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Spring 2013 Review: Da Vinci’s Demons

4 Sep

His demons

An initial dislciaimer: Da Vinci’s Demons is a ridiculous show.  For me, as a former history major, to be able to divorce absolutely everything I know about history and enjoy the show requires me to change my mindset going in.  Not quite realizing how uninterested in history Da Vinci’s Demons was, I actually paused the show, sat and thought for ten minutes, ,and rearranged my expectations.  It’s not to say I expected a historically based show to actually be entirely accurate, but most of the Showtime/Starz historical shows of the past few years (The Tutors, The Borgias, The white Queen) attempt to be by and large historically accurat-ish at least in the very broad strokes if not so much in the minutia.  That’s what I thought Da Vinci’s Demons would be like, It’s not.

Da Vinci’s Demons is much more similar to the much farther removed from history/ historical fantasy stylings of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Fidelity to historical actuality is extremely limited; some of the characters are based on historical equivalents, but that’s really about it.  It’s not that this is and of itself a bad thing in anyway as much as I had to quell all my historical impulses before I could watch further.  Even the language is ridiculous.  Sure, most historical fiction likely has everybody speaking in ways that are not similar in anyway from how they spoke in the original time period, but at least there’s some attempt to sound like what we think people from that time sounded like.  Da Vinci’s Demons made no such concessions – people throw around words and phrases that sound right out of modern day. Realizing what I was dealing with, I began watching again and did my best to give it back a clean slate.

Tom Riley, who plays Leonardo Da Vinci, owes his performance to, in order, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes, and Robert Downey Jr. as himself.  He portrays the combination of confident swagger, bald-faced arrogance, and brilliant genius that Downey brings to any of these roles.  It’s one step away from the House anti-hero model that Hugh Laurie made so popular during his eight seasons portraying Gregory House, a flawed but brilliant antihero that rubbed many of his fellow characters the wrong way but ultimately had good deep down at heart.  The Downey/Da Vinci model is equally arrogant but generally more well-liked, has fewer blatant flaws, and seems to do pretty well with the ladies.  Leonardo da Vinci, after all, is the original renaissance man; he excels in painting, math, fighting, wit, and so much more.

So, Leonardo, when we meet him, is an up and coming young artist of limited repute, much promise, and big dreams.  He’s brash and thinks three steps ahead of just about everyone else.  He’s great with the women, as mentioned above, but is particularly obsessed with Lorenzo de Mecidi‘s (the leader of Florence for those not remembering their high school history) mistress, Lucrezia.  He hangs out with other creative folk who try to live below the radar, and they seem like the most interesting people in an otherwise hyper-serious city. It certainly seems like they’re having a ton of fun in the scenes where da Vinci and his buddies get wasted together.  His big opportunities come when he pitches the leaders of Florence on a flying bird he’s designed for some big festival, and when he manages to meet with the mysterious Lorenzo and pitches him on a role as military engineer whereby da Vinci can get paid to try out some of his contraptions which could modernize Florence’s military.

In the meantime, we find out Leonardo’s mom, of whom he knows little, was a Turk who was somehow associated with some secretive masonic-like order who relentlessly pursue something called the Book of Leaves, which has all the secrets to future progress. This Turk, who Leonardo saves from a couple of mercenary toughs, tasks Leonardo with digging further into his own past, and looking for the Book of Leaves himself.

Da Vinci is doing all this at a time where Italian city states with sinister leadership are all conspiring against one another with hyper secret meetings and cabals.  Within the first couple of minutes of the show, a leader of Milan is assassinated, and a character that I think is the pope is about to sexually abuse a teen, before the pope’s minions kill the boy after he accidentally finds out too much about their plans. The big twist, at the end of the episode, (FIRST EPISODE SPOILER ALERT) is that Lucretia, the object of Leonardo’s affection, who he sleeps with at the end of the episode, is actually a spy for some other Italian city state, and informs on him to those who would do him harm.  The people she informs him on know the Turk well and the Book of Leaves, and clearly this conspiracy will be a major plot point going forward.

For this show to work, the plot should be riveting and keep me at the edge of my seat.  This conspiracies and secrets are something I should really get behind and want to learn more about, and Riley should be incredibly charismatic as Da Vinci. I think Riley holds up his end of the bargain better; I still think the Da Vinci character is a little much with his always being so dashing and reckless and always having a witty line at every possible juncture but I think Riley does more or less as good job of carrying it as he can.  I feel like Da Vinci’s less bold friends seem to feel when watching da Vinci getting into a scuffle at the bar; I want to say, come on Leonardo, do you have to make a scene at every possible moment?  Can’t we just have a chill Friday night out? The story, I had a hard time getting into.  There’s an ancient order that maybe da Vinci is a part of by birth and that’s cool but I certainly didn’t feel invested at all when I finished the episode. It’s possible that later episodes would wrap me up in it better and pull me in, but setting up an intriguing plotline is something that first episodes of dramas generally do well, so I’m less than impressed that I’m not swept up right away.  Historical city states and their squabbles I also normally find fascinating which made it all the more noteworthy that it didn’t take here; part of buying da Vinci as ahistorical possibly made me less interested in vagaries of Italian politics in the show.

Will I watch it again?  No, probably not.  Once I was able to get over my historical biases it was not bad, but I’m just not intrigued enough by the intricacies of the court in Florence and the secret orders within the Italian states that I want to watch more at this time.  I could imagine getting into it, but unless someone I trust bowls me over with how good it is I doubt it’s going to happen.

Spring 2013 Review: Orphan Black

2 Aug


Orphan Black takes place in what seems to be the very near future in what I think is actually Toronto but seems to be an unnamed Canadian city.  I can tell it’s the near future because it looks pretty much like today but the train station at the beginning is called “Huxley Station” which sounds like a perfect dystopian name for a train station and it seems like their science is ever so slightly more advanced than ours.

Sarah, who we don’t even know is Sarah at this point, is transferring trains when she sees a woman slowly and methodically put her bag down, take her shoes off, and walk right out in front of a train.  Watching a woman commit suicide would be traumatizing in any situation, but the thing is, this woman looked exactly, and I mean exactly, like Sarah.  Sarah, who seems to be some kind of minor criminal personage, thinks enough to take the woman’s bag.

It turns out Sarah is on the run from a crazy ex-beau, Vic, and back into whatever this city is, where she’s left her best friend/foster brother, Felix, and her kid (looks to be about, I don’t know 6?), for the better part of a year.  She’s being chased by said ex-beau, and a brilliant idea comes to her when she snoops around and find out that the woman who killed herself has a nice apartment and 75K in the bank, and really, really looks like her.  She’ll pretend the dead body was hers and take over the woman’s life.  What Sarah wants at this point is to get her daughter, who’s being raised by her foster mom, and Felix, and get out of Dodge (proverbially; I don’t think the city is named Dodge, though I can’t be certain).

Problem is, she realizes, the woman, Elizabeth Childs, has troubles of her own.  She’s a cop, who has to face an inquest after shooting a civilian a few months ago, apparently has some sort of pill-popping issues, and has birth certificates from other woman born around the same time as Sarah and herself in a safe deposit box.  Sarah gets a call, on Beth’s phone, from someone, who is on one of the birth certificates.

She’s watching her own wake from afar when a German who has pink hair but otherwise looks exactly like her gets into her car, and then very shortly after gets shot; the person on the phone tells her to go bury the body, which she does.

