Tag Archives: AMC

Summer 2015 Review: AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead

26 Aug

AMC's Fear the Walking Dead

I have been fearing AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead. Not being afraid of the gruesome zombies, but rather dreading watching it. I have a complicated relationship with the original. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad, on the whole, as its detractors do, but I’m not a huge follower either. I sit somewhere in the middle, watching week after week, but never quite really looking forward to it either. Just when I start to consider walking away, the show delivers a standout episode or a brutal and incredible moment, just enough to keep me going through a number of poorly-paced and on the nose episodes.

For whatever its faults, AMC’s The Walking Dead’s pilot was excellent television, still the best episode of the series to this day. That pilot made a structural choice which worked out brilliantly. The protagonist, Rick Grimes, was in a coma while the zombie revolution started to take place, so when he came out it zombies were already a reality of life, not something for the general populace to slowly grow used to and reckon with. This helped us skip a lot of what would have ended up being completely unnecessary exposition charting the zombies’ general rise and people having to figure out that zombies are real and such. It was already happening.

AMC’s Fear of the Walking Dead, inarguably trying very hard to be unique and necessary to fight the accusation that many people (myself included) make, calling it an unnecessary sequel, takes a different tack. This one starts at the beginning, at the very first appearance of zombies, back when nobody has a clue what the world would turn into shortly. Rather than initially focusing on one man, this focuses on a family. Underrated TV rock star Kim Dickens plays Madison, a high school guidance counselor and mother of two kids. Her new beau, played by underrated member of the can-play-any-ethnicity John Turturro Hall of Fame Cliff Curtis, is a teacher at her school, and has just moved into the house. Her kids are high school junior and super bright overachiever Alicia and 19-year old drug addict Nick.

So, at first, it’s a family drama with only a very limited impact of zombies. We know that Nick saw a zombie attack at the church where he does drugs, causing him to run out in the street and get hit by a car. Everyone else, largely including himself, however, thinks he’s hallucinating due to the effects of the drugs, or that, probably due to a life of drug consumption, he’s simply lost his mind. The kids already resent Madison’s new beau, and the family is struggling to try to help and believe Nick, but he’s an addict, tried and true, and he always wants to go back to that life. Alicia can’t wait for high school to be over so she can get the hell out of dodge.

Secondary characters mention the notion of zombies (without using that word – of course – for some reason no one in the AMC’s The Walking Dead universe calls them zombies, which obviously everyone would in real life) but they’re dismissed out of hand, which is exactly how normal people would react. A videotaped zombie incident causes a huge traffic snarl on a freeway (classic L.A.) and eventually the family runs into their first zombie when Nick accidentally kills his dealer in self-defense, only to find the body is gone, and that he’s somehow still alive after continually taking a beating and being run over by a car.

AMC’S The Walking Dead did us that service of skipping the awkward phase that almost any show with magic, science fiction, or supernatural events has to go through, where reasonable people disbelieve, disbelieve, disbelieve, to show us they’re doing what normal people would do, and then eventually come around to believing the unbelievable, because the show would either be boring, or simply not make sense, in the case that they didn’t. This journey from skepticism to belief is rarely interesting and usually only serves a narrative purpose of showing us that the characters are rational like us. It’s not any more interesting here.

Now, there’s absolutely a potentially interesting element in starting off earlier in the zombie epidemic. Seeing the early stages of the response by the military and private individuals and groups, and how they conflict and interact, and how quickly morals fray as people begin to realize that there’s no going home again, certainly not any time soon. And hopefully we’ll get there eventually in AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, and I’m sure we’ll more towards that over the course of the season. Unfortunately, in the tedious hour-and-a-half (with commercials) first episode, we don’t get anywhere close as a shockingly little amount happens.

AMC’s The Walking Dead went all out with its pilot; no one having known it would be a huge hit, and that pilot got people talking and inevitably got people watching. AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead probably feels more secure in its place and felt okay about slowing it down and pacing its plot leisurely over the course of the season. Unfortunately, pacing has never been AMC’s The Walking Dead’s strong suit, and almost destroyed the show in the second season. Slow, slow, slow, until a huge event or two has often been the order of the day and has made the show difficult to keep up with at times. Sure, characters are important and in theory slow burn of character development can be telling (see: Rectify), but this wasn’t the case here and we really could have used to get more from a pilot.

AMC’s The Walking Dead often thinks it’s being important and interesting when it’s not, and while it’s just important and interesting enough to keep me watching at the best of times, it feels like it’s trying really hard without getting results throughout the pilot here. The creators know deep down that zombies are their hook, their modus operandi, what makes their show go, but they want to show off the personal family drama that they believe is the core, and it really doesn’t impress. Without the zombies and the imminent destruction of the known world, there wouldn’t be any reason you’d want to continue watching this show after one hour.

Will I watch it again? You know what, I have agency. I say here I’m not going to watch the second episode, at least for a while. Someone has to take a stand against the ballooning of this show. Since this inevitably will become super popular and I do love Kim Dickens, I’m not pledging to never watch more. Just at least a couple of weeks of silent protest before I give in.

Summer 2015 Review: Humans

19 Jun


Humans feels in essence like a series-long extension of an episode Black Mirror (not a particular episode, just a could-be episode). This is certainly largely because it’s broadly both British and science fiction but also on a finer level. Like most episodes of Black Mirror, it’s set in the near-future where the world, sans a couple of technological changes, is largely recognizable and because it clearly wants to wrestle with ideas about traditional big science fiction themes, in this case, what it means to be human, and what it means to have a consciousness.

Humans is, ironically enough, about robots. Synths, as their called in this universe, are humanoid looking robots, designed to be hyper-intelligent helpers to humans, doing the laundry, driving their cars, going out for groceries, and nannying their children, picking their fruit. They do them all without feeling, so they don’t mind doing whatever you tell them to do at all times. That is, except for a rogue strain of synths that somehow, unbeknownst to all but a few, somehow gained consciousness and have feelings and self-awareness.

