Posted by Melissa Weller
The second season of The Newsroom premieres this Sunday on HBO, and for those who maybe didn’t tune in but kept an eye on critic reviews of and fan responses to Aaron Sorkin’s latest brain/ego child know the HBO drama’s freshman year was met with mixed feelings, to say the least. While Dan Rather himself sung its praises by noting a heroic yet accurate interpretation of the moral vs. money crossroads most networks encounter on a daily basis, Andy Greenwald, a staff writer for Grantland.com, went so far as to say “… in terms of pure fantasy, neither (True Blood nor Game of Thrones) holds a candle to The Newsroom." Considering these shows are home to vampires, centaurs, dragons and 13-ft furry zombies, this is a tall statement.
At first and even second glance, the show feels cool, feels fresh — each episode riddled with snappy banter, *painfully witty* zingers and, huzzah! Major world events to boot! Remember the BP oil spill? The Gabrielle Giffords assassination attempt? Death of Osama?! Sure you do, and those memories bring an instant gratification born from watching the little-news-team-that-could live through and report on these very real, very recent events of national and international importance. Paired with Hip-2-Death dialogue, we’re served Sorkin’s specialty dish of shiny, intellectual camaraderie sprinkled with old-school American patriotism. Where Sorkin missed the mark is in character depth and believability.
The first season finale pulled out all the stops. Wise choice, because it was past bedtime for the two or three halfway intriguing storylines. Our patience was rewarded with a bloody apartment,
a drug overdose self-medication mishandling, a sting operation and further self-sabotaging from inconvenient admirers. After hapless Jim (John Gallagher) had been drooling hopelessly over Maggie (Alison Pill) because, damn girl, them quirks of yours just won’t quit, they finally kiss after a full season’s courtship tango strapped with two left feet. But, as fate would have it, the significant others of these significant lovers had other plans.
Do-gooder Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is Will McAvoy’s (Jeff Daniels) lovable ex-lover who indulges in bouts of playground outbursts when faced with producing content that doesn’t, as Will describes in a rare display of self-awareness, “tell the audience to eat their vegetables.” We learn very early in the series that soon after her relationship with Will ended, she and Jim manned the war trenches of Afghanistan and Iraq for two years. She is also referenced multiple times as the best executive producer in New York. The disconnect calls for a much louder suspension of disbelief than some are used to, myself included. I don’t believe the woman who thinks scorned puppy is the only facial expression available is regarded as a journalistic war hero.
Though a fantastical and arguably impossible character, the least offensive personality of the bunch is The Real McAvoy himself. Next to Jim. Heart you, Jim. Yes, we are asked to accept that Will McAvoy, a man who rose to celebrity status as a TV anchor, formerly known for his tacit, calculated impenetrability, is now leading a crusade against the Tea Party after Mackenzie is hired as his executive producer. He is also a registered republican, so that’s fun.
None of this is to say the show doesn’t redeem itself from any angle. It’s well-shot, fun to watch and the dialogue offers a guilty pleasure of superiority. The message is not one to dismiss, either. I just wonder if the quality of the message is suffering from the quality of the medium.
So, where does that leave us and what can we expect for season 2? Probably more of the same. Will and Mac still playing cat and mouse, Jim and Maggie continuing to hammer nails into their love coffin, and Sam Waterston drowning in scotch until he’s given a respectable script.
Watch the season 2 preview here:
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July 11, 2013 | 1:53 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
I wish I could remember how anyone convinced me to watch Terriers. It has a singularly unpromising name and a less-than-gripping premise: a ex-alcoholic ex-cop, Hank, and his ex-con friend, Britt, solve small-time crimes in Southern Califonia. Donal Logue, who plays Hank, is always charming and weirdly sexy, despite taking roles as a lot of dead-end dudes, but I don't think that's what did it. Probably I had some time to kill and I was curious; you might have gathered that I'm into genre stuff, and always excited when people take it seriously enough to play with convention, working old tropes not to make them new, exactly, but to expose the other sides of them, the elements that were there all along, quiet, latent.