All Sarah wants to get out of town with some money, Felix, and her daughter, who she’s hoping won’t think she’s dead, but before she can do that she has to get through the troubles that Beth’s life has caused her, while still facing her inherent curiosity into why there are several people running around town who look exactly like her, and a couple of them seem to be dying.

Tatiana Maslany, who plays Sarah, and every Sarah lookalike, gives an incredible performance as multiple characters with different looks and personalities; she’s so convincing at separating the characters that I often forget that it’s her playing every role. The show gives you just enough information to make you really want to know more about what’s going on.  Many serial science fiction shows try this feat – to dole just enough plot  each episode to make you hungry for what you’re missing, but it’s a difficult pacing battle that most shows in this genre fail at.

Additionally, very few succeed in the most important test for a first episode – after I finished watching, do I immediately want to pop on the next episode.  I did, when watching Orphan Black, which feels more like a tight science fiction thriller than one of these grand central mystery science fiction shows like Under the Dome, Revolution, or Terra Nova, etc.   It also has some of the classic paranoia/conspiracy vibe of ‘70s neonoir; there are people watching you everywhere, you never know if anybody is really on your side or working against you, and you don’t know if anybody really is who they say they are.

On first impression, Orphan Black feels cool (I know that’s such a non-technical world, but that’s really the first word that comes to mind, both in the sense of low-key ’70s sunglasses-on slick, and the thirteen year old (or hell, me, still) watching a stadium implode thinking “that’s so cool”) and well-executed. The camera work is smooth, the plot moves, not action-movie fast, but fast enough that it never feels plodding, and we know just enough to know how little we know. We follow along with Sarah, knowing, for the first episode anyway, what she knows and nothing more, and we’re constantly being surprised when she finds a new piece of the puzzle.

There’s always the caveat that these things go wrong, because it’s easy to screw up, but I think this should be less difficult to handle than the big sci-fi shows (Revolutions, Under the Domes, etc) because Orphan Black smartly slowly rolls out its premise, rather than putting out an epic central mystery right away which is hard to fulfill while being both plausible but not anticlimactic.  It should be easier to have a taut story that works, unless this plot goes so much wider and deeper than I’m imagining at this point. Again, dramas are lost but rarely won in the first episode but there’s easily enough here to move forward. It’s fun, which is something a lot of the more bloated science fiction shows on television lose in their attempt at deeper meaning and emotional heft.

Will I watch it again?  Yeah.  It was pretty exciting, and had a cool factor, like a well-engineered science-fiction action movie.  Plus, there’s only ten episodes, so the commitment is relatively minimal, which doesn’t hurt.  It’s a fun ride without any of the huge overarching-ness of the epic sci-fi series that have just disappointed me over and over again in recent years.

End of Season Report – Downton Abbey, Season 3

26 Jun

Sisters Downton

I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly excited to watch the third season of Downton Abbey.  I waited until long after it aired in both the UK and the US to watch it.  While I never doubted I would get around to it, after the second season I was a lot less excited with the whole prospect. Saying I was disenchanted with the show is far too strong a word for a show that didn’t really change its essential stripes, but I was hardly looking forward to it either.

I’m making this point only to turn around and give Downton Abbey the backhand compliment that while the third didn’t exactly return me back into a state of excitement about the show, it also didn’t continue to deflate my expectations as much as it might have.  It represented a plateau-ing of Downton Abbey, as the third season was at least as consistent as the second season.  While I’m still not super excited about the fourth season, I probably won’t wait as long to watch it.

Everyone who watches this show should know this by now, but Downton Abbey is a primetime soap opera thinly disguising itself (and not even really disguising itself at this point) as a show about the dynamics of class politics in early 20th century Britain.  Watching Downton has made me think there could be a place for a really piercing drama about these class politics, but this certainly isn’t it.  It’s not entirely politically vacant, and to Downton’s credit, while they smooth most conflicts over fairly quickly, they don’t entirely ignore their existence.  Still, every seemingly political content is generally just used as a vehicle for personal drama.

Downton does cycle right through a series of issues which could really be reckoned with, but these difficult issues are generally introduced just to provide fodder for short term conflict between two or more main characters, and then solved an episode later, after which tea will be served.  Sybil’s marriage to a chauffeur was the stuff of scandal, but by the end of the third season, Tom has joined the family and just about entirely quelled his controversial talk about Irish independence.  The Catholic-Protestant conflict is solved in about 45 minutes after Lord Grantham eventually gives in.  Poor Lord Grantham has to play the conservative heavy in almost every conflict this season, counting on all the charisma and love he’s generated in the early seasons to prevent him from coming off as a total villain.  A scandal revolving Thomas Barrow’s homosexuality (which I had totally forgotten about) nearly ruined his life before a surprising number of empathetic parties, who have had their qualms in the past with the generally villainous Barrow, put pressure on the servant who was doing the accusing. The accuser was motivated less by hate than by the machinations of the scheming O’Brien.  Ethel, the maid who had given birth to the child of a solider who was recuperating at Downton (I had also totally forgotten about this) returns, as the always virtuous Mrs. Crawley hires her so she can rehabilitate from her life as a prostitute (things did not go well for her after Downton).  This sets off a major conflict but all’s well when the Dowager Countess helps get her a new job working for a family near where her child is being raised by the kid’s grandparents. Everybody wins!

I’m making these points not to vent against these happy endings; they’re quite fine, but rather to much as to make sure we’re clear on what we’re watching.  It’s a visually gorgeous soap opera that happens to involve some really rich people and not rich people who work for them in their awesome house.

As I pointed out above, poor Robert serves as the unchanging conservative force who is having trouble adapting to the new times, more than his wife, and even more than his mother.  It’s kind of sad watching him fight against everyone else, especially when he’s usually the only one on his side.  His poor decision making is evident, after earlier in the season discovering he lost all of his money in bad investments, he tries to argue for reinvesting in the fund of a one Charles Ponzi.  Even Downton Abbey can’t resist a pointed historical joke from time to time.

Fitting for a show that’s really about personal drama rather than political conflict, the most moving moments by far involved the death of youngest daughter Sybil right after she gives birth to a daughter.   While the political conflicts often like they’re lacking juice, the reaction from Sybil’s death felt authentic by all parties. After Sybil’s death, there’s a bizarre turn in Edith’s character in the second half of the season when I felt the strange sensation of rooting for her, which made me entirely uncomfortable.  That said,  kudos to whoever decided they wanted to make Edith stop being horrible.  Shows aren’t served well by characters that are irredeemably terrible, and Edith has never been quite that bad, but she’s come close.

There’s lots of little drama between the characters that is hardly edge-of-your-seat suspenseful but is enough to care about at least for as long as the episode is.  There’s a love quadrangle among the servants as Daisy likes Albert who likes Ivy who likes James who likes, well, who even knows.  In filling up just eight episodes, it seems like sometimes the writers don’t have a ton of ideas left but Downton is surprisingly watchable for a show where a lot of the subplots aren’t particularly captivating.  It is, if I haven’t said, a really fucking nice house.

This season was definitely a little bit looser and more relaxed now that Matthew and Mary are finally married.  The will-they won’t-they between the two of the them was charming initially, but got tiring as it seemed like the show was just inventing excuses to keep them apart.

