Louie - "Duckling"
(Real quick, then we'll get into this: you know how that country singer said he was an Army Ranger? That's kind of selling it short. He was an Army Ranger here, when this happened. That dude can sing about toothpicks and ground water, he's got a lifetime pass.)
Hour long versions of thirty minute shows were most likely invented to increase some kind of revenue, but nowadays they seem to exist mostly so that television reviewers--even though that's what this post ostensibly is, I kind of still can't believe that "television reviewer" is a real thing--can use the word "overstuffed". And while I can't point you to somebody actually using that word to describe "Duckling", I'm certain the word came up, and I'm going to act as if you believe it did as well: if only so that I can say "nahfuckingway".
"Duckling" opens with CK's most direct admission of what all those Comedy Cellar bits are to date: they're exercises, barely promoted and "performed" for a small group of the lucky few. The Cellar sequences that make up the bulk of the show's stand-up material has always been Louis figuring out or adjusting his material, but this is the first time where he's so bluntly shown the gears involved. It's funny stuff, first about ducks, then a weirdly sweet bit on lions and giraffes. Better still, the unfinished lion bit doesn't really work, and you get the sense that Louis knows it never really will...which is why he relies on that crowdwork-honed shrug and raised eyebrows, that "I don't know man, I thought it was gonna work too" dismissal that puts the audience right in his pocket, whether they think animals are funny or not.
And then, it's off to Afghanistan, with the requisite stop for a scene that picks up a plot device (said device being a duck, from an idea contributed by CK's daughter). We meet--sort of, I never figured out whether both cheerleaders had lines or not, and that might have been confusing on purpose--the rest of our supporting cast, one of whom I already singled out (Keni Thomas, who played himself). Besides the duckling stowaway, the episode follows CK's actual USO tour diary as close as prudence and time contraint allows for. The emotional impact the experience had on him is blunted overall, and all political criticisms are nonexistant, but as his writings make clear, he wasn't too sure about those in the first place. The episode concludes on what are now becoming classic "Louie" tropes--him humiliating himself physically in an episode where almost all of his non-stand-up bits are him humiliating himself emotionally--and then it's over.
It's a good episode, harmed only by the fact that the longer story behind it is one that's just more touching. Some of the bits come across live, but others--like CK's actual relationship with the Christian cheerleaders, or why it was important that he go so gross in his routine--are either absent or impossible to depict. Luckily, all of those remain documented in a series of posts on his website.
Still the best thing on television though.
Childrens Hospital - "Party Down"
Man, that echo effect was a real pain in the ass.
"Hey mom. See you're still Chinese. I'll see you on China day."
NTSF: SD: SUV - "Tijuana, We've Got A Problem"
Some of this worked--the Rebecca Romijn split screen, the Applebees jokes, that list of reasons why Alaska is better than San Diego continues to grow--but they really should just let Rob Huebel write every episode. He's the only one who has figured out how to expand this beyond 75 seconds without turning it into a shitty version of the very thing it's supposed to be parodying.
Suits - "Shelf Life"
"You sound like Fraiser's brother" is the sort of low-belly pop culture reference that Suits normally pulls off well, but this time it came across as a little too much of a dad-joke. And since it fails to hurt the feelings of Lewis--whose teeth are particular large this time around, which is top-notch--it's even worse. No one wants to watch Harvey blow an insult. (That's Mike's job.) After what might be the greatest (its definitely the weirdest) "check my breath on my hand" moves ever broadcast on basic cable, Lewis heads over to pick up some random woman who will later participate in an unfinished subplot involving Lewis curling up in the fetal position. Harvey uses Lewis' absence to meet this episode's ultimate villain (hiss!) and we cut over to Mike, who is in the process of making out with his ex-best friends ex-girlfriend. (She's a blond whose name I always forget, and since Mike is actually in love with a brunette and this to-whose-charms-will-he-succumb conundrum forms one of the show's fundamental story arcs, I think of and refer to her as "Betty".)
Betty is boring as hell. However, so is Rachel, who I call Veronica. Also boring? Mike. Anytime there's a scene focusing specifically on those three people, it goes down like a lead balloon. Let's get back to the plot of this week's episode, which revolves around Mike being forced by Harvey to help take down an outdated model of Mike, i.e. an accountant who has been fooling his employers for years (he never got certified) and has a particular unusual skill for remembering numbers. Future Mike is played by one of those recognizable character actors who you see all the time. I think he was in that show about people who escaped a hostage situation, and then spent the rest of the season having flashbacks to the hostage situation. I never saw an episode of that show on purpose, but now I watch Suits all the time so I probably shouldn't get snobby.
One of those random things that happens on cheap shows like this is that their cheapness inadvartantly results in something unusual, making the show seem better than it really is: like in the scene where Mike gets undressed while Veronica/Rachel watches him. USA isn't about to give Mike a personal trainer, and while the actor playing Mike is pretty fit, he isn't fit enough to pull off a chick-gawking-at-him-topless scene. It's just sweet and weird for Rachel to be looking at him the way she is, like she's looking at Taylor Lautner in one of those virgin vampire movies, when in reality, she's looking at a guy you went to high school with. Any guy. At any high school. Still a lead balloon, but at least it went by quickly.
After this scene, some lady tries to break Harvey with words. It's kind of like watching a little kid try to knock over a tree with a piece of notebook paper. Since this is a USA show that's never going to break huge, you'll have to trust me on this: Harvey Spector is the sort of never-gonna-happen capitalism-with-heart fantasy man that appeals to 99% of this countries taxpaying base, and Gabriel Macht plays him like he's the Jason Bourne of talking-about-shit. Some low rent security thug tries to blackmail our boy Mike? No big deal. Harvey looks the dude up, figures out the security guy has been cheating on his taxes for five years and threatens to expose him. And then, Harvey still pays him the full blackmail, but the check is made out to the security guy's kid's baseball team. "You can steal from him, if that's what you want", is Harvey's basic message. (Actually, that's his second message. His first, which he makes clear in Macht's crystaline language-as-knives is that nobody fucks with Harvey Spector.)
The general war of the episode ends the way all of them have so far--Mike figures some shit out with his super brain, after some prodding from Veronica/Rachel who then kisses him, and then Harvey throws the truth down the enemy's throat, with talking. He's backed up by Gina Torres, who continues to make the viewer feel like "The Firm" exists for her character the same way D'Angelo felt about the boy Wallace, and then the episode ends with another grow-the-fuck-up lesson for Mike, this one a badass moment where Harvey sits in the dark and tells Mike to quit or quit bitching.
It was pretty dope.
-Tucker Stone, 2011
Sean Witzke on Breaking Bad, Nina Stone on True Blood, Tucker on Louie, Childrens Hospital and National Terrorism Strike Force: San Diego: Sport Utility Vehicle. Been a while.
Louie - "Country Drive"
While the funniest part of this episode is definitely the part when Louie accurately describes Huckleberry Finn as a white trash piece of shit that parents dread reading aloud, as the character never met a statement he couldn't sandwich the word "nigger" into, the most exciting part had to be the song length air guitar rendition of "Who Are You" that Louie delivers while driving his daughters to meet their 97 year old great aunt. It's an audacious, aggressive piece of comedy--only somewhat funny, mostly malicious--but there's few moments that better point to the comedians alchemical mix of committed, brutish realism (the crack of his voice, the hyena-zealot quality that his ugly sneer turns into) and cliched Americana family referencing. (The essential message of the scene is secondary to the fact that you're witnessing it, but the structure of the scene is built around Louie's oldest daughter realizing that her father is kind of a dork, that he's still in charge, and eventually accepting her fate as a passenger, and later participant, in a family drama that's still mostly about him. The real guy may just want to sing along and act like a loon, but the dad is hellbent on providing New and Broadening Experiences.)
Childrens Hospital "Stryker Bites The Dust"
Is there another show on television that serves as even remote competition to Childrens Hospital in terms of having funnier women? Week in, week out, Lake Bell, Malin Ackerman, Megan Mullally, Erinn Hayes and Zandy Hartig never miss. Even on a week like this, where Ken Marino's impersonation of Anne Frank worked me into such a lather that I had to rewind the tape just to catch what the hell else happened after he opened his mouth, the entirety of the show could have just hung its hat atop Lake Bell's one woman show, Megan Mullally's hellish stream of tea party rhetoric OR the sight of Erinn Hayes vacuum cleaner inhalation of food. Nobody's pumping as much comedy into such a short period of time right now. Nobody's even coming close.
National Terrorism Strike Force: San Diego: Sport Utility Vehicle "One Cabeza, Two Cabeza, Three Cabeza...DEAD!"
Whereas Childrens Hospital could (but doesn't) get away with letting just a few members of its cast deliver five minutes of humor and bail on the rest, NTSF: SD: SUV's first episode pretty much did exactly that: it had some really funny bits (a robot drinking coffee, June Diane Rapheal's obsession with college) and spent the rest of its time delivering leaden imitations of television shows like CSI Miami so tame that they wouldn't have been out of place at a Christian summer camp's skit night. There's no reason to bail on the show this soon--with a cast like this, it's worth taking 15 minute chances--but it's got a ways to go if it wants to compete on the level Childrens has established as of late. (Kate Mulgrew's grizzled, eyepatched chief shows an exceptional amount of promise.)
