Tag Archives: HBO

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

19 Aug

The Comeback

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 Aug

The Comeback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More in part 2.

End of Season Report: True Detective, Season 2

10 Aug

True Detective

It was several episodes ago that True Detective was deemed collectively by the internet, and not wrongly, a failure, and it seems oddly anticlimactic to have waited until the final episode for the inevitable post-mortem that everyone will be writing. After all, the internet collectively managed to figure out the original setting-the-plot-into-motion mystery as to who killed Caspere, though by that point, the mystery didn’t really seem to matter that much anyway; that aspect of the finale was wrapped up in the first third. Relative to expectation, the failure of True Detective’s second season is one of the most notable in recent TV history (Homeland’s quick descent is probably the best, most recent predecessor) which means it’s spending a few words on what went wrong, but what’s striking is how easily explained the cause of the failure is. True Detective season 2 just didn’t work on any level; the plot, the characters, the writing, the casting, and the cinemetaography didn’t work individually and certainly didn’t work together. There were stray moments, and some actors were better than others, and it wasn’t as awful as much of a relatively failure it was. But it was.

Some failures are extremely instructive. Lost set the path for the return of complicated supernatural shows on television, but also how not to end them; have some semblance of a plan before you jump in. The Killing’s first season finale was a lesson on disappointment and anticlimax; don’t build a show of a certain type, only to try to become a different kind of show at the last minute. Unfortunately, I’m not sure True Detective’s failings are particularly valuable outside of that show itself; their use may be limited to helping Nic Pizzolatto not screw this up en route to a potential True Detective season 3.

The goals, on paper, were noble. A neo-noir seemed ripe for the type of story and type of voice Nic Pizzolatto used in the first season successfully. And yet nothing, right from the beginning, quite clicked, but everyone, myself included, was willing to give it some rope, because we had the first season in our rear view mirror, and because it seemed ambitious enough that we wanted to give it every chance to succeed. But every problem right there from the beginning remained to the end.

For one, it was too confusing. Noirs can be complicated, and there’s nothing wrong with that; shows that don’t baby their viewers should be congratulated. But there’s a difference between being complex and being needlessly hard to follow; the alphabet soup of names were thrown around without an appropriate background to get a hold of them, and it started to become a joke. Burris. Stan. Holloway. Who were they, and why did we care?

The major characters were a big part of the problem as well. Vince Vaughn never was able to quite pull off gangster Frank, though Pizzolatto is at least as much responsible for delivering incredibly stilted dialogue that sounded foreign and awkward. Hyper-stylized dialogue can work in the right circumstances; see Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, each who make their living on their own brand of extremely stylized dialogue. But the dialogue not only sounded incredibly out of place, even in context, it just sounded bad.

The characters were generally shallow and uninteresting, and just wallowing in an incredible amount of self-loathing without much going on besides it. Taylor Kitsch’s Woodrugh, particularly, suffered from this; his entire plot hinged on his suppressed homosexuality, and there was no real investigation into that nor did it serve a role as anything more than another reason for him to hate himself. That’s all he was, and Kitsch was unable to through sheer acting bring anything more to the character. Vaughn and Kitsch had a daunting and perhaps impossible task to make their characters more than their shoddy writing and neither accomplished it.

Colin Farrell’s Velcpro and Rachel McAdams’ Bezzerides were only marginally better. Both were very much damaged self-hating sad sacks in the same way; unable to function in normal society with normal people. Both had a combination of ever so slightly deeper characters and somewhat better cast actors to raise them a notch above Frank and Woodrugh, but no further.

The plot was confusing and never enticing, and that’s important to note. But plot is often the great McGuffin of a noir. Many a noir have been told on a plot that was a hook, only to tell a story that was hardly about the plot itself. Neo-noirs Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice both have incredibly convoluted plots (the latter less coherent than the former) but plot is not paramount to either; the atmosphere, the dreamlike sequences, the characters, the personalities, the cinematography, the dialogue, and the interactions makes those movies go. True Detective doesn’t have any of those to stand on.

Nic Pizzolatto clearly understands what’s in a typical noir. This was just a failed exercise every which way. An uninteresting confusing plot, which was unsatisfying, weak and poor dialogue, poor casting and acting, and no directorial quality which lifted any of this up. A couple of these elements may have made a season worth watching, but unfortunately, it’s back to the drawing board for season 3.

