Tag Archives: FX

Summer 2015 Review: Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll

20 Jul


Sex & Drugs & Rock n Roll charts the path of a legendary almost-but-never-quite-made-it band that faded just before Nirvana hit and made rock huge again (think maybe Mudhoney) as they are drawn back together in the present for the first time in many years. The Heathens were led by ultimate heathen Johnny Rock, played by Denis Leary, who drank and drugged his way through life, getting by on oozing charisma and competent songwriting chops while generally being an asshole to everyone, particularly his bandmates.

The show starts as a docudrama with Dave Grohl and Grug Dulli talking about The Heathens and just how equally important, influential, and unsuccessful they were. (I have to put in a note here that none of the language thrown around by Dulli and Grohl actually sounds anything like the little music we here the Heathens’ play; they sound more like the New York Dolls than a band that would immediately influence Nirvana.) In the present, Johnny visits his manager and finds out he’s out of options; there’s no market for his music and he’s too old to start over again, but too young to retire. He’s reduced to considering a position in a low grade but decent paying tribute band; selling out is everything Johnny has fought against, but money is money.

Later at a bar, he hits on a woman, Gigi, (Victorious’ Elizabeth Gillies) far younger and more attractive than himself he believes is making eyes at him, only to find out that she’s been doing so because she’s actually his daughter that he never knew existed. He lucks out when the next day it turns out that Gigi has some money and wants to make it as a singer in NYC, and despite her lack of interest in him as a paternal figure, she wants his help as a songwriter, if he can convince his old songwriting partner, the Heathens’ former guitarist, Flash, to join forces with him. Convincing Flash (John Corbett) is difficult as Johnny was a huge asshole and Flash is much more successful currently, making bank as Lady Gaga’s traveling guitarist. Gigi, sensing this might be an issue and knowing the way to all musicians’ hearts, texts Leary a provocative picture to show Corbett, and the old crew against all odds is up and running.

Gigi performs a classic Heathens song with the band; everyone can see she’s got actual talent, and we’re in business.

The biggest problem with Sex&Drug&Rock&Roll is a sense of a tonal dissonance. I’m not quite sure what the show wants to be, and it might be more successful if it pulled further in one of a number of directions rather than where it currently is. There are some good ideas here for a show; skewing the music industry, both modern, and classic, and the notion of the fading rocker, the Keith Richards type tried to keep up. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll at times seems like it is trying to be an edge, satirical, black comedy, that pulls no punches, with characters who are not necessarily likeable. On the other hand, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll wants to have a heart, and tell the story of a complicated relationship between father and daughter, that’s a little more serious and more sentimental. In this way, it almost has the vibe of a feel-good movie redemption story, like Music & Lyrics but about a father-daughter relationship instead of a rom-com.

The jokes aren’t funny, which is a problem for the black comedy aspect. One approach would be to tone down the jokes, keep a light, comic tone, but up the ante on the plot and depth of characters. A biting satire could work as well but the writing would need a lot of tightening; if a satire isn’t funny, it doesn’t work: see The Brink. There may be gray areas between these approaches, or others, but Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’s isn’t working currently, and that’s the chief problem. The jokes aren’t funny, the music sensibility seems weirdly out of date; the Lady Gaga jokes for example feel a couple of years well too late.

Will I watch it again? No. There’s an idea here and I like the cast. But it’s just not there without a bit of a stylistic overhaul.

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.

The Shield: Thoughts and Opinions

5 Jun

The Shield

Over the course of approximately three months, I watched seven seasons of The Shield, and the thoughts bouncing around my brain are too numerous to mention, especially after still processing the crackerjack series finale, generally considered to be one of, if not the best ever. There’s a lot to like, and a little bit not to. In the first season I worried I wasn’t really going to be on board with The Shield at all. I absolutely did warm up to it, though I’m still not sure how high on my all-time list it would actually ascend. Because I just have so much to say and I want to get it out there, I’m going to bounce around, focusing mostly on Vic and the strike team. Please don’t read further if by chance you’ve started this and have not seen The Shield because there are spoilers aplenty.

Vic Mackey, one of the great antiheroes in television history, had the good fortune to come at the beginning of the antihero era, when his only primary competition was Tony Soprano. Having to follow his antics after the runs of Walter White, Don Draper, and other lesser antiheroes who played a huge role in prestige drama in the past decade put me in a distinctly different viewing mindset than those who followed along with The Shield as the show aired. I had less patience with Mackey than I might have, and I hated, hated him, from day one. Still, his charisma is impossible to deny, and I became invested in his increasingly complicated plans and plots, even while rooting for him to fail.

The problem for me with the first season, which gradually improved over the course of the show, was that in the first season everyone treated Mackey as if not only was he a model cop, but that he was one of the best. What drove me crazy was the fact that no one at the department could see that this guy was trouble, that he was a problem, that he didn’t and wouldn’t listen to anybody, even aside from the far worse deeds he had already committed that no one even knew about or suspected at the time.