Terriers plays on the down-and-out noir detective theme, except instead of being rakish and devil-may-care Hank and Britt are scruffy and threadbare, the ghosts of their pasts and the demons of their present taking a palpable toll on them. They don't live outside the law of time and consequence, movie star handsome men brooding over past misdeeds and lost love; they are those men five, ten years later, living with the reprecussions of their reckless youths. Much as I appreciate teenagers on television, the shining artifice of eternal youth, it's fun, sometimes, to see characters who are recognizeable as human beings, deeply flawed in a way that makes them hard to sympathize with, sometimes even hard to like.
The show follows a fairly familiar procedural format: a central mystery that builds all season set amidst a handful of one-off cases. Britt and Hank work outside the law (though Hank calls in the occasional favor from his friends and ex-colleagues on the force) which means that it's not the slick stuff we're used to seeing, crime scene techs zooming in on grainy video to find in an improbably perfect frame of the perp's face or pulling DNA from the roots of a sinlge hair. Instead they have to be wily and clever, living demonstrations that the best detectives are something of con men at heart.
That's the real draw of Terriers: it's a show that's comfortable in the grown-up territory of moral ambiguity, presenting men who've fucked up big time as they try to use the knowledge gained in darker days to do some good in the world. Their methods are suspect and the results aren't always what they're after, but the show never preaches or condemns. It's smart and funny and scruffy itself, a story told by adults to adults. It takes pleasure, simply, in the telling, in the charm of its heroes, the entertaining draw of their antics and their banter, the narrative pull of cases to be solved.
Britt and Hank stumble to make things right, in their lives and the lives of others, little things, sometimes bigger things. The best part is: they screw up loudly and often along the way.
Terriers is available in its single-season glory on Netflix. Maybe they can revive it like they did with Arrested Development? Or maybe it should get the Kickstarter treatment next...
July 10, 2013 | 1:04 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
Twisted is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a weird show. It's centered around a pre-pubescent murderer recently released from juvenile hall, a fifteen year old boy named Danny Desai who claims he did what he did for a reason he can't reveal. He also claims he has nothing to do with the girl who was murdered on his first night back in Green Grove-- but how, then, does he have the necklace she was wearing the night she died? The show plays with the ambiguity of Danny's character as the people around him, many of whom desperately want to love him, try to figure out if he's worthy of that love-- or if he's just a sociopath manipulating them into defending him.
It would be more poignant if the rest of the show wasn't quite so tone-deaf; it plays a grief-counseling session for laughs, never letting us catch even a glimpse of the raw emotion that usually accompanies untimely loss. This would be less of an issue if the murdered girl, Regina, hadn't been quite so unlikeable in her few scenes as a living girl-- and if her best friend wasn't one of the main characters. It's never clear why Lacey loved Regina so much. It's easier to understand why Jo so insistently defends Danny: she misses the days when they were close, when he was innocent, and her life was simpler.
Last night's episode was full of time-honored tv tropes: an event the entire town attends, a fancy dance, a tomboy in a nice dress trying to get a boy to notice her. It was in many way a typical teen drama-- Rico likes Jo, Jo likes Danny, Danny ilkes Lacey, Lacey totally kissed Danny-- except for the scenes where adult authority figures, the police chief and mayor, tried to bully and threaten a fifteen year old boy, attempting to make him ashamed to come out in public. It's understandable that the town's adults would be wary of Danny, especially after there's reason to suspect him of a second murder, but it's hard to watch Chief Masterson, Jo's father, explaining to him in an official capacity that it just isn't appropriate to come out and celebrate with the rest of the town. The weirdness of the moment underscores the all-too-real results of suspicion and paranoia, the way they so easily best kindness and compassion. The show never addresses the fact that Danny is dark-skinned in a largely white town explicitly, but it's hard not to draw certain parallels to other, similar incidents in recent modern history.
The episode ends with a Jo, Danny and Lacey back together again, their youthful trio reunited to investigate a mysterious letter sent to Regina days before she died. It's a little hard to believe that Lacey wouldn't turn the letter over to the police-- she claims she doesn't want to sully Regina's memory if the letter's veiled threats turn out to be unrelated to her death-- but then again, these are teenagers we're dealing with, so we can let the lack of logic slide. It gives us something new to look forward to next week-- the hope that we'll get a little farther away from romantic drama, and onto the meat of the matter: if Danny didn't kill Regina, who did? If Danny did kill her, what does it mean that it's hard not to like him, to keep watching him, in all of his complicated, ambiguous charm?