There are a few primary plot strains in the first episode. There’s a typical suburban nuclear family. The father is exhausted from having to take care of the kids while the mother is constantly traveling for her job, so he purchases a synth, which happens to be one of the few with consciousness. An older man refuses to upgrade his synth; his old model, which he painstakingly tries to fix, has some important memories he is trying to maintain. A man runs with a rogue band of conscious synths who are being chased; they’re caught, and the synths are hauled off and strewn about. The man who chased down those synths wants them examined, and is concerned that consciousness in machines could lead to a singularity – a time when machines have no need for humans.

The acting is fine, and the writing is not particularly noteworthy or deficient. The humans don’t seem particularly compelling right off. The weight of the episode is in the portrayal of the synths and the high concept of the big science fiction ideas generally. If you like Humans, you’re going to like it because you find the premise fascinating, not because of the first episode’s characters or story. Because of this, the pilot really has to sell the premise, and by the end it’s intriguing enough to make a credible case to convince viewers to comeback for another episode, but not so much show to give viewers any confidence they’ll be sticking around all season.

The beauty of Black Mirror is the anthology style which gets in and gets out over the course of an hour, a short enough time to keep high concepts from wearing out. I skeptically wonder how the concept at the center of Humans will play over a longer period of time. There are obviously ample issues to grapple with, but there are also easy ways to drag out the same issues over a far longer number of episodes than is necessary.  Whether Humans can deepen its themes to survive the long haul will likely determine its ultimate success.

Will I watch it again? I think I will, because it’s been a pretty slow summer, and I’m kind of chomping at the bit for a new summer show to really get into, but I might not had this aired in the much busier spring. It was a somewhat entertaining plot, but it wasn’t amazing and I’m definitely concerned where it will go and how long it can last.

End of Series Report: Mad Men

20 May

Mad Men

As a television viewer and fan writing a television blog, I’m more or less obliged to write at least a few words about Mad Men and the Mad Men finale.

I don’t have as strong feelings as I’d like to, but that’s not a bad thing. I liked the finale overall, and I think it remained true to everything Mad Men has been for the past seven seasons, with possibly one exception, which I’ll get to shortly.

Some people have claimed the series ended on a cynical note, others on a hopeful, redemptive note; I would argue it was neither. Everybody, more or less, grew as characters while remained true to themselves, which wasn’t always the best thing, but wasn’t the worst either. Objectively, it was a happy, positive ending for the majority of the central characters, but my first instinct, perhaps a cynical one, admittedly, was merely to see the ending as cyclic. For the most part, these characters were just on an up turn in their life’s stories, a high, followed by an inevitable low, to be followed again by an inevitable high. Some may remind up, and certainly higher than some better off than some of the lows we’ve seen them experience, but my experience through watching Mad Men has taught me that happiness, though it exists, is fleeting, a high to be chased after, but only rarely reached, and even more rarely held on to.

Don ran away. Don freaked out. Don got as far away as he could, to the other side of the country (California, which has stood in as the exact antithesis to New York before), in the absolute middle of nowhere, far away from everything he was buried in, all of his demons. California, where, with Anna Draper, he experienced his most pure human relationship, which he tried to recapture with Anna’s niece Stephanie. Then, just when it seemed that maybe he was too far gone and all hope was lost, he, like classic Don, struck gold, inspiration, and like so many times over the course of the series, he was born anew, grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat, and reinventing himself.  He took what he knew to have always been true, his gift for insight into the human soul, and packaged it for a different time. In these final couple of episodes, it seemed like Don had finally drifted too far, maybe to a place he couldn’t come back from, but then with that final smile, and the allusion to the famous Coke “Hilltop” ad, there’s an implication that Don is going to be just fine.

I don’t think Don is ever going to be a great husband or a great father. Those skills are probably just not in him and it’s hard to imagine someone who has that much trouble staying in place changing at this point. But as a peerless ad man his days are not yet numbered.

Joan is many things, but one of her defining traits is that she is a true professional. She takes her responsibilities extremely seriously and finds a way to get the jobs, difficult as they may be, done, In the chaotic culture of Sterling Cooper’s various incarnations, Joan never joins in, and does not care to put up with the hijinks and drinking that envelop most of the firm. Joan puts in her time and hard work and while she understands the unfair world she’s in, she understandably expects to be recognized for her efforts. Unfortunately, at the time, Joan is unable to find a man who respects her and is willing to treat her professional ambitions seriously. Men expect her to be the housewife. And while they may even respect her abilities, once they’re together, the men expect to be the breadwinner, and for Joan to want and to enjoy having nothing to do but sip piña coladas and look pretty. The only man who took her work life seriously was Bob Benson, who was gay and wanted to marry her for his own professional advanced. Joan ended the series entirely in control of her own life, running a new and seemingly successful business, but again, another man abandoned her due to her ambitions.

Pete’s ending is part hopeful and part sad, and I’ve changed my mind back and forth on which is more prominent. Pete came a long way over the course of the show; it’s easy to forget how he was the unquestioned villain over the first few seasons, and with good reason. He came far enough that I was actually rooting for him occasionally in the final seasons, as one of the few, along with Joan, who cared that things got done, and wouldn’t stand for the tomfoolery always going on around him. Pete looks like he’s learned some lessons, wanting to come back to his wife, taking a new job away from the temptations of New York City, talking his brother into not cheating. At the same, we know this pattern, and we know these people. How long until Pete cheats and return to his old ways? And, does Trudy even care if he does, as long as he’s discreet? Things change, things stay the same.

Pete for so long was the anti-Don; frustratingly watching as Don got away with everything he couldn’t. Don cheated for years without consequences; Pete tried it and quickly got caught. Don did half the work and skated on charm and charisma, Pete did twice as much and got hated and laughed at. And yet, Pete’s inability to get away with what Don did could have served him well in the end. When Don’s lies at home finally caught up with him, his marriage was done for good. The fact that Pete was caught and thrown out faster may have been what allowed to him and Trudy to reconcile by the end of the series. Don’s charisma and charm got him far, but allowed him to drift. Pete stayed on point, and though he was as professional at the end as he always was at the beginning, it was now behavior that was rewarded instead of punished in the new company and the new decade. Pete’s way paid off just as well as Don’s in the end if not more so.

