End of Series Report: Twin Peaks: The Return

20 Sep

I don’t have anything particularly illuminating to say about the particulars of the final Twin Peaks episodes, or the season as a whole, but I merely want to say a few works more generally about the critical and cult phenomenon that surrounds the show, and David Lynch in general, and how I feel as a visitor, rather than a resident, in Lynch-world, eager to absorb and learn but occasionally skeptical and unwilling to always drink the kool-aid.

I can’t compete with the level of nuance and observation from the many Lynch disciples on the internet who have trained their eyes to look for the most minute reference or symbolism that relates to earlier in the season, to previous Twin Peaks incarnations, or to other projects in the Lynch oeuvre. There’s plenty to speculate on, but in this case I’m not the person to do it. I’ve greatly appreciated their work throughout the internet which has helped me enjoy the season on a much wider level than I would have on my own.

As should be obvious at this point, I’m not a Twin Peaks diehard. I didn’t watch the original series until a couple of years ago, somehow managing not to spoil the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer for myself (I still don’t know how I managed that), largely enjoying the show until that point and having a little harder of a time pushing through the second half of the second season slog (I still keep forgetting Heather Graham was in the show). Overall, I enjoyed the show but I didn’t think it was a breakthrough TV or one of the best shows of all time. What I did think was that it was incredibly bizarre, particularly for the time, and still today, and that it had the most insane ending of any show I’ve seen, and both those qualities are what built up what excitement I had for the new season.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this new season, and that was exciting. There’s always a temptation make a reboot feel warm and cozy, to reintroduce viewers to all the characters they missed in the interim, but David Lynch has little taste for the sentimental. The more accurate question in this case was to what limited extent the show would bring back its familiar elements and characters, and to what extent it could be just as weird now, relatively, as it must have been then. Without the burden of expectation of a bigger fan, I was less likely to be disappointed if it didn’t live up to expectations, or maybe lived up too closely to expectations for my liking.

I watched episodes often without having any idea what was going on at certain parts. I guess that’s part of the whole idea, and there’s both a thrill and a frustration that comes along with it. I appreciate the instinct not to pander to the audience, but at the other end of the spectrum, sometimes there’s just nothing really to understand. For about half the segments I was confused by, other more dedicated and astute viewers seemed to understand and shed some helpful light on, whether literally or symbolically, and for the other half it seemed like nobody had any idea, occasionally grasping at straws for deeper meaning, but still liked or disliked based on how much they enjoyed the general Lynch-ness of it.

Reading recaps for Twin Peaks: The Return, which were for me a requirement, compared to a supplement for just about any other show I’ve ever seen, felt like a combination of enthusiasm, illumination, and rationalization. Twin Peaks had less of a traditional narrative than just about any television show that has ever aired. There’s something to be said for a show being a tone poem; for there not being a whole lot of narrative meaning, and for the picture and shape and feel to mean as much as a typical story. There’s also a likelihood that the fact that qualities sometimes came at the expense of an often muddled and unfocused structure would not be excused so easily were it not both Twin Peaks and David Lynch; fans, I think, are  little bit pre-baked to accept whatever Lynch wants to throw out there (in some respect, it’s the nature of fandom; I’ve excused my favorites for lazy or inferior content on occasion). Some characters seem to exist for no reason. Most notably, never returning to Audrey after we see waking up in a hospital-like room feels particularly mystifying; I’ve seen many rationalizations for it, but they all feel like rationalizations; there are a lot of shows could look a lot better in the right light if they had bloggers in their corner finding the absolute best defense for any potential wrong step. Some writing about Twin Peaks  reads a lot like Lost defenders talking about how the constant cop outs, unanswered questions, and deus ex machinas on that show were all part of larger story that is actually brilliant and that you, reader, just don’t get and appreciate it.

By no means are these structures and odd peripheral characters and plotlines without merit. Lynch has generally thought these things through; Twin Peaks: The Return, as insane as it gets (and it gets way out there) never feels as silly or confused as Lost. When Lynch makes a bad choice, for what it’s worth, it feels like there’s more of an intentionality to those bad choices, rather than scrambling and appearing made up as it went along. Everything is in there for a reason, at least in Lynch’s mind; as a one-shot miniseries (albeit a very long one) he knows there’s no next season to follow (though never say never) and doesn’t have to worry about where his characters end up.