Summer 2015 Review: The Brink

24 Jun

The Brink

The thing about the Brink is, well, it’s not very funny. Now, that in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Ballers, for all of its issues, clearly isn’t particularly interested in being funny, so its lack of laughs isn’t really one of its faults. The Brink, though, desperately wants to be funny. Going for something like Dr. Strangelove meets Homeland, The Brink really wants to be a trenchant modern satirical take on Middle Eastern finger-on-the-button terrorism politics. The probably is, well, it’s not funny. The characters are oversized and a bit much, and despite the strong cast of actors throughout, the lines just don’t land. If the writing doesn’t work, it’s hard to build on.

Pakistan is the setting. An unprepared for and out-of-nowhere regime change takes place, placing a crazy fanatic in charge of the Pakistani government. The American government and the president must decide what course of action to take – a preemptive violent strike, or cautious diplomacy. The stakes are as high as they get, dealing with a nuclear power. This is satire though, so the premise is very serious, but the execution is very silly. Primary characters include Tim Robbins as Secretary of State Walter Larson. Larson is a boozer and a philanderer who doesn’t seem to know his stuff, but when thrown in the heat of the war room with the president and the rest of the cabinet, seems to possess some innate competence, attempting to counsel the president against war, while getting into petty spats with his more militaristic colleague the Secretary of Defense.

Jack Black plays a womanizing low-level bureaucrat who could not and would not be more irrelevant to any meaningful lever of government if not for that fact that he ended up trapped behind enemy lines when the Pakistan power play went down. He’s in the company of Aasif Mandvi,, playing Pakistani cabdriver Rafiq Massoud. Paulo Schreiber portrays an enterprising pilot on an air force carrier, selling much needed drugs which help cadets, himself included, stay awake. He’s sent on a dangerous mission at the end of the episode.

Basically, The Brink doesn’t have the bite or the laughs to make it work on its own terms. I know what it’s going for, and the events it mirrors do feel very real – but relevance doesn’t make it good.

And, I have to say, for a show that’s not Ballers, it’s also surprisingly male forward. There aren’t troubling female characters as much as there just aren’t that many. This is part of what seems to be kind of the men block on HBO with True Detective, Ballers, and The Brink airing back to back to back.

Will I watch it again? No. At least not immediately. I’d like to like it. It’s on HBO and it’s got a bunch of actors I like, and there might be something here. But the first episode was a disappointment.

Summer 2015 Review: Ballers

22 Jun


Ballers is created by Steve Levinson, one of the executive producers of Entourage, and it’s executively produced by Mark Wahlberg. It’s already becoming somewhat trite to simply call Ballers Entourage for sports, but it’s also not really wrong. If you’ve seen one trailer, if you’ve heard one thing about this show, or if you’ve seen any of Entourage, well, you probably don’t need to hear any further; you know exactly what this show is, and either feel like watching it or don’t need to waste your time. However, if you haven’t, here we go.

Entourage, a show that ended a mere four years ago (but to be fair, had been losing steam for a couple seasons before that), has come in for some piñata treatment from critics everywhere this year due to its spin-off feature film, highlighting the fact that the show seems crazily dated considering it existed so recently. The levels of misogyny and general male-fantasy fulfillment were among the top reasons for its negative critical reexamination, but Entourage had other issues as well. This being considered, it seems strange that HBO, either unaware of this, or having not watched a whole lot of Entourage since its conclusion, would come back to the team behind it for more. Entourage, which is worth remembering, certainly had its positive qualities as well, and if Ballers could harness what made Entourage a fun, breezy half hour that was a welcome break during an era of uber-serious hour long anti-hero driven dramas, while attending to Entourage’s flaws, it could be on to something. Unfortunately, it simply repeats Entourage, warts and all, without learning anything from its predecessor.

Duane Johnson stars as a former football player whose career was suddenly ended before he could realize it, and he’s trying to recover and find direction in retirement as a money manager of athletes who don’t have any idea how to handle their money. If there’s any chance of this show rising above the sports Entourage cliché, it’s on the back of the always charismatic Johnson, who you’d be hard pressed to find a bad word said about anywhere. The rest of the cast consists of another retired player with no plans, who gets a job as a car salesman, a quick-to-temper wide receiver Johnson is trying to help out, Johnson’s old agent and current friend, and Rob Corrdry as Johnson’s kind of asshole-ish co-worker.