Roger turned over somewhat of a new leaf, hitting it off romantically with someone his own age, which was a promising sign. That said, he’s still a cad, and his new paramour seems pretty mercurial herself, so I’m not particularly confident that this marriage will turn out any better than the last couple. Roger will make it through, with a wink, and a joke, and he’ll move on. For better or worse, he’s the same person he was on day one.

Betty was always smarter and more deft than the show, and because of that, often the viewers gave her credit for in the early seasons, and the last season actually gave her a chance to show that.

Putting up with Don and his incessant cheating and patronizing attitude was a huge burden, and because Don was the protagonist and Mad Men often seemed to come from his point of view, Betty, who certainly had her flaws, was even more easily seen in a negative light. After getting out from under Don’s shadow though, Betty was able to flower more as an individual and as a character. The inner fortitude Betty showed displayed after learning her diagnosis was one of the saddest, strongest, and most poignant notes in the entire series and it’s unfortunate that her untimely demise was her ultimate opportunity to show off her strengths.

Last of what I’m arbitrarily calling the Big Six major characters who really make it through the entire run (Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Pete, and Betty), there’s Peggy. Peggy and Stan’s romance felt out of place in a way that no other storyline in the finale did. It’s not simply the pairing of Peggy and Stan; they’ve been close for a long time, and while I’m still not sure romance was the right play between the two of them, it definitely felt plausible based on what we knew about their relationship. The way it unfolded though, felt almost like something out of a romantic comedy, as it dawned on Peggy, slowly, after Stan confessed his love that she felt the same way. It’s an unambiguously happy result, and I like Peggy and Stan, and sure, I’m happy for them. But it tonally felt off. The “I hate you, I love you” phone banter was more Nora Ephron than Mad Men.

What did make sense was Peggy considering, but ultimately decide to stay within the confines of McCann. The recruiter she spoke with a few episodes earlier told her McCann was the best possibly place for her to hone her talents and resume, and she knows her goals and that this is the best way to reach them.

The Mad Men characters have come a long way over the course of seven seasons in real life and a decade within the show. They’ve dug deeply, discovered truths about themselves, and faced and overcome difficult obstacles. They change and learn but ultimately remain the same. That sounds like a sad lesson, but I don’t mean it that way, People stray true to the core of who they are, and that is just as often a positive as a negative.

Spring 2015 Review: Better Call Saul

11 Feb

Better Call Saul

Following a show regarded as one of the best shows in television history is difficult to do. Expectations are inflated and every line, scene, and character will be compared to the original. Better Call Saul could have chosen to try to downplay its Breaking Bad connections and make it very clear that it is its own show by avoiding traces of anything Breaking Bad-like in its debut.

Instead, Better Call Saul proclaims its identity a different way. First, the creators know that every viewer is immediately connecting Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad and thus they choose to acknowledge the connections straight away rather than pretend to be unaware. Second, Better Call Saul leans into to its association, with Breaking Bad character Mike as a main cast member and with Breaking Bad antagonist Tuco appearing in the first two episodes. The opening scene picks up with Saul’s life after the events of Breaking Bad, reminding us of the end point in the journey we’re about to embark upon.

One scene in particular is emblematic of the way Better Call Saul declares its identity in relation to Breaking Bad. In the second episode of the two-day two-part premiere. Saul, now using his birth name Jimmy McGill, is in the desert. A serious of unfortunate events, some his fault, some not, has him and two idiot twins who he hired to run a con (ironically, with the intent of using it to generate legitimate business) at the mercy of a very scary, very stupid, and somewhat unhinged gangster. We know this gangster in fact; he’s Tuco, the first real scary drug trade character Jesse and Walt tangle with in Breaking Bad.

Here’s the crucial moment where Better Call Saul lays down its cards on the table. Here’s where we learn about the critical DNA ingredients that separate Better Call Saul from Breaking Bad. Walt has been in this scenario before, and now Saul’s in it. We see Saul in action, and he handles the problem in a totally different way than Walt would. He bargains, he cajoles, he goes on and on with his motor mouth, stammering, unwilling to stop talking, as if the criminals can’t take action until he runs out of words of his own volition. Walt, at least, as Heisenberg, would never bargain, would never admit his own failings. Walt would seek to intimidate, would seek to play his enemies in a game of chicken, calling their bluff and counting on the fact that he was simply too important to them in a realpolitik sense to ensure he made it out alive.  For Walt desperation was weakness; for Saul, it becomes a strength. He does his best lawyering in this scene, the highlight of the episode, bargaining Tuco down from killing the twins to breaking one leg for each.

Saul seemed like the smartest choice of any character to spin off out of the existing options on Breaking Bad and the pilot validates that initial opinion. Saul, has the advantage of not being fatally compromised character-wise by the events of Breaking Bad; there’s enough we don’t know about him to allow Gilligan and Gould plenty of room to paint.

Saul is everything Walt isn’t. Walt is unbridled ego, Saul is insecurity. Walt would never take a strategic loss. His ego wouldn’t allow it. One of Walt’s strengths, even early on, was a sheer competence; he was damn good, and he knew he was good, even when he didn’t get to show it. Walt was a teacher, a well-respected profession, living a respectable life with a wife and kid. His hunger, dormant initially, but always simmering underneath, was for what he could have had. Saul is a broken-down unsuccessful lawyer, a profession which is by nature scorned and ridiculed. He has nothing. The cruel joke is his far more successful mentally ill older brother, who to add insult to injury, sides against Saul, asking him to change the name of his law firm due to potential confusion with his brother’s former much larger firm.

One highlight of the premiere is Saul’s closing argument which comes very early in the episode, urging 12 bored Albuquerque jurors to remember what it was like to be 19, in the course of defending three idiots who sexually abused a corpse. Spending an hour a week listening to Saul, or Jimmy, or whatever name he chooses to go by, gesticulate is something I’ll sign up for gladly.         

Will I watch it again? Yes. I will. I don’t want to get ahead of myself but I think we have this year’s first for certain winner.

Spring 2014 Review: Turn

14 Apr


Turn is about spies during the American Revolution. The original spy ring (or if not, close enough). It’s 1776, early in the war, and the UK is kind of owning the burgeoning US at this point (also probably not known as the Revolutionary War at that point).