Vic Mackey was poison to himself and everyone he touched. He was morally compromised beyond the point of no return in the pilot. In Breaking Bad, Walter White starts off a relative innocent; a mild-mannered science teacher with cancer and everything starts to ramp up very slowly. Not so with Vic. What may, even after all the crazy and illegal and detestable shit he pulled over the course of seven seasons, have been the single worst and most severe act happened right at the end of the first episode. This wasn’t a crime serving a convoluted and unethical but justice-minded attempt to keep the streets safe or round up bad guys. This wasn’t even taking advantage of others’ illegal activity, thieving from thieves, like the robbing of the Armenian money train. Nope, this was a murder of an innocent fellow police officer who had done nothing but look into Vic and his team. There was never any coming back from that.

And so that was the story of The Shield, when boiled down. The four members of the strike team, who dabbled in all sorts of illegal activity trying to keep out ahead of their misdeeds, believing they could as long as they stuck together, while pausing to occasionally do some police work.

It’s all about that strike team, and the dynamics between the core four. They’re a family, until they’re not. Family, we hear that term so often. Lem, Vic, Shane, and Ronnie.

Vic is the ultimate narcissist, messianic, with a god complex; he believes he’s well above the law. Nothing can stop him. He has a plan for everything, and he’s gotten away so many times, that the law is his own personal play thing.

Shane was the Vic’s closest friend; he had been with Vic the longest. He was the weakest member, he would have caved fastest, he was the most foolhardy member, and he was the biggest follower. At the start of the show he would have followed Vic anywhere in the world. Unlike Vic, he’s open to what they are; corrupt and willing to take advantage of their position for a buck whenever the opportunity strikes; he’s more craven about it, but more honest. When he thinks Vic is being unnecessarily pious he calls him out, but his lack of caution gets him into trouble with Antwon Mitchell. Maybe that’s what helped put him on the path towards his assassination of Lem, which was the single key moment in the strike team’s downfall. Shane was never quite able to shake Vic, and what he said in his murder-suicide note in the finale was poignant. Once he met Vic, his road to ruin began. He was a born follower and Vic a leader, and they were set from there. The murder-suicide at the end was probably the most heartbreaking moment in the finale, and was another sign of Shane’s weakness, and his inherent tragedy. No matter what he tried, he could never beat Vic at his own game; he would never be as far ahead.

Lem was the conscious of the strike team, which is a relative designation. Jon Kavanaugh couldn’t turn him because he was loyal above everything else, but he was right to target Lem. Lem had a heart, and though he was influenced willingly by Vic’s charisma, he remained softer, less coarse than the rest of the team, and is the member who would most likely have had his career run above board had he never met Vic and the crew. And it’s not a coincidence that Lem, who looks angelic by strike team standards, had no idea about Terry. He was innocent of this foundational event but when he bit the apple and found out, which might have turned him against Vic when it happened, it was already far too late, he had already done far too much to come back from.

Ronnie was cold and calculating and smart. Ronnie wasn’t as craven about hording money when he could as Shane, but he was always willing to pick up a cool buck, and was the biggest supporter of the Armenian money train robbery initially. The most risk-averse, Ronnie was the only member of the strike team who was smart with his money and didn’t show his hand to Kavanaugh. Of course, Ronnie’s personal mistake came in trusting Vic. Ronnie might well have turned on Shane or Lem, I think. Shane was weak, and Lem had a conscience, and both of those could have been considered flaws which Ronnie would capitalize on and then make the best deal for himself. But he never would have doubted Vic. Oh, he would have persuaded Vic to try another plan and he did, but when it came down to it, Vic was his leader. Ronnie wanted to run, and Vic wouldn’t let him. Ronnie says that Vic taught him everything he knew, and he’s not lying. He was in his debt up to the point where Vic stabbed him right in the back.

Vic seemed to engender that loyalty from many, but particularly from the strike team who over and over and over he said he considered family. This loyalty was the one so-called-admirable quality of Vic’s that remained by the end; he had done all these terrible things, but stayed true to his guys at all times, even when their mistakes had nothing to do with him. And then he turned on Ronnie.

Vic held out when many would have caved. There can be no doubt about it. When the time came, however, he showed his true colors. He sold his man out. I’m not saying this because I respect Vic’s loyalty, though I suppose if I’m forced to respect something about Vic, it would have been that. I’m saying this  because Vic cares about Vic’s loyalty, and though he’d never admit it, because he’d never admit a personal flaw, because he’s simply not capable of that level of self-reflection – always forward, never backward – and his betrayal of Ronnie shows that the emperor has no clothes. Claudette knew as much; that’s why she arrested Ronnie with Vic right there to watch up close and personal.

A second entry of thoughts will be coming soon.

