Thursday, January 1, 2015

Best of 2014

How good was 2014 for TV? For the first time since 2011, Mad Men was not my favorite show of the year.

This is to no fault of Mad Men, which offered seven episodes of catharsis - a humbled Don Draper finally making peace with all of the demons he conjured over the years. Cannot wait to see how Matthew Weiner chose to end one of televisions' last great giants.

Though the networks still offered plenty of retrograde entertainment, casually progressive shows started to crack through. Black-ish not only revitalized old sitcom tropes, but also took on hot button issues with wit and pathos. And although How to Get Away with Murder has badly stumbled over several structural errors, Viola Davis' performance demonstrates how so many untapped stories still lay untold. For my money, there was no show as wonderfully progressive or subversive as Brooklyn Nine Nine - which manages to consistently deliver crackling comedy without reducing anyone to out of character histrionics.

Amazon burst into the big leagues with Transparent. Though Jeffrey Tambor's performance is a revelation, the show's depiction of casual religion and frictional family tension will stick with me even more. Proof positive that gender is just a thing we internalize, Transparent proves that real progress doesn't come when we deify marginalized groups. It arrives when we treat everyone like real people, with flesh and blood prejudices and biases and long held grudges and desires. The tenderness of Tambor's performance stands every bit as memorable as Josh's forlorn quest to find a female vessel for his insecurity, or Ali's directionless flopping around, or Sarah's marathon race to lock in long-term love like a business transaction. Its a shame how many people will turn their head away from Transparent, because its on Amazon or because it explicitly seeks to smash barriers. Though Transparent was not the very best television series of the year, it may have contained my favorite scene - a Shabbat dinner gone horribly right, portraying the chaotic clashing of old rituals and new necessities with a profoundly Jewish pragmatism.

Other shows also gave us plenty to chew on; FX's The Americans steely precision and fiery performance by Kerri Russel deserves far more than the single sentence here. HBO's True Detective may have leaned too heavily on old tropes like the nagging wife, but its sense of atmosphere and loss were unparalleled. FX's Fargo improbably paid proper homage to its inspiration and offered a reminder that payoffs don't have to arrive years later. 24: Live Another Day livened up the summer with a superbly plotted season that reminded everyone that old relics can be dusted off, polished, and hold just as much power as our newest infatuations. Game of Thrones continued its overambitious march towards insanity, a continual high wire act that redefines what event television can be. Arrow and The Flash pushed its budgets almost as hard as its pushed the boundaries of network television storytelling, with incredible institutional memory and densely plotted payoffs conjuring the spirits of Whedon shows past.

Even I struggled to keep up with the avalanche of quality entertainment - the second seasons of Orange is the new Black and Masters of Sex are first on my list of shows to watch in the new year.
But there was no show that left a deeper mark than FX's You're The Worst. My eyes glazed over the gaudy promos that pitched it as yet another nihilistic comedy about terrible people being terrible. Instead, I found a modern romance, the freshest story about two people falling in love since Harry Met Sally and subsequently froze the genre in amber. You're the Worst gleefully takes an axe through those tropes, laughing all the way.

You're the Worst captures the sensation of falling in love. It captures that moment when your significant other hears one of your secret shames and thinks it the coolest thing in the world. It captures the tug of war that underlines any relationship, correctly treating dating as something far more messy than a chess match. It captures that moment when you choose to unburden yourself ever so slightly, right after you've chosen to shoulder someone else's burdens not because you have to but because you want to.

Every single traditional show on television crams in a "romance", whether its warranted or not. And so people fuck like marionettes, or blandly crush on a coworker for a delayed love triangle, or drearily burp up platitudes. You're The Worst argues against all of that bullshit, unafraid to show real worry and vulnerability. When Gretchen gets an offer to spend the weekend with another guy, Jimmy doesn't coyly find a contrived way to get her to stay. Instead, Gretchen bluntly asks him to tell her to stay, if he wants to. And so Jimmy looks at her and says, with devastating earnestness, "Don't go."

It also features a dildo hooked up to christmas lights, too.

For that reason and so many more, You're The Worst was my show of 2014, in a year that left the waters once carved out by The Sopranos for an unknown, unpredictable, but incredibly fulfilling future.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Boardwalk Empire and the Dawning End of an Era

I've always liked Boardwalk more than most. Its sense of lived in-culture and long-form structural storytelling are without peer. And this season was a great reminder of that, whether it was Alfonse Capone speaking to his son, Bugsy Siegel touching the mezuzzah, or Joe Kennedy telling County Kerry jokes to Margaret.