I don’t want to leave without saying how hilarious I thought the impression of Americans was on the program.  Shirely MacLaine plays Cora’s mother and makes constant quips about quaint British traditions and how allergic to change the British are.  In the last episode, we’re introduced to a new young female character named Rose for some reason.  I think Rose is introduced only to help portray the ‘20s as we Americans know them with loose women and flappers doing the Charleston while black musicians play.  When it’s discovered she’s visiting these clubs with a married man, Rose has embroiled herself in s a scandal that everyone at Downton can agree on!

Spring 2013 Review: Maron

24 Jun

Marc Maron is Maron

It’s hard to imagine Maron existing in a world without Louie.  Louie is a good show and an Important show (the capital I was on purpose) but until now has yet to be an influential show, at least in terms of its direct impact on other television programs.  Maron is the first sign of a television world that comes after Louie.

There’s plenty admirable about imitating what Louie does, but it’s dangerous as well.  It’s hard to pull off Louie’s combination of ludicrous and poignant as well as his ability to switch on a dime from comedic to serious and back again.

It’s tough to live in a post-Louie world because sometimes it feels like instead of relaxing watching a television show and just looking to laugh like when watching a New Girl or a Bob’s Burgers, I have to scrutinize every little exchange between Maron and each other character for meaning. Honestly, I’m probably thinking a little bit too hard, but this is what happens when I spent a full season trying to figure out what Louie was about, and now I’m trying to bring that thought process to bear here.

You’re probably not going to laugh a whole lot.  Shows in a post-Louie world by comedians aren’t necessarily designed that way.  It’s as if the comedian has a higher calling, and to some extent, I think it’s admirable not to just be boxed in a corner as funny, even though funny is not inherently a bad place to be.  There’s a couple of solid quips, but there aren’t very many jokes or real laugh lines, certainly not like you’d find in clear comedies like Parks and Recreation or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Marc Maron’s a little bit edgier than Louie.  He’s less awkward than Louie but more narcissistic.  Louie wants to be liked, but Maron needs to be.  Louie tries desperately to be nice, while Maron has no problem being mean and combative.  Instead of daughters, Maron has cats.  If Louie is the everyman, Maron plays the id, the man running around with a little less control over himself.  An early scene has Maron run into his ex-wife in a coffee shop with his sick cat.  He previously had made a point about how he wouldn’t know what to do if he ran into his ex-wife. He acts like a dick when he does, being needlessly hostile to her years after their relationship ended.  If Maron needs to be liked, he’s also kind of a jerk, and the show seems to be dealing a lot with that central contradiction.  He addresses this straight on at the end of the pilot when he mentions that he’s okay with the world thinking whatever they want about him, even though we know the opposite is true.

The show is hooked around the most successful thing Marc Maron’s ever done, which is his WTF podcast, which he records out of his LA garage (it’s smart to set his show across the country from Louie’s NYC).  In this first episode, Dave Foley is over to record a show with Marc, and Marc does a couple of a little segments with Foley, as if recording them for his show.

In this episode, Maron and Foley drive over to a comic book store where a guy who has been bashing Maron on Twitter is playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons.  This plot feeds directly into Maron’s needing to be liked, and his reckoning with modern technology, as he must know why this random dude doesn’t like him and insists on shouting it to the world.

Maron, the show, ventures into very dangerous ground by presenting these extremely nerdy looking guys dressed in costumes playing a campaign.  Maron does try to not play it straight, and at least kind of flips the situation on its head by having Maron, the person, come out as the bad guy rather than the nerds.  He’s the one who had to find them in person, and they love Dave Foley who defends them later.  Still even acknowledging the existence of nerds so extreme, strikes a couple of boxes on my Nerd Defamation League checklist.  The primary nerd character is portrayed by Erik Charles Nielson, who plays ubernerd Garrett on Community.  If they didn’t want to drive that point home about how stereotypically nerdy this character was, they could have cast someone else.

I reasonable enjoyed watching the show, but I hardly felt compelled to watch another episode.  I didn’t particularly care for the character of Marc Maron, and I’m not sure whether that is how I’m supposed to feel or not.  I think a show like this can both take more than one episode to really get into, and very likely may need a few episodes to really get running at maximum capacity.  Thus, I’ll try to at least check it out down the line.  But the way it is right now, I could imagine watching, but probably won’t go out of my way for.  It has a little bit of a lot of qualities, but no one aspect really made a strong enough impression to make me immediately want to come back.

Will I watch it again?  Honestly, I doubt I’ll watch every episode of Maron, at least anytime soon.  Since it appears like it will be fairly episodic, there’s a fair chance I’ll catch another episode, and I can imagine marathoning it one day down the line over a couple of days.  It doesn’t really capture me, though to be fair, the first Louie didn’t either, and I now greatly enjoy that show, even if I still don’t think it’s necessarily the best on TV.

End of Season Report – Rectify, Season 1

17 Jun

Everyone gets ready to eat dinner

Rectify had an excellent first season overall and may have been the best new series from the past year.  In discussing the season, I’d like to start with the end, the powerful and vicious scene that closed Rectify’s debut season.

Few recent television scenes have incensed me with the furor that the last five minutes of the final episode of this season of Rectify did.  A pack of masked small-town middle-aged men descended on main character and freed death row convict Daniel as he visits the grave of the woman he was convicted of murdering and simply beat the living tar out of him.  Daniel, helpless, lies on the grass as blows are rained down on him by the masked men.  One of the men, the older brother of the woman whose gravesite Daniel is lying by, finishes the job by peeing on him.  Rectify had previously shown threats to Daniel by angry townspeople, including a damaged mailbox, but nothing even close to this extent. As I watched Daniel lie doubled over in pain before an ambulance arrived, I wanted to for someone to come and make these guys pay for what they did, legally or extralegally, but they just got back in their cars and went back from whence they came.

This scene triggered such strong emotions largely because so few shows aspire towards the level of realness of Rectify.  Moments in shows like Game of Thrones certainly supply anger and a visceral gut punch, but there’s always a detached perspective of a fantasy world.  Even shows like Breaking Bad take place in our world, but in a heavily stylized version of the world.  Not so with Rectify.  Few shows this side of David Simon truly feel like reality.  Everything in Rectify feels like it could actually happen in our world, a view enhanced by the gentle pacing and the emphasis on seemingly mundane events, like eating pieces of cake and taking trips to the store. Rectify led me to believe that I could drive down I-95 for a day and reach the town from the show, and it’s because of that sense of reality that each blow Daniel took raised my blood pressure and made me want to sock each and every man in masks.

The minimalism of the show also helped increase the power of that scene.  Unlike shows in which episodes routinely feature action and fighting, a punch means something in this world.  Violence isn’t something handed out in every episode.  This beating was an extraordinary event, that stood out starkly from the every day.

This reality is one of the factors that separates Rectify from everything else on television.  The whole season takes only a couple of days, and few shows make so much out of so little plot.  Little emotional moments are at the heart of Rectify, and they consistently hit.  The last scene was so powerful because you come to empathize with the characters.  We don’t yet know what really happened to the girl Daniel allegedly killed, but we do know that Daniel is a man who suffered deeply for two decades and who is honestly trying to face up and reckon with the opportunity for freedom he’s been given.  He still hasn’t quite figured out how to do make that peace, but his attempt at finding it stands in sharp contract to the simple-minded physical violence eye-for-an-eye strategy employed by the punks who beat him.

