Tag Archives: Game of Thrones

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2015 Edition: 22-19

19 May

All hour longs, three with their first seasons, and the fourth one of the most successful cable shows on television. Here we go.

Intro here and 58-55 here and 54-51 here and 50-47 here and 46-43 here and 42-39 here and 38-35 here and 34-31 here and 30-27 here and 26-23 here.

22. Wolf Hall – 2014: Not Eligible

Wolf Hall

Based on a couple of popular and excellent books by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall is the most British miniseries imaginable, a period piece following Cromwell up through his his rise to become the chief adviser to the tempestuous and mercurial Henry VIII. The series is like Game of Thrones shorn of the spectacle and composed of the scenes with people talking to one another. It’s filled with complicated conversations about weighty issues and convoluted royal law composed of witty rapport and deals with many of the same questions about power and class. Mark Rylance is absolutely brilliant as Cromwell and grounds the story in a stark humanity.

21. Making a Murderer – 2014: Not Eligible

Making a Murderer

The most harrowing and depressing show on television last year, it outstrips Game of Thrones and the many other serious and depressing shows currently on TV because everything on it is entirely real. I shouted at the screen early and often at the travesties of justice being committed left and right, and no show so brilliantly lays out the myriad problems with the American justice system in just a few hours. Through one incredible case rife with twists and turns, captured every step along the way by the documentarians, everything you didn’t realize about how the American police, lawyers, and judges work together to put someone in jail, rather than necessarily put the right person in jail is on display, and it’s eye opening. In some ways, the structure and limitations of what can be captured on a documentary can make a series like this hard to move up to the top of this list, but alternately, that makes this potentially the most must-watch show on here.

20. Jessica Jones – 2014: Not Eligible

Jessica Jones

Daredevil’s a pretty good show, but it only set the table for the superior Jessica Jones. Jones has superpowers, but her show is more a detective noir than a typical superhero show, even a street level superhero show like Daredevil. Although a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, self-hating private eye may sound routine for the genre, Krysten Ritter’s Jones is much more than a trope; she’s an emotionally damaged fully-fledged morally divided hero crippled by her nemesis who controlled her for several months, traumatizing her, and  who looms over the entire season. David Tenant, as the absolutely terrifying Kilgrave, delivers one of the scariest antagonist performances in years. Jones must work with her best friend Trish to vanquish him, and their relationship is another high point of the show. Carrie-Anne Moss as power attorney Jeri Hogarth is a strong character as well until it feels like three quarters of the way through the show, everything that happens to her was happened solely to make a particularly plot contrivance believable, and a couple of the male characters aren’t quite so great (I’m looking at you, neighbor Malcolm (edit: friend reminded me to add the horrible Robyn). Still, Jessica Jones is the rare comic book show that everyone, comic media fan or not, should enjoy.

23. Game of Thrones – 2014: 6

Game of Thrones

As I said earlier this entry, the number of great TV shows that aired in 2015 is higher than ever before, particularly the number of excellent half hours which is forcing consistently excellent hour long shows to drop down the rankings unfairly, and has caused shows which have slipped just an inch to fall a foot. Game of Thrones is one of these shows. Long one of mine and many others’ favorite shows on TV, and one of the few event shows left that you feel like you can’t miss on Sunday lest it be ruined by Monday morning, Game of Thrones continues to be great. But last season felt more unfocused than any before, and particularly, had the Dorne plot, a major new location which contained a few new characters. This part deviated from the book for space reasons and never quite worked, trying to fix each mistake with a worse one. I try not to compare the books to the show, in terms of quality, as much as possible, because it’s a rigged game in terms of 10 hours a season vs. hundreds of pages, but it’s impossible not to. Last season had me firmly on the side of preferring the book, which is honestly much more of a compliment to the wonderful books than an insult to the wonderful show. It’s simply a can’t win. It’s a very good show that we have here with a huge budget and we shouldn’t lose site of being grateful to have it.

Advertisements

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.

End of Season Report: Game of Thrones – Season 5, Part 1

15 Jun

Game of Thrones

There was a lot to chew on in this season of Game of Thrones, as bad things continued to happen to good people and bad people alike, and there was more and more divergence from the books, even as the show got ahead of the book in certain storylines leading to some new dynamics for book readers.