It never picked the most obvious of stories to tell, taking several bold risks over the years. But it also never managed to tell completely unexpected stories, the sort of raw brilliance (or insanity) that Mad Men and The Sopranos so keenly traffic in.

And so, Boardwalk Empire's finale largely acts as a fastidious wrapping up of loose ends. Very similar in tone to Breaking Bad's final stretch, perhaps a little more satisfying in parts.

But it also felt like a safe ending, in full keeping with its forebears. In all of our male anti-hero dramas, the final season builds a moral ledger of our protagonist's crimes. They're either too unaware or uninterested to really examine themselves, and ultimately pay a steep price. Roll the immaculately made credits.

It makes me feel ever more hopeful and glad for Matthew Weiner's Mad Men to exist. Don Draper, the last buffalo of a dying breed, already hit his moral crisis a year ago. And the last seven episodes not only had him confront his failures, grappling and wrestling with his past choices. Don emerged a changed man, utterly unrecognizable from the suave dashing enigma from the pilot. Here was a Don Draper stripped of mystery, but finally able to connect to some semblance of humanity. He didn't just go on an apology tour. He listened and advised and consoled and PARENTED his own daughter for the first time. He sacrificed the entirety of his career to his protege, and relied on others for some measure of personal success.

I'm unsure what Weiner has in plan for Mad Men's final episodes, the curtain call to this whole era of television. And I look forward to the legions of untold stories suddenly being told for the first time in shows like The Americans, Masters of Sex, Orange Is The New Black, and Transparent. And eventually, those shows' once daring style will give way to formula that will, over time, atrophy.

But I also hope that other shows will come along and choose not to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes we just want to live in a different world, luxuriate in a well crafted story.

And so I'll wrap this up by posting my favorite scene from all of Boardwalk Empire. I once wrote that the show "often feels like the holder of a thousand brilliant spin-offs." None carried more weight or were told more elegantly than Richard Harrow's time in Atlantic City. A scarred veteran from World War 1, he stood at the center of several of the show's finest action set pieces. None of those matches the sheer wonder of watching him slowly come to life, episode by episode. The culmination is the clip below, as he enters a Veteran's dance with his future wife.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Shonda Rhimes' Scandal and the Never-Changing Toybox

I love TV and what its capable of, that's why I so often criticise it. And unfortunately, tonight's Scandal was not a very good finale at all. I adore and respect Shonda Rhimes' who has demonstrated better than anyone that soapy does not have to equate to trashy.

But there's nothing more infuriating than a writer's room that plays with their toys all season long, banging and crashing them into each other. And then spends the finale wiping them out, putting band-aids on them, and  putting them back where you found them.

Bad cliffhangers are those that don't substantially change anything because the audience KNOWS that the new situation can't change. So when a character quits in a huff (a la the first season of The OC), we just roll our eyes because we know within two episodes of the next season things will be back to normal. A good cliffhanger is one that forever alters the show's dynamics - most often this means a major death, but it can also mean a major shift. Don Draper getting fired at the end of last year and being told, in no uncertain terms, that he'll be spending at LEAST half a year away from advertising is a good cliffhanger.

But in Scandal, I have no faith that the show will act or feel any different next year. (SPOILERS, of a vague sort) Olivia will be back to helping and fucking Fitz, Mellie will be scheming, Cyrus will be guilty but stay in the game, Fitz will be awful, etc etc.

And before someone throws out the "Its a network show, bro, they ain't going to kill off XYZ," argument, I'm not advocating for the show to completely change. But any drama worth its salt (on cable, network, or a 4th grade play) should consistently put old characters into new situations. It should not force them back into their old cages without significantly altering the cage.

All hail the status quo, destroyer of ambition.

Veronica Mars!

I'm late on this one, but a month ago Todd Swift asked me to write up some thoughts on the highly improbable and highly enjoyable return of Veronica Mars.

You can check it out at

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sherlock's latest season

I had the chance to cohere my scatter-brained thoughts on Sherlock's latest season for a friend. You can read the article at

Saturday, February 1, 2014

It's Not Near, It's Here - The End of the Male Anti-Hero and the Beginnings of Something Else Entirely

Tons of virtual ink have been spilt about the end of TV’s “Golden Age.”(For a brief rundown, check out the always verbose and whipsmart Andy Greenwald at : It isn’t just Breaking Bad’s exit that has kicked off the haranguing. A brief look at the critical darlings of the past points to an undeniable fact – nearly every one of these is still responding to, critiquing, or reflecting The Soprano’s titanic strides over a decade ago.