Flashbacks are difficult to use well, and in the past I’ve called out many shows for unnecessary flashbacks, which I think can be a crutch for exposition or character development best handled in the present.  I absolutely love the flashbacks in Rectify though, which show Daniel’s time in prison.  Daniel interacts primarily with another prisoner in the cell next to his, and their contact seems more free and natural than Daniel’s contact with anyone in the outside world once he gets out. Over time, this one fellow prisoner becomes his link to the remainder of humanity. The last episode features a moving scene in which Daniel’s friend is finally taken to die, and in his last moments finally sees Daniel, after years communicating only by sound, and confidently pronounces that he is sure that Daniel is innocent of murder.  It’s difficult to even imagine the very real plight of being released from prison after twenty years. At least in regular prison there’s at least a yard and some connection with the outside world, unlike death row.  Daniel has been in a box for twenty years, which has to have a huge effect on his ability to communicate with people who haven’t been.

People don’t know how to react around Daniel, and that difficult to bear awkwardness comes right through the screen.  People expect him to have trouble adjusting, but to have less trouble than he actually does, and to get over it real fast.  They project what they imagine twenty years in prison must be like onto him, even though it’s absolutely impossible for them to really understand. When he doesn’t sound unabashedly enthusiastic to be out of prison, people think he must be guilty.  He’s so haunted by the idea that he might be guilty that he’s convinced himself, over the years, that he’s not even sure what happened.  The difficulty that even simple person to person interaction poses Daniel is beautifully rendered and can be difficult to watch and enthralling at the same time.

As mentioned above, it’s often the little moments that really make Rectify stand out.  My favorite of the season was Daniel playing Sonic on Sega Genesis and rocking out to Cracker in the attic, dancing around in the way people only do if there’s no one else around.  It’s one of the few moments in the season where Daniel seems to be actually enjoying himself, appreciating the moment without the heavy emotional burden that every personal contact seems to take on him.  For a couple of minutes at least, Daniel can relax and really appreciate being free.

End of Season Report – Arrested Development, Season 4

12 Jun

There's Always Money in the Banana Stand

This is a general overview/review of the new season; I’ll probably do at least one or two more AD posts, but we’ll see. I would recommend against reading this unless you’ve completed Season 4.  If you haven’t, get to it, and come back when you have.

I made a decision not to make any serious judgments about the fourth season of Arrested Development before I had watched most, if not all, of it, and I implore you to do the same.  I made this decision because this is an unprecedented television event in several ways.  First, I can’t think of another example of a live action show brought back over a half a decade after it was originally cancelled. Animated programs like Futurama and Family Guy have returned from the dead, but voice work is a lot less arduous and animated programs are cheaper to make.  To reassemble the actors, a particularly large cast for a comedy, along with the writing staff, and the money and distribution outlet to get it done is a truly remarkable achievement. Secondly, it’s being distributed not by a traditional television network, but by Netflix,and  instead of once a week, all at once.  The season is uniquely designed to benefit from such a release, being more one giant 8 or 9 hour episode of Arrested Development than an unrelated series of shorter episodes.  The episodes do make sense by themselves, but not nearly as much sense as they make as part of a whole.  No comedy is as serial or plot-heavy as Arrested Development (Venture Bros. is the only other contender I can think of).  This is more than serial though.  Since each episode focuses on a single character, and the episodes all tread over the same time period through the point of view of different characters, events we saw in the earlier episodes are entirely turned on their heads by what we learn in later episodes.  Even in serial dramas which benefit from multiple viewings, rarely are events in earlier episodes as transformed by knowledge gained several episodes later. The earlier seasons were intricately plotted, but they have nothing on this fourth season, in which each of the nine main characters gets his or her own plots, but run into different members of the family at various points throughout the seven year period over which the season takes place, culminating in a series of events on fictional new Arrested Development holiday Cinco de Cuatro.

The season builds. The first Michael episode is so heavy with exposition that weighs it down at times, as it struggles to reconstruct seven years of plot.  However, it turns out this is going over territory that’s going to be touched on in just about every episode, so it’s worth going through this much narration once.  The episode sometimes feels off and rusty, especially burdened with all the expectations of seven years of anticipation wrapped up in it,  but I think (I haven’t done this yet) I’ll enjoy it a bit more on a second viewing with the knowledge of what’s to come.  Even this initially sub-par episode has moments.  I greatly enjoyed the constant machinations by Michael to construe a four-person vote that would eliminate P-hound, and the frequent references to the votes throughout the episode, including by the guys from Workaholics at the airport.

The reveals that come throughout the season alter our perspective of earlier events in ways that would have been hard to do without this level of freedom and fan dedication; this is Arrested Development writ large.  Most shows rely on the early episodes to keep viewers coming for later episodes.  Arrested Development could count on almost anyone who watched the first episode of the season watching them all.  Because of the Netflix model as well, the barometer of success is not necessarily how many people watch every episode, anyway. The best of these reveals is probably the discovery that George Michael’s much hyped internet company Fake Block is not based on privacy software at all, but is rather a simulated wood block.  For well over half the season it seems as if George Michael is the one successful Bluth whooing girls and capital with his software company, but it turns out this entire image is based on a series of lies.  George Sr.’s sweat lodge in the second episode turns out to be where G.O.B. planned his disappearing act from his wedding.  Herman Cain lookalike Herbert Love believed Lindsay was a prostitute because, unbeknownst to her, Maeby was acting as her pimp.

Repeated moments offered some great laughs as well.  My personal favorite was the constant hearkening back to Michael and his father making a deal outside of Michael’s office.  As the series progresses, we keep returning to flashbacks of them asking one another continually to do something else for each other.  Also great was the repeated viewings of the scene in Lucille’s apartment, where Michael, in the first episode, tells his family that he’s done with them.  In each character’s storyline we get a new look at that scene, slowly panning out to reveal more and more people there. What initially looks like a huge dramatic moment for Michael begins to feel more like yet another moment when utterly self obsessed Michael, thinking only of himself, ignores everyone else.  It’s fantastic when it turns out it’s George Michael’s graduation and Michael makes him tear up the check.  Another noteworthy repeated joke was when Michael telling his son that he can’t meet because he’s stuck in traffic turns into a two-way lie fest where both George Michael and Michael each stay on the phone for fifteen minutes doing their best to convince the other that the traffic is real.

It’s ultimately wonderful that the characters stay true to themselves.  It’s hard to watch Michael, the family’s one really successful member in the earlier seasons, just break down in the first episode, but it makes total sense, as what brings him down are all the traits that he displays earlier, his self-absorption and inability to listen to others.  George Michael , although it appears to the viewers initially that he has, can’t escape his awkwardness.  His solve for x scene was hilarious, and his episode was one of the best.  The others’ flaws are more obvious, but each of them break out with positive moments in their lives earlier in their episodes only to fall back into the mire as their plots move forward.