Spring 2015 Review: The Comedians

29 Apr

The Comedians

The Comedians tries every tack in the modern sitcom toolbox to get laughs, but along the way proves that it while it uses all these tools, it imitates but doesn’t really quite pick up on what makes any of these techniques work. Though the show ended up not being nearly as bad by any means as I anticipated from its endless barrage of commercials (a backhanded compliment if there ever was one), ultimately it’s still unsuccessful at getting laughs. There are a number of ideas that have worked in other’s hands and will again, but not here.

The Comedians is extremely meta, which of course screams its connection with the type of modern comedy young, hip people (myself included) revere. Billy Crystal, within the show, playing a version of himself, pitches FX on a sketch show starring himself; the network is interested, but only if he’ll co-star with Josh Gad as two equal partners. The two meet and find they don’t particularly care for each other, but eventually agree to do the show when they realize the network won’t move forward any other way. The pilot is shown as a making-of documentary style affair taking us from their discussions with FX and first meetings with one another to the taping of the first episode.

As mentioned above, The Comedians mimes a panoply of relatively recent sticoms. Curb Your Enthusiasm is probably the single greatest influence. The pilot of The Comedians resembles the movie that began Curb, which purported to be a behind-the-scenes look Larry David trying to get a stand up special on HBO (replace HBO with FX, and stand up special with sketch show, and you’ve got The Comedians). There are several other similarities to Curb. There’s the portrayal of real celebrities as unlikeable, arrogant, stupid, and eccentric; well-exaggerated versions of themselves. It’s Always Sunny and Curb were masters of the unlikeable people do horrible things comedy The Comedians reaches for. There’s an attempt at awkward humor of shows like Curb, The Office, and Peep Show. Billy and Josh’s first dinner was incredibly awkward as they both acted like weirdos and Billy callously apologized to fictional-and-real-life director Larry Charles (more meta), after he fired him within the show, leading Charles to think he was rehired, while Crystal merely wanted apologize for the manner of his firing.

The Comedians is filled with cutaways to documentary-style interviews conducted later that have become de rigueur starting with The Office (also prominent in Parks and Recreation and Modern Family). It also takes the 30 Rock approach to sketches; the sketches within the fake sketch show are obviously terrible, and the show attempts to highlights that by just showing some ridiculous short bits.

So, you get it. The creators have clearly been watching TV for the past decade. That’s not a bad thing, and I love most of the shows they crib from, and some of my favorite shows have been great but largely unoriginal. Unfortunately, while they get some of the methods and gimmicks that were used in many great shows during that time period, that forget that these gimmicks are just methods of delivery for well-written jokes; if the jokes stink, the most clever methods of telling those jokes in the worl, won’t help make them funny.  The Comedian, is just filled largely with jokes that are not good, and the show is not funny. The Comedians is not offensive, it’s not cringeworthy, it’s not full of the type of Chuck Lorre-delivered lazy tropes or attempts at troublingly out-of-date easy laughs. It’s just not funny either.

Will I watch it again? No. It was not funny. Unlike some not very good comedies, The Comedians clearly has some ideas of what is good, but they’re nowhere close to be being fully formed, or realized.

Sons of Anarchy: Lean into the Hate

5 Nov

Sons of Anarchy


Here we are, four episodes away from the series finale of Sons of Anarchy, closing the book on seven seasons of murder, motorcycles, and men of mayhem. At the beginning of the season, I presumed Jax would likely end up dead, as would several other members of the club. At this point, nine episodes later, not only does that prediction still hold true, but I’m straight out rooting for it. I want everybody in the club to die. And that’s okay.

Earlier in the season, I began actively rooting against the club, and that initially made the show difficult to watch; while I’ve enjoyed may shows where I disliked the protagonist, it was tough to root against almost every character at the same time, especially after I hadn’t for most of the run.  Of course, these Sons have been murdering their way through six seasons, and yet, while I have had frequently ambivalent feelings towards them, I wasn’t actively rooting against them despite their continued violence, for, what boils down primarily to three reasons.

First, although they were obviously terrible criminals, there was an even worse antagonist, Clay, to crystallize hate towards. When everyone’s bad, sometimes rooting interests are relative, and Clay was clearly worse than everyone else. Second, there’ has always been this (possibly apocryphical) idea that even though Al Capone was a terrible criminal, his neighbors loved him, because he protected his immediate community. There was initially this idea, that even though in reality Charming seems like the murder capital of California and at times a war zone, there was a veneer that the Sons were always out to support the town, to be pillars of the community in their own bizarre way, and that even though they knew they did bad shit, that the goal was to keep it out of their hometown. Third, Jax, from day one of reading his dad’s notebook, always seemed to have an aspirational plan to take the club and himself to a better place. He was going to get them out of guns, out of drugs, out of violence (merely to porn and prostitution, but, hey, it’s all relative again). And even though this plan seemed to go two steps backward for every three steps forward, there was hope in Jax’s eyes, and his words, and even though the club’s actions always seemed to belie his alleged vision, I wanted to believe him and so I did. And he even showed something positive when he agreed to go to jail to protect Tara, an outcome which would never come to pass.

