Posted by Melissa Weller
As promised, digesting the conclusion of this epic tale took a while.
Like many other millions, I became addicted to the death grips on my stomach rarely, if ever, felt from a television series. As the passing weeks drew the finale closer and closer, a new level of scorching inevitables was reached. Yet with each painful plot twist of the knife came a deeper appreciation for the art. The show surpassed novel status; analyses broke new heights of intensity with each episode. The Monday morning recap roundup became more an act of duty than of leisure.
Breaking Bad introduced a world where things got messy, experiments failed and variables unaccounted for meant catastrophic consequences. A slight miscalculation could mean a batch with lower purity levels or it could mean Jesse’s next trip to the hospital. Morality and any other human element had no place in this laboratory. It was refreshingly unapologetic to watch the whole equate the sum of its parts at all costs. This gave rise to an ugly place with uglier people. A place where an 8-year-old is shot dead in broad daylight because he risked contaminating a methylamine beaker. A place where a middle-aged scientist – a father – could watch a young girl choke to death on her own vomit and not move a muscle because her extraction was necessary for optimal results.
Popular opinion wavered from sympathy to respect and disdain to repulsion from character to character, but the more wretched things got and the more betrayed we felt, maneuvering through the moral muck became a more engrained, sacred exercise.
This was reality, objectified. It was merciless and cruel, accountable to no one except scientific correctness. This world didn’t allow its purity to be jeopardized by outside factors as unreliable and fleeting as human response, or human emotion to a response. It was untarnished, steadfast and proud. It was controlled chaos.
It was beautiful.
The finale put a halt to these sensations in more ways than one. We were left with nothing to talk about – no conjectures, no pointed fingers, no Holly hypotheses – only silence. After so much time and even more jaw drops, how could the loose ends be tied this neatly? So many wrongs righted?
A handful of people say they weren’t so neatly tied and that the ending, though fair, was far from happy. Walt is dead. Hank is dead. Mike is dead. Gomie is dead. A former Walt Jr., now full-time Flynn, is very p-p-p-pissed off. Skyler’s relationship with her sister is beyond repair. Marie, noticeably devoid of purple in the final episodes, won’t be doing so hot any time soon. Saul will require professional counseling any time he sees a flip phone. And as for Jesse, he’ll enjoy his next good-night’s sleep whenever the nightmares of dearly departed girlfriends and poisoned Brocks and murderous paternal figures subside.
Another handful of people praise the finale because it allowed our masterful anti-hero to accomplish his end goal without sacrificing the sanctity of an unwavering storyline. No cut corners, no half measures. He removed Lydia as a variable with a one-way ticket on the Stevia Express. He implemented a (questionable) system where his seed will reap the benefits of his fallen empire and his Gray Matter frenemies will probably spend their whole lives trying to scrub the Heisenberg shake from their hands. He criminal-masterminded himself into Skyler’s apartment to deliver the final word on her escape route and kiss Holly good-bye. He wiped out the Nazi regime. He freed Jesse. That’s all, folks?
The execution was flawless. Everything worked out the way it should have, but was it the way it had to? Until now, Bad did a phenomenal job keeping “should have” and “had to” mutually inclusive. Unapologetically so. It felt to me like “Felina” didn’t play by the same rules.
I wrestle with Walt deserving the luxury of inner clarity or transformation, especially the peace he felt taking his final breaths on the lab floor. Not because of the blood on his hands or the devastation he caused, but because I’m hard-pressed to find the chemical formula in which this works. Why now, after a few months of playing Paul Bunyan in a log cabin, NOW he decides to pull the self-awareness card (“I did it for me”), and with it enjoy the satisfaction of knowing his son will be comfortable financially, Skyler won't go to jail, Holly will keep her innocence and stay virtually untouched in comparison, AND that his surrogate son got to literally Need for Speed himself into the sunset?