A few overall comments and then we’ll work through the primary plots one by one. I have a book reader’s perspective which is hard to completely shed, but I try my best to consider the non-book reader, even though I can never completely understand.

First, Game of Thrones tries to pack an extraordinary amount of material in a mere ten hour-long episodes and that leads the show to take some shortcuts, some of which work, and some of which don’t. Frequently relatively minor characters are replaced by more important characters who were off somewhere else in the books; this is probably the most successful recurring technique the show uses, as the show simply doesn’t have enough time to introduce all these minor characters and have them be meaningful or three dimensional in any way. For example, Arya kills someone based on personal reasons but not Meryn Trant, Loras’s sexuality isn’t what gets Margaery thrown in the Sparrows’ cell, but rather the doings of some other minor character, and a character marries Ramsay Bolton and escapes at the end, but not Sansa. A handful of characters travel with Tyrion towards Meereen, but not Varys. Sometimes these substitutions work better than other times, but it’s a logical policy due to the time constraints.

Second, the show, which gives us plenty of interesting material to chew one and manages to display many levels of depth, sometimes uses obvious and unsubtle shortcuts when it needs to display something quickly and clearly without the mind-of-the-character perspective that writing offers. The most obvious example this season may have been making Meryn Trant, the Kingsguard member who Arya kills, a pedophile. He was already despicable, and was already on Arya’s list; the reason for making him additionally extra terrible eludes me.

Third, sometimes the show just greatly condenses a plotline from the book, trying to shrink it to its essence. Sometimes it works; the Cersei downfall skipped a lot of extraneous detail, which was enjoyable in the context of a thousand page book, but still managed to mostly get across her hubris and paranoia and her final humiliation. This was helped of course by the fact that we’ve at least known Cersei for seasons. The worst example of this was this season’s Dorne plot which was a failure on all levels. They wanted to have their cake and eat it to, include enough to appease the fans and show a new part of the kingdom, but didn’t want to devote enough time to learn and develop a new cast of characters.

We’ll get to Dorne in more detail, but some of the good first. Well, good, for the show. Rarely good for the characters.

First, Stannis. I said most of what I felt about his season’s arc here, but what happened in the last episode contained elements which made me both more and less accepting of the events of the penultimate episode. First, his troops abandoned him after Shireen’s ritual burning, as I and many others predicted they would, and it was certainly vindicating to see that prediction be correct. On the other hand, Stannis is a smart guy, and the result makes it seem even more shocking that he couldn’t have anticipated that outcome beforehand.

Jon Snow’s death is heartbreaking, possibly the most yet in the series, which is really saying something. Will he be back in any form? Book readers have suspected he’ll either come back as a warg or be revived by Melisandre, but the show’s creators are for some reason really pushing the fact that he’s dead and that Kit Harrington’s never coming back, though I’m not sure why they’re trying to spoil the story. His death is absolutely brutal, but I don’t think an example of death for shock value like so many accuse Game of Thrones of (which Game of Thrones may do occasionally, but nowhere near as much as, say, AMC’s The Walking Dead, the current king of the manuver).  There are certainly questions that need to be addressed in a meaningful way regarding Jon, whether with him alive or not; mostly importantly, the question of his parentage, which even the show has taken on this season. To make such a deal out of Jon’s mysterious parentage without that mattering in some way would seem wasteful and feel pointless. That said, Jon accomplished a lot this season and while I felt the battle season at Hardhome was unnecessarily long, he was a legitimately inspiring character who saw the long view when very few others did, and his death sadly makes sense in that context. He was a visionary, but he was simply too radical, moved too fast for the rest of the Night’s Watch, who were unable to see the wildlings as allies against a greater threat, and their increasing disillusionment with Jon was a long time coming.

