End of Season Report: The Magicians, Seasons 1 and 2

16 Aug

I just caught up on both seasons of the Magicians in a fairly short period of time, so I’ll speak on both seasons here.

The Magicians is an enjoyable, extremely bingeable show, in which eons of plot are squeezed into twenty episodes, running through several different storylines, wrapping them up, and moving on to related storylines which opened up (almost magically) as others were expiring. That breakneck pace is both the show’s strength and its weakness. So much is happening that it’s easy to both get wrapped up in the plot and at the same time not worry about the internal logic, but it does also rush character moments that don’t respond as well to the speed.

The first couple of episodes start as you’d imagine a show like this might, introducing the world of magic, a magical adult Hogwarts-like school (Brakebills), a potentially real fantastical Narnia-like realm (Fillory) and our primary cast of character while gradually showing off some of the facets about magic in this world. And then, about halfway through the season, things really start to move.

The magic babble (babble about magic, rather than the babble being magical itself) and deus ex machinas keep rattling one after another, making the internal logic of the story absolutely impossible to follow.  The show is written with the same escapist flair the show’s characters themselves demonstrate over and over – every situation is impossible to extricate themselves from until it isn’t. Several times in the show a character mentions that some piece of magic had only been performed once before and someone was killed that time before proceeding, without thinking twice, to perform it with a couple of the relative magic novices that serve as our main characters. There’s absolutely no way to keep up, and there’s absolutely no attempt at carefully celebrated set ups and pay offs over the long course of a season. When an evil god shows up, in turns out there’s no way to kill a god, until suddenly there is. Two characters have already signed lifetime contracts with magic realms that would appear to limit their movement, but The Magicians is the kind of show that can just make up some magical mumbo jumbo as it needs it to get them out of it.

There are frustrations to this approach, in that there’s no real foreshadowing, or classic slow build suspense elements, the kind that make us hold our breaths between episodes and seasons of shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. On the other hand, there’s an excitement within the moment; repeating any of the magical names aloud sounds absolutely foolish, but the writers are skilled at making it all feel like it makes utter sense as you’re watching and they’re bringing you along.

The Magicians reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (granted there have not been any vampires, yet) in that there’s a hidden world of magic and demons everywhere you look that those in the know have access to, and that magic underlies every piece of society in ways that we normies don’t know. Plus, there are constant scenes of the main characters poring through the library for magical solutions and researching whatever new demons and unforeseen creatures and worlds and dimensions they face.

In the Magicians, like in Buffy, and something I prefer about both to Harry Potter, is the lack of a sense of exclusiveness. Those accepted to magical post-grad at Brakebills are the only academically qualified magicians, but there’s nothing other than lack of awareness to prevent a regular human on the outside from performing – it’s a matter of skill as much as genetic ability (it is that too, though the show doesn’t focus so much on any characters that can’t do magic, and the show makes up rules as they go, so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s what).

Something Buffy did particularly well was use the wacky demon-related hijinks its characters get up to as cauldrons through which to strain and catalyze their personal relationships and internal insecurities. The Magicians tries to do this too, but it rushes the job; it’s easy to get absorbed in an insane plot pretty quickly, but it’s a lot harder to build a genuine attachment to characters without some serious time and work put into them. That has to move at a little bit of a slower pace. For example, Eliot meets Mike and within an episode, he’s a committed man who is totally in love. This puts a strain on his best friendship with Margot and when Mike turns out to have been possessed and enchanted into trying to kill Quentin, and Eliot eventually has to kill him, it tears up Eliot for entire season, not just because he has to kill someone, but because he had to kill someone he loved. Unfortunately, because this essentially entirely occurs within one episode, there’s absolutely no time to make us really feel the truth of this relationship. This happens over and over in the Magicians; the show is asking us to believe invest deeply in relationship changes that happen within minutes. Alice and Quentin fall in love in seemingly in moments, just about as long as it takes Julia and Cady to become best friends.