The Brits control New York and Long Island. On Long Island, Abe Woodhull is twenty-to-thirty something mild-mannered farmer whose dad Richard is an important loyalist who serves as an adviser to the local British ruler, Major Hewlett. Abe’s no loyalist or patriot, he merely wants to keep his head down, make some cash, and get through the war unscathed. He wasn’t entirely unaffected by the conflict, though. The love of his life Anna, a fervent rebel, broke his heart and married someone else when his family chose to stand so prominently in the loyalist camp.

Abe’s a little bit of a dreamer, and he draws on his dad’s patience, but he has a wife and young son and gets himself in minor scraps but nothing so bad. His life is about to change in a big way, though. He attempts to smuggle some goods out of Long Island to make a buck or two, but gets caught on his way back by the rebels. They make him a proposition; work for us, and you’ll go free. They need a spy, he needs some sense of purpose and a renewed connection with his lost love, whose husband was sent off to prison at the beginning of the episode for fighting with some British soldiers. Most of the episode features Abe slowly deciding to actually work for the rebels. First, he says, he’s just doing it once, then doing it twice, until some combination of nudging from his old pals who are now rebels and the newfound respect of the woman he once loved, and maybe an inflated sense of destiny seem to put him firmly on the rebels’ side.

Turn is an okay show but nothing more.  What it really is is a pretty good idea for a show, but it never really comes together. The idea probably sounded better as a pitch that it did in practice in the first episode. AMC does take shows seriously. We know that from their past, the chances they took. And yet, this seems more like a hesitant stab; a show not fully willing to go all out, a show that strays from the typical only a careful, measured amount. It doesn’t feel like it has the ambition that Mad Men and Breaking Bad did (though that’s unfair because very few shows do) but it feels one tier removed from a USA show. Somewhere inside this show is a show that wants to take that jump to the interesting and new, but something is holding it back.

What’s remarkable, honestly, more than anything else, is how the first episode of a show made about spies is so, well, boring.  The Americans and Homeland have brought spies back to television in a big way, and Turn (while maybe already better than Homeland season 3, but that’s beside the point) doesn’t put together a pilot nearly as compelling of either of theirs. I barely remember any of the characters; they didn’t particularly stand out nor did anything about the show

It’s not a show without merit. For all the period dramas in the last few years, the American revolution has been a time period largely uncovered, and the idea of early spying before all the devices and the technology, and really before anybody knew exactly what spying entailed, could be both compelling and thought providing. It isn’t in the one episode, but it’s not so far in the other direction to think that it never could be. There are interesting possibilities that even I can think of, watching this episode. While it’s easy to view the rebels as on the side of right, it’s hardly as if the enemy Brits were an Axis-like enemy without humanity. What does freedom mean? What’s is the honor in warfare vs. spycraft, and does it matter? Not to mention, it’s a spy show, and it should be somewhat fun, and there’s no reason it can’t be.

While I think Turn can have the potential to be better, it’s more because it wasn’t obvious that it closed that potential off, than that it really showed any in the pilot. Turn is still one solid step away from bringing me back for more.

Will I watch it again? No. AMC is desperately looking to find its next success, and it’s having trouble. While not terrible by any means, sadly, I don’t think this is it.

End of Season Report: Walking Dead, Season 4, Part 2

31 Mar


The second half of the fourth season of The Walking Dead (or as I like to call it, because AMC addresses it as such, AMC’s The Walking Dead) tried a new tack. After the characters’ home at the prison gets blown apart by the Governor’s invasion, because we know the main characters can’t be at any one place for too long, the remaining living characters are divided into five groups, each of which is unaware of the location of any of the other groups, or whether anyone else even made it out alive. The groups never all appear in the same episode and some entire episodes feature single groups and just a couple of characters. Full episodes featured only Rick, Michonne and Carl, only Daryl and Beth, and only Tyreese, Carol, Lizzie, and Mika (and Judith technically, though she’s not much of a character at this stage in her life).

Theoretically the idea was admirable and ambitious; there could have been something to be gained by laying out the characters as separate entities and lingering on their stories without letting different mindsets or moods interrupt singular narratives. In practice, however, the organizational device led to an epic slowdown of a show that’s had serious pacing problems over the years and which is better when it keeps moving at a hardy pace. The Walking Dead can’t pull off the epic slowness and deliberateness of True Detective or Rectify, for example. Instead, the episodes just feel needlessly stretched out.

I’m not a Walking Dead hater, but I do think The Walking Dead is the most uneven show on television. No current show has constantly produced powerful moments and at the same time undercut them with miserable pacing, poor characterization, and strange plot choices. This half-season would have really benefited from shrinking the length of many of these episodes, or, since every episode is forty minutes, more realistically from more cross-cutting in the episodes between the various groups of survivors. For example, the Beth and Daryl-centric episode in which Beth had her first alcoholic drink did have its share of warm character moments and bonding between two character who had previously not had a whole lot to do with one another, but it certainly didn’t need to be forty minutes. There was a whole lot of extra time spent that didn’t provide any additional punch.

On the whole, assuming we’re resigning ourselves to these general storylines and groupings, these eight episodes could probably have taken place in the space of four or five episodes without any noticeable loss.

There are serious continuing issues with The Walking Dead aside from its poor pacing, which are occasionally remedied but keep popping up. Characters can be remarkably slow on the uptake, making decisions that seem counter to everything we know about the universe in which they live, and the show can be painfully on the nose.

For example, even without hindsight, viewers could tell Lizzie was obviously unbalanced. Tyreese and Carol didn’t notice at all, and left her alone with baby Judith, which is hard to believe. In fact, The Walking Dead’s ability to be so on the nose with how off Lizzie makes it even stranger that Tyreese and Carol had no suspicions. This isn’t to say they could have expected her to kill her sister by any means, but not leaving her alone with a baby seems like sound and fairly clear advice.