I would love to somehow apply a double blind test to some of Lynch’s biggest fans and see whether something similarly brilliant but messy and uncfocused without the Lynch brand associated with it would garner as much universal acclaim. Maybe it would; it’s entirely possible. But it’s hard to not feel like occasionally, because Lynch did it, its’ brilliant, rather than the other way round.

I’m glad I watched it. I’m glad I got to be part of a moment in time, where people were so feverishly into it, and their enthusiasm caused me to be way more into it that I might have been otherwise, which is a good thing. I’m glad I got a piece of the general excitement surrounding the property. The show was a fascinating journey where there was absolutely no way to predict what was coming next, and most importantly, it was like absolutely nothing else on TV and that’s worth a hell of a lot.  I suspect it won’t be like anything else on TV for a very long time; it didn’t feel the need to reckon with its viewership at all and was content to leave viewers with infinite questions wanting more, for better and worse. It was an achievement. I’m just convinced when I rank my favorite shows at year’s end, for me, all of the difference doesn’t make it a better show than The Americans or BoJack Horseman.

 

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End of Season Report: Horace and Pete

13 Sep

It took me a year and a half, and even though I bought a couple of the episodes when they were first available, I didn’t watch any until the show moved over to Hulu, but I finally made it through Louis CK’s self-produced one-man vision Horace and Pete.

One could call Horace and Pete an experimental project, in that it’s unlike anything on TV, though what makes it “experimental” is what makes its look and feel much simpler and bare bones than modern TV, hearkening back in many ways to earlier eras. Distribution-wise however, it was unquestionably experimental – being completely funded by CK without the backing or approval of any network or website. Shot like a play, that’s what it feels like, more than a television show, with an extremely limited number of sets, primarily the titular bar and the upstairs apartment, and only one or two scenes outside the bar that I can remember (at a restaurant and a doctor’s office) and no exteriors. Like a play as well, the dialogue is enunciated very clearly, is a bit exaggerated and and has the distinct cadences and pauses of a stage production, breathing more than typical faster-paced Peak TV.  Episodes very greatly in length, and though this should be no surprise to Louie viewers, Horace and Pete is no comedy; there are comedic moments but it’s not a particularly funny show nor is it attempting to be.

There are a lot of successes and a number of flaws, but it’s worth watching, particularly for fans of Louie, because it’s so different and for the things that it does well. Most days of the week, I’d rather watch a flawed original show than a technically better-executed second-rate prestige drama, and Horace and Pete is very much the former.

Horace and Pete seems to think it’s profound all of the time – about half the time it is and half of the time it isn’t. The show is at its worst when it’s being political, which it largely does in the context of discussion amongst patrons at the bar of different political persuasions. Admittedly, there may be some bias from watching this a year and a half later, and a big year and a half later, after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, and my undoubted coastal liberal elite status makes it particularly my bias particularly acute. But the material, most of it involving regular barfly Kurt Meltzer, often working around the theme that both parties are kind of screwed up, and no one is listening to each other, may have had roots in truth but feels oddly stale in an America where a Republican president is calling white nationalists fine men.

The acting is wonderful, particularly Edie Falco as Horace and Pete’s sister Sylvia,who is fighting cancer, and Steve Buscemi as the tragic Pete, who learns that the medicine which is the only thing separating him from the debilitating mental illness he suffers from and which kept him in a mental hospital for years, is going off the market. Generally, I enjoyed the bits focusing on the family more than the random conversations of the barflies, which felt closer to attempts at humor which never quite worked. Horace is a frustrating bumbling every man who can never seem to put the right words together that the situation calls for, trying to do the right thing, but often failing. Sylvia and Pete are both more sympathetic and compelling, and as for Alan Alda’s Uncle Pete, I was surprised but happy to see him go. To no fault of Alda’s, I didn’t have a lot of interest in this bigoted horrible old man who everyone but Sylvia seems to put up with and even like for some reason.