After using a magic bottle to store their emotions, Quentin, Margot, and Eliot feast on some sort of intense magic dopamine high after restoring their emotions; and they have a druggy three-way, which destroys Quentin’s relationship with Alice. This comes out of absolute nowhere; there’s never been any indication Quentin was close in fact, or in his mind, to cheating on Alice, or had any sexual interest in Margot or Eliot. In Buffy, a similar situation would build up to the brink without the use of magic or monsters, and the situation would just push the already existing situation up past the breaking point. Here it just comes invented out of whole cloth.

Credit to the Magicians for their unorthodox plot timing, which sees the primary initial villain of the show, The Beast, taken out halfway through the second season, rather than at the end of a season, but the result is also that the final episodes of the first, and first few episodes of the second are the best bloc of the show so far, as the the second half of the second season does lose some focus.

Overall, The Magicians isn’t a much-watch show, but it’s a fun viewing for anyone who has any interesting in fantasy, insane plot machinations, and a show that, while emo, all of the time, isn’t burdened down with either the seriousness or complexity of some of Peak TV’s more prominent dramas.

 

 

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End of Season Report: GLOW, Season 1

24 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

End of Season Report: Fargo, Season 3

19 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Worst Series Finales of the Last 10 Years

5 Jul

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

1. Lost

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

2. Battlestar Galactica

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

3. Dexter

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

4. Entourage

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

5. Parks and Recreation

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

The Best Series Finales of the Past 10 Years: 5-10

22 Jun

I listed my five favorite series finales of the past 10 years here. Here’s a little bonus coverage of entries 6-10. These are less revelatory than the first batch; these mostly consist of very good shows that wrapped up with very good episodes that weren’t mind-blowingly brilliant but managed to wrap up all the loose ends in a satisfying way which is less exciting but still quite difficult. Still, I wanted to get these down on the record with a few notes so I can look back at how crazily I changed my mind in a few years. A more fun list of the worst finales coming soon.

6. Breaking Bad

Mad Men and Breaking Bad occupy the same exact rung and I could have easily flipped them and might have if I did this tomorrow.. Both were all-time great shows whose finales were satisfying if not spectacular, which sounds like faint praise, but considering the bars set by their respective series and the expectations and hype surrounding the finale, it was no small thing to come away smiling and not disappointed. Breaking Bad managed to hit the bullet points on the finale checklist nicely. Breaking Bad did a great job over the run of the series of leaving questions that could later be returned to, or could be forgotten about entirely, with either result being equally plausible, but the one question that did feel like it needed to be dealt with was the use of the ricin, which presumably is used on Lydia. There are final moments for supporting characters as important as Skyler along with nice goodbye nodes to fan favorites Badger and Skinny Pete. The dying Walt doesn’t quite get redemption, but he does get a chance to make a baby step in that direction that makes sense within the show, and he most importantly gets to share a final scene with Jesse, and the two of them were the core of the show. Walt dying was no surprise; him living would have been, but there was still suspense in merely seeing how his plan was carried out. The finale only suffers due to some lack of surprise and the fact that it was simply always impossible to recreate the Walt-Gus dynamic that ended with the brilliant season 4 finale with the Neo Nazis, who didn’t have the same charisma or the same sense of rivalry. (The otherwise excellent and enjoyable final season suffers from that as well). But overall, it hits all the notes it has to and left me feeling as great about the series as I had when I came into the episode.

