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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.