The strongest segments are the non sequiturs; the stories, told, in a monologue from one character to another, or the snippets of idle conversation about life, when it doesn’t feel as if Louis CK is trying to make an explicit point. The shining example of this and the one episode of the series that everyone should watch, regardless if they ever plan on tuning in again is the third episode, “Episode Three” (creatively titled), featuring Laurie Metcalf as Horace’s ex-wife, Sarah. In nearly entirely a monologue format, Sarah tells the story of how she came to be cheating on her current husband with her husband’s father, and how that experience grants her some understanding of how Horace could have cheated on her with her sister years ago, leading to the dissolution of their marriage, even while knowing what a disaster it would be when they were inevitably caught. I just described the gist, but that’s peripheral to watching the story being told by an acclaimed theater actress like Melcalf, who is obviously a master of this format, using dramatic pauses and facial tics to emphasize individual moments of the story, with brilliant specifics details inserted by Louie throughout. Right there in those scenes is what makes Horace and Pete interesting and worthy and justifies the investment.

End of Season Report: Orange is the New Black – Season 5

23 Aug

The fifth season of Orange is the New Black was, well, pretty good. It’s not in the absolute highest of Peak TV but it’s a pretty good, very entertaining show, but it’s a show that should definitely still be part of the year viewing regimen of any serious TV fans, a lot better than you’d hear from those friends who we all have that tells you they just gave up on Orange is the New Black a couple seasons ago, because. The show has had it’s ups and downs (the third season in particular, which somewhat fairly drove people away) and it’s not perfect, but Orange is the New Black earns its place in pantheon. It’s still a worthwhile show for many reasons, and the condensed time period of this season, taking place entirely in the span of a couple days while the riot reigns, which has both positives and negatives in terms of story telling, helps this season standing out.

The best attributes of Orange is the New Black are both the fact that it is a true ensemble and of course that ensemble itself. There are few true ensembles on television these days, and besides the fact that it’s my favorite format and that it’s underutilized on television, what makes it work particularly well here is that there are a couple dozen ensemble members at this point well developed enough to allow the show to pivot and spotlight new and different characters and character combinations in ways that shows with more limited ensembles are unable to do. Every season, some characters are introduced, some are brought from the background to the fore, and some are provided small chances to show off which set them up for increased roles in future seasons.

The choice to have the whole season take place during the three-day period of the riot, while the inmates ran the prison, was a compelling change up from the previous seasons from a narrative perspective but limited the number of characters that got deep, well-developed arcs. It’s more difficult (though far from impossible) to write strong complex arcs that occur over the course of just a couple of days. During this season, we see more inmates on screen with less screen time each. The sheer number of characters is a strength; the prison feels like a full world, and a couple dozen smaller characters feel distinctive and at least minimally memorable only given a few lines in a few episodes. As a method of examining the season, let’s breeze through how some of the characters fared this season.

More than ever a disproportionate number of the characters served as comic relief, often in groups. Martiza and Flaca, who have served this role for a while now, are the best at it, their chemistry shines through. There were also the two meth heads, Leanne and Angie, who we’ve seen before but also the white nationals Kasey, Helen, and Brandy, and Ruiz’s henchwomen, Zirconia, Pidge and Ouija, . The comedy’s great, and the balance of genuine drama and comedy in another quality that has made Orange is the New Black so successful. Howeve,r this season, the preponderance of otherwise relatively shallow purely comical characters probably swung the ratio a bit too far from dramatic character arcs.

Taystee got a big juicy arc as she stood up after Poussey’s death as a reluctant leader fighting for justice. She was the absolute star of this season and she was great. Even if there was nothing else to salvage (and there was), the season was excellent just for her role, and if there had been three other characters that got as meaty roles as she did, the season would be absolutely great instead of pretty good. She reckoned with the loss of Poussey throughout, along with her position in the world and in the jail and her responsibilities to herself and her fellow inmates. Her flashback was entirely unnecessary to feel the loss and neglect of her entire life. I don’t quite hate the flasbhacks in this show because they’re well-crafted but they often reinforce characteristics we already know or learn in prison and take up valuable screen time that could be used in the present.  In that present, Taystee’s willingness to fight so hard for the inmates and put everything on the line in admirable, while her stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise on the final demand is heroic but impractical, unrealistic and without meaning to be, selfish. That Taystee’s behavior makes her both the prison’s savior and possibly ultimate failure is tragic and an example of what makes this show so good at its peaks.

