Tag Archives: End of Season Report

End of Season Report: Making a Murderer, Season 1

25 Jan

Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer is probably the most frustrating and depressing program you’ll watch this (or late last) year, primarily because while, at the end of the day, whatever happens on most shows happens to fictional characters, fictional characters you’re deeply invested in, but fictional characters none the less, Making a Murderer leaves two possibly innocent people who were at the least surely not given a fair shake at justice in prison.

And while of course I want to talk about the quality of the show and not get up on my soapbox, it’s just about impossible to do one without the other, and that’s kind of the point. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction series of events, two people are sent to prison for decades for committing a gruesome murder, and the documentarians catch nearly every flaw in our American adversarial criminal justice system along the way: overzealous cops and prosecutors more motivated to get a conviction than get the truth, a law & order jury cowed and skewed in favor of conviction, regardless of the actual evidence, local elected judges willing to generally defer to prosecutors, incompetent defense counselors who don’t have their clients’ interests at heart, and a prioritization of incredibly unreliable witness statements and confessions over scientific evidence.

Oof, that’s a laundry list, and even for a cynic like me, Making a Murderer was able to generate, episode-by-episode a renewed lack-of-faith in the system. On top of everything mentioned above, the series also shines a light on our utter and unflinching trust of police and prosecutors and how “innocent until proven guilty” is basically thrown out the window when defendants are convicted in the court of public opinion by savage media reports that build off of speculation rather than facts. Confirmation bias leads well-meaning cops and lawyers to commit themselves so deeply to the fact that Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are guilty that they can’t see the obvious problems with the cases that the audience can.

And of all the utter mockeries of justice shown over 10 or so hours, the most tragic and troubling is the story of Brendan Dassey. Stephen Avery’s case is problematic on many levels, but Dassey’s is a complete joke. The only, and I repeat only, evidence the state has on Dassey is a confession, given to two cops when he had no lawyer, where he obviously was cowed into saying things he didn’t believe, very clearly making up fanciful stories to desperately please the investigators. There can be no doubt about this. It’s appallingly obvious to anyone who watches the confession on tape. Forget the blatant malpractice of Dassey’s first lawyer. The mere fact that police officers, prosecutors, judges, and 12 members of what had to be a unanimous jury could watch the tape of his interview and believe he did what he said he did is mind bogglingly troublesome.

So yeah, to sum up, I liked the show. If there’s such a thing as an “important show” without being intolerably pretentious, this might be one. It’s very difficult to sit through at times,and I yelled at my screen like a mad person, but it really provides a no-holds-barred reality based look at our criminal justice system, so when you hear and see claims about how every man and woman is treated equally under the law, and the truth will win out in the end, and the adversarial system serves justice better than the alternative, well, it’s good to be reminded sometimes that that’s just a load of bullshit. And while that’s depressing, it’s better to know than live under an illusion.

End of Season Report: The Comeback, Season 1 – Part 2

19 Aug

The Comeback

Juna, the budding superstar of Room and Bored, and Paulie G, one of the co-creators of the wretched sitcom, represent opposite poles within the show’s universe. Juna, no matter how big and popular she continues to get is unceasingly nice and generous to Valerie. Valerie is generous in return, but half in an attempt to relate everything to herself, to how she was once the up and coming talent. To prove it, she brings in a sexy picture taken of her back in the day when she sees Juna’s sexy magazine shoot and wants to prove that she once had that too. She does have useful advice to offer Juna, and Juna is graceful, always flattering Val. Val is most interested in related to Juna how popular and loved she once was.

Paulie G is Juna’s opposite. He hates, hates, hates Val. There are good reasons to occasionally dislike Val; she has some dislikable qualities. She can be a diva, and it can be irritating for everyone to deal with cameras everywhere when they’re intereacting with her. Director James Burrows, for example, is frustrated with Valerie occasionally but also offers her solid advice. Paulie G’s hatred goes far beyond that. He’s simply a giant asshole to Val at all times. He pretends to have sex with her in the writers’ room, and is just a huge, huge dick, and Val puts up with it and takes it. It’s a strange victory when she eventually punches him in the stomach causing him to vomit. It’s the wrong thing to do; we know this, unquestionably, but he’s just such an utter asshole. He’s particularly cruel at that moment when she’s trying so hard for a laugh, and he makes her do a whole bunch of painful falls for absolutely no reason, that it’s hard not to smile when he gets his. And yet the ultimate twist of the knife is when he gives a lying, bullshit interview to her producers that makes it sound like he was a real nice guy, making her the bad guy on her own show.

And really the story is greater than Valerie. The Comeback is incredibly ahead of its time on reality TV, but it’s correct then, and correct now, regarding the plights of older actresses. I hate using the word older; Valerie is 40, when many male stars are just hitting their strides. But Hollywood does and has for decades marginalized actresses as they age; not only not writing good roles for them, but writing roles like Valerie’s Aunt Sassy. She has to wear an abominable running suit all the time, and the thought of her as a sexual being is disgusting, fodder for jokes, not just within the show, but to the young male writers that nearly exclusively populate the set. If there weren’t other reasons to feel for Valerie, and there are, there’s this, which she has to stand up against. When she tries to challenge the stupid decisions made by the writers on this terrible show (the joke about her eating dog wasn’t even a matter of merely poor taste – it was obviously not funny), she is the one hassled for not being able to take a joke.