Arrested Development made a conscious effort to be relevant to the time over which the years took place.  There are repeated mentions of the housing crisis, particularly relevant, as the family works in real estate.  Tobias and Lindsay both read Eat, Pray, Love.  George W. Bush is dragged back up with what George Sr. thinks is a monument to the ex-President, but instead turns out to be a wall to keep immigrants out.  Herbert Love is a veritable Herman Cain ripoff.  These real life allusions actually work surprisingly well in shepherding a show which has the unenviable task of taking place over a seven year period through history.  George’s mistaken reading of the wall plans are vintage Arrested, as is the scene in which real estate agent Ed Helms, a callback to a one episode character in an earlier season, sells Tobias and Lindsay a house for no money with an endless variety of unnecessary features, just so, as they repeat so many times, they’ll have it.

This season was extra-heavy on the guest stars.  An incredibly high proportion of recurring or memorable one-time characters from earlier shows reappeared somewhere or other in the fourth season, which admittedly sometimes felt like fan service, but generally in a non-prolematic way.  They were joined by a generous proportion of new characters, who got more screen time in the new season because many of the single character episodes were light on Blush family interaction.  More Bluth family interaction would certainly be preferred, but the new characters largely held up their end for the limited roles asked of them.

I was hesitant to declare the fourth season of Arrested Development a huge success right after watching, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve enjoyed it.  It wasn’t perfect by any means.  The narration can be a littly hammy, and while to some extent the abject unsubtlety of the narration is much more artfully done than the awful narration on say How I Met Your Mother, a little more subtlely is called for sometimes.  As mentioned above, I’d love even more interaction between the Bluths, who sometimes get entirely lost in their own episodes and only run into their family members once or twice.  There are sparse moments and jokes that don’t quite work.  All told, the ambition level was so high that Arrested Development doesn’t always reach it.  Still, overall I’d vastly prefer setting ambitions this high and largely meeting them to meeting a moderate goal one hundred percent.  So many shows on television on happy to have very reasonable ambitions and pat themselves on the back for reaching them.  We’d do well for more shows that shoot for the sun and offer a lot to be enjoyed even when they don’t quite reach it.

Game of Thrones – End of Season Report, Season 3

10 Jun

Arya Horseface

Game of Thrones Season 3 ended yesterday with more of a whimper than a bang, especially compared to the penultimate episode.  During the silent credit sequence that followed that ninth episode, you could hear a pin drop due to the gaping silence and wide open jaws of the viewers, at least where I was watching.  Still, things happened last night, and plenty of things happened over the course of the year.  The last episode was primarily little bits of wrapping up loose ends and starting new ones.  I’ll take a look at some pieces of the last episode, some continued fall out from the red wedding, and some general season-long trends.

First, it can’t be underestimated how much the greater Westeros landscape has shifted post Red Wedding.  The Lannisters, for most intents and purposes, have won the war.  They know the battles aren’t over forever; there are marauding Ironborn in the north, and Stannis remains alive and everyone knows he’s not one to give in.  Still, Stannis’s forces are decimated.  Stannis will have to regroup and any fight that could actually challenge Lannister superiority is some time away.  The Lannisters and their allies have recaptured the north and their single greatest current threat was wiped out in one single brilliant blow.  The Lannisters now merely need to consolidate their power and make sure their growing unruly king can be corralled.

The three primary parties behind the Red Wedding had different motivations which lead to their hand in the event.  Tywin was out to win a difficult war and saw a way to do so in one fell swoop with a minimum of bloodshed to his side.  He’s not punitive beyond what he thinks will serve a practical purpose, such as to intimidate others from ever taking up arms against the Lannisters again.  He’s not interested in parading the wolf ‘s head around or gloating.  Tywin is an unsentimental pragmatist through and through.  Roose Bolton is a cold and calculating opportunist.  He begins to see, as the viewer does, that Robb, thanks to a series of blunders as well as overall strategic difficulties, is losing the war.  He knew that having supported a losing side for so long is unlikely to earn him mercy with Tywin and the eventual victors.  He’d lose lands at the least, and maybe members of his family as hostages. Instead, he saw a chance to turn his fortunes around by aligning himself with the winning side, and helping them out to prove his value.  Bolton is ambitious but within reason.  He’s going to become Warden of the North, a huge promotion, but he’s not so greedy that he would have made his move if he didn’t see it as a no-lose opportunity.  For Walder Frey, it’s old fashioned revenge, plain and simple.  He wouldn’t have acted without assurances from Tywin, but he’s less interested in the greater conflict than in getting back at Robb and the Stark family, who showed him up.  He is a bitter old man who was lied to.  Robb broke a promise, insulted the Freys, and must pay.

Tywin intriguingly asks whether it matters how they died, when discussing the moral repercussions of his actions with Tyrion.  A war won is a war won, and Tywin rightly points out that fewer people died this way than would have in a prolonged conflict on open battlefields, and not just on the Lannister side.  Still, Tyrion’s point that memories are long is at least equally correct and I think that’s not to be underestimated.  This is a kingdom with a long collective memory, and the North is not likely to put aside its animus towards the events of the red wedding, even as years and decades pass.  Bran explicitly reminds of us of this with the story of the Rat Cook, who was turned into a rat not for murder, or for cannibalism, but for violating sacred guest right.  The odds are against Tywin being haunted by that decision in the near future, but for a man who puts so much stock in considering his family as greater than himself, he may have caused them seriously long term negative reputational value.

Daenerys conquered two slave cities in short order with dragons, guile, and a host of now freed slave soldiers.  She had her best television moment fairly early in the season when she loosed the dragons on the Astapor slave sellers and told the unsullied she purchased to turn on and kill their masters.  I was pretty disappointed with her final scene, which was also the last scene of the season.  The previous two seasons have ended with serious WTF moments, where shocking supernatural events takes place.  This season’s ending did not compare to either the dragons hatching in the first season or the white walkers in the second.  The slave soldiers calling out to Dany, their mother, verged on cheesiness, and did nothing for me.  I may be biased because Dany isn’t my favorite character, but I still thought this was not adding anything new to the Dany narrative; the news she had conquered Yunkai  would have been a better place to end her season’s storyline.  Admittedly, the Dany scenes are among the hardest to place within episodes because she’s so far away from all the other characters both spatially and plotwise.  It’s hard to root against her freeing the slaves, and the slavers are some of the most one-sided characters on the show.  Still, I think there’s a more interesting dynamic to focus on in terms of what happens to the slaves and the cities once she conquers them, and how to take care of her huge number of ex-slave followers. I hope some time is spent with these challenges in the next seasons.

A couple of characters actually converge  and meet up with one another in this final episode!  Sam meets up with Bran, and even though they go their separate ways, it’s still a heartwarming little meet and greet.  Bran has gotten the bulk of the show’s supernatural activity this season and he demonstrates his warg power and his future vision or greensight.  His spirit guide Jojen seems to believe Bran could play a major role in fighting the white walkers in the upcoming battle. Bran’s plot is consistently the hardest to predict because it’s so steeped in the supernatural. Jaime also finally reunited with Cersei, providing an oddly sentimental moment for incest, though the one moment is about all we get from from their meeting.

In a plot beginning, Stannis is soon to be off to the wall with both rivals Melisandre and Davos agreeing on a plan. It’s an intriguing move for a king without a kingdom.  How to convince the people of the kingdom to join his side?  If he can’t beat his enemies within, attempt to defeat the kingdom’s enemies without, the white walkers.  The Stannis plots this season have been limited, but with him off to the wall, where Jon Snow and Sam are hanging about, it seems like they may get a lot more interesting soon.