The season finale contained entirely unnecessary flashbacks of Hershel convincing Rick to farm instead of fighting walkers to show Carl a better path. I love Hershel; he was one of my favorite characters and the moral center of the show. But, come on. We get it. We don’t need the reminder to know that Rick is now finding he has to behave savagely again to keep his son safe. The Walking Dead is consistently afraid to give its audience enough credit to figure out what’s going on. I’m not sure what they talk about on The Talking Dead; The Walking Dead provides more explanation than anyone could possibly need.

Too often it feels like The Walking Dead wants to make sure you know it’s about big ideas and not just zombies, and that takes away from both the power of the ideas and the plot itself; tell an interesting story in this lawless zombie-ridden universe, and the ideas will take care of themselves.

That said, there’s still something here worth watching even if The Walking Dead only really shows its best side in some of the episodes some of the time. Nothing that has happened has made me think that The Walking Dead doesn’t have the power in it to be as compelling as it is in its best moments more often, and no doors have been closed off through the direction of the show that would end any chance at improvement. The show just continues to meander back and forth from powerful moment to strange decision, from action packed zombie battle to walking on train tracks for forty minutes with nothing much happening.

Those powerful moments really do exist. Finding Lizzie with her dead sister was startlingly creepy, so shocking because even as relatively desensitized viewers have become to gruesome violence, this is still such a stunning act. Watching Rick rip the head gang leader’s  throat out in the finale was powerful; much more than anything gained through the flashback, that one single moment epitomized Rick’s new attitude and his willingness to get his hands (and mouth) dirty. When Carol lays the fact that she killed Karen on the table, and Tyreese forgives her, it was moving and actually made sense within the greater context of the episode; it would have taken something major to change Tyreese’s viewpoint around to that reaction, but the events in that episode qualified.

Also, no season long recap should go without at least quickly noting that the zombies are as always remarkably gross and well-rendered, and the people behind them seem to come up with more disgusting types of zombies every season which is impressive. The set piece zombie battles are still pretty damn cool.

So, another season ends, and I’m still in the same place I was after midseason, and after last season. The Walking Dead is a show with big, powerful moments that finds itself frequently somewhat lost between those moments. There’s still a lot of potential, and the world continues to be a promising and fruitful one, but it remains endlessly frustrating that the writers can’t put it all together for one really great season of television.

Mid-season Report: The Walking Dead, Season 4

2 Dec

Rick is Back

After writing it, I noticed that this review has become a bit of a compliment sandwich. First, as befits said sandwich, we’ll start off with some compliments which the first half of the fourth season of The Walking Dead richly deserves. It has been the best and perhaps most importantly, most consistent half-season in a show that has been riddled throughout its run with inconsistency, offering jaw dropping moments before and after slow, plodding episodes. Pacing problems which swamped the show, particularly the second system, were not nearly as present, and new showrunner Scott Gimple found a way to mix character building, overarching themes about survival and humanity and relative and absolute morality with action, plot movement, and, as always, super disgusting zombies. Compliments to the chef.

My biggest problem with this half season was my biggest problem with last season’s finale: the governor, and his continuing, at least up to the mid-season finale, survival. The writers decided to give the Governor two episodes starring no other main character towards the end of the season rather than cross-cutting the Governor’s plot with the crew in the prison. I ‘m not sure that was the right decision, but I can see the advantages once they had decided what their story was and were just deciding how to tell it, The real problem, though, was bringing the Governor back at all.

The Governor’s arc was finished at the end of season three. If the character had been written differently, and I”ll get back to that, I don’t think the character had to be done, but because of how he was written, there wasn’t much left to do with him. Rather than prove me wrong, the writers unintentionally endorsed my view by basically repeating the Governor’s third season plot in two and a half episodes.

This re-telling may have been a superior version of the Governor’s story, and it almost felt like the writers thought the Governor was a good enough character that deserved a better end and they wanted to honor him. If this season had been the only experience we had with the governor, there might have been a chance to forge a new character and the episodes would have been a lot more captivating. But it’s not and it wasn’t.

Aside from the repetition, it felt like the first Governor episode was a fake out to make us believe that the Governor had changed. It could have worked, had the events of the third season gone differently, but because of how they did go I never believed in the new, non-murderous governor for a second. The character was simply too far gone, too morally compromised, to, forget root for, but even believe in and take seriously at all.

The writers proved that theory correct when the Governor went back to his playbook in his second episode, murdering the leaders of his new group to take control himself, ostensibly in the name of survival, but really for personal gain and revenge.

And therein lies my problem with the execution of the govnernor (not his dying at the hands of Michonne; that was great, rather how his character was written). There’s a version of this character that’s really interesting in this world. A character who has seen so many dark things that he takes a cold and utilitarian view of group survival. He decides he needs leaders who are willing to cut bait to save the most number of people, and that his group’s survival may mean others’ deaths, but he needs to be in it for his group first and foremost. That’s a valid worldview in these end times, and while it may not be one that the viewers support, it’s one that’s coherent and can make sense in a world where death is always around the corner.

The problem is the Governor is a perversion of that worldview who is impossible to sympathize with. Sure, he believes those things, and acts in those ways, but he has personal motives and a huge ego which don’t allow the viewers to really spend time on the fascinating themes that character can present.

I love that in The Walking Dead any character can die at any time. But for the reasons I described above, if the Governor killed Rick, I’m not sure I’d be able to continue to watch the show. I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen, but, while I normally reward the unpredictable, if the Governor didn’t die in that very episode, there would have been a critical problem in a show that has had its share of problems.

I had to spend so much time on my least favorite part of a season that was overall quite enjoyable, but it’s on my mind in particular because it occurred in the most recent episodes. Let’s talk about the good though, the bottom half of this compliment sandwich.

It’s always a challenge on The Walking Dead to build up new characters, so that they mean something if and when they get killed off, as there’s always a churn of characters working their way through. The Walking Dead did enough to add some real depth to characters Tyrese, Sasha, and Bob with a limited amount of time to devote to each which really helped bring up the overall cast. This stands in stark contrast to the trouble the show had making major characters feel like, well, characters, in the early seasons.

The Walking Dead thrives when it positions different views for how to deal with the apocalypse against one another, with Rick as the heart, trying to figure out what’s right. Carol and Hershel did an excellent job really building into two potential worldviews, each of which has value and reason behind it, and while I understood how this show works, it was awfully sad to see Hershel go as he has become the moral soul of The Walking Dead.