No more. Not only is there no more vision in action, there’s not even any more talk of vision. With the death of Tara, it was revenge, come hell or high water, with no plan for afterwards, as is obvious to anyone around him. Unfortunately, the fellow members of his club are too loyal to see this or fight it if they do.. Jax seems to know what he’s descended into; even by his own dismal standards, he’s sunk to new lows, killed more, betrayed more. While it’s hard to say he wouldn’t have killed a rival gang member or even an innocent before without thinking twice, he certainly wouldn’t have simply murdered in cold bale a fellow Son without the proper due process as he does to Jury, head of the Indian Hills chapter this season. His own club knows its wrong, and Chibbs, his number two is skeptical, but they follow him to the ends of the Earth on his say so, to their death, likely.

So, I’ve decided to lean in towards the hate, towards the rooting against the club, and towards their eventual deaths or imprisonment. The show was hard to watch when I was rooting for no one, but it’s easier when I’m actively rooting against the Sons. Thus, when Bobby was shot by August Marks, instead of anger, or shock, or despair, I felt gleeful. Perhaps Bobby had done nothing special to ensure his untimely death, but everyone in on Jax’s plan is in way too far now. They all had a chance to get out, but followed their leader down into depths they really can’t come back from.

There are three characters with remaining moral consciences worth saving – Wendy, Unser, and Nero, all of which have naviated the difficult waters of survival and immorality and come out cleaner, relative to the gang, and I hope that at least two of them make it, which I would consider a pretty solid ratio. Everyone else, I’m looking forward to many of them dying in disturbing ways over the course of the next few episodes. Bring it on.


Summer 2014 Review: Partners

27 Aug


(I’ve fallen way behind on both my TV viewing and writing, but not to worry – dear reader – I don’t give up that easy – I’ve rapidly been viewing the first episode of every new television show of 2014, with the intent of seeing them all by the end of August. To facilitate a respective blog catchup, I’ll be posting lots of much shorter entries on each show)

We take the good with the bad, right. FX recently invented the 10-90 sitcom model with Anger Management in which a cheap sitcom gets 10 episodes aired daily over two weeks; if they’re enough of a ratings success, the network picks up 90 more episodes.  This insane model is designed towards syndication success and is easily worthy of a longer post on another occasion. Saint George starring George Lopez and Partners are FX’s two attempts with the model this year.

The most important takeaway for now, about the model, is that’s it’s pretty much designed to produce, at best, mediocre sitcoms. I honestly have no idea who watches these shows. The first example, as mentioned above, was Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management, and I’ve never met anyone who watches it, but that’s not particularly surprising considering my social circle. I speak not just because of how cheaply these sitcoms are made, or because of the little attention lavished on their quality; they’re generally worked around a fickle premise and a down-on-his-luck star, two in Partners’ case, with Martin Lawrence and Kelsey Grammer. While those factors are certainly prohibitive, most importantly, even the best comedy writers in the world couldn’t craft 100 great episodes of anything in a short period of time.

Partners isn’t good. If you’ve by any chance heard of Partners, you know that, and if you hadn’t, you know that by the time you’ve gotten to this paragraph. Pushed, I’d say it’s better than Saint George, but that’s more about a battle of one downsmanship than anything else. Kelsey Grammer plays the Kelsey Grammer character. He’s an arrogant attorney who has recently been fired from his father’s firm for one too many ethical lapses. Martin Lawrence plays a do-gooder attorney who everyone loves, but who doesn’t have the gumption or attitude to stand up for himself, particularly in his divorce settlement. Them being opposites, they naturally need each other; Lawrence can use Grammer’s borderline-unethical take-what’s-mine mentality, while Grammer needs a place to practice, and maybe some exposure to someone people actually like. Supporting characters include Lawrence’s sassy mother, his teenage daughter, his gay assistant, and Grammer’s truant high school aged step daughter.

You can see every joke a mile away; the characters are crude and broadly-drawn; none of the 22 minutes is spent trying to imply there’s anything more to any of the characters than you can see in your first five second interactions. Grammer guesses that the gay assistant’s favorite legal film is Legally Blonde, and the assistant, rather than be offended, naturally cedes that Grammer’s correct. It’s less offensive than it could be, which is about the highest compliment I can possibly give this show and more than I thought I would, but it’s just as bad and pointless as you and everyone thinks.

Will I watch it again? No. There’s nothing more to be said. I rarely feel like I give too much credit to shows simply by writing about them, but I almost do here. My logic in reviewing every show has been that every show, no matter how bad, deserves to be mentioned, for all the steps that go on just to get any show to air. These 10-90 shows that absolutely nobody cares about at all really test that theory.