I can’t leave this review without talking about the incredible prescience of The Comeback in terms of reality television. Reality when The Comeback aired was dominated by Survivor and early singing competitions, all game-show like reality with winners and losers. This was before Andy Cohen and The Real Housewives and The Kardashians ruled the roost. The Comeback foreshadowed all of that.

I’m going to save more talk about the ending for a piece comparing The Comeback and BoJack Horsement which I alluded to above, but a couple of words in brief. In the finale, everything in Val’s reality show is blatantly misconstrued and taken out of context. She’s furious and upset until it turns out that its outrageousness is exactly what ends up making it popular. And thus it’s a strange kind of mixed victory. In Val’s world, it’s better to be popular and embarrassing than a dud which tells an honest and more complex and accurate story.

End of Season Report: The Comeback, Season 1 – Part 1

17 Aug

The Comeback

I just finished the first season of the Comeback, as part of my effort to catch up on some HBO series I missed the first time around. The Comeback was never hilarious or particularly funny but it was enjoyable, phenomenally interesting, and surprisingly prescient. I’ve broken my lengthy comments into two sections, of which this is obviously the fist.

The Comeback is a show-within-a-show. Valerie Cherish (the excellent Lisa Kudrow) is a forty-something actress who, over a decade ago, was a hot young star of a successful but not life-altering sitcom “I’m It.” Since then, she hasn’t found a lot of work, and as she’s gotten older, she’s not longer seen as the hot young actress she once was, or that she still sees herself as. She gets another chance at the spotlight however, when she’s up for a supporting role in new sitcom Room & Bored, and as part of that process, is invited to star in a reality show called “The Comeback” about her return to TV. The entire series is framed as raw footage for this reality show.

The Comeback is a great parody of Hollywood culture, and specifically how Hollywood treats older actresses. The supporting cast is excellent, but everything rests on Cherish, who due to the format as a faux reality show focused on her big comeback, is featured in almost every scene. She has some classic cringeworthy qualities. She’s part Michael Scott, although since The Comeback debuted before the American The Office, you might say Michael Scott is actually part Valeria Cherish. Valerie has none of the stupidity of Scott or the utter insensitivity of Scott’s British equivalent David Brent but she has the awkwardness, the lack of awareness at how constantly uncomfortable she makes people, and the desperate insecurity and need to be liked.

Valerie peaked early, reached fame easy, and was treated to a world in which she was famous, loved, and respected. Everyone was a fan, and everyone wanted to be her friend. The Comeback has a striking amount of similarities with BoJack Horseman, which I coincidentally I watched immediately before. (I hope to write another post specifically comparing the two). Valerie is desperate to be liked. She’s not hip, but wishes she was; not enough to try to actually be, but enough to claim she is.

The show actually hits Valerie’s attitude and personality right on the nose in an episode in which Valerie goes to Palm Springs with her husband and hangs out with a couple they know casually. The wife, who has survived cancer, sees what we, and what ostensibly everyone in this world sees, and actually speaks to Valerie straight about it, which just about no one else does. This friend notes that ever since she recovered from cancer, she’s been unabashed and unafraid to be herself, and that Valerie ought to try to do the same. Valerie is incredibly uncomfortable in her own skin; she wants so desperately to be liked, to be loved, to be needed. She’s passive aggressive all the time. She’s constantly afraid to just speak her mind, which might make her more unlikable to someone else, but to others it might just sound human.  She’s not hip with the kids, but she tries desperately to be. She tries to insist so strenuously that she can take a joke, while sometimes she should rightfully be angry. She is constantly looking towards the camera, saying yeah when she means no, having her every move securitized but being okay with it because she wants so badly to be relevant again. She wants to prove that she’s cool, that she’s still got it. But she wants it so badly, that she can’t.

For all of her personal frustrations, her relationship with her husband is stable and happy and never dramatic which is both surprising and welcome. Her businessman husband is startlingly comfortable in his own skin. He knows he’s not cool. All he wants is to relax, have a steak, have a drink, play a quick nine, and listen to Cheap Trick. He doesn’t like the cameras, but he puts up with them, because he’s supportive of Valerie and wants what she wants. He’s not the most interesting guy in the world, but he genuinely loves and cares for Val, and knows who he is, and the contrast with Val is sharp.

Valeria is constantly frustrated but tries to mask this frustration with an overabundance of good cheer. She’s at various times both incredibly jealous and narcissistic, but tries not to be obvious about it, even though it’s clear. She doesn’t understand she’s not the star anymore – like an older athlete who can’t realize she’s a supporting player now. She acts extra nice, even though she’s primarily interested in supporting people in exchange for them supporting her, but then again, niceness is still niceness, regardless of the agenda behind it, and Valeria does do real favors and show genuine appreciation to others because it’s what she would want. In fact, she’s most empathetic when others are desperate, because it’s a language she can understand. When only female writer Gigi breaks down because she desperately wants to go to the Golden Globes, Val extremely generously offers to take her as her guest.

The Comeback hues very closely to a line where you are both constantly aggravated by Valerie but also feel really terrible for her. She has to deal with networks and writers and directors who  really don’t care about what she thinks. Room and Bored is a hilariously obviously terrible sitcom that everyone has to pretend is funny all the time because the alternative is admitting that they’re wasting away their year working on utter dreck.

More in part 2.

