simply a liar) that’s not a great sign.

Several of the characters need to be turned down a notch, especially in certain situations and character pairings. Charles is a much better character when paired with anyone but Jake. Whenever he’s around Jake, he’s far too sycophantic, and jokes that were funny based on this nature of their relationship when used just occasionally are now overused and annoying. He’s obsessed with Jake, and while Jake obviously likes him as well, it always feels like a weirdly uneven relationship, and Charles comes off as way, way more of a weirdo than feels appropriate to the show. Whenever he’s not around Jake, Charles’ weirdness seems far more endearing and less over the top, and his season finale plotline with Rosa, shows just how far he’s come from the crazily creepy early first season when he was obsessed with her, to where he’s her friend, clearly knows her well, and helps her and her boyfriend celebrate her birthday.

Gina’s weirdness can often be delightful, but her constant obsession with Terry is too much and overused. Jake is very close to an excellent character, but he drives me crazy sometimes as well. I wish he could just occasionally turn off his stupid-joke-machine, because the jokes just aren’t always good enough to be worthwhile. A couple different, or even simply fewer of these jokes, would give the good ones, which there are plenty of, time to breathe.

Last, a few more compliments to toss out. Some of the characters are great as they are. Holt, as I mentioned before. Terry perfectly functions as the straight man and den mother of the office, and the universal affection shown towards him from both above and below feels warranted. Rosa is wonderful as is, and they’ve put her in a relationship that keeps her hard edge while expanding her character’s depth. The actors in general are very good and very funny; they’re just sometimes given material that doesn’t quite highlight what they do best, or give them enough range to show it.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I don’t want to give up on your chance for greatness just yet. Despite a season of treading water, you’re really not far away. Just tweak. Rewatch the seasons, learn from the characters and the actors, and change everything up slightly, and then learn from that again, because you’ll still make mistakes. Parks & Recreation had an excellent second season, but really hit its peaks with the superb third season (and the introductions of Chris and Ben, replacing Mark). Despite my reservations, I fervently hope Brooklyn Nine-Nine will become a top tier comedy and it certainly has the tools to get there.

End of Season Report: Justified, Season 6

17 Apr


Justified is a story about the hold the past maintains on the present, and the ability or lack thereof of its characters to break away from a place and a people that are embedded so deep within them that they don’t know any another way. For the people who live in rural Kentucky counties like Harlan and Bennett, removed from the outside world even while part of it, the shadow of the past hangs heavily over every decision and every action. The question Justified asks is whether these people are unable to change because the past has predestined them not to do so, or because the self-perpetuated belief that they can’t change is buried so far within them that they truly believe they can’t, even when they can.

Change and free will are so antithetical to these characters that in the sixth season it almost feels as if they’re just wound up like toys and put on a track, bound to continue straight away even that means crashing into each other. By halfway through the season, there are no surprises, and everyone knows the score. Avery has a shitload of money in a safe, Boyd is going to attempt to take that money, one way or another, and Raylan is going to attempt to stop him. Boyd knows that Raylan and Avery know he plans on stealing the money, but this doesn’t deter him in the least. If anything, it motivates him more. Boyd knows he’s being teased and baited; Raylan at one point shows him the vault, and they both know what’s going on. Raylan is triggering Boyd’s animal instinct to desire that quality of cash and Boyd gets the requisite sniff of money. Boyd is self-aware. He knows he’s being set up. But it simply doesn’t matter. Stealing money is what he does.

The specter of Raylan’s potential death hung over the finale, both because of conventions of the western and crime genres which Justified inhabits and because we’ve been trained to expect that ending from many recent prestige dramas featuring antiheroes. But Raylan never was a traditional antihero in the same vein as some of TV’s other famous members of that category (Walter White, Tony Soprano); while he disobeyed his bosses and went around the law, he was generally good, honest, trustworthy, and never out for himself in the way the Sopranos and Whites of the world were. He didn’t deserve to die. For all his worry about his ability to change, he was never the same as his father. He just didn’t know it yet.

Raylan’s entire existence was defined by his desire to not become his father and he was able to finally get out from under this obsession before it cost him in the end. He won his battle and ended the hold his father, dead since the fourth season, had on him.  Raylan’s obsession with catching Boyd and putting him away, showing that he was the opposite of his weasely criminal father, was at fever pitch in the final season. The one-last-big-score theme was as resonant for him as it was for Boyd, only his score was Boyd. Art and others warned him multiple times that he if he ddin’t step back in time, it might be too late, and it did seem as if the ground work was all set up for him to tragically die just before he could get out to Miami and his daughter.

Raylan may never have gone so far as to have a death wish but he consistently put himself in more risk than necessary in his pursuit of the filth that stood in for his father. Raylan less needed to change his actions than change his perception of himself of someone who could live a stable life outside of constantly facing death, and his daughter gives him a pretty good motivation to do so.

Boyd gives Raylan a chance, in the finale, to face him, and to finish him off rather than send him to prison. Raylan declines. It may have been a tough decision, but for all of Raylan’s quick-draw reputation, it was always what Raylan was going to do. Though all his frustration, including his blood feud with Boyd, that’s never who Raylan was. When Raylan in that moment, lives up to who he knew he can be and stands down, he’s ready to move on.

Eva is over the course of the series Justified’s most tragic character. Unlike Boyd and Raylan, she was thrown into this whole criminal-lawman struggle not of her own volition, although she was eventually swept up by Boyd’s powerful charisma enough to become almost as enthusiastic about thieving as he was. Her time in prison actually taught her a lesson, not just in terms of the consequences of her criminality (unlike most of the male criminals who seem to have been in and out of prison over the course of their lives, the harshness of prison was a real eye-opener for Eva), but in the truth of who Boyd really was. Boyd really and truly did love her, but that was beside the point. He was always going after the money.  However much he loved Eva, he loved the money or what it represented, more.

Eva initially came by criminality second-hand, via her husband, Boyd’s abusive brother, who she killed. Soon, she met Boyd and was swept into the tide of crime through his sheer force of personality. Eva was taken by the magic, by the promise of freedom, by the Thelma and Louise/Bonnie and Clyde/Butch and Cassidy feeling of two against the world. Prison taught her reality. The second turning point came in the final season when Boyd received reward money through a sting Raylan set up to tempt Boyd to go after Avery’s larger stash. Eva tried to persuade Boyd that even with the reward money they had enough to get out, to leave Kentucky and set up shop wherever they wanted free and clear. If he really cared about her, if what he wanted was really what she wanted, to get out, to be free, this was the chance.

He thought about it, but in the end, as both he and Raylan knew, there was no way he was leaving that money. That moment was a blessing in disguise for Eva, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. She was finally free of Boyd’s power; unlike Raylan and Boyd, she didn’t have the long familial history of crime in her bones. If she managed to survive the ordeal, which was certainly not a given, the hold of the past was broken for Eva, who, seemingly on the edge of dying or at the least going back to prison for most of the final season, was able to have an unlikely happy ending.

And as for Boyd, well he gets off easy as well. If he doesn’t, like Raylan and Eva, get to actually break the cycle of the past, he gets a reset, a rewind to another point in his personal timeline, where he’s back to a level of religiosity which we saw early in the series. Boyd will be taking over that prison in no time. Boyd, for all his oozing charisma and for all his high talk, Boyd is who he is. Boyd always was a criminal, and he probably always will be. His desires exist only as far as his next big score.