Spring 2014 Review: Fargo

16 Apr

Freeman and Thornton

There’s an old quote, most often credited to Tolstoy, but I’m not quite confident in , that there are two kinds of stories. “A man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”

FX’s Fargo is certainly of the stranger comes to town variety.

Fargo does not borrow characters or the exact story from the 1996 Coen brothers masterpiece. Rather, it takes place in a similar world to the film with an attempt at to mimic the film’s tone, and with a story that is along the lines of Fargo’s story with a couple of character analogues.

Martin Freeman plays Lester Nygaard, basically the William H. Mason character, Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson is basically the Francis McDormand character, and Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo is some combination of the two thugs Macy hires. Beyond that, the plot involves a loser-ish guy working with a devious criminal or criminals, and bringing those criminal or criminals involved with the murder of his wife. And that’s about it, plotwise.

Poor Lester Nygaard is about as low in Fargo’s pilot as any of American culture’s great losers. Some of this is brought upon himself, but no man deserves the sort of torment he takes. He’s terrible at his job selling insurance, and maybe that’s on him.  Next, though, he’s harried by an old high school bully on the street, who, along with his two dingbat sons, threatens him, as if they were 16 and not 40. This bully also shares with Lester that fact that he received a hand job from Lester’s wife way back when. Lester’s younger brother tells him later that same day that Lester embarrasses him so much that he tells people that Lester is dead. Lester’s wife, after Lester breaks the laundry machine while trying to fix it and reclaim his manhood after the slight from his brother, tells him she made a mistake marrying him and he was no man at all. It’d almost be hard to go all Falling Down after a day like that.

At this point, something important happens, but let’s get back to that stranger. Lester could never act on his own without prompting. He’s powerless; in fact, that’s part of his problem. He can’t stand up to his bully, he can’t stand up to his brother, he can’t stand up to his wife.  He breaks his nose, not by slipping and falling, not be being beaten up by the bully, but rather because he slammed it into a window after merely being startled by the bully. The guy can not catch a break. In the hospital, he meets Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne, who chats with Lester about his bully situation and offers, out of either the goodness of his heart, or the simple enjoyment of playing with others’ fates, or some primal sense of justice, to kill the bully. When Lester doesn’t say yes, but doesn’t say no, Lorne (who I don’t remember actually introducing himself) considers it a yes.

Lorne is everything Lester isn’t. Confident, suave, intimidating. Fight Club comes to mind; Lorne is Lester;s Tyler Durden; taking control. If there was an M. Night Shyamalan movie, you’d assume they were the same character. Thankfully, they’re not, but the point stands and Lorne has given Lester the most minimal amount of courage to snap out of his powerlessness for just a second, and that break leads to the event which really sets the show in motion.

Lester knows that Lorne’s killed his local bully. He doesn’t know what to do; he’s glad and infuriated at the same time. It’s out of his power. He goes home, attempting to man up and fix the washing machine, as previously mentioned, and his wife delivers those devastating words about his manhood and the mistake of marrying him.  His wife goads him, asking him, what is he going to do, when Lester protests her comments. “Are you going to hit me?,” she says knowing that this is sad, old, pathetic Lester Nygaard, and hitting someone, anyone, is not in his playbook. But she (probably nor he) doesn’t know about the power of Lorne’s influence even in their short encounter, egging him on, telling him he can be someone in control of his life, and in this one, tragic break, Lester snaps, hits his wife  on the head with a wrench and she’s dead.

Events follow which involve Lorne killing the sheriff; think. Lester, back from his temporary moment of power and control, takes a way out that fits far more with his personality; he runs into the wall, and pretends that he was a victim right aside the sheriff and his wife.

The tone is just right. It hits that Coen tone that Fargo the movie does so well, melding screwball comedy with violent thriller.

Where the plot goes from here, I have no idea. There are a couple more twists and turns that go on that I’ve left out, and it seems like notable actors and actresses appear every couple of minutes (Kate Walsh, Keith Carradine, Colin Hanks, just to name a few in the first episode, with many more appearing in future episodes). Some shows, generally those big epic sci-fi/supernatural serial shows, try to sell viewers with a big plot hook and mystery in the pilot. Fargo sells itself on tone. The show simply reeks of quality, and I’m excited to see where the full season leads.


Will I watch it again? Yes. This is good, strong, interesting television, one of the best debuts this year. I’d say starting from the same territory one of the great movies of the last 20 years is cheating, but within the first episode, the show distinguished itself on its own.

End of Season Report: Justified, Season 5

9 Apr


I’m a huge fan of Justified. I ranked it #5 in my rankings of every show that I watched in 2013, which covered Justified’s wonderful fourth season. Unfortunately, while still a highly enjoyable show, Justified delivered a fifth season that was not up to the caliber of its past four seasons, and I can’t see it appearing nearly as highly ranked next year.