Black Cindy and Watson, who flank posse Taystee throughout the season, both got much smaller arcs. Watson has all the makings of a fantastic character from the little glimpses we get; if Cindy is the more carefree member of Taystee’s posse, Watson is the potentially more militant. Unfortunately, she’s never had much of an individual arc to to build on; she’d be a great candidate for more to do in a future season. Black Cindy is still primarily a comic relief character, but we see a new side of her when she rashly gives Crazy Eyes lithium to keep her quiet, only to sincerely regret it later when Crazy Eyes won’t wake up.

Otherwise unrelated characters Red, Brook Soso, Gloria, and Ruiz had the next best season-long storylines, none nearly as broad and powerful as Taystee’s, but each building on a favorite character in Red’s case, or showing us new sides less developed characters, as Brooke, Gloria, and Ruiz all get to show off more than they had in previous seasons. Red’s desperate need for revenge, to show her own value as protector, and to take it to any length, like Taystee, beyond the practically instructive is both admirable and foolish.

Brook, who doesn’t fit in with many at the prison, both due to her ethnicity, her education, and her personality, has to deal with the loss of her girlfriend Poussey, and how she managed that both alone, and in conjunction and conflict with others, like Tasytee and Watson mourning Poussey was fascinating.

Gloria’s sense of failed responsibility for Daya and her own family runs deep; she’s a better mother to some of the prison inmates than to her own son, but with Daya’s mistake, she can’t even seem to do that right. Ruiz is the fiery relatively militant leader of the riot until it dawns on her that her extra years might not have been added yet, after which she immediately switches sides. Gloria and Ruiz’s dual decisions to trade in their loyalty to their fellow inmates and friends within prison to be with their children were both heart-wrenching and showed the difficulties decisions foisted on inmates and the many claims on their loyalty.

The guards didn’t get much to do, kind of the product of being kept under lock and key all season, outside of, yes, again, some comic relief. Caputo, who may have been the protagonist of the fourth season, was a little bit more involved than the rest of the guards, but far less than in previous seasons.

I don’t hate either character individually, but I’m so done with Alex and Piper’s on-again-off again love-hate relationship., Their plot this season was all about their relationship and I could not care less whether they get married or not.

I’m also about done with Lorna. While I enjoyed Lorna’s schtick for the first few seasons, the character has serious limitations and is seeming more and more one note, which particularly stands out next to other characters who have been around for seasons but still feel like they have plenty more to give. More importantly, involvement with her is holding Nikki, a far more interesting character back. I’d love to see way more Nikki, separate from Lorna.

As the mentally ill characters go, I prefer Crazy Eyes to Lorna, and in her relatively small amount of screen time, her struggle for routine and normalcy as the riot throws off everything she’s become used to her around her, and her own unique sense of moral outrage are moving even in doses.

Pennsyltucky has continued to grow – unlike Lorna, the writers smartly took her in a new direction a couple seasons ago, moving her from the crazy big bad to best friends with Big Boo as a chance to have her develop. The two characters have great chemistry and Pennsyltucky has had one of the most interesting continuous journeys in the entire course of the series.

I’m getting long on words here, but there’s more characters; that’s how big a cast there is. There’s the older women hanging out in Frieda’s sweet basement apartment. There’s Daya’s mom Aleida actually remaining out of jail and getting to appear on TV thanks to the riot. There’s Blanca hanging out with Red. But that at least covers most of the major players this season.

To sum up, the fifth season pretty good but not great. Thanks to the short period of time the season took place over, it was notably different in a way that was welcome simply for the change up in provided but caused a breadth for depth imbalance that led to what shortfalls the season had. I love that the main characters switch from season to season like no other show this side of the Wire and I love how there are so many diverse characters who all get their chance to shine. My primary concern is that too many of them got stuck in place and I hope next season allow for a few more of the inmates we already know and love to get the kind of arcs Taystee got this season.

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.

 

 

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.