The disease that ravaged the prison in the first segment of the season was much more interesting than the Governor conflict in the second segment. It was a human conflict that forced the prisoners to make difficult choices, and while sometimes the choices were smoothed over, it led to some really interesting consequences like Carol’s burning of the bodies. We tend to side with Rick, but even while we may not agree with Carol, it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from and also understand that she’s taking action for the survival of the prisoners. Unlike with the Governor, Carol’s motivation is legitimately to help her group overall

All told, I’m encouraged by the direction of this season, especially now that the Governor’s gone and the crew is on the move again, I’m excited to see where show runner Scott Gimle can take the show, which has struggled to find its way on a consistent basis over four seasons, despite its massive popularity.

In Defense of Walter White (Kind Of)

4 Oct

Walter White / Heisenberg

I’ll have my belated post about the finale and the final season soon enough but here I’m going to combine a couple of other Breaking Bad-related topics I’ve been thinking about into one entry.  Bear with me.  I want to address two separate issues here. First, I want to touch on the is-Walt-evil debate, and second, after hopefully I’ve least convinced you I’m not one of those terrible Walt apologists everyone keeps complaining about, I want to explain the aspects of Walt that I respect, in spite of the more obvious aspects that I don’t.

Walter White is definitely a bad guy, not in the sense of villain or antagonist, but in the sense of the moral antecedent to good.  He does things throughout the show that are bad things by just about all but the most relativist standard.  If I had to choose, the worst was poisoning a child, but of course it’s silly to choose.  He’s done bad shit, There’s no doubting that, and there’s no getting around.  Is he evil though?

The definition of evil is obviously largely a matter of semantics (don’t worry, I’m not going to bust out a whole Websters-defines-evil-as here).  Still to me, evil is such a damning word that to use it when it’s not warranted is to lessen Its power. Some people throw about the word evil while talking about Walter White in ways that I I think undermine what evil truly is.

Many people, people I know, and people who seriously care about television consider Walter White evil.  Walter White, the Onion AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff describes Walter White, in an article about good and evil in Breaking Bad as a “very evil man.”

I don’t see it.  Part of this is semantics. In my admittedly stiff definition evil consists of causing harm for absolutely no reason. Walt commits several horrific acts during the course of Breaking Bad, but he never commits the act because he enjoys it or because it’s fun or because people should just die. Every horrific act has internal logic behind it. Even the poisoning of Brock was done for a reason, as it started the events in motion which led to the death of Gus Fring. Fring’s eventual demise likely would never have happened without Brock’s poisoning. It doesn’t make Walt’s act any less vile or wrong, but it does make him not necessarily evil for doing it.

I am currently reading the excellent “The Storm of War” by Andrew Roberts about World War II.  I read chapters about the holocaust and the no less despicable Japanese brutality that occurred in the Eastern war.  I’ve read these stories time and again, but the enormity of the acts never fails to strike me emotionally every time I do.  The deliberate killing of people because you don’t like them.  That’s fucking evil.  Killing people because they pose a threat to your criminal empire?  It’s terrible, it’s morally wrong, and it’s criminal. But it isn’t evil to me.  I admit I’m cheating here by using Nazism as a counter-example, which is just about as evil as evil gets; but the point stands.

Still, let’s move on from the extremes and the semantics, VanDerWerff compares Walter White unfavorably evil-wise to Tony Soprano.  I’d list out the terrible acts both have committed and try to compare and contrast but that’s really beyond the point, and his argument is admittedly less about the acts each of the characters commit than how they are viewed in the context of the show. It’s an intelligently written and worthwhile piece but it’s far too extreme in its reading of Breaking Bad. More than that, it shortchanges Breaking Bad.  There’s an internal logic to almost everything that Walt does that we can follow along with even when we don’t agree with him.  We know why he’s doing it, or at least why he thinks he’s doing it.  The beauty of the show is that each act takes him a little farther from home, moving him away from a moral compass a little more, but because it’s step-by-step, it seems to make a little bit of sense each time.

The genius of Breaking Bad is more than this though. Mr. Chips to Scarface, is the line Vince Gilligan has used to describe his goal for Breaking Bad from day one, and the show was almost there by the start of the final season. Walt was finally going to turn on the only couple of beliefs he had ever claimed to really care about.  Except he doesn’t and that’s part of what makes all the internally consistent but externally terrible choices he made over the past few seasons really hold up in hindsight.

Walt’s actions led to Hank’s death but after events in the final season there’s no question he actually cares about Hank. Walt may not have acted like he cared but he made several decisions in the final season which showed he did.  He actually cared about Jesse as well.  Their relationship may have gone to shit eventually and Walt often didn’t act in Jesse’s best interest, but if you really don’t think Jesse meant anything to Walt you weren’t watching the same show.  Walt has some tiny, little semblance of a moral compass.  It’s broken and perverse but Walt did have something he believed in, something he cared about, even when he didn’t actually act in the way that bettered that belief, and that adds a dimension to the show that VanDerWerff shortchanges.

I’m not a Walt apologist.  He’s a bad dude.  He makes many, many bad decisions, and he absolutely deserved everything that came to him.  He’s committed many crimes and some unforgivable acts. Still, I declaring him out and out evil lacks the nuance with which Vince Gilligan and his writers due such a brilliant job of imbuing Breaking Bad.

Okay, second half where I talk about what I admire about Walter White.  This is a vastly more polarizing viewpoint, I think, and I hope I’ve convinced you that I’m not a total Walt is number one awesome badass supporter to follow along.

Here’s what I actually admire about Walter White.  I’ll again repeat how terrible a person he’s been to Jesse and his family, and how many morally repulsive and criminal acts he’s committed along the way as I disclaimer to my not thinking Walt is the coolest drug lord eva.  Moving forward.