July 9, 2013 | 2:00 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
Teen Wolf has always had cinematic aspirations, but they've really come to the fore this season, which is replete with long shots sweeping across muted color palettes and eerie, empty vistas. The first episode featured a full-on Hitchcock homage as a flock of black birds invaded a high school classroom, and last week's episode paid tribute to two time-honored tropes: the away game and the road trip. This week finds our high school heroes (werewolves Scott, Isaac, Boyd, and Ethan and humans Stiles, Lydia, Allison and Danny) spending the night in a creepy motel after the track bus gets caught in an intractable traffic jam on the way to a meet. An opening flashback has Allison's werewolf hunter uncle starting to turn into a werewolf and killing himself to stop the transition; a vocally-impaired night clerk at the front desk informs Lydia that the place is famous for the high rate of suicides among its customers.
The rest of the episode is spent in a tangle of flashbacks and hallucinations--and, unlike last week's oddly plotted mess, all of the backward action actually works to drive the story forwards. The wolves get caught up in their worst, most traumatic memories, recollections and imaginations so bad they'd rather die than keep living them. This means we get backstory on the previously mysterious Boyd (his little sister was kidnapped from an ice rink while he was babysitting her when he was a child, which makes his after-school job running the local Zamboni particularly poignant) and a reminder that Isaac was abused by his late father, who regularly locked him in an unplugged freezer. Ethan-- one of a pair of Alpha twins whose bodies fuse into one enormous super-wolf when they shift-- is terrified of his brother getting trapped inside of him, and Scott might just be suicidal.
All of the other wolves are snapped out of their trances by heat-- Ethan burns himself on a space heater in a tussle, after which cool-headed Lydia suggests road flares to startle Isaac and Boyd back into themselves. So when Team Human finds Scott standing in a puddle of gasoline holding the last flare, already sparking, lucid and able to communicate with them, you have to wonder. The ritual murders that have marked each episode of this season come in sets of threes, but there are four wolves in the motel, each attempting to off himself; Scott's definitely the odd one out. He's still distraught over Derek's assumed death (he shouldn't be-- Derek spend the episode bleeding sluggishly and making out with a woman he barely knows, so he's definitely all right), earlier he hallucinated Alpha pack head Deucalion killing his mother, and he's suddenly (and inexplicably) an alpha himself, which means a whole host of other problems coming his way. Scott's despair, while exaggerated, seems genuine; the moment in which Stiles steps into his puddle of gasoline, saying "you're my best friend, you're my brother," is beautifully poignant. Last week saw Allison stitching Scott's wounds to trick him into healing; this time, there's no illusion involved. It's a good reminder of why you need humans on a werewolf show-- because while supernatural creatures are mostly indestructible, they can be brought low (in this case by wolfsbane poisoning, a callback to a similar sequence in the second season), and they need humans who know about the science of road flares, who can call them back from the brink of themselves to the very real communities that they spend their time trying to protect.
Also a quick mythology note: there's a definitely play of fire and ice going on this season-- Isaac and Boyd in the freezer and on the rink, being burned back into themselves; in the first episode, Derek took a blowtorch to Scott's arm to make his tattoo permanent. Promos showed Scott drowning himself. Derek's family was killed in a massive house fire six years ago. I have no idea what it has to do with the Alpha pack or the dark druid Darach, but it's interesting to watch the motifs expand and unfold as the season progresses.
July 8, 2013 | 2:30 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
True Blood premiered in a different era. It was a pre-Twilight time, when vampires weren't considered standard young adult fare-- before The Vampire Diaries and The Mortal Instruments and all of their various imitators and competitors. The first season was a little uneven, especially tonally, veering between romance and horror, occasionally detouring into camp-- but it was unlike almost anything else on air, then, a sexy, serious show about a spunky southern woman named Sookie Stackhouse and the vampires who were (then) inexplicably obsessed with her.
It's hard to say when, exactly, it went off the rails. For me it was the werepanthers; some people were too weirded out by the maenad subplot from season two; others couldn't handle Sookie's discovery that she's an actual fairy. The consensus seems to be that there's way too much mythology and not nearly enough development of any of it. One of the reasons I like supernatural drama is the specific type of world-building that it requires: it's always interesting to see how writers deal with common myths, enlarging or subverting them, making rules and creating whole cultures, bringing tired tropes to life. If you asked me why I used to love True Blood I'm pretty sure the answer would be: this scene, in which two thousand year old vampires complain to one another about how hard it is to text. (Careful with that link-- it features non-graphic, mostly-implied male nudity.)