True Blood - "I'm Alive and On Fire"
True Blood is back! And yes, it has found yet another dark piece of magical folklore to add to its mix of vampires, shape shifters, werewolves, rednecks, faeries and the like. This time it's witches and black magic. A desperate, mousey woman who lacks all sense of command is often and suddenly possessed by the spirit of a witch (or maybe witches) and has managed to wipe Eric's memory clean. (He removed his shirt himself.) He knows he's a vampire, but he has forgotten who he is. And in forgetting who he is, he is more...docile? Friendly? How about vulnerable. It's making for fertile ground for all that sexual tension between he and Sookie to grow into something more. She is a free agent! (Oh, by the way, he lives in her house, because it is now his house. That's the result of a strategic move he made while she was in faery land for five minutes, which was apparently a full year in human time, and he now owns her house and does not need permission to enter.) If we're being honest, this version of Eric is endearing, and of course, we are rooting for something to happen. Sookie for the Iceman!
Oh, and just what has been happening to that mousy woman? Who is she possessed by? Apparently it was a witch who was burned alive, at the stake.
Breaking Bad - "Boxcutter"
In an interview this week, Vince Gilligan mentioned that "Boxcutter" was an explicit reference to Chekhov's Gun, where if an element is introduced in the first act, it has to pay off in the third act. You call something boxcutter, and you see Gail using a boxcutter in the first scene, you know that boxcutter is important - most likely that someone is getting their throat cut. But even then, the first thing we see is Gail setting up the lab and writing his own death warrant by what he's saying - telling Gus to hire Walt without knowing what he's saying. You think that, with Breaking Bad's history of dealing with audience expectations, Gail is not actually going to die because they are showing you this scene. Instead, he dies immediately, and without fanfare, a half-blink away from the final moment of last year's season ender. So this feels a lot more dangerous already, because they aren't following their own patterns anymore, so anything is on the table.
What happens this episode - mostly it's a locked room drama, a fucking Pinter play of Walt and Jesse, Mike and Victor, and later Gus. The rest of the time it's Skyler trying to find Walt, and catchup with the rest of the cast - Saul is paranoid, Hank is going stir-crazy, Betsy is annoying Hank, the kid is boring. There, you're caught up. Skyler's plotline is most intersting because it portrays her as someone deeply caring about her husband's welfare, but also horribly nosey and manipulative - her little show for the locksmith is a perfect snapshot of where she's at as a character right now.
The bulk of the episode is kind of a classic show of talkers/non-talkers - Walt is an extreme talker, everyone else in the room with him is not. None of them want to say anything, but betray their characters by how they act. Jesse says nothing while they are in the room. Mike says little, mostly on the phone. Victor gets pissy and starts yelling, making the definitive wrong move for a non-talker in Mike and Gus' eyes. Gus doesn't say anything until he has to. This is why this show is such a gut-churner. Most of the show is in a room where no one, except for the lead character who is fearing for his life, is saying anything. The specifics of interactions, they're really not so important as to what is said - it's about who talks and who doesn't and when, and what it says about them. Jesse is crushed. Walt is scared. Mike is angry. Victor is hysterical. Gus is sick of this shit.
The diamond hard core of the locked room drama is the protracted scene wherein Gus walks in, says nothing, puts on hazmat gear, kills Victor for getting spotted while locking eyes with Walt, cleaning himself off, and then leaving, but not without telling them to get back to work. The best writing in maybe the whole series' run is just this scene - Walt flailing like he did in the season ender but now with more conviction, after having killed the biggest obstacle in his way. Victor smugly assuming he's a bigger player in this than he ever could be. Gus just blankly letting them dig their own graves - Walt metaphorically, Victor less so. Gus, like the rest of us, liked Victor better when he said nothing. Now he's just some loud asshole. Jesse is finally at the point where he's not the guy in the room talking out of his ass, and that makes him such a larger character than he was last season. Gus is a figure of action, always will be. Now we know he's willing to even do it himself.
(I don't think the visual callback, of Walt moving his feet out of the blood pooling at his feet, to No Country For Old Men is accidental)
We really find out how killing Gail effected Jesse in the scene in the diner, where he says outright that now everyone understands each other. This isn't a respectful relationship anymore, it's Walt/Jesse/Mike/Gus, each one as likely as the other to kill one another, even though there are clear demarcations of who is on whose side. I think, if there is any indicator as to what part of the episode is the indicator of what is coming this season, it's that. It's that Jesse now sees them all on equal footing. The scene starts off with Walt reassuring Jesse that he did the right thing, and Jesse not really giving a shit. The scene ends with Jesse reassuring Walt, that it's him and Walt versus them, and they're all willing to go as far as they need to.
The other thing, the big reveal, is Gail's notes, the connector pin thats going to collapse the whole enterprise. It is the one thing that none of them see coming, and it is the one thing that is certain to happen and fuck all of them over, simply because it is neither random chance or carelessness or action, but because it is the one thing they couldn't think of. Bad shit is coming, for all of them. Isn't this exciting?
-Nina Stone, Sean Witzke, Tucker Stone, 2011
This week, Matthew J. Brady finishes up the latest season of Fringe while Tucker checks in on the Biggest Loser.
Fringe - "6:02 AM EST", "The Last Sam Weiss", "The Day We Died", and beyond
Matthew J. Brady
Hey, remember when Fringe was all about weird science, and evil geniuses creating monsters and whatnot? Sure, shows change over time, and this one did kind of have a plot that developed as the episodes have continued to pile up, but what was once a quirky bit of pseudoscientific goofiness has turned into a show about inter-dimensional war and ancient prophecies, as well as a relationship drama in which multiple versions of the same characters fight for each other's affections. It's still (usually) pretty stupidly enjoyable, but it's certainly notable that it's pretty much become a completely different show.
Of course, shaking things up did seem to help inject some energy into the proceedings; the middle of last season was mired in increasingly tiresome nonsense about characters keeping secrets, but a jaunt into a parallel universe led to some neat developments, and the beginning of this season had a cool alternating structure in which one episode would focus on the regular cast (with Olivia replaced by an evil doppelganger) and the next would jump to the alternate universe for the adventures of a brainwashed Olivia and her otherworldly pals. That had to end, of course, with Olivia returning to find that Peter had been fucking her evil alternate, stranding everyone on the island of tears and regrets for a while, but then the next plot kicked in, in which everyone got all worried about a big, ancient machine destined to destroy one universe or the other, with Peter prophesied to be the guy who operates it for some reason. This seems to be the J.J. Abrams effect; didn't he pull something similar on Alias, where fun spy shenanigans devolved into a complicated conspiracy based around some Renaissance-era prophecy or something? This time around, it's all about some technology created by "the first people", an unexplained race of ancients or aliens or whatever, which is pretty silly stuff, but at this point you just have to go with it if you want to survive.
Anyway, there have been plots about the "good" universe starting to come apart at the seams like the other one is, and a tiresome few episodes in which Leonard Nimoy's character came back from the dead through a ridiculous plot device called "soul magnets", with his soul taking over Olivia's body for some questionable acting and a badly-concieved Inception rip-off in which Walter and Peter took a trip into her mind, which was revealed to be the land of bad computer animation. Oh, and the evil Olivia (or Evilivia, as I call her) in the other universe found out she was pregnant with Peter's kid, and then had the baby a couple episodes later, which evil Walter (which the show has nicknamed "Walternate", doing internet commenters' work for them) is now using for nefarious ends. That's the thing with this show; you just have to go with it and enjoy the ridiculousness, although it can certainly become pretty eye-rolling at times, and the occasional lapse into sentiment (Walter doesn't ever want anything to happen to his "son" Peter! Olivia and Peter are in loooooove!) can get really tiresome (don't even get me started on the flashback episode in which Peter and Olivia met as children, destined to fall in love someday, blah blah blah). But when it's just going balls-out with the nonsensical "science", throwing ideas at the wall, and coming up with sublimely dumb plot twists, it's, well, not exactly good, but it does feel like it's rewarding longtime viewers by having all the shit it's been teasing actually happen. That's something, right?
So here we are with the three-part season finale, which appeared to be leading up to a sort of resolution to all the stuff about the ancient machine and a final showdown where one universe lives and one dies, before taking a left turn into uncharted territory. Not that there weren't plenty of ridiculous revelations even before that, as first it turned out that Kevin Corrigan's "bowling therapist" character from a season or so ago is actually a prophet/historian who knows all about the "first people" and all the crap that will happen with their doomsday device (my favorite touch is his fancy version of one of those executive ball clackers that moves by itself to indicate that the universe is falling apart). Ah, but that's not dumb enough, there's more convoluted "everyone is connected to the big plot" nonsense to come. Yes, a heretofore-unknown prophecy indicates that not only is Peter the guy to operate the machine (which really should have been given a nickname along with everything else, shouldn't it? I think I'll call it the Penultimate Nullifier), but Olivia is the "key" to unlocking a forcefield around it, due to her ever-expanding psychic powers, which now include telekinesis, pyrokinesis, multiversal teleportation, and time-delayed technological manipulation. Hey, why not, we're just pulling things out of our ass at this point.