Dany’s plot had ups and downs. It certainly hurts her to be so far away from everyone else in Westeros, although at least by now we know she’s not getting there anytime soon, and thus can at least stop anticipating her immediately leaving and make peace with the fact we’ll be in Meereen for a while yet. The metaphor of occupier and occupied generally works, and while Dany makes some bad choices along the way, most of her decisions are legitimately difficult, and it’s easy to sympathize with her frustrations when she’s being asked to kowtow to some sinister slaveholders to provide any sort of peace. The Sons of the Harpy were legitimately terrifying in the show and their masks are my favorite prop of the season. The fighting pits scene really took off at their appearance. Tyrion’s arrival greatly raised the interest level and it was gratifying to see the two of them finally meet, even if they were only together for a couple of episodes before Dany dragoned on out of there. Dany clearly has some serious positive credentials for being an inspiring ruler, not the least of which are three awe-inducing dragons, but she also clearly has a lot to learn. It will be fun to see if Tyrion can show her how it’s done in Meereen. Competent rulers in the world of Game of Thrones are few and far between, and Tyrion and his dad may have been the two most competent we’ve seen, though with very different approaches.

Arya’s plot was, like Dany’s, but even moreso, difficult, because of its lack of connection to any other major characters. The choices to replace unfamiliar and far more minor book characters with Jaqen H’ghar and Meryn Trant made a lot of sense, and the show did as well as it could for the most part with one of the stranger and more out there plots, getting at a decent amount of the essence from bits and pieces of storyline, working through Arya’s issues of identity and personal vengeance.

Now, more notes to follow in part 2.

Game of Thrones’ Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Decision

8 Jun

Stannis Baratheon

I’ve read the A Song of Ice and Fire books, and as a book reader, I often find myself comparing and contrasting choices made in the show with those in the book, sometimes agreeing with the decisions of the show runners, sometimes disagreeing, and sometimes understanding their decisions in the context of the show even when I preferred the book’s decisions in the context on the book. There are many shades of grey while comparing the two entities, and though there can be a negative in constantly thinking through every decision the show makes because the books are always in the back of your head, I still prefer having the knowledge, and enjoy considering the different paths of the show vs. the book.

As I mentioned, I’ve disagreed with show choices before. However, I’ve never hated and absolutely despised a choice the show made. Well, until Sunday night. In “The Dance of Dragons,” Stannis decides his only option to press forward to take Winterfell is to sacrifice his one and only child, his only daughter Shireen, to the Lord of Light, by burning her alive. This could still happen in the books, and I’d hate it there as well, though the circumstances would have to at least be somewhat different as the relevant characters are not all the in same place. This turn of events so angered me that I had to pause the show and take 20 minutes to calm down before moving forward because I would have been unable to concentrate on the remaining scenes.

Before I rant further, I’ll explain the case on paper supporting the logic behind Stannis’s sacrifice. Stannis believes it’s his duty to become king, both because it’s his right, as next in line to Robert, because he’s been chosen by the Lord of Light, and because he’s the only man who can protect the seven kingdoms from the coming white walker menace. He’s at a crossroads. He has to go forward and take Winterfell, and hunker down there through winter. He can’t stay where he is, and since Ramsay and his henchmen burned down half their camp and all their food, they either have to go back to Castle Black, where they’d have to remain for winter, or move. They’re at some pretty dire straits, and Stannis believe he’s out of options. He turns to the only option he believes he has left. The Lord of Light’s magic is real; it works. He gets unintentional authorization from Shireen who is desperate to help in any way. Thus, kill his daughter.

So that’s the case. But I’m entirely unconvinced. Stannis has done a lot of terrible things. A lot. He’s burned people alive. A lot. He’s killed his own brother. Still, killing his daughter is much much much worse and crazier than any of those. He’s followed the red god, but he’s wary. He’s not his wife, a total zealot who believes anything Melisandre tells her. He believes it in as much as it works, and he has gotten benefit out of her practices, but he expresses occasional skepticism and doesn’t seem completely under her sway.

I want to concentrate on in-story reasons that this was a terrible move, so let’s even move past the point, while mentioning it, that this makes Stannis a character who is completely impossible to root for in any way. Now, not everyone liked Stannis, though I probably did more than most. But I can’t anymore. He’s now as low as any character, only above the likes of total psychos Ramsay and Joffrey. I’m not sure he’s any better than Roose Bolton.