End of Season Report: Game of Thrones – Season 5, Part 2

17 Jun

Cersei Lannister

This is Part 2 of my thoughts following the ending of the fifth season of Game of Thrones. Part 1 can be found here.

We start today with Dorne. Dorne was an utter and total mess, the worst running storyline of this season both from a book reader’s perspective and I believe, from a viewer’s perspective. It introduced several new characters, but without the chance to get to really know them. Doran Martell, Dorne’s leader, the three Sand Snakes, bastard children of the Red Viper and Ellaria Sand, and Aero Hotah, Doran’s chief guard. In the books Doran is smart, calculating, even-tempered and patient. In the show, I believe they tried to somewhat portray that as well, but any positive character development is undone by the stupefying last scene where Ellaria is allowed to kiss Myrcella, delivering some sort of poison. Why would Ellaria, who tried to assassinate Myrcella earlier, be allowed to touch Myrcella? From that scene, Doran’s clearly a total moron, defeating any other work the show put in to that character. Even beyond this bizarre and logic-defying ending, nothing else in Dorne worked. Jaime being there never quite made sense, Ellaria and the Sand Snakes’ plan never quite made sense, and the Sand Snakes scene with Bronn felt like some of the pointless nudity that critics like to understandably occasionally call Game of Thrones out on. While I’m thrilled to find ways to keep Bronn around, this whole adventure did not work.

Cersei’s downfall was a long time coming and well-deserved, and the show, with a huge help from Lena Headey did an admirable job of depicting a depth to Cersei that could easily have been missing giving the underlying story. Cersei is an antagonist and a villain, and her negative qualities outnumber her positive. She’s paranoid, delusional, and while smart, is not as smart as she thinks she is, which makes all the difference. Her comeuppance was earned and sweet, but there’s also another side to Cersei, that while she’s certainly not qualified to rule the seven kingdoms, makes one feel for her. She’s utterly devoted to her kids, she really believes in her paranoia, and while it’s often wrong, there’s enough intrigue and lies in Westeros to believe that some of it is correct. She carries herself with dignity at all times, even during her walk of shame. Because of the ability to showcase the levels of Cersei’s character in ways that aren’t there for other antagonists like Ramsay Bolton, Cersei’s arc was one of the more complete and successful in the fifth season of the show from beginning to end, .

Sansa and Theon. Game of Thrones is definitely partly an exercise in suffering. When I read comments complaining about the constant suffering and misery faced by nearly every character, especially the beloved ones (and oppositely how evil characters like Ramsay continue to triumph), I have contrasting thoughts. On one hand, I think, well, who says characters are supposed to end up doing all right, or that there’s supposed to be a balance between how good and evil characters are treated. On the other hand, I understand that you watch television shows largely for some measure of enjoyment, and it’s just not enjoyable to see your favorite characters get raped, tortured and killed one by one, and over and over again. To try to decipher the space between those two lines, the question is always does it work in the show, does it make sense in this world, and even if it does theoretically work, does showing it add something. I don’t think the answers to these questions are always obvious.

Ramsay raping Sansa was a difficult and painful scene to watch, and was for many a bridge too far. This one, as awful as it was, worked for me in context; it would have been unfathomable in this world for Ramsay not to expect to have sex with Sansa after their wedding to consummate the marriage, Showing it may have been unnecessary, but I don’t think it was a mere unnecessary torture. Rather, it continued to hammer home the realities of this world and difficult choices for Sansa. A legitimate concern was whether that rape would then be used in terms of its effect on Theon, and not on Sansa, but I don’t think that’s what’s happened. Sansa and Theon are rather bonded by Ramsay’s cruelty, and share something that they didn’t when Sansa arrived. Like the world of Hobbes’ Leviation, Westeros can be a truly nasty place. I’m a big Sansa fan and I have a strange amount of likely misplaced confidence, considering Martin’s world, that she’ll use this adversity to her advantage and become stronger.

Meryn Trant’s pedophilia on the other hand, seemed completely unnecessary to me; we already know he’s a terrible dude, and Arya already has plenty of reason to hate him. When you look at every instance of terribleness through this lens, everyone will still come out on different sides, but it’s an instructive and helpful way to think about it.

Going forward, where does Game of Thrones stand? It moves into uncharted territory for book readers like myself, which is both exciting and scary, and I’m still not sure how much I trust showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss without George R. R. Martin’s words to work from. My faith in them has gone up and down over the course of the series, and while they’ve earned enough trust to build on their ideas going forward, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat wary. Their touch has been too heavy and on the nose on occasion, subtlety not their strong suit. Still, they’ve done a great job overall in the very challenging task of fitting thousands of pages and dozens of characters into 10 hour-long episodes each year and the show must go on. There are worse things than simply two separate versions of the story, one televised, one read; the books, as long as they take, will still exist, no matter what the show says.  On and at them, crossing my fingers that not all of my favorite characters die next season.

The Shield: Thoughts and Opinions, Part 2

10 Jun

The Strike Team

Welcome to part 2 of my thoughts on The Shield. Part 1 can be found here. Plenty of spoilers follow.

Vic was constantly, constantly, making a big show about how high his arrest numbers were, and how the police needed him, and that’s why it was worth putting up with his off-color brand of policing. But that was always a smokescreen. This isn’t Hampsterdam, The Wire’s example of stepping way beyond the established rules in service of an idea that had tangible general benefits towards lowering violent crime which affects civilians. Vic makes a show about caring about cleaning up the streets, and keeping them safe, and for whatever it’s worth I do think that deep down he really and truly believes that. He’s a megalomaniac who believes in his reputation. But this wasn’t making unorthodox but innovative tradeoffs to get criminals off the streets. It was all about Vic doing what was best for Vic.