Ah, but then comes the (sort of) big twist(s) of the finale, in which Peter gets thrown 15 years into the future to see the results of his actions, I guess. Which means, time for more wacky changes and "mysteries" about what could possibly have happened in all that time. The answer: not much that you wouldn't expect. Peter and Olivia are married and are bigwig Fringe Division agents, Broyles is a senator, Walter is in jail (with an awesome Ted Kaczyinski beard) because everyone realized that all the deaths from the multiversal collapse were his fault, Olivia's niece is old enough to be a rookie agent now, Astrid has a terrible haircut (just about the only noticeable visual character change; people age well in this world), and, oh yeah, the world is falling apart a little bit worse than it had been before. In the typical non-ambition of this show, most everything is about the same, except every so often somebody pulls out a high-tech cell phone or something. If you think nerds complain about the lack of jetpacks nowadays, just wait until 2026.
So anyway, while Peter seems confused about being in the future at first, he quickly regains his future memories or something, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. So it's like a normal episode of futureFringe, seeing a terrorist group setting off bombs that worsen the fissures in reality, hastening the destruction of the universe. And surprise, surprise, but Walternate turns out to be behind the plot, having been exiled in "our" universe for some reason just as his universe was destroyed by Peter in self-defense while he was in the Penultimate Nullifier. That's interesting enough, and it could have made a hell of a twist for the show, to have it suddenly taking place 15 years in the future, or being a place for occasional flash-forward episodes in the manner of the ones which jump to the other universe, but instead, the show decides to go big and overdramatic (is it any surprise that Akiva Goldsman is one of the writers of this episode?), having Walternate kill Olivia and subjecting viewers to endless scenes of mourning and sadness that doesn't mean anything, since we all know the death will be instantly reversed.
Yep, it's the time travel solution, in more ways than one. Walter comes up with a dual-pronged scheme: first, he'll be the one to create the Penultimate Nullifier and send it back in time a few million years, and then he'll figure out some way to drag Peter's consciousness forward to the future so he can see what horrors will transpire if he succeeds in destroying the other universe. This doesn't really make any sense, but he still attempts to explain it by saying that the past can't be changed since it already happened, so he has to send the machine back, but by influencing Peter, he can make changes within the past. Yeah, I don't get it either. And then he doesn't even have the courtesy to make up a dumb explanation of how he's doing this thing with Peter; we just suddenly jump back to the "present" and see Peter decide not to become death, destroyer of worlds. Instead, he zaps Walternate and Evilivia over from their universe so they can all work together to fix this multiversal silliness, and then disappears in a nonsensical cliffhanger. Yay, next season?
Objectively, this is all pretty terrible, at least from a writing standpoint, with big plot developments happening because they seem like cool twists, without much work being done to make them less head-scratching. Luckily, the rest of the show does attempt to make it all work, with pretty good visuals and sound (there's a moment in which a sci-fi bomb is being set in an opera house that almost manages to be dramatic and exciting, simply through the use of swelling opera music), some good attention to detail (my favorite touch was the title sequence, in which mostly-fictional science terms flash on the screen; in the dystopian future, those include "water" and "hope"), and actors trying their damnedest to make the characters believe this nonsense. If the writing was anywhere near the level of the rest of the production values, this might actually be a sci-fi show for the ages, rather than an entertaining bit of fluff verging on a guilty pleasure. After several seasons, it's easy to just keep watching a show out of momentum, but while I've felt that way about Fringe at times, I'm starting to think that it's one that I'll often roll my eyes at, but one that I'll almost always gain some pleasure from, be it a cute moment between characters, a completely ridiculous use of fake science, or a neat effect of some sort. It's not great TV, and nobody in their right mind should watch it from this point hoping to get any pleasure, but if you let it accumulate over a few seasons, it turns out to be engagingly pleasant and kind of fun. Basically, if you've been watching from the beginning, I recommend it, but otherwise, stay away. How's that for a backhanded compliment? I like you, Fringe, but it's nothing less than what you deserve.
The Biggest Loser Couples: Week 19
Jay - He actually got kicked off a while back and returned almost immediately, because of some game-play thing I don't remember. He should've gone home last week, but Tim Gunn saved him in the last act of his "fairy godfather" role on the show, which is as over-the-top as it sounds. It's actually more over-the-top than it sounds, now that I've written that down. They had a carriage that resembles a pumpkin, and they wouldn't give Gunn a break despite what sounded like a pretty nasty illness. Remember Val Kilmer in Tombstone? That kind of sick.
Austin - For some reason, the producers haven't taken to Austin the way they have to Jay and Olivia--they like to show him off, because he's young (21 years old) and has lost a tremendous amount of weight--but he seems to lack the deep emotional scarring that keeps the rest of the contestants in a constant state of almost-crying. That isn't to say that Austin is a monument of stoicism--the dude's losing tears like a busted toilet main of sorrow--but that his weeping often repulses more than it does inspire. I like Austin, and think that he's probably going to suffer the least amount of emotional damage that a show as irresponsibly exploitative as this one will undoubtably cause in all of those it touches, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out he was home schooled.
Irene - Do you know anything about Irene? Of course you don't. Neither does anyone else. Here's the facts about Irene: she's better looking than anyone on the show, is almost never in danger of leaving the show because of her fearsome commitment to weight loss, and almost never cries. That last one is the reason the show doesn't focus on Irene.
Hannah & Olivia - The announcer claims that no one ever thought they would make it this far. This is a made up conflict that has never been mentioned until now. But sure, whatever, nobody ever expected these two to make it this far. No one remembered to mention that they were sisters since the first episode either. If anything, Hannah's most important relationship seems to be the friendship she's built with Irene, but the last few episodes have been dedicated to building Olivia into America's favorite contestant. This may be succeeding somewhere, but in my heart, rooting for Olivia is like rooting for an owl in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
As there aren't enough people left on the show for them to do crazy shit like pull a fucking steam engine while a couple of team members throw gigantic burlap bags of vegetables and grain at train signals in the middle of the night (yes!), the producer's make the contestants take individual tests with each of the four trainers. Those tests:
First up is Bob, who puts them all on exercise bikes and pretends to be a new student. It's as ridiculous as one could imagine, with Bob constantly going "Oh my GOD" and raising his eyebrows in horror whenever the contestants forget that they're supposed to pretend they're talking to someone who has never seen a bicycle before, much less one that is attached to a giant piece of steel and doesn't actually go anywhere. The sequences get funnier the more you're able to not take "spinning" seriously as a sport.
Second up is Brett, who is dressed up like a quirky Brooklyn hipster version of a college professor. He's doing a multiple choice test on nutritional and exercise trivia. He's also acting like a clown, which is part of the reason why nobody bought his exercise videos.
Third up is Cara--as one might expect, it's the most awesomely ridiculous thing ever. See, Cara's obsessed with using the word "fighter" in every sentence her crazy ass New York accent can produce. No question, if you made a drinking game out of Cara's mention of being a "fighter", you'd end up spraying a liquified liver out of your back end before an episode was halfway done, and you wouldn't care, because you'd already be in a fucking coma on your way to brain death. And of course, Cara's test is on whether or not the final contestants are "fighters". The test begins with Cara pressing her forehead against the contestants foreheads, and since Cara is about as tall as Papa Smurf, it's hilarious...which is why Hannah loses points, because real fighters don't laugh at things that are funny, and there's nothing funnier than watching Cara press her forehead up against yours while growling at you. Then they do a little boxing workout and it's over. Everybody wins! Seriously, everybody wins. Cara doesn't seem to have come up with a very good grading scale. You're a fighter just for watching!
The final test isn't a test at all, it's just Jillian sitting there with her new feathered haircut (she's going for an original Charlie's Angels look) while the contestants try to replicate the show's stock non-workout scene, which always consists of contestants opening up with weird descriptions of why they got so fat, why they hate themselves, and how they plan to maintain what they've achieved after they get sent back to their miserable lower-middle class existences. It's as disgusting and offensive as it sounds, but as these people weren't kidnapped and brought here, I'm somehow able not to feel sorry for them. I do like the fact that Jay treats the whole situation like he's some mind-reading Blade Runner that quite nearly blew Jillian's mind, but I don't like it enough not to hate myself for paying attention.
After the final test, there's another test/advertisement, this one for the X-Box 360 Biggest Loser game, which is almost completely the same as the old Nintendo Power Pad fitness routine, but with better graphics. Some of the contestants do well, some don't, Hannah seems sweatiest, so Hannah wins. It's really boring, but at least the producers were nice enough to place host Alison Sweeny's teleprompter off to the left side of the camera. It makes it seem like you're watching a hostage video, the way she keeps glancing off to the side. Allahu Akbar, Alison! All of the contestants win a copy of the Biggest Loser game, which leads me to wonder if they're all getting X-Box 360's as well. NO ANSWER WAS PROVIDED.
In the second of what will ultimately be five or 17 in-show advertisements, Bob shows up in one of his John Varvatos-provided jackets (you can tell its Varvaotos because the seams are exposed on one side) and tells you to go online and join the Biggest Loser community forum, where the Biggest Loser Elders will teach you where to go when the revolution begins. Also, they will tell you that you are fat and why this means you should hate yourself. I think you get a sweet 15% off deal on TV dinners, too. What a conundrum!
