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.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Your Mother Met Me: Initial Thoughts

If you've ever watched How I Met Your Mother than you deserve the opportunity to watch tonight's 200th episode. We finally saw what the Mother has been doing for the past nine years - and she's far more than just "The Perfect Girl" so often trotted out in romantic comedies.

Her and Ted share interests (coins! calligraphy! Driving gloves!) but she's also her own character with her own trials and quirks and moments of real heartache. I've already seen some people attack Bays and Thomas by arguing that they're showing another "Weak woman devastated by a man." moment.

But HIMYM has always argued that love (or the perception of it) devastates the sexes equally. We watched Ted spend a year getting over Stella. We watched him flicker back to life before falling to the ground with Victoria (twice.) And we've seen the hold that Robin still holds in Ted's mind.

To give Cristin Millioti her own love story has always been crucial to the show - but they also gave her her own set of emotional setbacks and triumphs. What would be demeaning to women is if the Mother was sitting on a perch for a decade, just patiently waiting for Ted to get his incredibly pissy shit together.

Instead, she has her own theories about the cards that the universe has dealt her, her own inside jokes with her friends, even her own MacLaren's.

And look, there's an ungodly amount of fans gleeful about all the fan service and "This is why the Mother was in Place X and Time Y" moments. But connecting the dots is the easy part.

The tough part is in making me feel that the tapestry was worth threading together in the first place. And Millioti's performance goes a long way towards that goal. She sells the hell out of that English Muffin gag, somehow portraying a years-long relationship with the tiniest of moments. In lesser hands her "conversation" with Max could be horrendously cheesy, but instead I found myself reaching back to the moments where I've felt loss myself, keying in to her much deeper wound. It's only melodrama if you're doing it wrong.

 The show can never fully recover from the entire seasons spent with characters in stasis, or Lily's awful pregnancy cliches, or the show's condonement of Barney repeatedly gaslighting Robin -
But for tonight, it feels great to remember the reasons why I nearly missed a flight nine years ago, laptop next to an empty seat in the terminal. Watching a show that reminded me of all those thunderously big emotions that my generation tries to stifle under an avalanche of our own cleverness.

Cleverness is always outpaced by sincerity, in the end.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tuesday Night Comedy Round-Up Spotlight: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I'm not sure how, but Tuesday has quietly turned into the Night of a Thousand Sitcoms. While Thursday still has the one-two punch of Community and Parks and Recreation, FOX's Tuesday night comedy block has quickly become a favourite of mine.

The newly Golden Globe minted Brooklyn Nine Nine delivered another confident half-hour, finally handing the spotlight over to Terry Crews. Whereas most of the cast has been fleshing out well-worn stereotypes (Stern Authority Figure, Loose Cannon Detective, Ambitious career cop), Terry Crews has existed on a different wavelength. His gradual ascent back to active duty has been one of the show's consistent threads, and this feels like the culmination to all that background work.

The biggest initial draws for Brooklyn Nine Nine were the talents of Dan Goor and Michael Schur, whose Parks and Recreation remains the most consistently warm and funny sitcom on television. I picked up an admiration for Andre Braugher's comedic chops from the outstanding Men of a Certain Age (a medal winner in the "Worst Advertisement Campaign" olympics). And Andy Samberg's Lonely Island videos were a staple of my college existence.

But in the first few episodes, no character made me laugh as much as Chelsea Peretti. Her non-sequitur asides felt like comedic shots of adrenaline. And these episodes were still quite funny, always able to make me a crack several smiles and at least one or two big laughs. Since then, Brooklyn has grown and figured out ways to deliver character-based jokes with nearly everyone in the ensemble (Joe Lo Truglio getting way too involved in the gym cover story, Santiago's awesome line reading of "goblin", Sully's bit with the thumb tack). Peretti's character is still funny, but she also feels a bit detached - and her B story felt like we were left waiting for a punchline that never quite came.

Still, Crews' A-plot managed to be both funny and dramatically crucial, all while moving at a fast clip. Now just punch Peralta in his lucky face a few more times, just for us. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Movie Review: Zack Snyder's Man of Steel

Man of Steel is less a coherent movie than a collection of scenes thrown together.

The alterations made to make Lois Lane central to the origin story are all great, great changes for a modern Superman story to make. Much as I love the "lois lane is the best reporter but can't figure out Clark is Superman" dynamic (especially when Dana Delaney is involved), its high time for a Lois Lane that gives Superman the hope HE needs in humanity.

But oof. Lord do i ever hate non-linear interlocking "here's a flashback, there's a flashback, now we're over HERE!" bullshit story pacing. It KILLS the first act, even when the actors are doing their level best to deliver. We're never allowed to follow Clark's emotional journey - which is the one central reason why Batman Begins is the most successful and definitive superhero film of the past twenty years. That film told us within the first thirty minutes "This is Bruce Wayne, this is how he has changed." More importantly, it also showed us Gotham City, showing us the city that Wayne dedicates his life to protect.

By contrast, Man of Steel wrecks the absolute holy hell out of Metropolis, but it doesn't land because we've never even seen a skyline shot of the city beforehand. I suppose if you've been reading Superman comics for decades you'll feel some pangs of emotion from that implied history. Even there though, I'm not even sure what version of humanity Clark is meant to protect. For all I know Wonder Woman and Green Lantern are already active in this world, its just an off day. There's no context, no sense of how Superman is this game changer.

There's also no joy in a largely gray and monochromatic world. Clark smiles a restrained smile when he first flies, but that's about it. My absolute favorite Superman moment is from the animated series. Clark, having just been told his kryptonian origins, understanably freaks the fuck out. He runs past his parents, past the farm, past highways. he runs and runs and runs until suddenly he's soaring over a cliff side - and his frustration give way to pure catharsis. He screams in excitement because DUDE, he's freaking flying.

Far better writers than I have ripped the film's final act to shreds. Yes, the film crosses the line from evoking 9/11 to crassly exploiting those indelible images. Yes, Superman violates a central tenet of his character - causing both my parents to ask "Since when does Superman do that?" But it is a good setup for a franchise, much to my chagrin.

I just don't really know if its a franchise I want to keep watching.

Bite-Sized Review: Enlisted

Fox's Enlisted (premiered tonight) crackles with opportunity. It's not a great episode, but it is a good pilot. We get a sense of who the characters are, what type of adventures they'll have each week, and a smidgen of emotional weight.

Plus, it's pretty damn funny. Ron Funches and the rest of the supporting cast are immediately memorable. They avoid any of the obvious jokes, usually steering away from the first choice and instead looking for the second or third option. Keith David is tasked with some dramatic heavy lifting, but also gets a chance to crack a good joke or two.

And in keeping with Fox's new push for diversity, we've got an actually diverse cast without tripping over itself in self-congratulations.

The show's creator, Kevin Biegel, hails from Scrubs and Cougar Town. And Enlisted is very much a spiritual successor - wacky hijinks melded with surprisingly subtle and nuanced character work on the inside.

Welcome, Good Morning, and Godspeed

Three years ago I pictured myself a Big-Dick-Swinging capital A Author. And then I spent more and more time abroad, away from America and California and that uniquely intoxicating blend of crazy optimism and bleeding-edge cynicism. American television kept me sane, kept me moving, kept me connected. And after receiving my shiny diploma (okay, it's still in the mail), I've realized that I enjoy critiquing more than creating my own work. I'll mainly be posting reviews of television shows with the occasional sojourn out to the land of movies and literature. Previous work can be found at Thanks for reading!