It was beyond welcome to see how by the last couple of seasons nothing Claudette could hear from anyone could sell her on Vic Mackey’s utilitarian proposition that the occasionally police higher up would try to push on her – that you put up with a  lot of his shit, but sometimes you needed a guy like Vic to get results. As everyone realized when Vic made his heralded confession in order to lock in the immunity, no one ever needs a guy like Vic. They’re taking on way more than bargained for.

There might be some occasional talk about police practices in The Shield, in terms of how to best combat crime, and the bureaucracy and inabilities of police departments to function and work with the community, like much of The Wire, and season 4 contained a hearty discussion about some practices, but mostly that’s not really what The Shield was about. That was an afterthought to the personalities, and the levers of power, ego, loyalty, and trust, that brought the strike team together, and eventually set them apart, These themes were also on display in the interactions between Danny, Julian, Dutch, Claudette, and Acevado. Trust was in short supply in The Shield in general, and the relationships that eventually functioned best – Claudette and Dutch in particular, but eventually Danny and Julian as well, worked because they were based on that bedrock, even if it took a while to get there. They had their spats in the open, and while they were ugly occasionally in the moment, they got over them because of that, The strike team buried their disagreements deeper, deeper and deeper, under the façade of family, and that was one of the factors that tore them apart in the end

Claudette and Dutch in fact are the anti strike team. They keep clean, and they make sure they’re both at it. When Dutch suspects Billings of setting up a pedophile, having a fellow cop plant evidence, even though Dutch is innocent himself, Claudette blows up at him and orders him to set it right. It’s a small thing in the big picture sure, but these are the little mistakes that can build on one’s record and start leading to the compromised position of the strike team. By keeping each other honest, even if it requires yelling and berating and arguing from time to time, Claudette and Dutch assure themselves clean consciences and records, but also the unlimited freedom of going forward without a history to be exposed. Dutch and Claudette’s working relationship is everything the strike team’s isn’t. Build on actual trust, it lasts in the end.

And last, that ending. This series of musings wouldn’t be complete without a few thoughts there, particularly as to Vic’s fate.

Everyone suspected Vic was dirty. Everyone knew he played fast and loose with the rules, and the department loosed him on the streets knowing this a few times a season. People suspected individual elements; the Terry Crawley shooting, the money train robbery, but when listed out one by one, the sheer volume shook to the core both the feds, and Claudette, Vic’s primary adversary by the end of the show.

Losing his kids was a blow, one of the only things that actually mattered to him. And of course, Vic would never have hurt his kids intentionally, but that’s beyond the point. Vic did things which hurt them all the time in practice. He was as self-delusional as any of the gang leaders he policed. This is the last time, he said, after any given transgression. One more day.

With Shane and Lem dead and Ronnie about to be locked up for a long, long time with the same people he put away, Vic makes it out relatively unscathed. Of course, there are still consequences; his kids up and move away, to never see him again. He gets the government immunity deal, and after pulling a fast one that embarrasses everyone who agreed to make the deal with him, he’s stuck with monotonous desk work for the length of his contract; one slip up, and immunity is off. While jail is what he deserves, desk work is the opposite of what Vic Mackey stands for; he’s a shark, he needs to be on the street, always moving, never still, never stuck filling out paperwork in an office.

And so Vic gets a kind of poetic justice that’s simply too good for him; it’s almost too perfect, but what would be more appropriate but less exactly fitting would be to see him rotting in a jail cell next to those he put away.

I’d love to believe that Vic is going to do something stupid, like start missing office work, or not turn in his reports, and I do think there’s plenty of chance he gets messed up in something, or can’t simply resist the pull of the street. Still, he’s a survivor. He’ll mess up one day, but it won’t be easy. He knows what he has to do to survive, and he’s willing to do it, no matter the consequences to himself or others.

End of Season Report: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

18 May

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

As the second season wraps up, I leave with very mixed feelings about Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is undoubtedly unfair, because it is unquestionably a good show. My immediate reaction speaks less to its overall quality than to the expectations I had before the season began. The first season was good, and left me feeling that the show could be great. The pieces were there but they just needed time to come together. After the second season, however, I came away still thinking that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a good show, but feeling that’s it more likely that the show will put together a string of good seasons without necessarily approaching greatness. There was no sophomore slump, rather merely a lack of a sophomore leap. Because I don’t want to convey a negative overall conclusion, but rather some constructive criticism, I’ll structure my thoughts in the form of a time-tested compliment sandwich, in which, I’ll note some good points first, follow it up with some problems, and finish up with some positives again.

First, and most importantly (and I haven’t written more than two lines about this show without saying this) Andre Braugher is a national treasure who should be vacuum sealed between takes so he can be preserved for future generations of television. He’s wonderful in general, and in this role, and I have nothing but acclaim for his Captain Holt.

There’s a great sense of unity in the squad room, and everyone, for the most part (Gina is not the biggest Amy fan) clearly likes each other. There’s a sense of camaraderie that feels real, and everyone, when push comes to shove, has each other’s back.