7. Mad Men

See the Breaking Bad entry.  The Mad Men slowly wrapped up storylines to all of the most important characters, giving everyone (except Pete and Betty, who. got their time in the penultimate episode) to a satisfying point of ending. This is exactly what I mean when I say closure – character arcs can recieve endings, like poor dying Betty, relationship milestones, like Roger, new beginnings, like Joan, or something in the middle like Don. There’s no one way to finish out with a beloved character, other than leave the viewer in a place that we feel comfortable and feels appropriate for the character giving the developments over the seasons; like Potter Stewart’s famous pronouncement on obscenity, I know it when I see it. There wasn’t that feeling of absolute breathtaking perfection that The Shield or Six Feet Under left with but spreading the screentime around and feeling like everyone got the ending they deserved without being shafted is still an impressive achievement (with the possible exception of the Stan/Peggy ending, which I didn’t super love but have come around on a little over time.) The ending montage could feel trite, but didn’t, and the last moment in particular is inspired; the choice of an iconic campaign which so seamlessly blended marketing with depth of emotional appeal wasn’t a bad way to end the story of Don Draper.

8, Justified

Another on the Mad Men/Breaking Bad tier. I’m hopefully not making these out to be lesser achievements than they are, rather that should just demonstrate the difficulty of constructing memorable finales. This wasn’t the best episode of Justified, but it wrapped up nicely every story line and hit on worthy resolutions for the primary characters. Like Breaking Bad, the otherwise excellent final season suffered just a very little bit by the last bad guy because one that we had relatively less investment with. Like Mad Men, the season ended with a particularly satisfying moment, Raylan staring at Boyd, the protagonist and his foil, wtith Boyd reminding Raylan of the connection that binds them and each of them to this setting that was so important to Justified; “We dug coal together,” Earlier in this season I might have thought that ending without a major character death would have seemed like a cop out, but it didn’t play out that way. Eva’s last two season arc which had some serious ups and downs paid off well with her finally escaping the cycle of shit that surrounds Boyd, and getting away from the very location which seems to encourage it, Raylan, likewise, physically moves on as he seems to finally move forward while Boyd, fittingly ends up back where he started at the beginning of the show.

9. Friday Night Lights

This shamefully took me too long to get to as I finished the fourth season and then took long break before getting to the fifth. Friday Night Lights is an extremely sentimental show, so much so, that it can overdo it at times, and while it’s a great show, that’s probably one of the issues I don’t quite like it as much as some people. In the finale, though, the sentimentality is unleashed perfectly for a thoroughly moving finale in which every character gets his chance to shine, and the heart of the show, the relationship between Connie and Eric, maybe the best marriage in television history, is at the forefront. Part of what made Friday Night Lights excellent, was its constant emphasis on the ideas that people fight, people disagree, but they come to solutions and decisions and make them work. Eric Taylor knows it’s time for his wife to take the lead, and his hesitation due to the enormity of his offer from Dillon only makes the final decision that much more powerful; the decision at the heart of the final episode is emblematic of the kind of show Friday Night Lights is. The final game is played as well as any game on the show, and leaving the final outcome up in the air until we discover it later in the episode could be infuriating but instead is inspired. Friday Night Lights ended with me remembering the best parts of the show, which is a high compliment to any finale.

10. Hannibal

I’m honestly still not sure if this was a great or terrible finale or something in between or most importantly even a finale, but I have room for one what-the-fuck finale here which could only fit for such a what-the-fuck show. For a show that lived season to season, the finale was one that wsa intended to potentially serve as an ending and potentially not, and for ninety percent of shows on TV this would have been considered an utterly unsatisfiying ending but it was so in tune with the spirit of Hannibal that it was surprisingly easy to make my peace with it. Not one, but two Hannibal season finales end with the great question of who survived, and the finale is an ultimate demonstration of the show’s filming style, where style matters, or maybe more accurately, is, substance. The fight scene between Graham, Lecter, and Dolarhyde is equally intense, bizarre, and at times hard to follow, yet the beautiful violence is one of Hannibal’s hallmarks. This is the one finale that could potentially be on the list of worst finales, depending on your bent, and it’s possible I’ll feel that way when I come back to it with time, but at the moment I appreciate just how insane the show was willing to be in a world where shows don’t do that.

The Five Best Series Finales of the Last Decade

19 Jun

The Sopranos ended 10 years ago, as of last Saturday, with the most talked about and polarizing series finale of my lifetime (Seinfeld is the only other serious contender). To mark the occasion, here are the five best series finales since.