The petulant young king Joffrey is a problem, but less so than when there was merely Cersei to corral him, as Tywin is clearly in control of the kingdom now.  Having the crown hardly makes one king in more than name.  That said, there’s at least a minimum of connection to the crown that one needs to obtain ultimate power as well. Varys reminds Shea of this when mentioning that he, as a foreigner, will never be able to hold more than a certain amount of sway no matter how much he knows.  I didn’t particularly care for the Varys – Shea scene, largely because it seemed as if Varys was saying a lot for our benefit that he would never have said to Shea in context, but the point still stands.  You don’t need to be the king to have power but having the family connection and the high born status doesn’t hurt.

Tyrion, who basically owned season 2, didn’t have a whole to do this season, but that’s okay.  He did marry Sansa, against both of their wills, and the little bit of banter we’ve seen between the two of them has been surprisingly entertaining.

Arya and the hound have become the latest buddy pairing to tear up the Westeros countryside, hot on the heels of Jaime and Brienne and before them Tyrion and Bronn.  The Hound has some of the more mysterious motives of any character in the show, as he’s done some monstrous deeds, but also seems to have some redeeming characteristics.  He also really does not like fire. Him and Arya make short work of four Frey soldiers sitting beside a fire, and Arya, perhaps not surprisingly considering all she’s dealt with, has begun to harden considerably in her treatment of men minding their own business hanging around the countryside.  Just last week, she asked the hound to spare a man’s life.  No more.

Jon finally makes it back home, ending his middling attempt to pose as a wildling.  It’s heartbreaking to see Ygritte aim at Jon Snow, and it’s an open question if she’s actually trying to kill him or not, but I think it’s oddly reaffirming that both of them are standing up for what they believe in.  I’d love for them to be together, but it’s difficult when they have belief systems that are diametrically at odds.  Jon stands up for the Night’s Watch and makes a daring return home to warm of the upcoming wildlings attack, while Ygritte tries to fulfill her promise that if Jon betrayed her she would kill him herself.  I’m certain glad, however, that she was unable to come through on hers.

A reveal in the finale is that the character torturing Theon for the entirety of the season is Ramsay Snow, Roose Bolton’s bastard, who took over Winterfell from the Ironborn.  The number of Theon scenes this season has seemed gratuitous – two or three scenes of torture were good enough to get the point across, and beyond that seemed unnecessary.  Still, here we have a truly evil, truly sadistic character.  To me, this actually makes view Joffrey in a different light.  Ramsay is a face of evil.  Joffrey is a spoiled immature brat who received the keys to a kingdom as a teenager when he normally would have received groundings and time outs.  He’s bad, unquestionably, but I think he’s more out of control than evil.  Now Ramsay Bolton, who continues to torture Theon for days and weeks on end simply for the fun of it.  That’s evil.

Ranking the New Spring 2013 Shows

5 Jun

The Americans, again

Memorial Day has passed, June is here, and the spring TV season is finished. That means there’s no better time to take stock, and do a final ranking of all the new shows spring offered us.  I’ve seen at least one episode of each of these, and more of a few. Let’s have at it, with a few notes for each.

  1.  The Americans – This was probably my favorite pilot of the year. It dipped briefly into second or third midseason and then rose up again as it neared the end.  It’s really good.  I’ve started putting this out as the go-to watch for people who are up to date on the big three dramas (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones) and want something to catch up on quickly.
  2. Rectify – Only six episodes long and on the Sundance Channel, this show could easily pass you by, and almost passed me by.  Still, if this is the type of show Sundance plans on bringing to its original programming, that’s a great sign.  About the reintegration of a man who served on death row for two decades in a small Southern town setting, it’s fascinating and well-acted and feels startlingly real for TV.
  3. Hannibal – Gorgeous and grotesque, this show feels like a cable show masquerading on a network.  It’s about cops and serial killers, not exactly bold new territory, but the dynamic between main characters Will, Hannibal, and Jack is exemplary and takes it above typical procedural quality.  It’s one of the most beautifully shot shows on TV.
  4. House of Cards – Spacey is good, aside from his accent, and it’s fun to track the endless over-complicated manipulations that land the primary characters in different places by the end of the season.  It’s fairly ludicrous and a little overdone, but it’s also quite a fun ride.
  5. Banshee – I will probably watch at least one more of this violent show about a criminal pretending to be a sheriff in but dangerous town in Pennsylvania. I really have no idea where this is going to go, but it has a Sons of Anarchy-vibe in the pilot.
  6. Bates Motel – This is probably the closest to 50/50 in terms of whether I watch another episode. It looked like it could be good, but also might not be up my particular alley with its horror movie feel.  I probably will watch at least one season of American Horror Story before I watch this.
  7. The Following – I havne’t watched any more like I thought I might and have heard it gets worse, but the first episode, while insane, at least made me consider watching more, which says something.
  8. Deception – A poor man’s Revenge from one episode, though it certainly seemed like it could have second season of Revenge level potential, for whatever that’s worth.
  9. Cult – Kind of a poor man’s The Following.  Another horror movie for TV, clearly a CW show, but tries to be a little too clever for its own good.
  10. 1600 Penn – Super wacky, in a way that I almost respect the effort, but it wasn’t very funny.  Probably will go down mostly for the trivia of Bill Pullman playing the president once again, after Independence Day.
  11. The Carrie Diaries – I can imagine the right person liking this, and I think Annasophia Robb, who plays young Carrie Bradshaw, does a good job.  Aside from the period soundtrack though, I have better shows to watch, and I already have one new show set in the early ’80s (The Americans).
  12. Red Widow – A widow from a small-time crime family must take her husband’s place and work with a scary crime lord.  It should be more riveting.  It was absolutely watchable, but not particularly compelling.
  13. Zero Hour – This year’s crazy conspiracy show, it hearkens back to the Nazis and the Bible both, taking two of the biggest conspiracy theory generators and combining them.  Not as captivating as a show that draws on those two conspiracy lode mines should be.
  14. Golden Boy – It’s a pretty standard cop show whose hook is that it’s told through flashbacks by the youngest ever police commissioner, about his time as an even younger homicide detective.  The best aspect of the show is that the main character is kind of a prick, which is unusual for this genre.
  15. How To Live With Your Parents (For the Rest Of Your Life) – cutesy Modern Family clones are hotter than the sun at the moment, and whoever can generate another even miniature hit with one will make a lot of money.  This is not it.
  16. Family Tools – I didn’t realize the ridiculous drama to comedy ratio of the new spring shows (14 to 3) until I wrote these all down.  Family Tools is really similar to How to Live With Your Parents above, and I could have put them in a virtual tie.  Shout out for JK Simmons, who deserves a better platform for his talents.
  17. Do No Harm – I’ll admit, I forgot I watched this show, and while this show doesn’t deserve to be higher, there’s no laughably awful Rob! or Work It to claim the last spot.  Still, this show, about a doctor with an evil split personality, was about as uninteresting as a show with that premise could be.

Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 9 Notes

3 Jun

Please scroll down immediately past this post if you have not seen this episode yet.  I’ll wait.

Robb Stark of House Stark

Phew.  Okay.  So, Red Wedding.  That’s what it’s called if the internet hasn’t told you a million times already and you haven’t read the books.  Red cause of you know, all the blood.  I have some broader Game of Thrones thoughts I’d like to posit after the season’s done. First, though, some notes on the Red Wedding, and Robb’s ultimate road leading up to it, now that it can be viewed as a whole.  This post ended up being much longer than I had planned, so apologies, but who doesn’t get carried away by Game of Thrones sometimes.