There are also a lot of broad political metaphors on True Blood-- vampires are opressed and they need civil rights, so parallels are often draw with the struggles of black American's in the 60's and the modern gay rights movement. It's strange and a little sloppy, always. This season has seen a vampire dragged through town behind a truck after a legal decree that vampires have no rights in the state of Louisanna; it's an uncomfortable callback to a lot of real-life trauma, and hard to take on a show that is so often so close to kitsch.
I keep thinking I'm going to stop watching True Blood. The accents are all over the place, the politics are distasteful, there are too many plots and none of them ever develop all that well. It's a beautiful cast, but what television cast isn't on the whole an attractive bunch?
And yet! And yet there's always something, some small, unexpected detail that reels me back in. Last night it was Andy Bellefleur's half-fairy daughters, a brood of four girls with no names who wear glittery fake fairy wings and read minds and age ten years every time they go to sleep for the night. They're currently caught up in a gross scheme of Vampire Bill's-- god, remember when he was supposed to be a romantic hero? I am also glad the show has acknowledged how gross and boring Vampire Bill is-- but they're what I want to see more of. The show began with Sookie, who's much less than half-fae, an isolated waitress in her late twenties terrified of human company because she, too, could read minds. Sookie's world then had fewer vampires (they had only just "come out of the coffin"-- see what I mean, about the metaphors?) and she was thrilled to meet one because he, at least, was mentally silent, immune to her psychic powers. Six years later (well, not quite so many for Sookie and Bon Temps) there are werewolves and werepanthers and plain old shifters, a bunch of young women who've recently become vampires and these half-fairy girls in the middle of it. They're an exciting, original piece of mythology, a fun take on the trappings of girlhood, Sookie Stackhouse re-imagined. Amidst all of the blood and drama and chaos, they're the fun part of the show-- and one of the reasons I haven't been able to turn it off for good. I want to know what happens to them, whether they, too, get caught up with that brooding bad boy (bad man, really) or if they escape and give him what he's due. They're minor characters, so far; they don't even have names. But they're what's keeping me watching. This week, anyway.
July 8, 2013 | 12:30 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
So there's no news on the Hulu deal yet-- hopefully updates will be forthcoming when everyone has slipped out of their post-long weekend haze.
But speaking of alternative content distribution, there's a little baby rumor going around that James Franco might appear in the upcoming Veronica Mars movie. Personally I'm a little tired of Franco popping up all over the place-- he's not good enough, and it's not a funny enough joke to justify how long it's gone on-- but maybe I'll come back around if he just keeps doing it. Stockholm Franco'ed. It sounds like a thing that could happen.
Either way, this does nothing to dim my excitement for the movie, which is based on one of my all-time favorite shows. For anyone who missed it, Mars' original run aired on UPN and then The CW from 2004 to 2007; it's a sharp, clever show about a high school (and then college) girl detective, a modern take on southern California noir. The show's creator, Rob Thomas, has always agreed with fans that it met an untimely demise, and in March he and lead actress Kristen Bell created a Kickstarter for the purpose of funding a follow-up film. There was some controversy about this-- the property is still owned by Warner Brothers, who didn't feel that a film was a worthwhile financial investment but will get a cut of its profits; Willa Paskin nicely sums up many of the early reactions here. (Also worth reading: Joss Whedon's excellent reaction, and some words of the possibility of a Serenity sequel, here.) Obviously it's likely to be impossible to fund television shows via Kickstarter-- the money required for, say, twelve 28 minutes episodes at a minimum is going to be significantly more than the $5 million Mars earned-- but it's exciting to see old material getting new life, and fans being offered the opportunity to fund seeing more of their favorites.
I did donate to the Veronica Mars Kickstarter (though to be fair, this was before the national letdown that was Arrested Development season 4); my feeling is that I fund good art by seeing bad art all the time-- that's how studios work, essentially, using blockbusters to pay for smaller stuff-- and that I'd rather pay more for something I'm dying to see. I have a weakness for tough, tiny blondes (see: Buffy Summers) and cultural experiments that ask us to re-think how we fund the culture we like. Doesn't mean I'm shelling out for the Garden State sequel-- or any of Franco's various personal projects-- but then, that's the whole point, that under this system, I don't have to.