Now, for the criticism. The Jake and Amy romance feels both forced and predictable. One of my biggest more general criticisms of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that many of the characters and plots feel like they were conceived on the page as part of the premise of the show, and haven’t been changed enough in reaction to the natural rapport, chemistry, and strengths of the actors. The Jake-Amy romance is exhibit A for this in my mind; something planned far ahead of time which doesn’t really work in practice.

Two episodes before the season finale, Amy made a point about how she was not going to date cops. It would have been shocking, following that, if Amy and Jake had not gotten together in some way by the finale. I don’t expect Brooklyn Nine-Nine to be utterly unpredictable, filled with twists and turns, like Game of Thrones, but If it’s incredibly predictable that a character will do the opposite of what she says (and not because the character is simply a liar) that’s not a great sign.

Several of the characters need to be turned down a notch, especially in certain situations and character pairings. Charles is a much better character when paired with anyone but Jake. Whenever he’s around Jake, he’s far too sycophantic, and jokes that were funny based on this nature of their relationship when used just occasionally are now overused and annoying. He’s obsessed with Jake, and while Jake obviously likes him as well, it always feels like a weirdly uneven relationship, and Charles comes off as way, way more of a weirdo than feels appropriate to the show. Whenever he’s not around Jake, Charles’ weirdness seems far more endearing and less over the top, and his season finale plotline with Rosa, shows just how far he’s come from the crazily creepy early first season when he was obsessed with her, to where he’s her friend, clearly knows her well, and helps her and her boyfriend celebrate her birthday.

Gina’s weirdness can often be delightful, but her constant obsession with Terry is too much and overused. Jake is very close to an excellent character, but he drives me crazy sometimes as well. I wish he could just occasionally turn off his stupid-joke-machine, because the jokes just aren’t always good enough to be worthwhile. A couple different, or even simply fewer of these jokes, would give the good ones, which there are plenty of, time to breathe.

Last, a few more compliments to toss out. Some of the characters are great as they are. Holt, as I mentioned before. Terry perfectly functions as the straight man and den mother of the office, and the universal affection shown towards him from both above and below feels warranted. Rosa is wonderful as is, and they’ve put her in a relationship that keeps her hard edge while expanding her character’s depth. The actors in general are very good and very funny; they’re just sometimes given material that doesn’t quite highlight what they do best, or give them enough range to show it.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I don’t want to give up on your chance for greatness just yet. Despite a season of treading water, you’re really not far away. Just tweak. Rewatch the seasons, learn from the characters and the actors, and change everything up slightly, and then learn from that again, because you’ll still make mistakes. Parks & Recreation had an excellent second season, but really hit its peaks with the superb third season (and the introductions of Chris and Ben, replacing Mark). Despite my reservations, I fervently hope Brooklyn Nine-Nine will become a top tier comedy and it certainly has the tools to get there.

End of Season Report: Justified, Season 6

17 Apr


Justified is a story about the hold the past maintains on the present, and the ability or lack thereof of its characters to break away from a place and a people that are embedded so deep within them that they don’t know any another way. For the people who live in rural Kentucky counties like Harlan and Bennett, removed from the outside world even while part of it, the shadow of the past hangs heavily over every decision and every action. The question Justified asks is whether these people are unable to change because the past has predestined them not to do so, or because the self-perpetuated belief that they can’t change is buried so far within them that they truly believe they can’t, even when they can.

Change and free will are so antithetical to these characters that in the sixth season it almost feels as if they’re just wound up like toys and put on a track, bound to continue straight away even that means crashing into each other. By halfway through the season, there are no surprises, and everyone knows the score. Avery has a shitload of money in a safe, Boyd is going to attempt to take that money, one way or another, and Raylan is going to attempt to stop him. Boyd knows that Raylan and Avery know he plans on stealing the money, but this doesn’t deter him in the least. If anything, it motivates him more. Boyd knows he’s being teased and baited; Raylan at one point shows him the vault, and they both know what’s going on. Raylan is triggering Boyd’s animal instinct to desire that quality of cash and Boyd gets the requisite sniff of money. Boyd is self-aware. He knows he’s being set up. But it simply doesn’t matter. Stealing money is what he does.

The specter of Raylan’s potential death hung over the finale, both because of conventions of the western and crime genres which Justified inhabits and because we’ve been trained to expect that ending from many recent prestige dramas featuring antiheroes. But Raylan never was a traditional antihero in the same vein as some of TV’s other famous members of that category (Walter White, Tony Soprano); while he disobeyed his bosses and went around the law, he was generally good, honest, trustworthy, and never out for himself in the way the Sopranos and Whites of the world were. He didn’t deserve to die. For all his worry about his ability to change, he was never the same as his father. He just didn’t know it yet.

Raylan’s entire existence was defined by his desire to not become his father and he was able to finally get out from under this obsession before it cost him in the end. He won his battle and ended the hold his father, dead since the fourth season, had on him.  Raylan’s obsession with catching Boyd and putting him away, showing that he was the opposite of his weasely criminal father, was at fever pitch in the final season. The one-last-big-score theme was as resonant for him as it was for Boyd, only his score was Boyd. Art and others warned him multiple times that he if he ddin’t step back in time, it might be too late, and it did seem as if the ground work was all set up for him to tragically die just before he could get out to Miami and his daughter.