The notion of honor has often been at the crux of Game of Thrones, particularly since the dead patriarch of our main family, the Starks, was known for it, and passed it down as a crucial value if not the most important value, to his sons and daughters.  More than honor, unbending honor, to the point where it was not only not practical or smart, as Ned learned the hard way, and sometimes even difficult to comprehend by our modern standards of what’s important.  Although it’s hard not to like Ned overall (especially in memory), it’s also hard to sympathize with his position that Jaime is despicable and beyond redeemable for being an oathbreaker when killing the Mad King, even though Jaime’s decision may have spared hundreds or thousands of lives (though Ned is hardly the only one who feels this way, as this is a world moral absolutism, and as I’ll discuss below, there’s a reason for that sometimes). Ned sees honor as black and white; Jaime’s oath and his duty toward the king was bound in stone, while his opportunity to save random King’s Landing residents was not. Ned’s children all struggle with how to live honorably, as their father taught them, in a world that can be extremely dishonorable.  They try to figure out where the line is between keeping their heads, hopefully, while, at the same time, doing their father proud.

I think the Red Wedding was handled spectacularly on the show and overall I’ve been thrilled with the show and many of the adaptation choices they’ve made.  I’d like to dwell briefly on one I think was ill-advised.  In both the book and the show, Robb, in order to pass through a precarious patch of country known as the Twins and gain a large component of men for his army, agrees to marry cantankerous and bitter Lord Walder Frey’s daughter.  He violates that oath by marrying someone else.

In the show, he falls in love, and believing love to be more important than keeping a promise (or at least this promise), he chooses to marry the woman he falls in love with and deal with his broken oath to Walder Frey later.  While it’s nice to think that in this world people can actually be in love with the people they marry (I’m not being sarcastic. It is nice), I thought it came off as somewhat selfish, especially when his mom and his other advisers so ardently recommend that he not get married, at the least during the war, when violating the oath would have practical consequences. He just doesn’t listen and does it anyway.  For someone who values honor above all else (something we see again with his decision to execute Rickard Karstark), it’s hard to understand how his decision to marry Talisa would be consistent with his policy of honor above any other value, even love. This would have been a lesson his father, himself in an arranged marriage with his deceased brother’s former fiance, taught him at least.

In the book, Robb’s recovering from an injury suffered from battle far away from his mother and top advisers.  He’s recovering in the house of some minor nobles, and stricken after finding out the news that Theon betrayed him, took Winterfell, and killed his brothers. After he learns this news, his nurse, a young minor noble herself, decides to, uh, comfort him, above and beyond what’s normally expected of a nurse.  Robb, feeling ashamed after taking her virginity (which is a big deal in this world (also in Downton Abbey!), decides the honorable thing to do, being a Stark, is to marry her.  He’s not making the decision out of love, but rather out of his perhaps misguided view that the honorable path in the moment of marrying the girl supersedes the honor of keeping the oath.  His mom is not there to advise him otherwise; she’s miles and miles away and is horrified when she finds out, but it’s too late.  I think the immaturity is accentuated by the fact that Robb’s younger in the book.  While making all the characters a few years older in the show makes sense because actors age, this is one spot where the actions seem more excusable if Robb is younger, and just the couple of years could make a significant difference.  Certainly to some extent, immaturity is also a factor in his not appreciating the value of an oath in the show, and he certainly could have been firmer in refusing to have sex in the book. Still, I think the book both painted a more sympathetic figure of Robb and also doubled down, properly, on how honor, the essential value of the Stark family, played into his decision. It’s possible he was wrong, or at least questionable in balancing the honor at stake in the book, but at least it makes sense from his perspective.

The Red Wedding of course, is about the exact opposite of honor.  Not sadism or brutality, but total disregard for the rules, the willful violation of social norms that everybody in a society believes in to function where there doesn’t exist a modern state with clearly defined rules and well-enforced law.  These norms can be held together by religious beliefs, or a cultural belief so strongly shared that violating it would prompt instant outrage from society at large (in GoT, it’s both religious and cultural).  Oaths, in this world, have that kind of power.  Like in the Ancient Greek world, an oath is a bond.  It’s more than an oath would mean today when there’s so many other ways to enforce promises – we have contracts and courts.  The oath Robb broke is serious business, which can’t be underestimated, and they do a good job on the show of making out what a big deal this is (as mentioned above everyone still refers to Jaime as Kingslayer for his oath violation years and years ago).  You don’t have much more than your word.  Ned Stark wouldn;t have smiled on Robb’s choice in the show.

That said, there’s an even greater breach here in the Red Wedding which isn’t articulated so much in the show but which at least comes across strongly in the visuals of the scene.  I’m not sure it was a focus, but they definitely made a point of mentioning, in the scene in which Robb and his entourage arrived at the Freys, that the visitors were to receive bread and salt.  This means, book readers know, that, as guests, they’re now under the protection of their hosts.  Guest right is a sacred and important tradition in Westeros, much like it was in Ancient Greece, where it shows up crucially in both the Odyssey and the Illiad.  Once visitors have been welcomed with bread, they can not be harmed until they leave the premises.  This is so sacred that it’s basically unheard of; one famous song in the Game of Thrones universe known as the Rat Cook tells of a violation and the horrible consequences that came to the violator, and serves as an admonishment to would be guest right-breakers.  Both the shock and the disturbance of the betrayal by his allies are heightened by this visceral break with hundreds of years old tradition.  The fact that it’s a not simply a normal stay, but a wedding, a sacred and joyful ceremony, only multiplies the deeply felt wrongness of the perpetrators’ actions. This breach puts those who violated outside of the normal social order of Westeros. This may win the war for now, and it may be difficult to overstate the value of that, but this will not be something soon forgotten by anyone in the realm, just as Robb’s oath violation wasn’t forgotten.

Robb’s issues of course extended beyond breaking his oath to Walder Frey.  His campaign, while winning battles left and right, suffered from numerous off-the-field problems, chief among them, besides his marriage, his mother’s decision to release Jaime Lannister and his questionable decision to execute Rickard Karstark.  Still, even these blunders simply cover up a more basic issue with the Robb Stark strategy: there isn’t one.

Robb’s tactics are excellent; his strategy is non-existent.  It’s brought up explicitly by his wife when they’re first getting to know each other.  What’s the goal of his war and how does he make it happen.  He tells his soon-to-be-wife that he wants to get to King’s Landing and kill Joffrey, and she rightfully asks, what then.  He says he merely wants to be King of the North, but that means he has to find a way for whoever rules at King’s Landing to both accept his secession, and find a way to preserve a more permanent peace (who’s to say the next King wouldn’t seek to reconquer the North?) The goal becomes muddled, and even before he gets mired in problems with his troops, he doesn’t really know the best way to reach this goal. When the North gets taken over by Ironborn, his path to victory gets even more questionable and confusing, considering he doesn’t even possess the only place he claims he wants to be in control of.   Maybe if Robb decided he wanted to put himself on the throne, or put someone else on the throne, it would be just as unsuccessful but at least it’d be a coherent goal.  His plan to capture Casterly Rock seems like a desperate gambit that may provide only a temporary lift, even if successful.  It reminds me of the Confederacy’s plan to capture Washington D.C. during the Civil War (note for longer entry: compare the Confederacy’s secession to the North’s in Game of Thrones).  They knew they were outgunned and outnumbered, and no matter how many battles they won, the North just had more of everything.  They imagined if they had taken the heart of the North (US, not Winterfell), they would destroy morale, and break the North’s will.  There’s a world in which this strategy could have worked work, but luckily for the US, Lincoln’s will, like Tywin Lannister’s was indomitable.  Maybe taking Casterly Rock would have caused a lesser or less stubborn leader to give in, but I have a hard time seeing Tywin conceding.  Robb needed manpower and allies, strength, and those he was hemorrhaging, and probably never had enough of to begin with.