Oh, and about the women problem. This was so expected, and while everything else is easy to mock from Entourage, this was probably the single most problematic aspect of the show, and Ballers doesn’t look like they’ve given this any thought. Ballers has one potentially strong women character, the retired football player-turned-car-dealer’s wife, who seems to have a pretty solid head on her shoulders and the actual respect of her husband. The woman who the Rock is sleeping with might be a PR person, or something, I’m unclear on that, but we saw her as much naked as non-naked in this episode. Otherwise, women of course are sex objects. It’s deeply disappointing that Ballers didn’t have a feel of the zeitgeist and try to remedy this problem. It’s a football show – no one is expecting there to be an equal amount of male and female characters, realistically. But, you know, they could try, a little.

Will I watch it again? No. I did watch all of Entourage, and for all I generally agree with the criticisms of the show, I’m not sorry I did. This does make me wonder if I would though if I started the show today.

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.

Spring 2015 Review: Togetherness

16 Jan


Judd Apatow is the Christopher Columbus of the modern manchild paradigm; he didn’t invent it, but he popularized it so that other movies and shows and trend pieces could be written about the concept. Boy becomes man physically, but refuses to grow up mentally; Knocked Up and The 40-year Old Virgin are both about men pushing through a delayed adolescence to reach a late maturity.

Togetherness focuses on Apotow-style manchildren’s topsy-turvy cousin. Rather than adults who refuse to grow up, Togetherness features adults beaten down by the responsibilities and realities of real life (capital R, capital L), who need to recapture a youthful point of view, let their hair down, and enjoy life for a change. (Togetherness is not alone in this “growing down” movement – FX’s recent Married trods on the exact same ground).

Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey play married couple Brett and Michelle. They clearly love each other very much but appear to be stuck in a rut. They’ve got two very young kids and they’re going through the motions, the same familiar rhythms every day, not always necessarily in a bad way, but not in a great way either.

They’re not dysfunctional; they seem to get along easily and well, but there are issues; real life in a relationship with kids is hard. Mainly, as one could guess from a description without having even watched the show, their sex life is stagnant – towards the episode’s conclusion, Brett confronts Michelle straight out, and asks why she’s uninterested in sex with him. She doesn’t know, she replies. These problems are difficult and deep, but not malicious. Again: real married adult life.

Fortunately, just in time to shake up this very stale adult state of affairs, come a couple of interlopers who will be staying with Brett and Michelle. Michelle’s sister Tina, portrayed by Amanda Peet, is far more aimless and less settled than Michelle despite being older, and she decides on a whim, after a week-long trip to visit her sister from Houston, that she wants to stay for good. Brett’s best friend Alex, a struggling middle-aged actor, is evicted from his house at the start of the pilot. He is initially determined to drive back to his parents’ house in Detroit until Brett convinces him to stay with him and Michelle for a spell. Alex and Tina both, while older, have some of the youthful immaturity and sense of fun that Brett and Michelle have lost, and might help shake the couple out of its doldrums.

Alex and Tina join the couple on date night, which is emblematic of the staid status of their relationship. They eat out at a nice but nondescript restaurant and are about to go home. Everyone looks bored out of their minds, chewing and staring at one another as conversation has stalled. Tina and Alex, though, convince the crew to chug some cheap wine, drive over to the house of the guy who just dumped Tina earlier in the episode (played by Ken Marino), and toilet paper his house. By the end of the night, Brett and Michelle have bigger smiles across their faces than they’ve probably had in some time.

The show isn’t a masterpiece by any means, and the middle-class-married-people-having-trouble-with-their-sex-lives has been done enough that it needs more to it to keep it more interesting than the boring lives of the middle aged parents themselves.

The Duplass brothers, star Mark, and Jay, who created the show, along with Steve Zissis, who plays Alex, are foremost contributors to the mumblecore movement, which focuses on naturalistic dialogue. It’s s a strong fit for this type of show, which focuses on a very real and human, rather than sensationalized and epic, series of problems and minor crises. The mumblecore aesthetic is appealing because if nothing else, it’s different; I love the stylized dialogue of Joss Whedon or Rob Thomas, but there’s a place for real life as well, with pauses that are awkward without being British comedy awkward. My biggest concern is that the humdrumness of the generic problems of white middle class married people overwhelms the strength of the characters and the writing, and the show could easily fall on either side of that line going forward.