Raylan may never have gone so far as to have a death wish but he consistently put himself in more risk than necessary in his pursuit of the filth that stood in for his father. Raylan less needed to change his actions than change his perception of himself of someone who could live a stable life outside of constantly facing death, and his daughter gives him a pretty good motivation to do so.

Boyd gives Raylan a chance, in the finale, to face him, and to finish him off rather than send him to prison. Raylan declines. It may have been a tough decision, but for all of Raylan’s quick-draw reputation, it was always what Raylan was going to do. Though all his frustration, including his blood feud with Boyd, that’s never who Raylan was. When Raylan in that moment, lives up to who he knew he can be and stands down, he’s ready to move on.

Eva is over the course of the series Justified’s most tragic character. Unlike Boyd and Raylan, she was thrown into this whole criminal-lawman struggle not of her own volition, although she was eventually swept up by Boyd’s powerful charisma enough to become almost as enthusiastic about thieving as he was. Her time in prison actually taught her a lesson, not just in terms of the consequences of her criminality (unlike most of the male criminals who seem to have been in and out of prison over the course of their lives, the harshness of prison was a real eye-opener for Eva), but in the truth of who Boyd really was. Boyd really and truly did love her, but that was beside the point. He was always going after the money.  However much he loved Eva, he loved the money or what it represented, more.

Eva initially came by criminality second-hand, via her husband, Boyd’s abusive brother, who she killed. Soon, she met Boyd and was swept into the tide of crime through his sheer force of personality. Eva was taken by the magic, by the promise of freedom, by the Thelma and Louise/Bonnie and Clyde/Butch and Cassidy feeling of two against the world. Prison taught her reality. The second turning point came in the final season when Boyd received reward money through a sting Raylan set up to tempt Boyd to go after Avery’s larger stash. Eva tried to persuade Boyd that even with the reward money they had enough to get out, to leave Kentucky and set up shop wherever they wanted free and clear. If he really cared about her, if what he wanted was really what she wanted, to get out, to be free, this was the chance.

He thought about it, but in the end, as both he and Raylan knew, there was no way he was leaving that money. That moment was a blessing in disguise for Eva, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. She was finally free of Boyd’s power; unlike Raylan and Boyd, she didn’t have the long familial history of crime in her bones. If she managed to survive the ordeal, which was certainly not a given, the hold of the past was broken for Eva, who, seemingly on the edge of dying or at the least going back to prison for most of the final season, was able to have an unlikely happy ending.

And as for Boyd, well he gets off easy as well. If he doesn’t, like Raylan and Eva, get to actually break the cycle of the past, he gets a reset, a rewind to another point in his personal timeline, where he’s back to a level of religiosity which we saw early in the series. Boyd will be taking over that prison in no time. Boyd, for all his oozing charisma and for all his high talk, Boyd is who he is. Boyd always was a criminal, and he probably always will be. His desires exist only as far as his next big score.

End of Season Report: Orphan Black – Season 2

30 Jun

Several of the Orphans Black

Orphan Black may never be a canonically great show, whatever that means, but it’s a very good show an perhaps more importantly, a very enjoyable show. Orphan Black succeeds so well at this because it smartly decides consciously or not, to be a five tool player, being pretty good at a number of different aspects, rather than throwing all of its proverbial TV eggs in one basket and trying to be great at just one thing. Let me explain.

Orphan Black is serious, but it’s also funny. There’s plenty of action, and there’s also science fiction. The plot is important, but so is the characterization and the relationships. Now, partly this may sound somewhat prosaic – any very good show should be pretty solid at several of these characteristics. First, that’s not really case, and second, Orphan Black spreads the wealth better than most.

Just the sense of humor alone is incredibly important. Orphan Black is funny, and more than funny it’s silly, which helps deflate what could be a sense of self-importance from the clone plot which doesn’t always make the most amount of sense. Many solid but not transcendent shows have no sense of humor whatsoever – Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, and The Walking Dead among them. While it’s not impossible to pull off, it’s difficult to be great with that level of drudgery. In fact, the very best shows, which probably could have skated by without any humor, like Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, instead, can be very funny at times.

A show like House of Cards has no sense of humor and rests on its plot, which doesn’t make any sense, hurting the show’s value. Orphan Black’s plot, like House of Cards’ connects the show episode to episode and drives it forward. Yet, because the show is funny, because it seems to buy in on its own sense of camp, the shows replay value is much higher.

The most responsibility for humor in Orphan Black sits on Alison’s shoulders. He plots are hilarious, from her play, to her rehab, to her relationship with poor Donnie, who goes from sinister schmuck to merely pathetic schmuck to empowered schmuck in a heartbeat.

Ophan Black does has a somewhat stupid plot that doesn’t necessarily and can’t really make sense if one thinks too much about it. It also has the very dangerous season to season expanding the scope problem that sci fi and supernatural shows tend to face. Basically, if Dyad is responsible for the clones, now there has to be someone above Dyad, or what else is the show going to be about for the next season. There need to keep being new, bigger, reveals, or it’ll feel like the show has already peaked. Scenes like those involving Krya’s dad typing into the darknet, whatever that is, well, I have no idea what he’s talking about, but luckily I really don’t care. None of this matters so much because the show is enjoyable on its face, regardless of actually untangling the details behind the creation of the clones.

This isn’t just due to humor. The relationships are powerful, between the clones, particularly. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Orphan Black uses sci-fi/fantasy as ways to get at powerful human bonds.