Before I get into the criteria of what makes for a great series finales, a few quick notes on the my digging through past generally. I expected, going through the years, to find more really memorable series finales than I did. The list drops off fast, and most of the better series finales are ones that were very solid, did their job, and closed what were excellent shows in very satisfying and satisfactory ways rather than absolutely blowing me away and leaving me stunned and amazed, but there’s something to be said for how difficult it can be just to meet the hype of ending a beloved show properly, let alone exceed it.

The best series finales are not merely the best final episodes; as shows that were cancelled and finished with a typical last episode that didn’t feel special or different or have a sense of closure or finality are unlikely to qualify.

What else does it mean to have a great series finale? Obviously, this depends heavily on the particularly show that’s wrapping up but there are some general rules that travel across all shows in one way or another.

  1. The finale has to feel appropriate for the show. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get away from, especially in shows that have been on for a while and may have lost their way a little as the seasons pass. In tone, in sensibility; this is your last impression on the viewer, it should feel true to what made the show great in the first place.
  2. Solve any unresolved plot points, and answer any questions that need to be answered. Some shows come into the finale with lots of unfinished business that needs to be taken care of, some are either less plot-centric, or take care of much of their plot wrapping up before the finale. Obviously depending on circumstances, some questions are best left open, but some aren’t, and leaving viewers feel like essential questions weren’t dealt with is a serious knock against a finale.
  3. Provide closure for your characters, and memorable final interactions between important characters.

To the list…

1. The Shield

As action-packed and suspenseful as a finale gets. Its breakneck speed allows it to pack in climax after climax before ending on a resolution that has a sense of ending but feels exciting right to the end; a combination many finales strive for but few reach. Most finales have, by the time they get there, at least some sense of inevitability, even if we don’t know the exact details, but The Shields leaves so much open and swerves left and right and then left again. The finale brilliantly calls back to the very beginnings of the show; the tight bonds of loyalty that bond together the strike team. Though Lem’s death at the end of season five started events in motion, in dramatic fashion, in the finale, the Strike team comes apart at the seems, with every last shred of togetherness broken. Shane and Vic sew seeds of each other’s misery, .Shane kills himself, his fiance, and his son after Vic declines a last plea for help, while Shane informs Vic that Corrine is working with the police because she doesn’t want Vic to ever see his children again. Ronnie discovers that Vic has betrayed him at the station, calling out as he’s arrested. And Vic, having gotten his immunity deal, avoids jail, only to be placed in his other personal hell, the office, safe for now, but knowing that with one slip up, his deal would go up in flames. Brilliant, exciting, perfect for the show, dealing with every story line that needed dealing with (Dutch and Claudette make up, for example, in non-strike team business), leaving you catching your breach afterwards, and packing an incredible amount of story. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days after watching. Just thinking about it now makes my heart beat. A fantastic finale to a fantastic show.

2. The Leftovers

I did not come around easily to Leftovers. I was hesitant to watch from the first. I frankly didn’t want to watch anything associated with Lost’s Damon Lindelof and everything I heard about the show turned me off. I largely didn’t love the first season, but I like each of the next two seasons, the third and final more than the second, and if my decision to watch wasn’t justified yet, it was by the finale. I never expected especially a finale this brilliant; that looked hard at what Lost’s finale did wrong, and did exactly the opposite. I don’t like the Leftovers as much as the other shows on this list, but its finale was likely the best episode of the entire series and that’s a very impressive feat. The finale was the opposite of The Shields. It didn’t and didn’t need to wrap up a lot of storylines or feature great suspense or pace. It was extremely narrow in scope, focused almost entirely on the two best characters of the entire show and highlighted by stirring monologue delivered outstandingly by Carrie Coon’s Nora which just brought everything that was good about the show together in just a couple of minutes. That scene, magnificently acted and written, was stirring and heartwarming with well-earned emotion that grounded everything the two characters had been through over the life of the show and left me on a high. A finale that demonstrated that the Leftovers recognized what worked and what didn’t over the life of the show and pulled out everything that did for the last moments that truly counted the most.