But moving past that, I just don’t buy it from the character and the environment of the show. Now, I admit, as always, it’s hard for me to separate a character from the book and the show, and sometimes I take qualities that are established in the book and bring them into the show. Still, though. First, as far as Stannis is willing to go, I still don’t believe he would sacrifice his daughter. Stannis is many things, he’s severe, he’s cold, he’s dutiful, and he’s unafraid of making hard choices. But his daughter is his only child. Not only does he very obviously love his child, she is his only heir. Were he to actually become king, she would be the only natural successor, or the seven kingdoms would again descend into chaos. I just don’t believe Stannis would sacrifice his only child, both out of love and because of the value of an heir (Even if a victorious Stannis was unable to change the rules to put a woman on the throne, her value would still be immense as a kingmaker via marriage).

Also, simply, who is going to follow a man who sacrifices his own daughter?

Let’s go with the premise that killing Shireen does have power. I’m not sure how powerful the sacrifice is, but let’s say it’s very powerful and enables the crew to take Winterfell. That’s still not an endgame. Not close. It’s an important win, a very important win, and the biggest yet for Stannis. But there’s a long, long way to go. The book makes the point, which I believe is somewhat made in the show, though less clearly or thoroughly that, if Stannis is going to win the Iron Throne, he needs the support of the people; not all of the people, but enough people to fight for him and prevent him from being overthrown. Sure, some will do it out of duty and some out of fear. In the book, Stannis frees some other villages and forts from the Ironborn, showing the North that he’s there to repel their invaders and thus earning their trust and support. Again, who is going to fight for a man who sacrifices his own daughter? Kinslaying is as as serious a sin as any in Westeros, and Stannis has already done that by killing his brother. Still, that was complicated. This isn’t. Northerners and most Westerosi are already suspicious of the red god. They have their own ways and religions which have been established for a very long time. The show of force may well be enough for them to fear the red god, but enough to rally behind this man and fight for the throne? I’m just not buying it.

I’m not going to stop watching Game of Thrones because of any one decision; there’s too much good stuff, too many compelling characters and plotlines that any one thing can’t damage it. Still, it’s going to take some time to not have this bother me in the back of my mind during each upcoming episode, especially during any scene Stannis is a part of.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2014 Edition: 7-4

6 Apr

Second to last entry. We’re getting close to the top. One cartoon, one miniseries, and two familiar fixtures in the top 10 of these lists. Let’s do it.

Intro here and 43-40 here and 39-36 here and 35-32 here and 31-28 here and 27-24 here and 23-20 here and 19-16 here and one-offs/shows ineligible for the list here and 15-12 here and 11-8 here.

7. The Honourable Woman – 2013: Not Eligible

The Honourable Woman

If it’s a little hard to explain how a slow, deliberately paced character sketch like Olive Kitteridge hooks viewers, it’s incredibly easy to explain how British miniseries The Honourable Woman gets viewers on board. It’s a taut, suspenseful British spy thriller in a classic John le Carre vein. The Honourable Woman follows the ex-Israeli Jewish British brother and sister executives running a company that used to make weapons but now is attempting to install infrastructure in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Buried within their personal histories, their company’s history, and espionage agencies in the UK, US, Israel, and Palestine, are mounds of secrets and lies. Each episode slowly pulls off another layer of the onion that is the story, getting closer and closer to the truth. Every major character holds the truth close to the vest and knows more than some people but less than others. Moreover, The Hounrable Women, perhaps because of its miniseries format, has that very rare attribute: the truly satisfying ending. That is so hard to pull off but so beneficial, leaving a wonderful taste in my mouth as I think about the show months after watching.

6. Game of Thrones – 2013: 2

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is the best epic on TV, spanning dozens of characters and several far-flung locations. The sheer scope of the show in an incredible achievement that no mega-budget series can match, and the show constantly manages to smartly marry very human ideas with blockbuster spectacle. The series impressively avoids getting out of hand despite its breadth, cross-cutting and presenting coherent narratives within episodes in interesting ways, and honing themes about leadership, government, and power, among many others. While some of the fight scenes seem a tad long for a show that needs to squeeze hundreds and hundreds of pages into a ten episode season, they are never anything less than brilliantly directed and choreographed, the biggest this season being the battle at the wall. Admittedly, I’m biased by having read the books, and while I try to be self-aware of that bias, it seeps into my opinions on the show, sometimes favorably, and sometimes less so. Every episode a couple of changes bother me, and most I can put aside due to time constraints or other tv limitations, but occasionally there’s a glaring mess up. This season, the biggest was the Jaime – Cersei rape scene, which came off very differently than in the book, and the biggest problem may have been that the creators didn’t realize that what they put on screen was clearly rape. Still, there’s no show that feels like week-to-week event viewing more than Game of Thrones, no show that makes you look forward to every Sunday as if anything could happen.