Will I watch it again? Probably. It wasn’t astounding, but it was halfway decent, short, and on HBO, which buys it some instant credibility.

Summer 2014 Review: The Leftovers

7 Jul

The Leftovers

For years, I knew I wanted to watch Six Feet Under, a canonical series that I had heard nothing but praise for, but I kept putting it off because I was worried that marathoning it in a relatively short period of time would simply be too depressing. Finally, I stopped putting it off, and was extremely glad I did. It was often a depressing show, as I had suspected, with characters that were despicable at least as often as they were likable, but what surprised me was how that didn’t at all encumber my viewing. I moved through it fairly quickly, no matter the death and depression, enjoying all of the many great things about the show, which is a topic for another post. The main point here is that although the show was depressing, it was startlingly fun and easy to get through regardless.

The Leftovers, well, Is just as depressing but without the sense of enjoyment that powered Six Feet Under forward. It’s an awfully dour hour of television, attempting to be very, very serious. There are no laughs, but it’s more than its mere humorlessness which characterizes its dreary tone. Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead both have no laughs, and both do drag at times, but at their best, they move, they’re enjoyable, and there make you want to keep watching, even within the episode. The Leftovers plods along and makes you wonder, “how long is this episode?”

Here’s the premise. All of a sudden, two percent of the world’s population, with no discernible rhyme or reason up and disappears, poof, with no trace. No one can figure why the people who disappeared were the ones who disappeared; there were as many ostensibly terrible and immoral people as good people. Three years later, people are still struggling to deal, both to figure out what happened, and to cope with the loss of their loved ones. In the suburban burg of Mapleton, police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is having a hard time. His wife, we find out later on, has left society to join a weirdo cult of people who wear white all the time, don’t speak, and protest anywhere people are memorializing those that disappeared. What’s the appeal of this cult? It’s pretty unclear; but people are stupid and desperate, I suppose. Theroux is struggling along with his teenage daughter, who goes to super intense teenage parties (one of the options in the teens’ smart phone Spin the Bottle game is “Burn” where the player has to burn him or herself). She and her father are not taking the loss of their mother too well, and it’s breaking down the relationship between the two. There’s also some other cult, where some charismatic leader delivers messages he receives. Yeah, exactly.

Watching The Leftovers was just about the opposite of fun. Does anyone enjoy watching this? Did anyone enjoy making this? The show feels surgically drained of any joy. As mentioned before, even depressing shows have joy. The first season of Enlightened was mindbogglingly depressing. Marathoning it over a weekend, like I did, should be a considered a prescription level depressant. But there was warmth, love, and pathos that made the season extremely rewarding despite the major bummer that it was. The Leftovers doesn’t feel like it has any of that.

Additionally, and this is admittedly a a bias I have going in, any show that’s co-run by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame makes me automatically weary of getting hooked on its long-term plot. I know I’m supposed to keep an entirely open mind, but Lost left such a long and profound television scar on my psyche that it’s hard for me to see Damon Lindelof’s name and keep it out of mind entirely. Particularly, a show that hinges on The Leftovers’ premise that 2 percent of the world’s population instantly disappears sounds like a show whose plot is bound to lead to inevitable disappointment.

For all my naysaying, The Leftovers wasn’t awful. There were interesting ideas in theory, and exploring how people react when the world around them spins into chaos in ways they don’t understand has been productively mined for television and media many times before, with good reason (see the terrible summer show Under the Dome).

But, boy, getting through this an utter slog. There would have to be a lot of redeeming value to want to put myself through that again, and I’m not sure I want to. There’s some sprinkles of gold, maybe, but it’s buried so many layers of self-seriousness and very important programming that it doesn’t seem worth mining for.

Will I watch it again? No. It wasn’t bad in the usual sense reserved for television – this wasn’t Ironside or Men at Work. But I didn’t enjoy watching the episode. TV’s about more than that, but at it’s heart, that’s really the most important thing.