The universe Vince Gilligan and his team slaved so meticulously to create, one that celebrated the unbiased beauty of a zero-sum policy, granted what felt like a free pass. The universe allowed the detail-obsessed egotist with situational values and a 30-year Gray chip on his shoulder the legendary status he so longed for. As Michael Cain’s famed quotable from The Dark Knight goes, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Walter White didn’t much care whether the world burned or not, so long as people knew he was the man controlling the flame. This was the code he lived by through these five seasons – it drove his every move. And anyone who stood to threaten otherwise caught the first plane to Belize. He even saw Jesse as a creation of his own making, and a father watching his son fail in any capacity is viewed as a failure, also of his own making. Not to discredit the compassion he had for Jesse, it was real and it was honest. But it was not selfless. When sticking his neck out for himself went hand-in-hand with sticking his neck out for Jesse, he didn’t hesitate. But the opposite was true as well.
My disappointment is rooted largely in a sense of familiarity that I hadn’t felt until the finale, and hadn’t missed. Walt would not blow away like grains of sand across Albuquerque deserts to the forgotten song of his hubris, Ozymandius style. Walt was victorious, something protagonists do best. His grand experiment yielded the desired results at long last, and the sweet whispers of Badfinger cooed to a crowd brimming with oddly optimistic closure. It felt weird. It felt cheap. I was looking for a final lab explosion, and instead I found a final lab sweep-up.
I wanted the world to burn, bitch.
10.10.13 at 9:53 am | Stylish, unsettling, ultimately predictable.
10.9.13 at 8:34 am | Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets boring.
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October 1, 2013 | 1:51 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
Sleepy Hollow was doing all right for itself. The second episode didn't give us much more than the info-dump pilot did in terms of narrative advancement but it was just as fast-paced and action oriented, developing the world of onscreen Sleepy Hollow in thoughtful, specific detail. The third episode, however, is incoherent at best and borderline racist at worst, forty two minutes of filler that barely accomplishes its single goal.
That goal is to convince us that Abbie Mills, after a lifetime of denying that she and her sister saw a demon in the woods when they were teenagers, has not just changed her mind but is willing to admit it in public. Her encounter with the Headless Horseman in the pilot made her credulous, more inclined to believe Ichabod's story than any of her collagues, and while she accepts the existence of the supernatural in general she's still unwilling to admit to its role in her own life. As she explains to Ichabod, she and her sister were foster children; when they were found in the woods after having disappeared for four days, Abbie encouraged her sister to lie about what they'd seen so as not to cause trouble. Jenny wouldn't do it; Abbie wouldn't corroborate her sister's story; Jenny's spent the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions. Abbie feels guilty but not guilty enough to recant.
This changes when a demon called Rokaronti, apparently a Mohawk sleep demon invented for the purposes of the show, starts killing the other people who lied about believing Jenny: her old therapist and the farmer who found the girls in the woods all those years ago. Abbie's next, he tells her. The next time she goes to sleep Rokaranti will come for her.
Then, of course, nothing will do but that Abbie and Ichabod find a Mohawk tribesman who, of course, takes them to a sweat lodge and performs a mystical Indian ceremony so that they can defeat Rokaranti. It's a scene borrowed from the most hackneyed of Westerns. The fact that the tribesman works as a used car salesman and initially laughs off their request does nothing to mitigate the fact that the first and only Native person that Abbie and Ichabod encounter has a sweat lodge and knowledge of these rituals easily accessible. The ceremony itself is equally incoherent-- I somehow doubt that the pre-Columbian Native tribes of upstate New York used scorpion venom for much of anything. Abbie goes under, Ichabod insists on going under with her, and together they fight Rokaronti. All Abbie has to do it admit that she saw a demon when she was a teenager. This defeats him. It's a spectacularly unsatisfying moment, especially since she's all but done this to Ichabod already. It's nice to see how devoted Ichabod is to Abbie-- he's charming, and Tom Mison is a tall, tall drink of water-- but there's no real dramatic tension at work here. The whole episode feels slack and puffy and useless.