After that, it's time for the workout, which focuses mostly on watching videos of Irene when she was fat and Jillian trying to murder Jay with exercise. At one point, you can see how much steam is coming off Jay's body, and it actually looks like he's been lit on fire. He falls off the stairmaster at one point and so Jillian screams at him until he screams back, and he looks like he's going to murder her when he does so. According to Jillian, he's "not switched on", so she keeps pushing him until he cries, and he cries a lot and starts talking in this panicky voice about losing his family. In Jillian's weird, fucked up world, this indicates progress. And yeah, maybe it does. She's a professional, sure. But really--take an old man who's had some pretty major surgery and all kinds of fucked up shit in his medical history, work him until he nearly pukes, push him, scream at him, humiliate him, make him cry--is that really worth whatever bullshit emotional outcome you're going for? I could probably get the cat to stop eating my roses by breaking his legs, but you know, I think I'll just keep the bedroom door closed.
The rest of the workout segment focuses on the girls doing boxing shit with Cara. In the most egregiously forced moment of this episode so far, Olivia runs uphill into a swamp while wearing boxing gloves and screams "I am a champion!", for no reason whatsoever. It would be funnier if it weren't Olivia, but Olivia can't help but be so earnest that it just feels like watching Girl Scouts fold up a flag in slow motion while somebody plays that House of Pain song about Jumping Around.
After the workout routine, it's time for another product placement ad. This one's for milk, and since it isn't a specific company, it just seems like Austin is having a weird conversation with Cara about why he likes cereal, to which she responds in her best impersonation of a synthetic Fran Drescher, "Milk is very important. It makes me happy that you are eating it with cereal." Afterwards, Austin tells us that 19 weeks ago, he didn't even know what it meant to be "Vitamin D deficient". I think that's more a reflection of being poorly educated on the meaning of the word "deficient", if you ask me.
Now that an hour of the show has passed, the show stops to recap the first hour. Is that really necessary? Is the general American audience--the millions of people who watch this show at an exponentially higher number than Breaking Bad, The Shield, and Parks and Recreation combined--so fucking stupid they can't remember what they've been watching for the last sixty minutes? Apparently they are, so the recap continues.
The second challenge--the winner will get a 1 pound advantage at the weigh-in--is an individual challenge, where the contestants have to move some random number of sandbags up a gigantic staircase. I don't know or remember the amounts, so let's just say that all of the fat people have to climb up and down a giant's staircase while carrying 20 pound sandbags, which they use to make little staircase mountains on each one of their steps. And since I'm just filling in gaps here, let's also say that they're all dressed like Starfire from the Teen Titans while doing so.
There's a break for another in-show advertisement, this one for the Pledge Your Pounds Challenge, which is something I don't understand, nor do I want to understand. The commercial is insanely packed, too--first you watch a fitness class with a bunch of tattooed dudes doing lunges in a gymnasium, then the mayor of San Bernandino talks about giving back and does a pretty intense ab workout, and then a woman who is 105 goes "I am 105 years old and I cannot get by without certain things" and then some other old lady holds up the 105 year old woman by her bony left arm inside a factory where a forty year old woman mouths something about boxes and Jillian tells you to "pledge your pounds" in a voiceover. If it wasn't so brightly lit, it would seem like a Burmese snuff film.
We return to the challenge, which is a foregone conclusion, no matter how the producers try to edit it. Austin is handily beating the shit out of everybody. Olivia almost seems like she's going to say "he doesn't need the advantage, and should just let one of us win", but she stops herself and says that she wants to win. And then they cut to her later and she says she doesn't care. She's really hard to root for, this lady. And then Austin wins, so no more of that jibber-jabber. Dude doesn't even seem tired, if we're being honest.
Commercial, again: this one's for Subway. All the contestants go to Subway, with Brett of course, because Brett is always drawing scut work detail. (In part because he's the new guy, and in part because Cara is clearly on loan from some kind of hospital, and thus has limited working hours.) What do you think people talk about at Subway? Go with that thought, it's probably no more or less interesting than what these people talk about. Oh, and when you imagine the conversation, you have to include a goofy Jamaican sounding steel drums soundtrack. Because that's what's playing on this one, son.
Back for the last chance workout, which is always awesome in terms of having kick-ass sound effects whenever weights are thrown around, as well as dope-as-fuck camera moves to make it seem like those push-ups are so intense they are actually making the camera shake. The workouts are cross-cut with shots from the previous weeks, so that you remember the fucking crazy ass amounts of weight that these people have lost. The sound effects build up. The camera shakes. Jay screams, throws the weights on the ground, rips the head of a baby off with his teeth, and then he and Bob go out and drink the skin of their forefathers. Or something.
The girls work out next. For some reason, Jillian and Cara don't work them as hard, but that's probably just some weird editing. Either way, Bob shows up and screams at them and makes them work some weird metal gear style machine, the sort of thing you don't see at normal gyms due to the fact that it's not actually exercise equipment. Hannah maybe starts crying? The best part of watching Bob is how he always storms off and on during the workouts--there's nowhere else he has to go, but the way he runs around, you'd think he's delivering babies in the other room. Also, the dude is single handedly proving that black socks look awesome pulled all the way up past the calves. Seriously, Bob is one fly motherfucker.
The Weigh In:
This segment takes up a good forty five minutes of the show, but it's almost impossible to explain what happens in a way that would make you believe it takes that long. They just weigh people, and then the two people who lost the lowest percentage of weight are voted on to go home by the people who weren't in the bottom two. The only thing that makes the weigh-in interesting is seeing what Bob wears (one time he wore a cape!) and listening to Jillian say "fuck", which can be a whole lot. But even that is a gamble--like this time, Bob's just wearing jeans and the unfinished blazer, and Jillian's just keeps doing her whole "I DON'T GET IT, SHIT IS CRAZY" schtick, which is a lot less entertaining than her "FUCK YOU AND FUCK THIS COUNTRY ALSO FUCK DIABETES, S'MORES" schtick. So who cares? Some people lost weight, Olivia and Hannah continue being groomed to be the show's winning duo (despite the fact that the show can only have one winner) and Austin goes home because he only lost one pound.
-Tucker Stone & Matthew J. Brady, 2011
This week, Tim O'Neil goes two episodes deep into the just-started Game of Thrones while Tucker goes two episodes back into the just-finished Justified.
Game of Thrones: "Winter Is Coming" and "The Kingsroad"
(This is part two of a two part discussion of Game of Thrones. The first part can be found at The Hurting, here.)
The pull quote for Game of Thrones - or leastwise the pull quote that HBO very dearly wishes to see adopted by an unwitting media - is that the series is "The Sopranos with swords." That this description is more or less accurate does not necessarily redound to the credit of the series. The Sopranos was a deeply flawed show that used a number of fairly sophisticated storytelling techniques to mask the fact the it was yet another iteration of the same old mob tropes we'd seen reiterated by Hollywood ten thousand times before. It doesn't matter how badly we see the bad guy dragged through the mud, and how "problematic" their life is and how their ethical bankruptcy effects their families - at the end of the day we still feel that rush of adrenaline when he pops some guy in the head because he's out protagonist, and we're hardwired to reward our protagonists with unearned and sycophantic loyalty. Inverting genre tropes, no matter how cleverly done, is still just another excuse to trot out the tropes. We think we're safe because the meta elements and supposed ironic detachment provide some degree of ethical prophylaxis, but really we're still just as complicit with Tony Soprano as we were with Tony Montana.
I can't help but feel a similar sort of sinking dissatisfaction while watching Game of Thrones. This is supposed to be the state-of-the-art in the fantasy genre, and yet it still seems very familiar. What do we have to show for the supposedly mature level of storytelling on display? Political intrigue and sex. We'll discuss the politics first, because that would appear to be the story's primary hook (although the sex is getting quite a bit of attention as well). The seriousness with which the production tackles the material argues in itself for a kind of respectability that reflexively places the material above the level of "mere" fantasy, with wizards and magic and paladins and orcs. But I strongly suspect that for all the intrigue and lust on display, the series will live or die on the alacrity with which it finally delivers on the (implicit) promise of merciless and magical medieval action. Will viewers stick around for a fantasy series that does not - or, because of its obeisance to its source material, cannot - deliver on the promise of a more fantastic spectacle? No matter how nuanced a character (the producers would like us to believe) Tony eventually became, it was still the promise of violence, grimy immorality and gallows humor that put butts in the seats on HBO for the better part of a decade.
The story of Game of Thrones focuses on the machinations of the royal families of a group of interlocking yet competing fiefdoms under the ostensible rule of a strong central king. All the houses jockey for power relative to the throne, with the ultimate goal of any family being (presumably) the usurpation of central authority. This is the kind of story filled with characters for whom the adjective "Machiavellian" was certainly coined. And yet it's hard to feel sympathy for any characters in this undifferentiated mass of political schemers when they're all feudal aristocrats: they're all complicit in a system that normalizes exploitation. Are we supposed to root for the good princes who love dogs and have cute children over the bad princes who have the children of menial's whipped to death for the temerity of speaking to royalty? They are all symptoms of a sick system, and seeing as we're not Aristotle the only way to differentiate between "good" kings and "bad" kings is that the bad kings are still breathing. But given the complete lack of any non-aristocratic (or non military) characters in these first two episodes I seriously doubt we're building towards any kind of proletarian revolution, or even just a moderate expansion of the political franchise.