5. Rick and Morty – 2013: Not Eligible

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty debuted in 2013, but aired only three episodes. The out-of-nowhere-jump-to-the-top-ten pick of this year (the honorary Eagleheart slot), Rick and Morty is the story of the travels through time and space of Rick, a slightly behind-the-eight-ball teen and Morty, his alcoholic mad scientist grandfather. The characters are bizarro riffs on Doc and Marty from Back to the Future and the plots can get both insanely complicated and hysterically funny. Rick and Morty is hilarious but also engrossing science-fiction, rolling through tropes and homages both generic and specific, and mind-fuckingly confusing plots which reward repeated viewing and stand up as entertaining outside of the laughs. Multiple episodes heavily involve recursion, and the penultimate Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind posits an infinite number of dimensions with an infinite number of Ricks and Mortys. Rixty Minutes, on the other hand, featuring a series of interdimensional television programs was only funny, rather than plotty, but worked incredibly well anyway. Rick and Morty, for a series this off the wall, had a surprisingly high hit rate, and I can’t wait for it to come back.

4. Mad Men – 2013: 7

Mad Men

Mad Men has never had a bad season, but season 6 may have been its weakest. No more though, as the first half of season 7 sees the show back in top form, full of classic moments and episodes, that continue to pad the numbers on an already established inner circle hall of fame case. Only the annals of all-time lists await Mad Men. The season is much more dynamic than the prior season, which felt limited by its dreary Don-Sylvia romance and the didn’t-quite-deliver-on-the-amount-of-attention-paid-to-him Bob Benson. Pete, Peggy, and Don, were all in different places this year, but bonded for the Burger Chef account, which drove much of the middle of the season, with Peggy stepping in as troubled Don’s superior who, because he was still a partner, had only limited power over him, making their already complex relationship increasingly awkward. Roger gets his mojo back (remember when we all thought he was on the brink of a possible suicide attempt?) by assembling a deal to sell SC&P to McCann, overriding Jim Cutler, who eventually joins the unanimous vote to take the deal, because, well, it’s a lot of money. Don’s marriage with Meghan disintegrated, which had seemed inevitable for some time, after both made one more effort to keep something together that clearly wasn’t working any longer. The season went out in style, with an inspired tribute to the great Bert Cooper, which I really wanted to say should have felt totally out of place, but I can’t.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 4-1

14 Feb

Here we are, the final four. Two returnees from last  year’s top four, and two new entrants. All four hour longs. Let’s do it. 4-1.

4. Treme

Let the trombones play

David Simon’s post-Wire paean to post-Katrina New Orleans and the people who live there isn’t The Wire, and I think that’s hurt it in the minds of a lot of people. Tons and tons and tons of people who loved The Wire, many of whom came to The Wire late, refuse to even give Treme a chance. I don’t get it. Someone makes a show that you consider great, and you’re unwilling to even make an effort to watch the first couple of episodes of his next show, especially when it’s critically acclaimed. Well, me telling you to watch it now probably won’t help, but I’ll do it anyway. Treme is sadly over before it’s time, but the final season continued doing everything Treme does so well. While The Wire feels like a story where characters take two steps forward, followed by three steps back, Treme is a little more optimistic; characters take two steps back and three steps forward. There’s plenty of being beaten down by the system, but it turns out David Simon can do hopeful as well as depressing. No one constructs shows that feel more like real life than David Simon, no one constructs more full and inhabited worlds, and no one makes characters that are easier to empathize with and emotions that feel entirely earned. Basically, even though the show is just about people living there lives, there’s really nothing else on TV like it and probably won’t be until the next David Simon show crops up.