July 5, 2013 | 4:41 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
Just as important as what we watch, often, is how we choose to watch it. I was in college when streaming video became widespread, illegal sites like tv-links supplemented by torrented downloads in the days before Netflix streaming changed everything. Now most of my professional twentysomething friends get by with laptops and shared subscriptions to Netflix and Hulu, maybe borrowing their parents' password for access to premium channels like HBO. So the winner of today's bid for Hulu may be getting a bargain, even with the price reportedly at $500 million-- there are a lot of young viewers too accustomed to the on-demand streaming-everywhere model to ever go back to the traditional way of watching. It used to be that not owning a television was considered a sign of self-serious intellectualism; now it's just practical. No one I know owns a television but everyone watches their shows. Whoever buys Hulu today will have a big say in how, at least for the forseeable future. We'll check in with the winners of that bid on Monday; in the mean time, shabbat shalom, and enjoy the long weekend!
July 3, 2013 | 12:10 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
Yesterday we covered the latest happenings on MTV's Teen Wolf, which I find delightful, but I can understand might not be for everyone. So today let's tak about a grown up show: BBC America's Orphan Black, which is one of the best shows I've seen in a long while. It's a smart, fast-paced dystopian near-future exploration of family and government and identity, the possibilities and problems posed by continuing scientific advancement. The pilot, which first aired at WonderCon this March, follows a down-on-her-luck sometimes-grifter named Sarah Manning who witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks exactly like her and decides to assume the dead woman's identity in an attempt to escape her own troubles: a deadbeat ex-boyfriend, a drug deal gone wrong, and estrangement from her daughter, Kira, who she hasn't seen in ten months. The plan is to steal whatever she can carry out of the woman, Beth's apartment, reunite with Kira and get out of town.
It's impossible to get into what happens next without some general spoilers, but you'll be unsurprised to hear that it isn't nearly that simple. Sarah tries to take a massive withdrawl out of Beth's savings account and ends up having to wait a day for the transfer to go through; she gets swept up into the complications of Beth's life, and ultimately discovers that she and Beth weren't the only women running around town with indetical faces. In fact, the two women are part of a set of at least ten other clones; several of them have recently become aware of one another, though they don't know who created them or why.
The rest of the season deals with women of what Sarah calls Clone Club making those discoveries and dealing with their consequences. One of the things the show does remarkably well is to set up a twisty, complicated plot that never seems either impenetrable or overly obvious. Every episode it explains three or four things and creates mystery around two or three more: the season asks a series of smaller, building questions instead of the same big one over and over again. It's a nice break from the more standard supernatural thriller format, which establishes one Big Bad each season and then pads it out with one-off case-centric episodes, characters solving smaller mysteries that more often than not have no bearing on the endgame drama we're geared towards.
The show is also unusual in its focus on women, the time and space it gives its female characters to speak. Each clone is distinct from the others, and we get to know three of them (Sarah, soccer mom Allison and scientist Cosima) fairly well. Their primary relationships are with one another; they have lovers and friends and chlidren, but the show it ultimately about the complicated bonds of sisterhood, and the construction of the families we are born into, and those we create for ourselves. Sarah grew up with a foster mother, Mrs. S., and a foster brother named Felix who's one of the show's few male main characters. He's a bit of a gay stereotype, a flamboyant artist who lives in a graffitti-covered loft and teaches kids to crossdress when he babysits-- but Jordan Gavaris plays him with so much nuance and warmth that what otherwise might be too broad stays human, and very often endearing.
The real star, though, is Tatiana Maslany, who has to play Sarah and Beth and Allison and Cosima, plus the various other clones who show up for shorter periods along the way. Each one has a distinct look (and often her own accent) which helps distinguish them, but it's Maslany's acting that animates the women, makes them more than a collection of traits, a haircut or accent, a soccer mom or scientist. That's the reason the show works, ultimately: it's an exploration of identity, and it wouldn't be nearly so powerful without Maslany's thoughtful performances, the sense that each of these women is fully formed and entirely human, tied by DNA to her sisters but undoubtedly leading her very own life.
The first season finished airing on BBC America in June; the second will be coming in 2014.