Everyone knows that Machiavelli wrote The Prince, but how many people have ever read his Discourses on Livy? Machiavelli was a dyed-in-the-wool (small "r") republican who devoted his life to promoting political freedom throughout Italy. The Prince was (depending on which scholars you believe) either pitch-black satire or a bald-facedly cynical attempt to ingratiate himself with the same Medici's who broke both of his arms for (supposedly) conspiring against Florence. There is a whole world of political thought and ethical theory outside the realm of musclebound noblemen jockeying against one and another for the privilege of pissing on the poor.
And the sex . . . yes. There is a lot of sex in this show. All that can be said, I think, is that any filmmaker wishing to convey the seriousness and grotesquery of forced marriage and rape should not film rape scenes like outtakes from a porn film. If you don't want people to second-guess the prurient intent of your rape scenes, you should film them to be as unarousing as possible - you know, actually unpleasant, and not lit by soft candles in a cozy tent or set against a backdrop of waves crashing against the setting sun. I know I go back to this example a lot, but really, if we're talking about rape on film we should be talking about Salo. If you want to make the audience hate rape and detest rapists, there are ways to do this - but the methods necessary to truly convey the monstrousness of sexual violence on film are perhaps too astringent for pay cable. So instead we get this sub-Nancy Friday royal rape fantasy bullshit.
I like fantasy, but I am strangely unmoved by Game of Thrones selective obeisance to the mores of epic fantasy storytelling. Every "mature" element is undercut by another concession made to convention. Sex and politics, yes, but we're still ultimately in a world of royalist power fantasies buttressed by parochial notions of clan ethics. It reminds me more than a little of Geoff Johns' insistence on filling Green Lantern comics with dismemberment and blood - it's Green Lantern, for fuck's sake. The gore doesn't convince anyone that it's all grown up now. At the end of the day people still want to see dudes with green wishing rings fight evil space robots. I can't help but think that Game of Thrones might not be just a bit more interesting if we actually saw some monsters and dragons. I have been promised by people "in the know" that these elements are coming, eventually. In the meantime, we're left to struggle through a fantasy series for people who really, really wanted to know more about the foreign policies of Rohan and Gondor in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Númenor. If you don't know that that means, trust me, it would be as boring as it sounds.
Will I ever pick up the books? Believe it or not, even despite my general lack of enthusiasm for the show, I am seriously considering it. It's not so much that I would specifically like to see if my complaints regarding the show are addressed or mollified by the books (I have a hard time thinking the rape is anywhere near as sensationalistic in the books as on film, for instance). I would like to see if the stories themselves in their original unexpurgated form are strong enough to make me not care about all the little problems that make the TV show such a frustrating viewing experience. That's the strength of a well-told fantasy story, after all: it sucks you in despite yourself, it convinces you to buy into the most fantastical premise despite your better judgment, to surrender your willing suspension of disbelief to the custody of a master storyteller, to sign on to the cause of crown and kingdom and fight to the death against the incarnations of absolute evil. I dearly cherish that experience, when I manage to find it.
Justified "Reckoning" & "Bloody Harlan"
While the first season of Justified had problems finding its preferred format, playing the long form familial conflict arcs interrupted by done-in-one Raylan-gets-his-gun set pieces that varied in quality, the show was one of those rare beasts that arrived as close to perfect as it could be, considering it's hysterical line-up of cliches. (The least of which would be the fact that it's a show about a fast-draw lawman who wears a hat, has a crusty old boss who just can't get him to behave, a couple of woman who just can't help but love him, and the most of which that the show never stopped coming up with reasons why it's demonically attractive lawman never found a room he couldn't take off his shirt in.) The first season, it was a show that knew exactly what it was supposed to do, even if sometimes it didn't exactly know how. By the close of that ragtag collection of episodes, there'd been a couple of solid done-in-ones (Alan Ruck's turn as a doomed dentist was my personal favorite), and one of the most satisfying season finales in what's rapidly become the primary warhorse in the FX garage, the pulp machodrama. Justified isn't the Shield--there's just never going to be enough on the line for it to reach that show's grueling final years, and despite the winning presence of Walt Goggins and the incomparable genius of Nick Searcy, Justified's back bench of acting talent is so slim as to be nonexistent--but Justified was a solid contender to back up Sons of Anarchy, a show so lurid that it's probably best described as the hangover after sleaze decides to go and get black out drunk.
If it seems like this is leading up to a claim that Justified has lost its way a bit, that would be because it seems an inarguable claim to make...and yet?
Few seem to think so. Those who had once given the show only the most wavering support seem to have now fully given over to this weird, Frankenstein narrative it's spent the last three months farting out, and the regularity with which the show gets named as Breaking Bad's only competition for best child of the Holy Trinity (Shield/Wire/Deadwood) is so consistent as to be expected. (While remaining completely inaccurate.) Simply put, the show's been bad--at times, it was bad because it brought on a why's-he-still-working guy like Larenz Tate and then gave him the stupidest lines in the show's history (regarding a cheap stuffed animal, which was covered in blood) and had him deliver these lines to an actor who's only saving grace might be that he's young enough that it's totally possible that he could grow into being a better actor than Larenz Tate, and other times the show was bad because of how little it seemed to care about the characters it had spent the first season building (have any of Eva's choices made sense this season? If you didn't already know that Boyd's character was intended to die back in the series premiere, wouldn't you have guessed it by the way he rockets around in motivation and design?), but most of all, the show was bad because of what it spent an entire season consistently dismantling, which was Raylen Givens, it's heart and soul.
There's a scene in "Bloody Harlan" where Jeremy Davies--who's Miller's Crossing inspired performance in last week's "Reckoning" was one of this season's rare high points--beats on Raylen with a baseball bat. It's an uncomfortable scene to watch, and not because of its reliance on the show's commitment to that odd juxtaposition of graphic violence and rural outdoor settings. It's an uncomfortable scene because Raylen sort of deserves to get knocked around, because he's not that good of a guy.
A quick aside: I'm not someone who personally cares that much if characters on a television show are "likeable" or not, although I do consider that to be a factor in whether I can enjoy a reality show. Fictional though, the only thing I ask is that they be consistent, whatever they are. Consistency is how someone as selfish and self-obsessed as McNulty becomes watchable, how a character as darkly horrifying as Shane Vendrell becomes tragic. Raylen's problem isn't that he's no longer likeable--if anything, Olyphant's ability to give the show's leaden dialog such a charming lilt has become a constant saving grace--it's that he no longer makes sense from the long view, and that means everything he does correlates to where he is in the moment. And where is that, but a bottomless pit of self-created destruction? Would the guy who swore oaths in Miami to clean up cities in the face of annihilation have assisted his fickle ex-wife after discovering the chasms of dishonesty that existed behind her petulant manipulations, only to carry on in hotels with random mining executives a scant few days later? Does his arrogant (and consistently fruitless) disdain for his boss, his partners, his family, even the law itself have any consistent connection to the never compromise hunter who laid it down in the desert so many times when Miami's shooters came calling? The guy that season built--a classically structured archetype, a gunslinging maverick built of honor--was turned into something else this season, a dressed up in tight jeans piece of white trash, only different from the Bennett family he fought in that they never turned on one another, while Raylen couldn't be trusted to even tell his friends the truth. In the end, he betrayed them all.
That deserves a couple of licks, at least.
-Tim O'Neil & Tucker Stone, 2011
Fringe: "Olivia" and "The Box"
Matthew J. Brady
The strange thing about Fringe is that it's enjoyable enough while I'm watching it, but trying to analyze it for a write-up like this just exposes all its glaring flaws and inanities. Maybe those should just be accepted by this point, but it's hard not to focus on the minuses when the pluses are less than satisfactory. However: this season starts out on a pretty compelling note, with Olivia stranded in the other universe, with villainous versions of Walter, Broyles, and Charlie trying to brainwash her into thinking she is the alternate version of herself, and in addition, the alternate Olivia is in "our" universe, spying on the team from within. Not a bad concept, although the machinations that get "good" Olivia to her mind-controlled place in which the writers apparently want her are as silly as usual, something about injections containing her evil alternate's memories taking over her mind (a nice chance for paranoia as she questions what is real, but with a near-instantaneous transformation that kind of ruins the buildup), so she can be placed back on her old team for some reason. If the show is going to bounce back and forth between universes each episode, going on its usual course of weird cases each week, that could be pretty interesting, and might be a good chance to explore the differences between worlds (hopefully beyond the oh-so-clever gags like a taxi advertising the musical "Dogs"). Evil Olivia's adventures on this side of the vibrational barrier seem neat too, although Anna Torv is stretching the limits of her acting abilities with her attempts to seem sinister. But, she does shoot a guy execution-style, then makes out with Peter to distract him from the blood slowly pooling under her bathroom door; that's always fun. The rest of the plot is sillier, regarding the discovery of some mysterious box related to evil Walter's doomsday machine; it emits brain-melting ultrasonics whenever anybody opens it, but some guy survived it, and the team has to find him. Any guesses as to how he did it? If you said because he was deaf, even though that's not the way sound waves work, you've earned the satisfaction of being able to predict the silliness of the show's pseudoscience. Also, you get to enjoy some random guy's head exploding, which is another thing that's always fun.