It ends with Abbie going to visit Jenny and discovering that she's escaped. Next week there are human villains and a box full of condemned souls, so that should be interesting-- hopefully Sleep Hollow is done idling, and ready to kick itself into a higher gear.
September 30, 2013 | 1:01 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
I'll admit that I did not go into Hello Ladies with an open mind. I know that Stephen Merchant, who co-created the series and stars in it as sad-sack singleton Stuart, is supposed to be a funny man, and he was one of the minds behind the UK Office, so clearly he's got a decent track record. But how many more jokes can we possibly make about unattractive, socially awkward men who've been raised to believe that they deserve the attention of beautiful young (and, inevitably, dumb) women? Is there anything more to say about how Los Angeles is (among many, many other things) a superficial city?
Not particularly, it turns out. The pilot is an absolute hackfest, presenting us with a handful of boring stereotypes-- Stuart has a loser friend, Wade (Nate Torrence) who is trying and failing to get over a divorce, an a enemy named Kives (Kevin Weisman) who's raunchy and rude. He rents his poolhouse to an "aging" actress, Jessica (Christine Woods) with a hot boyfriend who's using her for sex. The plot revolves around Stuart trying to impress one of Jessica's hot young castmates at a cool club and failing miserably.
I know Stuart is supposed to be an anti-hero and that the idea is that the comedy is cringe-heavy, funny because it's so awful, but the problem is that none of it is funny-- nor is it even that awful. The characters are all cardboard cutouts, lacking the nuance or depth that might make them interesting or even remotely sympathetic. Plus, to be perfectly honest, I've had my fill of comedy that rests on the premise that smart guys are awkward and hot girls are dumb. There's a meanness to Hello Ladies that goes beyond Stuart's desperate, pathetic machinations, a cruelty that robs it of any possible emotional resonance. We're supposed to cringe at Stuart's obviously flawed attempts to get girls but we're also supposed to believe that he's a fool for caring about these girls in the first place, because they're just as shallow and useless as he is. Only you can bet that by the end of the series we'll feel sorry for Stuart, in one way or another: it's his story, after all. The girls are never going to get smarter, though, or be given anything to do in the narrative other than be pretty and petty and disinterested. It's a misogynist formula and a tired one. So even though it's early and even though it's a pilot, I'm calling it: goodbye, Hello Ladies. It's not me, it's you.
September 26, 2013 | 9:11 am
Posted by Zan Romanoff
When last we left Nashville the show had descended into so much slippery soapiness: Gunnar had confessed his musical crimes to his producer and tried to propose to his pissed-off girlfriend, Scarlett, to mend their broken relationship, Juliette's mother had essentially committed murder-suicide to protect her daughter's reputation, Deacon had fallen off the wagon and taken Rayna down with him. She was driving and they were fighting, so when he crawls out of the wreckage, dragging her unconscious body along with him, of course he tells the cops it was all his fault. The second season opener spends a lot of time dealing with the fallout from last season's dramatics, setting us into a more believable story space so that the second episode can (hopefully) make some forward narrative progress.
And that's not even the half of it: there are still shady political dealings happening in the shadows (last season we learned that the car crash that killed Rayna's mother happened whlie she was cheating on her father with another man; now it seems that the father may have orchestrated the crash, making him the villain once again), and Peggy Kenter lost her baby but she's lying to Teddy about that fact. Maddie knows that Deacon is her father and she tells Juliette, who finally stops trying to leverage Rayna's coma for her own ends and pays Deacon's million dollar bail to show him that there are people who haven't given up on him just yet. Nashville is mostly a frivolous indulgence but it deals with addiction and its aftermath better than almost any TV drama I've ever seen-- certainly one that's not supposed to be about anything serious in the first place, and Hayden Panettiere is still stunningly good in her role, fragile and furious by turns.