The white male anti-hero stands alone, ready to lash out at the world that he thinks has wronged him. These shows may feature an ensemble, but our White Male Protector dominates the proceedings. His name is Tony Soprano, Walter White, Vic Mackey, Dr. House, Frank Underwood, Al Swearengen, and Don Draper… and his wives and girlfriends and the rest of the female cast must always play second fiddle.

This is not to discredit the incredible work by Edie Falco, Robin Wright, January Jones etc. Carmela Soprano’s overnight discussions with Father Phil were an early series highlight, and I could never properly qualify how well-written Mad Men’s several female characters are. And yet they must always yield to the gravity, the sheer weight of the Charismatic Male.

I mean this not as a sleight – I’m a white dude whose own work is usually obsessed with issues of modern masculinity. But at times, TV can feel a bit too close to an echochamber than a sounding board.

Vulture and other outlets have seized on the perceived gap within the industry and have eagerly pronounced this the era of “The Female Antihero.” And certainly, shows like Scandal prove that there’s an argument there.

But you can’t simply copy the male model, switch the genders and presto-change-o out comes the shiny new product. The White Male AntiHero shows often argued that women like Carmela played a secondary role in The Sopranos because women are so often forced to play secondary roles in their own lives. Art reflects culture, and all that jazz.

Instead, I started to notice a pattern last year. Females hadn’t arrived to wrest control of “The Protagonist” from the establishment. Instead, these new shows showcase the ways men and women relate to one another – with two characters sharing the spotlight.

Way back in the dregs of my undergraduate beginnings, I remember a statistics teacher droning on about “Two is a coincidence, three is a pattern.” Apparently, he watched a LOT of cop dramas that year. But at the moment there isn’t just one show that pinged on my radar. At the moment, there are four shows on-air that fit this model.

Showtime’s Homeland aired its first episode in October 2011. Although Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berensen proved an apt ensemble player, the show’s narrative gravitated towards the ever-twisting relationship between CIA analyst Carrie Matheson and War Hero-Turned-Maybe-Terrorist Nicholas Brody. A year later, the Emmy’s handed out the holy trifecta of awards to Homeland – Best Drama, Lead Actor, and Lead Actress. It was impossible to know at the beginning of an episode if Carrie or Brody would receive more time. It was even a coin toss to figure out who would drive the events of a given episode; who would remain still and who would crank the gear to the next act.

Still, it was easy to write off Homeland as an aberration. Most critics saw the show as a sort of apology from members of 24’s creative team, a more nuanced portrait of the War on Terror now that the embers of 9/11 faded. The show never quite abandoned its pulpy roots – precariously balancing between heightened reality and outright 24-esque cartoon insanity. (Spoiler alert: Though everyone disagrees on when they lost that balance, this last season was not appointment television). Fine, there was a single data point on the board – a single female protagonist with an equally wiley partner. So what?

Then FX joined the fray, first with The Americans. First airing in early 2013, The Americans took the “male and female centre” and pushed it to new heights. “Married Spies” has always been a yuck-worthy concept (Mr and Mrs Smith etc.), but The Americans absolutely roared out of the gate. The pilot opens with a mission gone awry – Elizabeth and Phillip grabbed the target but their partner is bleeding out. Our leads argue over what to do with him – except this time the roles are reversed. Elizabeth argues compassionately that he’s already a dead man, while Matthew Rhys stews in self-loathing before they reach a belated compromise.

Yet again, the male and female take turns anchoring the primary plot each episode – oftentimes working in concert (to protect their kids, their covers, or their home country) so that you might as well arbitrarily fling a dart to determine who actually “owns” the episode. Of the two, Keri Russell’s performance and character is the absolute standout. The latter half of the season features an ever-rising rivalry between her and Margot Martindale (imported from Justified) that gives each woman an agency never quite seen on television. Matthew Rhys’ performance is a much subtler and delicate act, often focusing on his bouts of nostalgia and his role as a much more-present Parent than Elizabeth. Rhys’ character isn’t just the dreamer – he’s also the caretaker.

And yet again, The Americans was largely seen as another iteration of our current love for espionage. The Americans also takes place in the eighties, and it was easy to label the show as a “Great period drama” and move on.