3. The Wire

The Wire, possibly the best show of all time, had a bizarre final season. It aired a couple years after the fourth (which wasn’t as common then as it is now), and it, for all of its positives (it is after all the fucking Wire) has the two most confounding parts of the entire show – the journalism angle which never quite works, unlike The Wire’s foray into teaching the previous season (probably because David Simon is too close to the actual industry and the self-righteousness and indignation runs too high), and the invented homeless killer, which is ludicrous and one of the rare moments The Wire really feels like all other generic television. However, almost unfairly because the fifth season is so weird, The Wire’s finale felt relatively more necessary and more satisfying. The show does not end on a strange note but instead returns back to the fold of classic Wire and takes care of all its characters for good and ill. As befits a Wire finale, with only ten episodes in its final season, it’s very plot heavy; a lot is resolved, and while, as would be expected, much of the resolutions are overly depressing, unlike the fourth season finale, there are plenty of notes of positivity to offer some balance. There’s a sense of full-circleness and that the more changes, the more stays the same same which gets to the heart of one of the central themes about the Wire. Still, Carver gets promoted as Daniels is forced to resign, Bubbles makes it out clean even as Dukie succumbs to addiction, McNulty and Freamon somehow escape jailtime. The only major lack for me was that I wanted a little bit more of a juicier final moment between Kima and McNulty, two of the most important characters who both followed their trajectories as far as they thought was best, even in diametrically different directions but this is ultimately a satisfying way to say goodbye to dozens of memorable characters, leaving almost no one behind.

4. 30 Rock

Comedy finales are an entirely different animal than drama finales, and as different as the above three are from one another, 30 Rock is another step away from all three. Comedy finales don’t generally require plot execution or surprises; just a sense of closure and a way to remember our characters, along with a last opportunity to provide the essence of the show in just one episode – why it was funny, what we liked about it, why we kept coming back. 30 Rock’s finale is similar in many ways to a regular episode of the show, with the meta-hook of the last episode of TGS being filmed. The Jack-Liz relationship is the beating heart of the show, and the recurring thread of the episode is Jack and Liz both realizing where they’re unsatisfied in their lives and trying to fix those areas, fighting with one another, and then reuniting and realizing their importance in each other’s lives. This only takes place in a few total minutes of the show but its built on years of chemistry and the scenes work. Jack’s leaving on his boat only to turn around immediately is a perfect 30 Rock moment. Every cast member gets a last couple of moments to shine, and more than anything it’s funny, chockful of the type of silly wordplay that 30 Rock does so well. The only thing that really needed doing was a remarking the Liz-Jack relationship. There’s a short flash-forward montage at the very end, but it’s very quick and very silly, and not like one I’ll complain about in a similar show shortly.

5. Flight of the Conchords

My most out of left field choice. The shortest show on here at just two seasons and 22 episodes, it can be debated if this even really counts as a finale like the others as it wasn’t even obvious it would be the final episode at the time (I’m still holding out hope for an eventual movie). It definitely has elements of a finale though; there’s definitely an obvious sense of finality to it considering the fantastic ending, and there’s the classic finale looking-back as the duo perform in a musical about their lives. Like the other finales on this list, this feels so in tune with the show it’s ending. And the result is, as often in Flight of the Conchords, hard luck in oddly good humor. The boys put on their very meta-musical of their story, which is whimsical and stupid, and a perfect round-up for the series. And, yes, Jemaine and Brett do get sent back to New Zealand thanks to Murary making a colossal fuck up, and end up back on a sheep farm, which would be very depressing in a different kind of show, but the Jemaine and Brett always seem to just take whatever comes in stride. Flight was never a serious show; it was a dry, absurd one, and this was a masterpiece of the qualifies Flight had in spades at all times.