Over the course of the series, Walter White makes something out of himself.  What he achieves is certainly a sordid twist on the American Dream, but it’s not that hard to see the dream in there.  As a man, at a time of desperation, beaten down at age 50, having learned he has a deadly disease, it would be easy to pack it in.  Instead, largely through his own ingenuity, ambition, and genius, he finds a market with an opening, creates a product that’s vastly superior to whatever’s available currently and slowly begins to take over levels of distribution through vertical integration.  Is it an illegal product, a highly addictive substance.  But essentially it’s still a American definition of economic success, capitalism 101.

Walter White doesn’t have a gift.  He wasn’t born with this.  He’s smart, but he could never figure out how to use his particular abilities, and the one time he did, ended up not working out.  He settled into a groove, and that was fine.  He lived a satisfying life.  But he, in a way that I think is very relatable, craved something more.  He felt like he had never really done all he could with his skills, achieved his potential. While most people might have that feeling, he actually went out and did something about it.

I understand this is maybe an extreme way to feel. Walt clearly hurt a lot of people in his path, and it hasn’t been smooth, easy, or legitimate.  But Walter White, at the same time he was doing all these awful things, started showing off an array of skills that I wish I had, albeit it not to use the same way.  The confidence, the braggadocio that causes many of Walt’s problems are an integral part of the reason he’s able to be so successful in the first place.  That confidence when, it wasn’t a hindrance, was a huge asset. Walter White, at a more advanced age than most, changed in his life. While these changes eventually led to his downfall, even his most ardent critics couldn’t say what he did wasn’t impressive or that anybody could do it.

Walt is not an admirable person on the whole, and it’s obviously important to note that.  But biographies are written about controversial and infamous figures because studying people isn’t that easy.  Under all unabashed ego and reprehensible acts are some admirable qualities and I think it’s worth taking a second to point them out.

Breaking Bad and Unpredictability

21 Aug

Bads Will Break

Breaking Bad is a great show for many reasons, but for me, one major lesson the show has taught me is how to properly handle unpredictability on television.

There are two optimal ways to keep a TV show unpredictable.  The first, easier way, is what I call anonymity unpredictably.  Anonymity unpredictability basically involves having a decent sized cast where in everyone is for all intents and purposes completely equal and in a similar position so that anything could happen to any of them at any time.  Examples of this executed correctly are in horror movies when a group of people are being chased by some supernatural enemy, or action or military movies involving squads or teams.  The actors have to be of a roughly equal level of fame; having one or two be more famous will entirely change expectations.  Siberia, currently, for now, airing on NBC, as a fake reality show, is an example of, so far, anyway, well-executed anonymity unpredictability – there’s an equal cast of actors and actresses who aren’t famous, and there’s no reason to have any preconceptions about how will or should survive or make it until the end.  This is hard to sustain over a scripted television series. Actual reality television thrives by way of anonymity unpredictability, though of course, that’s easier when the results are actually not predetermined, and it’s largely this reality show dynamic that anonymity unpredictability in scripted form at its best tries to mimic.

The more difficult second type is what Breaking Bad has mastered, as is what I’ll call predictable unpredictability.  The genius of Breaking Bad is in its realization that the best kind of unpredictability comes not from having no idea what could possibly happen, but from having so many plausible theories of what could happen as to make predicting virtually impossible.

Too many shows result in too predictable unpredictability, which is generally a choice between two outcomes.  24 was often guilty of this. Either he dies or doesn’t. Either the guy and the girl get together, or they don’t.  When push comes to shove, there’s one key binary choice the viewer is anticipating, and you know the result is either A or B.  The show tries to build suspense, build suspense, build suspense, until it’s up against the wall and one of only two things can happen, most often, a character dying or not, or two characters getting together or not.

If it’s not A or B, in one of these situations, it then often what I call unpredictable unpredictability – a twist that comes out of absolutely nowhere and leaves you unsatisfied because the result couldn’t have possibility been anticipated. Generally it’s not even just a slight difference from something you could have put together, but rather something you could never have possibly guessed at (Lost did this a lot).  Sometimes these shows try to trick you into making you think you could have seen it coming but didn’t, and sometimes there’s subtle foreshadowing but it still doesn’t make the twist feel on point.

Breaking Bad eschews both of these approaches.  Instead, it takes the path that a show like Lost would have liked to take, but wasn’t successful at.  It treads carefully, builds its characters, and lays out lots of different potential options, many of which can be used later on in the show as potential plot points, but wouldn’t feel like they were missing if they weren’t.

Breaking Bad made its own large structural mistake by locking itself into the plane crash in season 2, but in the subsequent seasons the events have unfolded in ways that consistently seem both unpredictable but plausible.  At many points in seasons three and four, it didn’t seem clear or obvious which way the show was heading, but rather than seeming like there were only one or two ways out of the corner the story was in, it seemed like there were a world of possibilities.  Even more impressively, in the little moments when there were seemingly binary choices (because it’s nearly impossible to avoid them completely), creator Vince Gilligan used the character motivations and elements of the world he had put together to resolve the situations without them feeling cheap or like cop outs. This is a very difficult line to walk, and Breaking Bad has achieved it better than anyone (Homeland’s first season did a great job, it’s second not as much).  Two great examples of this when Walt and Jesse are trapped in the trailer and Walt decides to have Saul’s assistant call Hank pretending to be the hospital, and the second four finale, when Walt finally kills Gus.  Both of these involves situations, where you probably know what’s going to happen in as much as Walt is not going to get caught that easily at that point in the show, and Walt is not going to die at the end of the fourth season when the show is coming back for a fifth.  Still, these situations work because first, Breaking Bad is surprisingly enough, that there’s always at least a small possibility that the unlikely would happen (I call this the original Law & Order principle – Jack McCoy loses a couple cases each season, just enough to keep the suspense alive for the 90% of cases he’ll win), and because even though the expected happened, they happened in interesting enough ways that both made sense and were non obvious. The plausibility is every bit as important as the surprise.  An implausible surprise is a cheap trick.