So, Fringe: still pretty dumb, but enjoyable enough to stick with, at least out of hope that something silly will happen, ridiculous science will be proffered, or the characters will be goofy enough to keep from grating against the walls of unbelievability. Here's hoping for a season that's dumb enough to almost seem smart.
Sons of Anarchy - "Turning and Turning"
While Sons never truly transitioned from being a moderately interesting show featuring some incredible performances by a few minor characters, the rhythym of the show eventually caught me. It's an interesting trick that the show played in its second season--teasing out the satisfactions of justice postponed, and then delivering said justice (in full commitment to FX's extreme taste for onscreen violence) with the gusto the weeks of waiting for it demand. This season may be working the same method out once again--episode after episode, building its way towards the fists and blood conclusion that will see Our Man Jax find His Son Abel in That Country Ireland--but if it isn't, then the show had best come up with an explanation for why it's sidelining every episode into a whiny subplot machine. It's the same problem the show experienced in the previous seasons middling episodes--when there isn't violence to be had, Sons doesn't seem to know what to do with itself. Irritatingly, it seems to think that it has something to say, be it about the economy (it's bad), brotherhood (it's good) and girls (such a headache). The last season's music video conclusion, where Jax collapsed in the gang's arms while watching his kidnapped son disappear in the distance while his mother ran from a Federal murder charge frame-up, was a bravura moment all around, the sort of pulpier-than-thou conclusion that so many of these shows strive for. But now, with the gang running in place in California while a swath of recognizable Irish actors cryptically mumble in second-unit Belfast scenes, those moments are absent of impact, even in memory. To make it worse, the emotional demands of a kidnapped baby have stolen any screentime the non-leads might get, leaving only token head-nods and "we're with you brother" lines to its secondary players, all of whom are more compelling than Kurt Sutter (the show's creator) seems to realize. While Katey Segal's performance remains the sort of praiseworthy adventure that results in Emmy campaigns, she's working in service of killing time.
All that being said, the nice thing about this sort of entertainment--the pulpier, macho porn kind of entertainment--is that it won't have to do much to right the ship. Like season two, the show could easily fix itself with one or two damn fine episodes. If what's being teased by plot comes to bear, that could be the sight of Jax, Chibs and Opie walking the streets of Belfast--the IRA on one end, and untold carnage in wait between them. Here's to hope.
One of the reasons why doctor shows are perennially popular is that people secretly hate and resent their doctors, and not-so-secretly relish the prospect of seeing them humiliated and humbled. It's not rocket science - or even brain surgery - most people have neither the ability nor the patience to be doctors, even the fake doctors who talk about Hegel to stoned undergraduates. Therefore we loathe the fact that some dudes and dudettes had the wherewithal to flush their twenties down the toilet in exchange for a massive payday beginning sometime in their mid-thirties and proceeding thereafter until the day they die. (Or, at least until Obamacare takes over and all the MDs are driving tractors on the commune like the rest of us.) Which isn't to say that all doctors are Brainiac 5-level mental giants, but even the most mediocre opthamologist in the world was still able to stick it out through the decade-or-so of grueling study and labor necessary to become a board-certified physician. So I guess that entitles them to be dicks and lord it over everyone else around the table at family reunions?
Anyway. The cast of Grey's, as you are probably aware, is almost entirely made up of doctors. Whenever characters from other professions are introduced - even supposedly similain-scope professions such as nursing or lawyering - invariably these characters get swept under the rug in short order. Why? One big reason is that this show usually does a great job of ignoring one big icky bit that often comes up in peoples' relationships with their doctors: class. A lot of people resent their doctors simply because doctors make a lot of money, and if you're a doctor reading this now who wants to leave an angry post in the comments to the effect that you don't make that much money, remember that you still make a lot more money than me, and probably more than I ever will, so shut the fuck up. Grey's likes to persist in the fantasy that doctors - not even just interns or residents, but real full-blown physicians - do things like share apartments and live in trailers in the woods. The best part was when the chief of surgery (not Chief Weber, but Derek when he was chief last season) was sharing a house with a handful of residents. (One of those residents was his fiancee, but still.) If you're the chief of surgery at a major metropolitan hospital you're making a lot of money, and it stretches credibility beyond the breaking point to believe that someone making probably in the high six figures, if not more, is going to be sharing a bathroom stall with surgical residents for any reason. I can stretch my suspension of belief to encompass the idea that a forty-foot tall humanoid in purple pants flies around the universe with a silver herald eating planets, but I'm just too much of a Marxist to ever fully believe that people who make that kind of money would slum for any reason.
So what the hell am I talking about? Last season - you might recall - ended on a really big high point. For those too lazy to click, the last two episodes of the most recent season ended on a complete tonal break, with a psychotic shooter on a rampage in Seattle Grace. Before the episodes were over he had killed or wounding a bunch of people, including a few established cast members. It was absolutely crazy: for the space of two hours, the anodyne prime-time soap opera was transformed into a merciless, Jack Bauer-esque bloodbath. Characters lived, characters died, epiphanies were reached and a number of long-standing plotlines were resolved with brutal suddenness. I give Grey's a lot of crap for being an awful, cliched, predictable and stone-dumb show (that has somehow managed to get its hooks into me nonetheless, which says more about me than it), but I had to give completely unironic props: they flipped the script on the audience and I was riveted to my seat. It was awesome.
But then, what do you do after you blow everything up? How do you wrench a show like Grey's back into it's tried-and-true format after having first wrenched it so violently - and effectively - out of shape?
The answer: not very easily. "With You I'm Born Again" is, obviously, the "aftermath" episode. For the clearest analogy, think "Family," that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation right after "Best of Both Worlds," wherein Picard returns to his family estate in France and tries to come to grips with the fact that he was mind-controlled by a race of evil cyborgs and used as a weapon in an attempt to enslave or annihilate every living being in the Alpha Quadrant. Or, closer to home, how about all those old issues of Uncanny X-Men right after some big crossover event that featured all the main characters moping around and reflecting on What Just Happened, while in the background a few things were unobtrusively done by way of setting up the next year's worth of subplots. Usually they involved Jubilee as a viewpoint character talking about everyone's feelings in some capacity or another.
The difference is, of course, that Grey's Antomy isn't Uncanny X-Men. It's one of the longstanding conventions in superhero comics that people are remarkably resilient and able to deal with even the most devastating Crisis with unmatched equanimity. One issue half the southern hemisphere is eaten by Brainiac, the next issue we're supposed to care that Toyman is sticking hypno-rays into Barbie dolls as part of a plot to sabotage Fashion Week or something. That's life, we try to pick up where we left off. Only, really, that's not quite how that works in quote-unquote "real" life: people who don't wear spandex get caught in tragedy and changed by trauma in ways that cannot easily be swept under the rug. This is actually one of Grey's evergreen themes, with characters struggling hard to overcome past hardships and traumatic events. One of Grey's oldest rules is the idea - not unique to the show but certainly hammered to death over the last few years - that people can't be in successful relationships until they get past their own problems. Which, OK, I'll concede that this is strictly true, but it usually doesn't stand in many peoples' ways in real life. (In my experience people usually get into relationships when they want to, whether they're a good idea or not, and sort it all out later.)
That's one of the reasons - maybe the biggest reason - why the cast of Grey's is so universally insufferable: they all have a constant finger on the pulse of their own feelings, and are able to articulate every vicissitude of their emotional state with pinpoint precision. Usually once or twice an episode. They broadcast their emotional status in laborious detail at every opportunity: they are all the most self-involved little pricks on God's green earth. And as the series progresses, it becomes harder to ignore the fact that these people are no longer perky, likeable young striplings, they are becoming close to actual medical professionals. Meaning they've grown from raw interns to hardened residents without learning a damn thing about keeping their mouths shut and not acting like crybabies. Meaning you want to punch them in the face all the damn time. Is this how doctors are in real life, all running around having cathartic monologues every five minutes because they've discovered Feelings? if so, I'm going to stick to sacrificing goats to Ahura Mazda as my primary means of keeping testicular cancer at bay.
Now, of course, they all have real reason to discuss their Feelings at the drop of a hat. Now everyone on the show has PTSD, not just Kevin McKidd's Dr. Ginger McTavish. Speaking from a purely mechanical standpoint, the short-term gain of the awesome season finale might just not be worth all the long-term trouble, because unless they plan to sweep everything under the rug (and the only thing Grey's ever truly sweeps under the rug is unwanted cast members), the long-term shape of the show becomes the laborious recovery of a close-knit group of PTSD survivors. Which sort of puts a downer on things. This week saw the marriage of Yang and Hunt (pictured above) which, while certainly not unexpected, is still the direct result of having survived a recent near-death experience. The question remains as to whether or not a marriage made under these circumstances can survive past the initial euphoric mood. The writers this week sure went out of their way to foreshadow the fact that the new marriage will be a rocky one, and perhaps a short one as well.
The question lingers, as yet unanswered, as to whether or not the series will ever really be the same again. If it really follows through on the whole massive cast-wide PTSD storyline, then it could be pretty grim for the foreseeable future, and without any kind of lightness the series is going to get pretty damn awful. Because, let's be serious, Grey's isn't really any good if we're actually going to get out our ruler and measure "good" and "bad" according to anything remotely resembling a logical standard - at its best, it can manage 'fun and frivolous." When it manages to get over, it usually does so through charm and momentum. Based on this first episode, the new season looks to be short on charm and momentum. We could be in for a hard slog.