There’s plenty to say about the season but here are the central problems, which I’ll break down in further detail below. First, the antagonists were not as compelling as in previous seasons. Second, the season meandered and never seemed to have a strong sense of direction propelling it forwards. Third, the finale was somewhat anticlimactic and seemed more like a set up for next year’s final season big bad epic showdown between Raylan and Boyd than any sort of satisfying conclusion to this season.

There were good pieces, which I will touch upon, and as with most very high level television, it’s enjoyable episode to episode even when not as satisfying as its peak. That said, it suffers the curse fairly or not of being held to higher expectations, and it’s against those very high expectations, and not the expectations for an average series that Justified is judged.

Justified’s first season was a largely a compilation of one-off stories, slowly building the world which Justified inhabits, before ending with a multi-episode arc. Since then, each season has had a strong serial storyline which guided the season along. Seasons two and three had primary antagonists – Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett in season two and Neal McDonough’s Robert Quarles in season three. Bennett’s superiority to Quarles as an antagonist was the largest part of what made season two superior to season three.  Season four broke that formula and worked around the search for a man who had been missing since the ‘70s but was living right under the nose of both the police and the criminal element in Kentucky, unrecognizable in the present to anyone still living. Season five revolved around the trials and tribulations of the Crowe family and in particular primary antagonist Daryl Crowe.

Daryl Crowe just wasn’t up to those previous antagonists’ standards for two primary reasons. First, he simply didn’t carry the weight and intimidation that the previous antagonists (or of course series long antagonist Boyd) did. While a certified genius compared to his Crowe brethren, he is still fairly incompetent; it was never believable he’d pose much of a threat to Raylan or Boyd or to anyone else. The show tried to take care of this somewhat by having him become an employee/minority partner of Boyd’s halfway through the season, but it was somewhat hard to believe that Boyd would even place a small amount of trust in Daryl. He wasn’t a particularly good criminal, he wasn’t a particularly scary criminal, and he just never really found a place in Kentucky or in Justified.

Second, forget Daryl’s plot role. He just wasn’t very compelling. His brother Dewey is a complete idiot, but he’s hilarious, and always lights up the screen whenever he appears. Daryl didn’t. Wynn Duffy, who I was glad to greet as a regular this past season, always spoke his piece quickly and dryly, and had a way of being as wittily direct as Boyd is loquacious. Daryl simply didn’t have the same on-screen charisma as any of these other baddies. When he was on the screen, you never felt like you didn’t want to turn away. There was nothing about him that stood out.

It’s likely related to this first issue that the season meandered and felt directionless at times. Seasons two through four ratcheted up as they went forward, building tension until reaching a satisfying climax and resolution. I could generally tell approximately where Justified was in the season by the tension of the events on screen.

It’s not to say that Justified is tied to these rules of how a season must go, but past seasons were stronger and this is one reason why. There may well be more interesting paths for a season to take, and other shows may thrive on a meandering climax-less journey, but Justified season five certainly did not.

Characters came in and out of nowhere, and for most of the first half of the season I just took it on faith because Justified had yet to not deliver, but by the finale, or really by the last few episodes, I did wonder what the plan was for the season as a whole, if it changed, and if it was developed somewhat as the season went along. It felt like the writers hit a couple of snafus and weren’t sure exactly where to go.

I love Boyd as a character but it’s beginning to feel like he gets away from slippery situations one time too often. He’s smart and he’s good, but he isn’t that smart and that good to evade both the law and rival criminal elements for this long, especially if he keeps taking on far more of a burden than he can handle, like he did this season with heroin, not to mention a cartel which was a lot harder to battle than his Dixie mafia rivals.

This is all leading to the third complaint. Ultimately by the time we got to the end of the season it felt like less of a satisfying season long conclusion than just a get-ready-for-the-final-season hurrah where the two primary characters through five seasons of the show, Raylan and Boyd, finally go head-to-head, with the implication that since it’s the final season, one of them will actually go down for good. Eva’s time in jail had some interesting character building moments, and I’m certainly not claiming it was worthless by any means, but the way it ended made it feel at least partly like it was simply a way to separate Eva and Boyd and ultimately get Eva to turn on Boyd and cooperate with Raylan.

The season ended with a chase for Daryl which was less than inspiring; no one thought Daryl would get away, and Wendy shooting Daryl was fairly predictable by the time it happened and relatively uninteresting. Boyd outwitting the cartel employees was equally anticlimactic. Although they were legitimately scary dudes, the tension was cut somewhat by the fact that Boyd had zero chance of not coming out of the situation on top. Overall, the ending of the season seemed largely like an afterthought to steer us towards season six.