3. Rectify

Rectify

The final new spring 2013 drama, three of which made it into the top 10 (what a freshmen class!). Unlike Hannibal or The Americans, Rectify had no problem with originality; I can’t think of any show that was particularly similar to Rectify, in terms of premise and plot. A death row inmate is exonerated after 20 years in prison thanks to DNA evidence, and he tries to fit back in to the real world in a small Georgia town that still believes strongly in his guilt. To say it’s deliberately paced would be an understatement; it makes the early True Detective episodes seem like 24 in comparison. It’s beautiful though, thoughtful, and heartrending. Instead of the deliberate pace being a drain, it’s actually a boon, and the show takes its time to linger and savor; the same way time moves slowly for Daniel, the former inmate, for whom each regular every day experience is new again after 20 years away. Nobody knows how to respond to Daniel; as difficult as it is for him to engage with his family, it’s equally difficult for them to reengage with him. The final scene of the season may have been the most emotional moment I saw watching TV in the entirety of last year.

2. Game of Thrones

In the game of thrones, you win or you die

It’s hard to write these capsules without being a little bit spoil-y but I’ve mostly tried to avoid delivering huge spoilers and I’ll continue to do so here. But I will say no show on TV delivers more shocking moments and huge twists which entirely change the direction of the plot more than Game of Thrones, sometimes turning the entire show on its head. If it was just about plot and aesthetics, Game of Thrones would already be entertaining and a must-watch but there’s so much more. Series author George R.R. Martin, and the writers who translate his work, DB Weiss and David Beinoff, have a talent for creating relatable motivation for almost every character, and making some of the most instantly hatable characters understandable if not likeable. In a world threatened by desperate winter conditions and external threats, Game of Thrones constantly reckons with the nature of power; what are the rules, what are the rights, and what are the responsibilities. The wealthy fight over a throne while the poor struggle merely to survive. Like most great shows, fans can have polarizing opinions about many of the characters and all have credible arguments.

1. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad, bitch

Well, one last time. Breaking Bad delivered a final season and a finale surely to be considered one of the greatest of all time. Even if not every single moment worked, Breaking Bad simply did so much in eight episodes that the success percentage was still absurdly high, and even the very few decisions I disagreed with, I was able to understand the reasoning behind. Breaking Bad told us right from episode one of the final season that they were done playing it slow and safe, as Walt was on the move after confronting Hank. From there it was a non-stop episode to episode roller coaster ride, which led to one of the rare times where I really felt like I couldn’t wait another week for the next episode, although if each episode had come any faster I might have had a heart attack. The last season was so creative, so much happened, the drama was on such high alert; Breaking Bad went for it in a huge way and won. There are so many many riveting and memorable scenes that there are too many to name, but his phone call with Skyler was maybe the emotional high point of the season, while Ozymandias may go down as one of the best episodes of television of all time. One last salute, Breaking Bad, before I won’t be able to rank you anymore. This is how memorable final seasons are done.

TV’s Golden Age Not Necessarily Over Just Yet

8 Nov

The Four PIllars

Andy Greenwald wrote an article on Grantland which probably wasn’t intended to be trolling, but it came off that way to me, and I felt the need to refute it, particularly because people constantly make arguments like this, if not as specific as this in particular. His argument in short is that television’s “Golden Age” is over. I’m very skeptical of the concept of a “Golden Ages” in general; it reeks of nostalgia for times that weren’t necessarily any better or worse than any other, but seem that way in memory, but I’ll follow along. I willing to accept in principle that certain eras aren’t necessarily as good as others, and that all seasons of television are not equal. However, I think both that his argument in broad strokes is wrong and that the claims he makes to get there are wrong a swell. I’ll break it down in further depth below, but quickly, the biggest issue is that his judgment of the entire previous golden era is particularly rendered less valuable because he’s only judging by using the shows at the very top. He then goes out to knock the “medium-level” shows he calls them in this era, without naming the examples of medium level shows that made the Golden Age great.

He uses what I like to call, or will probably start calling after this, the Four Pillars of TV Greatness (TM). These four are in order of airing: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. They’re four undeniable great shows, and if you asked for the greatest dramas of all time, there’s a better than even chance they’d finish as the top four of any poll of enough critics or knowledgeable TV viewers. He talks about a Golden Age, but to be clear, he’s talking about these four shows.  He speaks as if he means to cover a greater swath, as if those four just provided cover and inspiration for a flourishing run of good-but-not-as-good shows beneath their wings, but not a single other show is named after the those four, and while there are others that could easily qualify (Deadwood and Six Feet Under, at the least), I think it’s important to mention that these are the ONLY FOUR he mentions to represent what he describes as the Golden Age.