-Matthew J. Brady, Tucker Stone, Tim O'Neil, 2010
This week, it's Mad Men and Hung.
Mad Men - "The Good News"
"What do you want?"
"Half of what you have."
So to recap - Betty = bad mother; Don = has nothing to do, drunk, oddly pays hookers to slap him (out of character), does a great Colonel Klink, treats secretaries like shit; Joan = shot in profile the last episode, essentially used as a prop; Roger Sterling = eats shit like it's his job, also drunk but more enjoyably so; Peggy = haircut masquerading as character development; rest of the cast = I am 3 seasons deep into this and don't know any of their names aside from Jared Harris. And that's not his name on the show. Venture Brothers comes back next month, you know that?
This episode starts off with Joan sitting up from the gynocologist's table, wearing a hospital gown. So yeah, still used as a prop but at least this time she's actually got a plotline. Joan's plotline is... the same as Don's. She's in a holding pattern, waiting for her husband to get sent off, first to training, then to Vietnam. Joan is worried that she might not be able to conceive, even though she's had 2 abortions, the first given by a "midwife" and the second by the gynecologist she's talking to (I've seen people complaining about the smoking doctor online, I guess they don't remember that the smoking doctor is a staple of pre-70s film and television). Joan also has a mini-fight with Jared Harris - first he snaps at her, calling her on flirting with him to get extra time off. Then later, she snaps at him over what turns out to be a mistake made by his incompetent secretary ("I thought American men were bad enough but none of them have so consistently made me feel like a helpless stupid little girl"). Their fight gets his secretary fired, but she's fat and stupid - she doesn't know what "egregious" means - so who gives a shit? It's not like she's a real character. Joan goes to make breakfast for her husband on New Years, gives herself a stigmata wound (because Joan is a SAINT, damn you). The husband sews her hand up at the table while patronizing her "this for me is like filing papers is for you". Joan starts crying because she loves this idiot who doesn't understand her at all, and who's been successively ruining her life since he showed up.
Don Draper on a plane is always used to depress the audience. Don Draper driving is a sight to behold. Don says he's going on vacation to Acapulco, but actually goes and sees his ex- / sham-wife in LA. She's got a broken leg, her sister and neice are helping her out with things around the house. The neice is fairly hot, also a Berkley-attending hippy the writers can use to bounce Don off of. Whenever a young person shows up on this show - with the exception of the time Don got drugged and robbed and we got to see that his dead father follows him around calling him soft and worthless every second of his life, AKA back when this show could shock the hell out of me - it's just there for half-assed contrast. They've got all their tricks down now, and they are leaning on them. This hippy is barely a stereotype. She has a huge vein in her forehead and it is distracting (seriously, what the hell?). Don tries to make a move, she pulls the ultimate checkmate and says "your ex-wife has cancer", which shuts him down pretty effectively. She doesn't know it either, in her sister's fucked up provincial 50s logic would rather she not know than know. Full blown cancer, and she doesn't know. Thats fucking awful. Don goes home and pulls a Walter White, ignores the problem and starts painting her house out of guilt (thats a really great thing about AMC programming, they've locked onto that very specific way that American men deal with this shit - I've seen it happen in real life). As Don paints (in his drawers, which is as close to naked as this show gets), the ex- starts talking about that time she saw a UFO, and how it made her question everything. Don responds that you don't need to see a UFO to think that way (THANKS WRITERS ROOM). Don confronts the sister about the cancer thing. She convinces him that her completely fucked way of thinking is the right way of doing things ("you're just a man in a room with a checkbook"). That Don is swayed by this bothers me, considering how angry he could get. I'm assuming that he listens is going to be part of this seasons' Don arc. On the way out, Don looks sad, and the ex assumes that it's because Don's going through a divorce. He stops himself from saying anything again.
Don's problem this season is that he isn't doing anything - really he's not going hard at clients like he used to, he's not taking on an inadvisable relationship, he's not flashing back to the compilation of Terrence Malick movies that is his life (seriously, they've hit Days of Heaven and Thin Red Line, if we see Don in the gap between he's going to be spree killing people around the southwest with his child-bride. I say again, child-bride.). He's in stasis. Don then comes back to the office from LA, finds Jared Harris sitting there by himself on New Years Day. They pretend to work, then Don decides they're going to see the movies. The movies playing in NYC that year were fucking amazing (Zorba the Greek, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Its a Mad Mad Mad World, Send Me Now Flowers, the Guns of August). They decide to go see Gamera, spend the whole time discussing handjobs and getting drunk. Jared Harris loves New York, is uncomfortable because his wife has essentially left him. Don and Jared Harris are now unanimously alone, they decide get hookers. Next week, more holding pattern bullshit until around episode six where they remember its a drama and kill someone.
Hung - "Beaverland"
Last week, I pretty much covered the main reason I'm watching this show; this week, Jane Adams didn't have much to do that showed off any of those reasons. Instead, the show played time-filler, doling out a tiny bit of forward momentum in the plot--by having Mike become the latest prostitute in the stable, even though he doesn't know it yet--and hitting the repeat button on their most noxious subplot, Tanya's relationship with her mother, played by Rhea Perlman. (Rhea deserves some acknowledgment. She's playing an unlikeable high education stereotype, and she's doing such a good job at it that every one of her scenes is a Mad Max Terrordome of uncomfortable, skin-crawling, this isn't funny and it's also painful to watch "comedy".) There was another one of television's "plotting for morons" classics, where the show opened with Tanya criticizing Ray for sabotaging the whore business, and that made Ray feel inadequate, which then magically dovetailed with a client who is designed by writers to make their fictional men feel inadequate, because she's a woman who cannot be pleased in bed for magic reasons I imagine she'll explain with a really poorly written monologue in a later episode. Or she won't, this isn't a show that guarantees a return to specific plot points. I guess I could talk about the guy in the picture--he's the happy-go-lucky pimp that has been giving Tanya advice on the pimping game--but there's not much else to say beyond that. He's supposed to be "funny", you can tell by the music cues, but the last time he had a good line was in his first scene, when he said gettheFUck...outta here right now". On paper, the line is nothing special, but the way he mumbled the first part as a two syllable word, with a weird pause in the middle and a distinct bubble of emphasis on the "fu-" was pretty funny. Since then, he's just sort of there.
So screw this episode. Let's talk about one of the nastiest things in the world.
The oddest thing about this show, the one thing it has that no other show I can think of has, is that it's currently playing a long-form incest subplot that is A) supposed to be a really weird joke and B) is eventually going to result in one of the most uncomfortable fiascos in this show's "we like uncomfortable fiascos" short history. See, the main guy--that's Ray, played by Thomas Jane--has these two kids, kids he had with Anne Heche before she divorced him. The kids are twins, a couple of overweight teenagers in search of an identity. (On television, "in search of identity" means that you spend some time dressing the kids out of a mail order catalog full of Strawberry and Hot Topic ripoffs, screw around with the boy maybe being gay in the bluntest fashion possible, like just have him say "So what if I am gay" and then give him a boyfriend and then end that relationship immediately so he can say "I guess i'm not gay", total screen time, 3 minutes, so on, everybody's seen a variation on this, Roseanne probably did it best at some point, I don't know.) The other running joke that gets addressed every once in awhile is how weird it is that a former beauty queen and an ex-superstar athlete combined to produce a couple of doughy nerd kids. Again: none of this is special or unique, the only card that Hung seems to be playing with it is that they aren't cramming a couple of 30 year old hardbodies into mall gear and pretending that they're the teenagers. (And even then, Alexander Payne, who produced and directed some of the original episodes, already carved out that "replace these actors with real people, i.e. people with acne and braces" territory in Election.)
And for some reason--and I don't really think I want to know why, and I doubt anybody reading this wants to hear me guess--the boy twin loves the girl twin. That's okay. That's normal, you love your sister. I love my sister. All kinds of people love their sisters. But see, there's the thing: he loves his sister and he wants to be with her too, that kind of love. He writes poems about her fetus feet, tries to break up her relationships, teases and leads on a gay guy just to make her jealous, hugs her too long, has these weird, furtive groping moments and they play twang-y sound cues while he does it...basically, you've got an entire show that has this weird, vaguely acknowledged backplot going about a teenage boy who wants to fuck his twin sister. She seems aware of it, Ray is staring to pick up on it, and it just goes on and on and on, and...look, gross shit makes me laugh. Johnny Ryan comics, youtube mash-up videos of that creepy guy in the Metal Gear video games, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness, whatever, I don't care, go for it, it's not real, Ha Ha Ha. But the thing is--this incest thing isn't funny. Not because incest couldn't be funny, I bet somebody could make incest really funny. Anything can be really funny. I just don't know that the Hung people can pull it off, they don't seem to have the chops. The actors are doing an okay job making it all seem uncomfortable, but I'm pretty sure that even shitty actors can make incest seem uncomfortable. Hell, that girl in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a terrible actress, but when her brother started trying to get it on with her, I had to turn the movie off and bail out of the house for awhile. Just having a brother try to hook up, that's going to be uncomfortable watching, it doesn't matter if the brother is played by Dabney Coleman or a bedpost.