Some of the side characters are stupid, and most of them are bland. It’s pretty much Tatiana Maslany’s show, with a nod to the consistently excellent Jordan Gavaris as Felix, by far the best and most important supporting player.

I don’t have much more to say about Maslany other than the consistent heaping of praise I try to hand out on any occasion I can, and she takes on even more characters this year. She’s wonderful and one of the main engines that makes the show go – if the opening credit sequence was honest, her name would appear five times. If the show does have have an X factor, it’s her, and that would be enough to make the show worth watching even if it were less enjoyable overall.

Orphan Black has it all; it’s got action, it’s got laughs, it’s got strong characters (albeit most of those characters are played by the same actress, but still). It will never be the best at any one of these; it will never have the taut plotting of Breaking Bad or the first season of Homeland, the character bonds of Six Feet Under, the action of 24. But by smartly throwing it all together, with more than a touch of Maslany’s magic, it gets the benefit of having a little bit of everything, and that makes it, while never the best show on TV, a consistently compelling view; you may not get it all in any given episode, but you’re bound to get something good.

End of Season Report: Hannibal, Season 2

26 May

Hannibal and friends

Holy fucking shit. I thought the ending of the first season was about as bleak as any season of any show on TV, let alone a network show. The second season may have topped, or bottomed, that. There are four characters credited in the show’s opening sequence. Three of them ended the second season lying on the ground, bleeding to death (It’s worth taking a second to note that the only other character to appear in Hannibal’s opening credits, Beverly, was killed by Hannibal halfway through the second season). While none of them were clearly dead, any or all could be; if this ended up being the series finale instead of merely a season finale, it would have all but locked up the title of darkest series finale of all time.

Through all this desolation, horror, and gore, Hannibal put together an extremely strong season, superior to its first season, and generally more purposeful, though with a couple of bumps along the way. Week to week, I couldn’t wait for Hannibal to see what happened next, and that anticipation is only reserved for my very favorite shows. When people ask me what shows they don’t watch that they should be, and I assume they’re watching standards like Mad Men, and Game of Thrones, Hannibal is one of my go to recommendations.

The season was largely broken up into two halves. The first involved Will’s incarceration in a mental asylum where he was assumed to be the Chesapeake Ripper, and ended with his exoneration and the framing of Frederick Chilton as the ripper. The second half involved the story of Margot and Mason Verger, and their various interactions with Will and Hannibal, as well as a plot by Jack Crawford and Will to lure Hannibal out and trap him.

Both halves worked very well individually but the show felt a little bit disjointed moving from the first to the second; it felt as if the halves were two individual seasons. This isn’t much of a problem, but the Margot and Mason introductions felt abrupt rather than smooth, and this just meant it probably took me a little bit longer to get on board with.

I’m glad I did though, by the second episode, because both Margot and Mason were played by extremely strong actors, expanding the cast of fantastic acting talent, which along with the gorgeous cinematography are the two most standout aspects of Hannibal. Hannibal continued to be as disturbing as ever if not more so, graphic violence-wise, than any show on TV, and this was highlighted in the season’s penultimate episode when Mason fed his own face to Will’s dogs and ate his own nose. The events are every bit as gruesome as that sentence sounds, and it’s remarkable that the other gore on the show rarely feels over the top. In fact, the beauty of the cinematography makes some of the most gruesome tableaus assembled by Hannibal  out of his victors look disturbingly mesmerizing, and in sharp contract to how base and simply disgusting Mason’s self-harming act looks.

Show runner Bryan Fuller does a great job picking and choosing how to deploy the tools of Hannibal’s literary and cinematic universe. There’s a lot of tough choices to make when working with an existing property, particularly one that everyone knows as well as Hannibal’s and he’s very smart in choosing when to add entirely new characters, when to use existing characters to be something other than how Thomas Harris or movie adaptations used them, and when to stick closer to the letter of the books.

Mads Mikelson plays Hannibal as a seductive sociopathic genius, semisatanic but just human enough to add empathy and add a layer of depth to a character that could merely be pure evil. He exposes his most (and maybe only) humanity when dealing with Will Graham, who he appears to actually treat as the potential compatriot, rare in Hannibal’s world of clinical ubermench-like serial killing. That small bit of humanity makes Hannibal that much more engaging a character; at some level this sadistic and brilliant mass murderer is just looking for a friend. Mikelson manages to fuse the appeal of a terrifying force beyond good and evil with a needy middle schooler who is unhappy when he doesn’t get what he wants (Will’s friendship and trust, namely)

Even more fascinating to me is Will’s back and forth mental state, not fully seduced by Hannibal, but not immune to his charms either. Will stands strong in the end, sticking to the plan. However, he’s not all in the good. He goes farther than he has to for the trap him and Jack had set, and frequently mimics Hannibal, particularly in respect to Mason Verger, when he could well possibly have pulled back and kept the plan in check. His decision to keep some of this from Jack shows that he knows it’s wrong, but the power of Hannibal, while not enough to win him over in the end, tugs at him.  This ambiguity filling the relationship between Will and is beautiful. It’s impossible to tell who is leading who, and who believes what. The knots Hannibal and Will talk themselves into are sometimes rhetorical nonsense but lyrically enchanting at the same time.