The best Crowe this season other than the always delightful Dewey was actually young Kendal. Justified did pull one trick from up its sleeve – hiring a surprisingly good child actor (Jacob Lofland, who was also excellent in Mud). Some of the best moments of the season involved Raylan with Kendal, and though Raylan’s obvious connection to Kendal, being raised by some serious criminals, is hardly subtle, the scenes pack power.

Like a Faulkner novel, Justified is about the power of history, and the inability to free one’s self from it. Harlan county and its environs are composed of families who have been doing what they do, often criminal activity in Justified’s case, for generations. Boyd’s daddy was a criminal, and he became a criminal. Raylan’s daddy was a criminal, and Raylan became a lawman, but the reasons were as much because of his father’s criminal behavior as Boyd’s becoming a criminal was. Family is essential in Justified’s world as an inescapable force from which people can’t free themselves no matter how much they might want to – the Bennett’s, the Crowders, the Givens’ and others. Even third season antagonist Robert Quarles’ aggression stemmed in part from his lack of family; he was adopted by the Tonin’s but no matter what he did, could never be seen as their real son. These themes are powerful and generally handled very strongly on Justified. The Crowes, another criminal family bringing down Wendy and Kendal, couldn’t compete with those other families, but I earnestly felt for Kendal, ruthlessly manipulated by his uncle and unprotected by his mother who was unable to, until the season’s end, find the strength to separate herself from Daryl’s orbit.

Raylan’s deteriorating relationship with Art was also a highlight of the season. Art’s punching Raylan in the bar was the most satisfying cheap shot on an arrogant bastard since Mike clocked Walter White. It’s hard not to root for Raylan in the big picture but it’s also only right that his general approach to simply doing whatever he wants on the job without much concern for what’s best for the team actually starts only to rub his boss the wrong way and have consequences for Raylan. It’s good to see Art start to stand up to Raylan and stop letting him get with anything.

What it comes down to is that I hope Justified has a blast in its last season (and I don’t mean this as a pun on Boyd’s love of explosives). This is a show I want to look forward to going out at the absolute top of its game. Hopefully, this past fifth season is merely remembered as a little bit of a weak spot leading up to a powerful finale, rather than a sign that peak Justified was in the past.


Summer 2013 Review: The Bridge

12 Jul

They're on THE BRIDGE

A body is found on a bridge which connects America and Mexico across the Rio Grande, between Juarez and El Paso.  A determined local young female American detective who presumably has a form of mild autism – probably Asburgers or I’m not sure if it’s just autism spectrum disorder now – (Diane Kruger, of Inglorious Bastards) is determined to make the case her own.  She works by the book, and due to her disorder, often rubs people the wrong way with a lack of empathy and social norms. She’s guided by her mentor, the only figure in the police station who seemingly she respects or respects her, Lieutenant Hank Wade, who oozes old-school Texas charm (Ted Levine, who has come a long way from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs) and who appears to be somewhere between Fred Thompson in Law & Order and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men.

Wade agrees to try to hold off the feds and other cops from her case, but she’s forced to work with a Mexican detective, Marco Ruiz (Academy Award nominee Demián Bichir), who, after turning the case over to her initially, shows renewed interest when it turns out one of the bodies was a young woman whose other remains (only the legs were found on the bridge) were found near his home.

They start investigating as a duo.  She’s the more classic single-minded cop, focused on doing things immediately, correctly, and following procedure – she wants to report the Ruiz for allowing an ambulance through part of the crime scene on the bridge where the bodies were found even though the man in the ambulance likely would have died if he hadn’t (he dies anyway, but that’s not the point).  He’s more laid back, but interested, an honest detective who from a city where everyone is corrupt either because they want in, or because everyone else is already doing it, so what’s the point in even bothering.  She constantly lambastes him for the shoddy procedure he and the entire Mexican law enforcement division shows, not understanding the challenges he faces and that he has to carefully save up his reserves of actually giving a shit for when it can do something.

Juarez is famous for both its overall murder rate, its drug violence, and its mysterious and prolific murders of women, largely young women who work in the factories and manufacturing centers that have come to dominate Juarez’s landscape (If you’re really interested, I recommend Roberto Belano’s excellent but crazy long novel 8666 about a fictional Juarez equivalent).

This presents an interesting angle to work with above and beyond the simple solving of a murder, such as the  cooperation and divide between Mexico and America, trying to find justice navigating the famously corrupt and troubled Juarez government.  The border is a contentious area, and it’s certainly remarkable the difference that the border makes; El Paso is extremely safe, while Juarez is crazily dangerous and Mexican authorities have struggled to get any handle on the crime problems, trying to figure out to supply effective law enforcement without being paid off or intimidated by the cartels.  Now, it was entirely unnecessary and weirdly on the nose then for a recorded message from the presumed killer to spell this out blatantly, telling our detectives that El Paso’s a pretty safe place, while Juarez is crazy dangerous, and hell, that ain’t fair, so he’s going to be terrorizing El Paso for a while.