End of Season Report: The Americans

29 May

Two Americans, Two Soviets

The Americans has been one of the most rewarding new shows of the year, cementing the very solid FX brand name by putting a season together more than worthy of the promise shown in the first episode.

A quick caveat before I begin:  I understand this show could potentially pose a problem for people who prefer likeable protagonists, and even for some that can tolerate somewhat unlikable protagonists, but have a limit.  While main characters Elizabeth and Philip are not necessarily unlikable personality-wise or in their behavior towards their family, they are agents working for the Soviet government against the United States, and they not only spy but commit violent acts, sometimes against innocent victims.  Unless you’re a hardcore ol’ Commie, you’re not going to be rooting for them to succeed.  That said, if you can get used to having a complicated relationship with the protagonists, rooting for them in limited circumstances, while against them in others, you’ll do just fine, and I think that attitude is necessary to fully enjoy several excellent TV shows that have appeared over the last decade.

Elizabeth and Philip were sent to America as mere teenagers to build a fake life as a cover story so that they could spy for the USSR and commit all sorts of espionage without being discovered.  Of course, it’s hard to build a really convincing fake life without building somewhat of a real one in the process, a new problem created by the existence of longterm undercover agents.  Elizabeth and Philip love their kids, and their kids, a responsible teenage girl and a younger boy, love them back. They don’t at all, as far as we know, suspect anything about their parents true work (the parents claim to work together as travel agents), which if they ever found out, would probably drive them to decades of psychiatry or violence or, well, who can know just yet, and maybe we’ll find out.  Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage is tested over the course of the season, but their mutual devotion to their kids remains constant.  This devotion tests their loyalties to their country.  They, or at least, Philip, kind of like it in America, and as much as they feel a responsibility towards their jobs, there may be limits in how far they’re willing to go for work, in order to keep their kids safe and in the dark.

Next door neighbor Stan Beeman is an FBI agent with a background in counter intelligence, having gone undercover as an Aryan radical before relocating to DC to help fight Commies.  He’s undeniably skilled at his job, and his instincts often prove correct, including when he suspected Elizabeth and Phillip as possible agents right away, before cooling on them when they were able to diffuse his suspicions just in time.  However, his abilities are compromised by his emotional vulnerabilities and damaged family life.  His wife, tired of his late work hours and endless devotion to the job over his family, turns away from him, and at the same time, he begins an affair with his charge, a Russian agent he was able to turn.  The joke’s on him later in the season when the Russian agent turns back and becomes a double agent, using Stan for information, but he’s too emotionally compromised and invested to see it.  She may have turned against him due to finding out he killed an innocent, or as innocent a Soviet agent who works for their spy agency can be, Soviet in cold-hearted revenge and frustration from the death of his FBI partner.  The spy game is an endless cycle of people using one another and it’s very difficult to develop genuine emotional bonds when they’re formed out of manipulation and the mutual need for information.

The Americans pays close attention to the value of loyalty, to both family, and to country, and to what happens when they collide.  Loyalties more than directly conflict, they get tangled up in complicated webs.  When Elizabeth and Phillip were assigned to be a couple as teens in the USSR, they didn’t love each other, it was part of the job.  Years later, they have kids.  Is their loyalty to their kids more important than country?  It seems to go back and forth a couple of times during the season.  Historically, eunuchs were highly trusted by leaders because they could never have kids, their loyalty to whom would preempt their loyalty to the state.  The USSR had no such plan.  Early in the season, it seems as if Philip is ready to defect, and the only factor preventing him is his love of his wife, who is far more devoted to the cause.  Her devotion is tested throughout, most explicitly, when Soviet agents kidnap and torture Philip as a test, but also when she feels like she is frequently being used her handlers for missions which present an unreasonable level of risk, potentially endangering her children.

The Americans is packed with layer upon layer of deception. Philip and Elizabeth are constantly disguising themselves for their job, but correspondingly separating themselves from their identities as well, offering them a chance to play different roles.  When your primary identity is based on a lie, maybe it’s not necessarily truer than any other disguise.  Is Philip more real than Clark, the guise he takes in order to seduce and later even marry a lonely FBI employee who proves an important source? Neither is his actual name.  The source loves him, for real, and more or less unconditionally, compared to Elizabeth, with whom his relationship is far more complicated, but more honest as well. Halfway through the season, Phillip meets up with an old flame from the homeland in New York, and has a brief affair with her.  This is the last straw that drives him and Elizabeth apart for the remainder of the season, especially when he lies about it.  Between the deceptions and the lies, it’s not hard to see where both parties are coming from.  Philip has been far more devoted to the relationship for years and, after learning that Elizabeth may have been more in love with American left-wing convert Gregory for years, he feels like he’s tired of giving too much.  Elizabeth in her own time, is finally coming around to have genuine feelings for Philip, and just when these feelings are starting to coalesce, her belief is broken by not just his affair, but by his lying to her face about it.  It’s hard to have trust in a marriage between spies whose job is to lie for a living, not to mention have sex with other people, or even longer-term affairs, as Philip does as Clark.  They’re also constantly subject to manipulation by their superiors – it was their handler that let Elizabeth know that Phillip was cheating, and it becomes ever more difficult for everyone in the show to tell what’s true and what’s not.  Constantly at issue is who can be trusted, and why, and not just among the main characters.  There’s Gregory, a true believer, whom Elizabeth believes is trustworthy because of their relationship, but about which others disagree. The spies rely on men in gambling debts and other misfortune, with whom they have leverage to prevent them from going to the authorities.  Elizabeth’s devotion, as mentioned earlier is absolute at the beginning, but begins to waiver.

There’s plenty of action and suspense as well.  This is a spy show, after all.  There’s plenty of chases, lots of cool spy gadgetry and some exchanges and secret rendezvous.  Of course, the majority of these are on behalf of the red menace against the United States, but that doesn’t make them any less cool.  There’s more wigs and costume changes than a Nicki Minaj concert (Hey oh!).  Some borrow from some of the famous spy operations of the past (the poison umbrella tip borrows from a famous assassination of a Bulgarian journalist), and some are wholly invented by the writers, which can detract from the story in some instances, but in this instance I’m willing to grant some leeway from exact reality for the purposes of plot.  Also, I’d like to give a shout out to the solid period soundtrack, which doesn’t simply overuse the songs from the time which are most well known now, picking solid second tier hits like “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash.

I think the first season of The Americans accomplished a lot.  I look forward to see what Joe Weisberg and crew can do with the second.  I think there’s plenty of places to go both plotwise, and exploring a lot of the issues and characters that have made the first season such a fun ride.