Greenwald then goes off and reels off several current shows that don’t meet his standard for Golden Age inclusion, whether because they’re simply not as good (Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Homeland, and outside of Homeland’s legitimately brilliant world-class first season, you’ll get no argument there from me) or much more strangely because they are great but they’re genre show, in the case of Game of Thrones (and to a lesser extent Orphan Black), which somehow don’t qualify as Golden Age-worthy because they contribute to other negative trends in television, regardless of their own quality.

The show he most associates with this gilded age of television is The Walking Dead, which he backhandedly notes that even though he’s not a fan, he acknowledges it’s the most important and influential show of the past five years. Without speaking on the quality of the show, on which I stand somewhere in the middle, I disagree strongly with his assertion. While that same statement may yet be true in five years, it really isn’t; Walking Dead’s influence is only beginning to be felt as we still wade our way out of the Age of the Antihero, which still, though waning, dominates television (three of the Four Pillars are antihero shows – The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, along with Boardwalk Empire, Justified, House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy, and plenty of lesser fare). Honestly, whether true or not, this is really off-topic from the central argument so we’ll move back in that direction.

Greenwald goes on to talk about how networks aren’t taking chances anymore, and that’s surely true, but that was also very much true five or ten years ago. None of the Four Pillars were network shows. Four shows got through the cracks and struck gold. He claims it’s systematic failure that as many quality shows aren’t coming through the pipeline, but I’d claim it’s just odds and not enough time.

Let’s not forget as well that one of the Four Pillars is still on, with two seasons to go, and one ended a mere month and a half ago. Game of Thrones is an admittedly great show, and I’m not sure why it’s a knock that it’s a genre show or that it’s based on source material, especially just because in influences other less good shows (first, something every new and interesting show does, second – is it a knock on Pearl Jam that so many lousy bands were influenced by it?). Shows come in waves, and influence of the biggest and best play a large part, for better or worse. Mad Men was very much influenced by The Sopranos. Greenwald complains about a prestige mad libs, and he’s by no means incorrect, but that’s also exactly what Mad Men was. You can give Mad Men credit for inventing that formula, but as mentioned, it stole plenty from The Sopranos.

Logical complaints aside, I’d argue that he’s not looking closely enough to find the good stuff. Last Spring alone saw the debut of four new dramas, each with the potential to be great, and although the odds are against any of them becoming an all-time great, that’s true for any show, and promise is really all you can ask for.

Rectify, the best, airs on Sundance channel, and stands in particular contradiction to Greenwald’s claims as it doesn’t fit into any of the boxes Greenwald is complaining about. Rectify is about a man exonerated from death row after twenty years imprisoned back into the small Georgia town in which he grew up. It’s a small show in the way Game of Thrones and Walking Dead are big, and it’s exceptionally, moving, human, beautiful and heartbreaking in different degrees.

The Americans admittedly kind of fits Greenwald’s prestige formula, but it transcends it, and even Greenwald acknowledging The Americans as the best new series of last year.

Orphan Black, Greenwald already acknowledged as well as an excellent show, and, though it’s a genre show, it certainly doesn’t fit into either the prestige or the bigger is better formula.

Hannibal, admittedly, it less new and interesting than the other three, and probably will end up as good and not great, but it’s especially notable for its gorgeous cinematography and its compelling psychological battling between protagonists Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter which elevate a cop show above the norm.

Remember, if we’re to match his Golden Age, we only need four. My point is not that these four shows are great and replacements for the Four Pillars, but that if even one of them can become great, than really all we need is one new great show each year. I could name lots of good but flawed shows a la Boardwalk Empire from the Golden Age – Lost, Alias, The West Wing, True Blood, 24, and more but it doesn’t matter, because there were some great ones. Now, some people may like some of the good ones better than others, but that’s always the case. Additionally, people will and have always copied successful shows. Lost spawned a thousand attempts at supernatural mystery shows, not one of which has really become successful (Heroes was the closest) and The Sopranos has directly led to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and less directly many others.

There’s no reason to believe that the Golden Age is over because there are a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. There are always a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. All there have to be is a couple great ones. There are, and there’s no systematic reason that a few more won’t appear in the coming years.