There’s two other strands to the plot, outside of the primary buddy cop duo.  First, the man who was in the ambulance crossing the bridge at the beginning ends up dying at the hospital anyway.  His widow starts to find out some shady parts of his life she didn’t know about, leading to a scene at the end of the first episode when she opens the barn door that will seemingly lead to some sort of unsavory surprise.

Secondly, there’s an American in a trailer in the desert who has kidnapped a young girl from Mexico.  We don’t know if he’s related to the main murders or not, but he seems at the least like he’s up to no good, and one presumes he’ll be connected in to the main plot somehow or another if not as simply the killer.

The first episode of The Bridge was above average, but not great.  The police scenes seemed to only be a couple steps ahead of the standard police tropes, and sometimes got lazy and fell back into them for a minute or two.  At its less tropy, The Bridge felt dark but more importantly grittily real, highlighting the fascinating setting of the border through location shots not only of the border but of the police stations and deserts that suggested the surroundings.  At its lesser moments, the three most prominent cop characters settled into established roles, and Diane Kruger’s character in particular recalled, and not in a good way (I don’t think there is a good way), the main character from The Killing.

It’s a cop show.  That doesn’t mean it’s just a cop show, but when you choose to make a cop show, you’re going up in a sense against every cop show that’s ever been on TV.  It’s hard to be new.  When I see a crusty old sheriff, while I should be focusing on just this particular sheriff, my brain rushes to compare him to every similar sheriff character I know, and that makes it harder for any one cop show to separate itself.

There were glimpses of separation, of becoming more than a cop show set on the border, which is the bare minimum I like to see from a pilot that I’m going to consider continuing to watch, but I hope that this is a launching point rather than an exact model.

Will I watch it again?  Yeah, I’ll give it another shot.  The show is only outrunning tropes by a couple seconds at this point, but that’s enough to give it an effort to separate itself.  I’m wary, but there were enough good parts that I’ll hope for the best.

Five Alternative Premises for “The Bridge”

11 Jul

Who wouldn't want this as their title screen?

The Bridge, which debuted on FX last night, is about a Mexican detective and an American detective working together to solve the mystery behind a pair of bodies left on the border between El Paso and Juarez.  It’s not a bad premise, and my review of the pilot will be out in this space tomorrow.  However, upon hearing the show’s title, a couple of far superior premises sprang to mind.  Here’s five of them:

1.  The Brooklyn Bridge is New York’s most famous bridge.  Here’s the amazing story behind the people who built what was then the longest suspension bridge in the world upon its completion in 1883.  Starting with the untimely death of original architect John Augustus Roebling, the show follows his son, Washington Roebling, who had to do his work from afar after he came down with depression sickness, and Washington’s remarkable wife, Emily Warren Roebling who learned about bridge building on the fly as she acted as a crucial link between the sick Washington and engineers on the site.

2.  The Bridge is a period drama centered around the group of German expressionist artists known as Die Brücke (“The Bridge” in German), including  Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel,Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Emil Nolde who came together in Dresden in the early 1900s.  The group of artists dreamed of taking on the current establishment by reviving older artistic traditions, publishing in a statement, “We call all young people together, and as young people, who carry the future in us, we want to wrest freedom for our actions and our lives from the older, comfortably established forces.”  Follow the movement at their studio, where the charismatic and ultra-talented artists flouted social conventions at the same time they were flouting artistic ones.

3.  The Bridge is the in-depth story of some of the megasupporters of Chelsea football, centered on the characters’ time together in the Matthew Harding Stand of Chelsea’s home stadium, Stamford Bridge.  The show focuses on lives of a small cadre of otherwise relatively mild-mannered supporters as they eagerly look to make it through the week to spend their time cheering all out for their beloved Blues and bonding with one another after every Chelsea goal.   The Bridge tells the story of how their obsession with Chelsea both brings their lives completely together for the better while sometimes almost causing them to fall apart.

4.  New York’s Queensbridge is the largest public housing works in North America, with almost 7,000 people residing there.  The Bridge revolves around a few residents of these projects, detailing the constant everyday struggles and little victories, the families making it work everyday in the light of the drug trade, and the young people hoping to get out, some using music as their gateway.  Queensbridge’s most famous ex-resident Nas narrates.

5.  The Bridge begins with a handful of characters making their way in the go-go lifestyle of the late ’80s on Long Island, and is prominently soundtracked by Billy Joel tunes from the album of the same name.  In each episode, we see, in addition, stories about the same characters at different points in time set to contemporaneous Joel music.  The segmented time periods allow for complex storytelling, with each time featuring its own stories, which are cleverly interrelated over the course of a season with the stories from the other eras.  The Billy Joel soundtrack provides a musical connection that both links together the different time periods, while making clear the specific times in which each story is taking place.