It wasn't a fantastic episode and the music wasn't particularly memorable but the peices are back in place, now: Scarlett and Gunnar are broken up, Avery's back on the scene (and still playing guitar in Juliette's band), Rayna's awake and okay, Deacon is out of real jail but still deep in his own prison of self-loathing. There are fake babies and injuries that won't heal coming up, and a new rival for Juliette, and Gunnar's violently repressed gay roommate on the scene. It's a big ensemble of a cast and a lot of storylines to hold together, which means that the thing can get unweildy very quickly, but for now its in a reasonable place for a strong second verse.
September 25, 2013 | 3:52 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
Joss Whedon has not always done well on network television. Sure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer got seven seasons and the accolades and Emmys it so richly deserved, but Firefly lasted a mere 14 episodes (thank god for the movie follow-up, Serenity) and Dollhouse eaked out a second season due mostly to FOX's desire to stay out of twice-burned fans' crosshairs. Each of those shows has its own storied mythology of Joss versus the Networks: pilots pulled and reshot, episode order shuffled to render the season's arc unintelligble, FOX's apparent insistence that Dollhouse be mostly about how many sexy outfits they could cram Eliza Dushku into in the course of 42 minutes. I am, I will admit, a dedicated Josshead, perpetually hoping that he'll accrue enough clout to finally do a show his way start to finish. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which premiered last night, isn't precisely that, it's off to a far better start than could have been feared.
Agents picks up where The Avengers left off, in a world very much like our own except that the popular knows for a fact that superheroes (and one errant Norse god) exist, and that aliens are real and often unfriendly. Obviously there is a government agency, our friends at S.H.I.E.L.D., whose job it is to control said superheroes; there is also an Occupy Wall Street-style group called Rising Tide which stands in opposition to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s black-ops secrecy. Or, well, it appears in the pilot that Rising Tide consists entirely of a pretty young girl named Skye (Chloe Bennet), a genius hacker whose committment to her anarchist principles withers as soon as she relizes that Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is a totally good guy and that they have a lot of really cool tech on their side.
Skye is, for me, the most disappointing part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. She's meant to be tough and spunky, and while her hacks hold up (Coulson and co. can't get into her computer until she tells them how) she's clearly in way over her head with the big boys from Washington, and the show plays her like a young dumb girl more often than not. Her soon-to-be-love interest Grant (Brett Dalton) is equally archetypal, somewhere between wooden and uptight, a man too troubled and iconoclastic to play nice with others.
Luckily the pilot has leavening in the form of its more minor characters-- I found Fitz and Simmon's lightning-speed co-dependent arguments cum conversations particularly endearing. The action moves fast and sets up an interesting season's arc: some unknown entity is trying to turn humans into superheroes by pumping them full of every known superhero-serum (gamma radiation, among others), which works until the subjects' bodies can't take it anymore and they explode. This is Project Centipede, and it preys on the average man's desire to be better and more, to stand out in a tough economy and save people when they need saving, or so the closing monologues would have us believe. It's a little bit ham-fisted, there, but for a first foray it's really not bad at all.
September 24, 2013 | 5:52 pm
Posted by Melissa Weller
So the Emmys were on Sunday, and with it no shortage of Neiling, Breaking and flopped attempts at Modernizing. Not least of which was characterized by the slap-happy host jabbing “our younger audience” by clarifying that television is “the thing you watch on your phones.” Cute? Sure. Out of touch? Ugh.
And so it began. The 65th Primetime Emmy awards, a Hollywood tradition long thought of as little more than a red-carpeted popularity contest, had garnered speculations and conversations in the weeks prior that were markedly different than the usual buffet of “will-she/won’t-he” gossip. Many cautiously hoped to witness the fruits of an Academy ready and willing to validate a rapidly changing industry, the appropriately titled golden age of television. An eagerness to welcome a landscape already rich with content and even richer with possibility.
The finished product indicated a pretty acceptable purity level. Perhaps not by Walter White standards, but by no means a bunk batch. (Save for the drawn-out In Memoriam segment and grossly blatant Cory Monteith monetizing.)