Going forward, there are plenty of elements in place for Breaking Bad to play upon, but which it doesn’t have to. Ted, for example.  That’s a card in the deck.  He could come back in some way and play a role, but if he didn’t, the show wouldn’t feel like it was missing something. The cartel could come back in some way and play a role, but if they didn’t that would be fine also.  It’s so much more complicated than this, of course, but just think about what happens to Walt.  It’s not he dies or he doesn’t.  He might die of cancer, he might get shot, he might die with his family knowing, he might die without them.  He might survive and go to jail, he might escape persecution, he might have to live the rest of his life on the run.. That’s just Walt’s very end game.  All of these possibilities are out there, and none of them would by nature feel cheap because Breaking Bad has done such a good job laying the ground work.  Breaking Bad’s spent its seasons wisely, carefully building plausible possibilities.

There are a couple of musts from Breaking Bad; plot points that need to be approached or they would feel unfulfilled (you know, like why the Others made such a big deal about Walt in Lost, which felt like it had to be answered at some point…).  The ricin cigarette, in particular, has been harped on too much to not come up again.

The one failure of unpredictably, if you want to call it that, in Breaking Bad, is the fact that since it’s Walt’s show, Walt probably can’t die until at least the final season.  That’s a limit that all single character led shows have, and it’s a cost that has to be borne to unpredictability if one ever wants to have those shows.

This is the genius of Breaking Bad and it is a lesson for every TV show going forward that gets in trouble trying to surprise and keep viewers guessing; viewers should be able to guess what’s going to happen.  But there should be so many potential guesses that no one knows which one is right.  If the viewers couldn’t have guessed it, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Summer 2013 Review: Low Winter Sun

12 Aug

Stanley Tucci-lookalike Mark Strong

Here’s what I know about Low Winter Sun after one episode.

There are two main plot strains, both diverging from a detective, Brendan McCann, who is killed in the first scene by two other detectives, Frank, and Joe.  They kill him and then attempt to make it look like a suicide, handcuffing his arm to his car, and driving his car into a lake.

The next day, Internal Affairs comes into the Detroit office of these two detectives asking all sorts of questions about Brendan.  It turns out Brendan was super dirty, though we don’t know the exactly details, and Joe seems to have been involved somehow, leading him to want Brendan, a notorious drunk who could give him away, dead.  Frank, who seemed to want Brendan dead as part of some sort of revenge, seems to honestly know nothing about Brendan’s dirty history and is outraged at Joe for failing to mention these selfish motives.  Soon, the cops find Brendan’s body, so far think it’s a suicide, and also find a body in the trunk of Brendan’s car that Frank and Joe know nothing about.  Frank’s boss puts him in charge of looking into it, which could be problematic since Frank was the one who killed him.

The second strain involves some guys involved with drugs who were paying off Brendan to do some shady stuff for them.  The primary drug plot guy, whose name might be Nick, killed another drug dealer in an early scene, stole some drugs, and is trying to figure out whether Brendan double crossed him or simply didn’t show up because he was drunk when he finds out that Brendan’s done.  There’s some drugs and some major organized crime and some family drama going on, but it’s hard to tell where this is going from the first episode, as this strain is a lot less well defined than the police plot.

It’s grimy, dark, bleak, depressing.  It takes place in Detroit, which is probably the best place currently to set a show if you want to give off that feel, but it feels less like Detroit than the idea of Detroit, or maybe more accurately ’70s urban America when it seemed like every big city was overrun by crime and corruption and on the verge of collapse.  Everything’s super seedy and shady, with that ’70s urban noir French Connection type feel – this is a lousy place to live that’s more seedy underbelly than well, upright overbelly.  Any cop might be on the payroll, and it seems like corruption may be more the norm than the exception, as the boss figure mentions that several people in his position have gone down due to corruption in recent years.  This pervasive atmosphere of a place where the American dream got lost a long time ago down some gutter is the most consistent feature of the show, guiding it when we’re not sure exactly what the show is about otherwise.

Where Low Winter Sun is going – I’m not exactly sure.  Frank clearly has some sort of tragic history involving a woman, who I’m guessing died.  He’s going to dig deeper into whatever the big corruption situation was, particularly involving Joe, who he’s now tied to, thanks to their collective murder. As for the drug plot, it’s less clear.  That story didn’t quite feel like it belonged, except for its tie in with the atmosphere and the dead cop, but I imagine the two stories could meet at some point as Frank investigates.

Yeah, it looks totally hopeless.  There is absolutely no humor or levity of any kind. Yes, it could easily descend into cop clichés. It’s a cop show, and it’s hard for cop shows not to fall into that, and Low Winter Sun certain dips its toes into the cliche pool on more than one occasion.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think we need another cop show right now, and i think the world would be served by a five year moratorium on new cop shows.  Low Winter Sun certainly seems to be another in the middle-aged-white-male-antihero subgroup of dramas, started by Tony Soprano, and promulgated further by Don Draper and Walter White, (and several more lesser versions since including Boardwalk Empire) a genre that’s definitely in danger of jumping the shark.

Still, while I’m not sure there’s potential for greatness here, I do think there’s potential for goodness.  Mark Strong has made a living playing villains and he gets to play a character who seems to be at the least not entirely evil, which for him is a step up on the morality scale. The choice of casting someone as associated with villainy as Strong helps set the tone for the show, along with having the protagonist commit murder in the first scene of the series which seems potentially gimmicky but which I found somewhat compelling. Frank is already morally compromised within five minutes of the series beginning.  Unlike with Draper and White where the instinct is to root for them until you get to know them better, when Frank kills someone right away, the instinct is to root against him.   All he has going for him is that it seems like it’s instinctual to root against everyone in this show, which may make him the good guy in a very relative sense. The show is mightily grim and it certainly begs the question, Is there such a thing as too grim?  Maybe.  Probably.  But I may have a higher tolerance for grim-ness than most.  It’s so far a fairly one note show, built around this atmosphere and tone.  But I don’t think it’s necessarily such a bad note.

Will I watch it again?  Yeah, I think I might.  It was certainly not an instant winner but the abject bleakness appeals to me more than it might to others, and while its attitude could get tired fast, especially depending on how close It sticks to the traditional cop formulas, I think I’m willing to give it a couple of episodes to see if it does.  I didn’t immediately want to watch the next episode which is the sign of a pilot that really does its job, but it passed the minimum test of giving me at least one aspect that I find intriguing, which is the tone.