Then there’s that last episode again. We knew some of the events of the last episode from the very first episode of the season, which opened with the flash forward of Jack and Hannibal fighting. It’s probably going to take me some time, and maybe even until the first episode of the third season to decide what I felt about it overall. It’s brutal. I like the idea of Hannibal getting away, and I like the idea of it being with Dr. Du Maurier, a side character who has recurred just enough for us to keep her in mind and whose return was quite welcome. Abigail is back for just long enough to wonder exactly what Hannibal has done to her right before Hannibal kills her, seemingly an act of revenge for Will’s betrayal. I’m fairly confident Abigail is dead, and feel like at least one of Jack, Alana, and Will will be dead as well, and most likely not Will. The events almost seemed surreal (and the Baltimore police sure seemed to take their sweet time) and I momentarily thought the entire sequence might be a dream or a hallucination. For sheer shock value, it’s hard to beat, and the events certainly turn the entire series on its head again going forward. Hannibal is certainly not afraid to shake up the status quo and that’s commendable.

Regardless of whether I fully come around on the finale, or am just satisfied but confused and baffled at the same time, Hannibal’s second season is superior television. The show has been elevated into must-watch territory, and is likely, unless a barrage of great programming invades the second half of the year, to move up in next year’s yearly rankings.




End of Season Report: The Mindy Project, Season 2

9 May

Mindy and friends

Overall, the second season of The Mindy Project was a success. The Mindy Project continues to get better season to season, and it has a fresh and new sense of humor that’s influenced by shows like The Office (where series star Mindy Kaling of course previously worked) and 30 Rock while having a voice all its own.

The major problems that tThe Mindy Project has and has had since the beginning are pretty much universally agreed upon both in everything I’ve ever read about the show and with every viewer I’ve talked to in person. Mindy’s character is fleshed out, three dimensional, and great. Chris Messina’s Danny is also a well-built full-fledged character and fantastic. Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan is a not nearly as complex, but is a perfect humorous side character to lead funny but less character-building  B plots. Outside of that trio, though, every other character just doesn’t click, and while this may sound like I’m simply repeating the problems the show had after the first season, it’s no less true now.

Actually, that’s not entire true. It’s slightly less true now. While Adam Pally’s character Peter Prentice seemed like an out-of-nowhere poorly fitting character when he was shoehorned in because TV unions promised to get the very talented cast of Happy Endings new jobs as soon as possible, he’s slowly emerged over the course of the season as a character who could actually be welcome in this universe. His frat-boy edges have been softened enough to actually feel for him somewhat, and his repartee with Mindy has sharpened. With her moving into full romance mode with Danny, Pally has emerged as a solid replacement as Mindy’s sounding board. He’s still not all the way there, but while I thought the show should not keep him around long term when he first appeared, I now think there could be a place for him.

As for everyone else, not so much. Characters have come and gone, welcomed into the fold and the discarded, more so than any program I can remember. Stephen Tobolowsky was the first, credited in the pilot, but gone thereafter (fair enough; many shows have pilot only character, but it was the start of a trend). Anna Camp as Mindy’s best friend Gwen Grandy fit the workplace vibe and was dropped. Shaunaa, the jersey girl administrative assistant was dropped soon afterwards. Jeremy, the other doctor in their practice, has made it through both seasons so far but hasn’t really found a place for himself and I would forget he ever existed if the show dropped him tomorrow (Mark Brandanowitz from Parks & Recreation style). Likewise, Betsy, who is actually slated to leave the show, old Beverly, and Tamra. A couple of these characters would be fine for background humor, given one or two lines an episode, something The Office mastered, carefully parceling out the use of one dimensional characters like Creed and Kevin. As anything more though, these characters are stretched beyond usefulness.  Mark DuPlass’s dastardly midwife (along with his more reserved brother) is better as a recurring character than any of these secondary characters.

That’s part of a trend as well. The recurring boyfriends Mindy has have been consistently excellent, and her and Danny getting together have made me despair for their absence. The show has been unafraid to have guys appear in solid multiple episode arcs, and the show is richer for that, as the boyfriends are often among the better characters in the show. Four or five episodes can be a perfect amount of time to build a character so that we care about him or her and wring all the comedy out without feeling stretched.  It’s to The Mindy Project’s credit that they’ve hit home runs with some of the choices.

The core is strong; Mindy does a great job of playing with rom com tropes, and particularly making stereotypically sexy scenes seem as silly and ridiculous as they should; her attempt to have airplane sex with Danny was a classic example of Mindy humor. The humor is a brand all her own and the show is very funny frequently. Mindy is a strong female character, but she’s a very different strong female character than her closest antecedent Liz Lemon. TV needs more strong female characters who are not necessarily just like any other existing strong female character and Mindy is a welcome addition to that growing group. The Mindy Project can do pathos as well, and its easy for viewers to connect with Mindy even through all of her (and Danny’s) ridiculous positions.

The core makes me return to Mindy, and it’s the most important part of what makes a show a success. It’s a lot better to have a strong core and struggle around the edges than the reverse. That is The Mindy Project’s problem though. It needs to fix those edges.  Comedies should get time to get the details right, and I can’t think of a great comedy that had the entire product together by day one – while dramas frequently peak with their debut seasons, comedies almost never do. Still, it’s two seasons in, and Mindy appears only marginally closer to figuring that out. Because the core is strong, I’ll follow it as long as it goes, even if it never solves the problems around the periphery. If it does though, it has a chance to go from a very funny show, to a truly canonical comedy, and with the strong writing, that’s a leap that I would greatly enjoy seeing it make.