Here’s what we saw. For the second year in a row, broadcast networks were kept out of Outstanding Drama consideration. And while we saw a few contenders for lead and supporting roles in the drama categories, Kerry Washington for Scandal (ABC), Christine Baranski for The Good Wife (CBS) and Jim Carter for Downton Abbey (PBS), to name a few, none went home with a win. It was AMC’s Breaking Bad that took the Emmy for Outstanding Drama, the ratings for which continue to climb week by week. Last Sunday’s episode saw a whopping 6.6 million viewers, up from 6.4 million the week before. My girl Anna Gunn also got her just desserts with a statue for her role as Skyler Wife to Lord Bad. As well she should have; the positive reinforcement was long overdue.
Cable network kingpin HBO stole the show with 27 wins on the night, while leading the pack for the broadcast networks was CBS with 16. The numbers, significant though not surprising, are indicative of the shift away from broadcast network models and a transformed television landscape. Adding to the shakeup this year was a historical win for Netflix, ruthless leader of the online streaming movement, whose political victory garden House of Cards secured one of its three primetime nominations in the form of David Fincher for best director in a drama series.
Netflix at the Emmys? The force behind that conspicuous red envelope gracing my mailbox? The same Netflix whose logo this blog’s banner is fashioned after? That Netflix?
That Netflix. And here’s what it means. With esteemed personalities like Kevin Spacey backing the unconventional model from both sides of the camera, and promises from higher-uppers to create a minimum of 10 original programs in 2014, the cloud is the limit. The Big Four team of ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX has long played by an ol’ boy business strategy where higher ratings equal higher profit via advertisers. But with the introduction of DVRs and online video streaming, coupled with the impact of an ever-elusive social media jungle, the days of X + Y = $ are slipping further and further away. Pepper in the indisputable threat of alternative viewing platforms, only the beginnings of which are being demonstrated by Lady-in-Red Netflix, and you have an inevitable system overhaul on the broadcast horizon.
Another, sexier variable at play is cable content vs. broadcast content. Cable and online content is, well, sexier. And more varied. Characters housed in premium cable channels are more complex – more shaded, more jaded, more human. The way we watch TV is changing, but more importantly so is the way we think about and even socialize with TV. The broadcast network hold on the comedy sphere remains, as seen by ABC’s Modern Family winning Outstanding Comedy Series the fourth year in a row. But even with recent success stories like Modern Family and Big Bang Theory, no one is rushing to the online water coolers for a rousing debate about Jim Parsons’ psychological underpinnings. The characters don’t seep into our everyday musings because they’re not very interesting and even less relatable. And with shows like Orange is the New Black and Louie blurring the lines between what constitutes a drama or a comedy in the first place, it’s clear television real estate is not just building up, it’s expanding out.
There is room in the small screen club for these shows. People watch them because they enjoy them and that’s fine. (FOX’s new comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine is hilarious. Tune in tonight at 7:30 PT!) But they lack the interactive component characteristic of most cable shows that many find so satisfying – the chewiness of the episode after the credits have rolled. The ability to mentally chew and be chewed week after week by Breaking Bad and Mad Men is more than just the luxury of writers maintaining creative power. It keeps us talking, it keeps them employed. One-dimensional entertainment can be blissful, but broadcast networks’ golden egg of formulaic churn-outs won’t stand a chance against the golden age of television.
This regime change has not gone unnoticed by the steadily rusting big broadcast execs, though it seems the scrambled efforts to stay relevant in the drama world are for the worse. If you’ve scanned the bill for fall’s new dramas, don’t scan the bill for fall’s new dramas. Grantland staff writer Andy Greenwald sums it up like this:
“…the new network dramas of 2013 are a particularly insipid lot, a mediocre mishmash of throwback pablum and attention-seeking crazy. The dominant programming strategy seems to be based on that time-honored tradition of giving up on being one thing and doubling down on being all of the things.”
When you whittle it down, the 65th Primetime Emmys reflected a familiar sermon in a different dialect. The serenity to accept the cable networks it cannot change, the courage to change the broadcast networks it can, and the wisdom to stream the difference.