The incest stories biggest problem isn't that it's offensive, its only gross when you're forcing yourself to think about it, and even then, the kids are barely on the show and can't determine any of the major plots. It's biggest problem is that it's a constant glowing reminder of useless, formula storytelling, which is Hung's larger problem--it's a show that doesn't have anything to say, and yet it has a production value (this episode was directed by Lisa Cholodenko) and enough solid performers to spin the plates for the 27 minutes that it takes to finish an episode. It knows how to do the dramatic, lead balloon moments, but it never follows up on any of those moments, and when the characters have to be onscreen for any longer than the two minutes or so each scene usually runs, they end up resorting to repeating the latest plot development in their own gimmicky character language. It's a show about ideas, not about story, and the thing is--and I'm not even sure how much I believe this, but I think I honestly believe it quite a bit--ideas aren't what television does well. Story is its primary bag, the forward movement of plots that carry you through the dialog, that sweep you past the miscast hacks and the suspend-your-disbelief tricks. When you have to stop--when a show doesn't move the plot, when it doesn't close the loops--you start seeing the make-up crack, the lack of walls, the repetition of sets, all the necessary fakery that a budget requires. At this point, Hung feels like a show that didn't seem to believe it had a future past the premise, but instead of struggling against the current, it's calmly letting the waves rise overhead. Slowly, placidly, stupidly, it's drowning...and no one seems to care.
-Sean Witkze & Tucker Stone, 2010
This week: Sean Witzke with the Mad Men bullets, Nina with the Pillars of the Earth and True Blood shells, and a pail of leavings from Tucker on Hung.
Mad Men - "Christmas Comes But Once A Year"
After last week's extra-shitty opening moment, at least this week's opening is a scene instead of a bullshit writers-room mission statement. Of course it's got the always boring Draper kids in it, so we're back to zero. Don Draper's secretary reads the kids letter to Santa. The Freddy guy from Sterling-Cooper comes back, and is in A.A. Yeah, it's that episode. Rather than work an internal premise (HEY FEMINISM, MISOGYNIST DINOSAURS), they've decided to start just pulling random things in as themes.
Don meets his neighbor across the hall, it's the girl from Brick. Freddy and Peggy work together. Peggy is nothing but a haircut and a feminist argument - zero character. "My bed is covered with work", then the guy she's with says "Thats kind of symbolic". What the fuck, Mad Men writers? Are you worried we won't get it? Quit telling us the fucking subtext for five minutes. Peggy as the only voice of feminism on this show is becoming a crutch rather than a tool. I guess there used to be more young people on this show? But right now, she's the only fully developed young character and the only woman with that mindset so she's becoming even more unlikeable than she used to be.
All the annoying kids in the office pool get moments, if you care about, here you go, caring about that. I guess? Pete Campbell having nothing to do is one of the few things I'm happy with here.
There is a pretty great character moment of Don Draper ducking his way out of a focus-group personality test. Then there's another one, of Roger Sterling getting a call from Lee Garner when hung over, accidentally getting forced into throwing a huge xmas party. And they shoot Christina Hendricks in side profile as he hits on her, making some redundant statement about "this is the office and that's life". It's nice to see Slattery, Harris, and Hendricks get a scene where they can bounce off each other, but really this is sitcom filler showing up pretty early on in the season. Who gives a shit, really? I guess this is the Roger Sterling episode, where Sterling eats shit the whole episode in order to keep his Lucky Strike contract. I like Sterling, but his character is really only great as a foil for Don, so whatever mileage you get from this is yours to keep.
Don is lonely, but really they haven't given Don anything to do. He's in a holding pattern, and we're only in episode 2. Bad start. The group dynamics lady reads Don like a book, tells him he'll be remarried within the year. I have a problem with this mostly because its another chunk of this show telling instead of showing. Then Don sleeps with his secretary, and there is an awkward moment between them which is nice, but not really substantive at all. Then Don quickly brushes her off the next day, giving her a hundred dollar Christmas bonus.
Once again, the Don and Betty show has very little Don and Betty in it. I'm beginning to sense a pattern. The best part was Don and Sterling doing nazi voices as they get into the office so they don't have to talk about the christmas party. I want to watch whatever show that scene came from.Pillars of the Earth - "Redemption"
True Blood - "Hitting the Ground"
Ah! It was getting soooo goood there for a little bit! Last Sunday's cliffhanger had us watching Bill die a slow and painful death. Sookie finding him just in time, as Tara was finding wheels for their escape, and then - out of the shadows - Lorena appears and sinks her teeth into Sookie's neck!!! And it ended! Oh, I was sure Lorena was going to "make" Sookie - and what crazy plot twists and turns might ensue?!?! I seriously COULD NOT WAIT for this episode. And - oh oh oh - in the scenes that they show for the next episode - we see Sookie on a stretcher in a hospital! I mean, wowza! The suspense was nearly killing me!
So, what happened? Well, a bunch of back and forth shit happened. Again. I mean, it was still good, but as you can tell from my tone, I'm weary of it all. Sookie gets away from Lorena because Bill springs to "life" holds Lorena down, while Sookie stabs her with a wood? or iron? spear-like-thing, and Lorena dies the "one true death" and turns to blood and intestines, showering Bill. Rendering him near death again. Why? Not sure. Never gets addressed. So, to recap thus far Bill had proposed to Sookie, she comes back to say yes, he disappears, ends up in Mississippi in, under duress for for her protection or something, he calls her and tells her they are over. Of course, she does not take no for an answer and goes ahead chases after him. Finds him. He tries to give her the cold shoulder, but then shows his true colors and love for her. Now that they are finally together in the same room? He is sentenced to death and taken away. She is locked up in a room upstairs. Telepathically, her and Tara plot and escape - and do. She finds Bill, but now he's nearly dead. Lorena attacks Sookie - she's nearly dead. Bill wakes up, saves Sookie, she kills Lorena - now Bill is nearly dead. You still following this? Well, good, because it keeps going.... I could type the rest of it out, but it would spoil it for some of you - and make me very tired. Suffice it to say, much more drama ensues with Sookie nearly dying, us finding out that she has NO BLOOD TYPE, she has some weird dream (reality) about a lady name Claudine and people of "the light" and Claudine warns her to stay away from Bill, he will take her light. So...yeah.....ONCE AGAIN even though they can finally be together - now Sookie is going to tell Bill that they can't be.
Lotsa other gruesome stuff happens. The sex on True Blood has toned down, but the violence has not. We watch a full beheading of Zeljko Ivanek. It's kind of amazing. And it marks the beginning of utter chaos in Vampire Land. Yeah, I'll still watch it, but like I said, I'm tired of this Sookie & Bill thing. I am, though, intrigued by Claudine. And what that's all about. I'm even more inclined, though, to read the books now due to my Facebook friend's status update:
"Dear writers of True Blood, Didn't you read the books? I love your show and all, but... you should probably read the books. This isn't how things are supposed to happen. And btw, Claudine is supposed to be tall, beautiful, and fantastic."
Hung - "A Man, A Plan or Thank You, Jimmy Carter"
Hung is a comedy show that isn't very funny, a satire on getting-by-in-these-economic-times that isn't very biting, an exploitation show in the vein of HBO's look-tits standard Dream On, and if you're riding with Todd VanDerWerff, it's also a kinda/sorta fairy tale. None of those things are that interesting, and none of those things are hard to discern from watching five minutes of the show, which is why that's all I'd seen of it until a week ago. My wife liked it, so she's kept up with it, and the Factual's own Marty Brown didn't like it but wanted to keep up with it anyway. Last week, I walked by the television and caught a scene in the middle of "Mind Bullets or Bang Bang Bang Motherfucker" where Jane Adams (who plays the show's incompetent pimp) bawls out her more qualified counterpart in a parking lot. I've said it here before, and I've got no problem repeating it: if there's an actor doing something that's interesting and unique, I'll pretty much watch as much of that person as I can, regardless of what the rest of the experience entails. Jane isn't a complete unknown to me--I'm of the age where watching Happiness was a rite of undergrad passage--and she's enough of a New York presence that I've actually run into her a few times, but until that parking lot scene, I can honestly say I had no idea how talented she was. On a show like Hung, where the dialog rarely elevates itself beyond quirky and obvious, it's up to the people working those lines to find a route towards compelling. On paper, Jane's character is one that's hard to root for--she's whiny, laced with obnoxious quirks and smothered in self-loathing--but mostly, she's just stupid, a female version of the overgrown infant that's usually played by people like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler. But in action, as played by Adams, it's a fearless, submerged in investment performance by a no-bullshit brilliant physical comedian. There's no wasted half-ass movement in the way Adams clasps her hands over her eyes when seeing something that upsets her, there's about 16 different ways she can bug out her eyes whenever she's trying to make herself heard, and the random moments on the show when she dances around in frustration are a masterpiece of controlled, lunatic clowning. This is old school Peter Brook Empty Space/Theater of Cruelty acting, the kind of stuff that television doesn't provide opportunities for anymore, and while my frothing enjoyment for Adams might be tangled up in a sorrow for its absence, that doesn't lessen the skill with which she puts it on display.
On this episode, one of the characters eats some marijuana cookies and hijinks ensue, just like they ensued when the mom character in the second Transformers ate pot brownies.
So yeah, okay. Jane's fucking great though.
-Sean Witzke, Nina & Tucker Stone, 2010