And then FX reached into the bag and pulled out a very similar rabbit. The Bridge premiered in summer 2013 to an avalanche of press and critical ravings. A month before the show came out, multiple critics asked “Is this the next Wire?” (Spoiler: No, no it is not.)  FX’s marketing strategy has always appealed most to male swagger. This is after all the house that Vic Mackey and Rescue Me built. Yet something strange happened around the edges – although the men still dominated, women were allowed to grab shotguns and do more than whinge about marriage. FX’s sublime Justified was once summed up by a friend by asking me, “Has there every been a show where so many women have kicked so much ass?” I initially wrote off The Americans as a tepid step into the waters of a world where women were allowed to be unequivocal equals. (Alyysa Rosenberg hit upon this far earlier than anyone, And then the Bridge used the same damn formula.

Based on a much superior Swedish/Danish show, The Bridge is a buddy cop show featuring a female cop in El Paso and her male counterpart in Juarez. Though they’ve traded in Carrie Matheson’s bipolar disorder for Sonya’s aspergers, its hard not to draw comparisons. Blonde, slim, socially awkward women working in male-dominated fields who have the ONE TRUE CORRECT THEORY on the latest crime du jour. For me, the first season of The Bridge is largely one of untapped potential. No matter how well-written the ole “cops chase serial killers” tropes were, I had seen the rhythms before. Even the injection of Demian Bichir’s Last Honest Cop in Mexico barely kept me tuning in. Bichir’s performance is a revelation, but its also derivative. When he inevitably cheats on his wife I rolled my eyes, because we’ve all seen it before. And yet, the show kept me watching largely because of the interplay between these two partners from opposite genders and opposite countries.

Finally, Showtime launched Masters of Sex. The lives of science researchers Dr. Jonathan Masters and his assistant-turned-partner-turned-lover Virginia Johnson anchor the show’s interest in intimacy. Above all else, Masters of Sex is fascinated by how sexuality both defines, limits, and liberates us. Sheen’s Masters is an enigma, a cold and repressed man finding himself pushing at boundaries he knows may wreak utter havoc. Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia is our window into the shows’ world, and her ideas about intimacy fit better with 2014 than 1954. Their attraction and interplay are yet again the central attraction. It is easy to imagine a Tony Soprano without Carmela, or a version of Mad Men that is just the male characters swilling drinks at the latest fancy pub. They’d be worse shows, but they could exist.

All four of these show could not exist without the relatonship between the leads. Sometime these work relationships turn romantic, at other points the opposite may be true. They are complex, and spin the narrative into new and different places. We’re never quite sure who will own a scene, own a story, own a season. But it’s not a tug of war. It’s a relationship – at once utterly symbiotic and alluring.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Informal musings on what to watch

I was on a forum earlier today and someone trotted out the ole "All our good shows are ending!" harrumphing. 

And to some extent, its true. I don't know if anyone can ever really touch HBO's output a decade ago - The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under create a lineup that no network has ever come close to matching.

But if you wanted complex dramas back then, that was literally ALL you had to watch. Eventually things like Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and The Shield came in. But still.

So yes, perhaps the next AAA medium defining works have yet to appear. There are so many robust and interesting shows to watch this year alone that I can't help but feel that we're incredibly blessed to witness. 

In no particular order here's what I'd recommend enjoying:

Just spitballing here, but if I were to put together a list of great TV that's still on the air...

Justified - Successfully manages to offer great Cases of the Week procedural plots while still offering the longer more intricate plots of serialization. It is also a HELL of a good time, and is easily the funnest show to watch currently on-air.

Masters of Sex - Finally, a show that treats Sex with maturity and insight beyond "teehee, look at the boner." The rapport between Sheen and Caplan is a great example of subtle writing that never goes for the clanging "LOLOL ain't the fifties funny" jokes.

The Americans - Way better than it has any right to be. Its blend of action and nuance feels like it could totter off the edge at any second, but Keri Russell's performance alone is worth the investment. 'Show them your face!" takes her character far past the cliche of the femme fatale Soviet Agent.

Scandal - Balls out insanity with the occasional scintilla of actual insight about modern politics. It's ultimately a steamy soap opera, but it is also so much more.

Orange is the New Black - Female characters have been vastly under-served this past decade. Orange feels less like an apology and more like a rocking party that reminds us what we've been missing. A stacked list of talent - we're talking mesmerizing performances by at LEAST twenty actors, and a show that's willing to go to some weird places if the story calls for it. 

Arrow - Over-obvious dialogue aside, Arrow's plotting is top-shelf. The show has a fantastic institutional memory, which is a fancy way of saying the character's actually remember things that happened five episodes ago. Earlier this year a character was poisoned, and the other cast members proceed to talk about the ways they've cured people in the past - a small moment that most shows would never think of including. Also features the best fight scenes in television.

Mad Men - Duh.