September 24, 2013 | 3:17 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
I don't think there are many people who would argue with the assertion that How I Met Your Mother has been on the air too long. Its nine seasons have stretched once-funny bits into gratingly overwrought irritations, and the show's weaker elements (Barney Stinson's abject misogyny, Ted Moseby as a character) have rendered it all but unwatchable. Still, it says a lot about how good the good times were that so many viewers, some of whom have quit along the way, are willing to come back to find out how it all ends. I count myself among them.
The big reveal actually happened in the eighth season finale when, after countless fakeouts we finally met the future Mrs. Moseby. Of course it will take the rest of this season for Ted to meet her, but the premiere has her and Lily sitting on a train together eating cookies that she's named Sumbitches. They're on their way to Farhampton where Lily and the gang will be attending Barney and Robin's wedding, Lily having ditched a road trip with Ted when his quirks got (understandably, I think) too irritating. Lily and the as-yet-unnamed mother figure out that Ted getting Lily out of the car is some kind of plot involving a locket Robin's been searching for and his still-burning flame of love for her, which: ENOUGH ALREADY, my god. Ted's been in and out of love with Robin for eight seasons. She's about to marry his best friend. The fact that he's still thinking about sabotaging the wedding makes him not just unlikeable but nearly unbearable.
Elsewhere we have the first of many attempts to make us believe that Robin and Barney's wedding might get called off: oh no, they might be cousins! This seems... unlikely, and proves untrue. In the second episode that aired last night there was another try, when Barney's brother, who Barney believes broke an old gypsy curse that doomed his family to promiscuity, announced that he was divorcing his husband. Barney was unruffled; he believes in Robin, and he believes in love. Let's guess that when the meltdown comes, it's not going to be on his side. Meanwhile Marshall is trying to get from Wisconsin to New York on a stormy holiday weekend without being a jerk, and also trying to keep his mother from accidentally revealing to Lily via social media that he's accepted a job as a judge in his hometown, which would be bad enough on its own, but the couple are already planning to move to Rome so that Lily can take her dream job. I have trouble buying this whole plotline-- I would seriously consider divorcing Marshall, if I were Lily-- but I guess we'll see where it ends up?
All in all I'm not hopeful about any of this, to be honest: I hate Ted, I'm not on board with what Marshall is doing, and I have no interest in getting jerked around all season on the Robin and Barney front. Probably the best strategy to adopt is Lily's Kennedy plan-- a G&T always in hand-- and the hope that whatever comes will at least do so gracefully enough that I can still enjoy the early seasons, the good old days.
September 23, 2013 | 3:03 pm
Posted by Zan Romanoff
So I'm not caught up on Breaking Bad yet-- I know, I know, believe me, I know-- but it's a scary project to embark on when every Sunday every one of my social media feeds erupts with howls of absolute agony over the most recent episode. It's like the Red Wedding every week. But for those of you who got hooked early, Vulture has a roundup of the best Breaking Bad supercuts the internet has to offer. Apparently AMC will be airing every episode back to back starting this Wednesday and taking a brief break for a Saturday of Westerns before resuming with the fifth and final season straight through to its end on Sunday. There's no way I'm subjecting myself to that-- I mean, a girl's got to eat and sleep--but it might be a fun (?) trip down memory lane for some. Godspeed and enjoy. I don't understand your life at all.
Speaking of things I won't watch: I made it through a full hour of the Emmy's before realizing that nothing would be more adorable than Merritt Weaver's genuinely shocked, brief acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy-- except maybe Tony Hale thanking his Tallahassee drama teachers in his own acceptance speech, and then doing a bit with Julia Louis-Dreyfus when she received her award for Best Leadering Actress in a Comedy. The memorials were sweet but too long and the whole event just dragged hideously. I watched HIMYM reruns in anticipation of tonight's return and kept an eye on my Twitter feed, and checked the winners in the morning. Sometimes the internet is a beautiful and precious gift.