Welcome to the inaugural edition of BTR; my thoughts, reviews, commentary, and complaints on any and all of them various episodic serialized entertainment nuggets I’m following on what the great Harlan Ellison referred to as the Glass Teat. Hmm… glass teat. Boob tube. Fascinating…
I’ll try not to get too spoilerish on things, but if I do, I will give you plenty of warning. I hate when people drop spoilers like they’re going out of style. That said, if you’re not watching the show and you’re reading my write-ups, you’re kinda sorta asking for it.
Before I begin, it behooves me to mention that my taste in TV is pretty narrow. I’m a fan of serialized fiction of the ‘genre’ sort, and I pretty much detest any and all “reality” styled shows and almost all sitcoms (if it’s got a laugh-track I ain’t interested). My favorite shows of late include Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Homeland, Downton Abbey, Once Upon A Time, Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, American Horror Story, Breaking Bad (need to catch up), and Boardwalk Empire.
True Blood lost me this season. I tried. Honest.
If a show has any of the following in its title, it’s pretty much a lock that I ain’t interested: Jersey, Idol, America’s, Kardashian, Housewives, Dance/Dancing, Two and a Half, Glee, Boss, or Leno.
Anyway, here are some rough thoughts:
Boardwalk Empire (S03 – Ep. 1-4): Boardwalk Empire — a Prohibition-era mob story centered in 1920s Atlantic City — has always been a bit of a slow burn, which has worked to the show’s advantage. I love its look and feel, how it fully embraces its time period, settings, and conventions, while still remaining what is generally a character-driven show (similar to but not as much as Mad Men, which is almost entirely a character piece). The growth of Nucky Thompson from Season 1 to now is rather notable, and Steve Buscemi is brilliant in the part. Character’s like Nelson Van Alden’s the Fed on the run, Eli Thompson’s fallen angel, Arnold Rothstein’s measured, calculating menace, Al Capone’s volcano-on-the-brink rage, Chalky White’s cold, pragmatic ambition, Mickey Doyle Kozik’s glib, chip-on-shouldered ineffectiveness, Gillian Darmody’s subjugated tragedy that fuels her ability to survive, and Richard Harrow’s quiet, honorable spirit of vengeance. These are great characters (although as much as I love Kelly Macdonald, Margaret always seems to bring the story to a screeching halt), richly drawn and wonderfully acted.
This season, however, there seems to be more of an emphasis on advancing the plot than delving into the characters contained therein, and that’s to be expected in the third season of a mob drama. Last season’s pronouncement that you can’t be “half a gangster” is definitely in play here. The conflicts between Nucky and Gyp Rosetti are at the forefront. I’m really fascinated with where Van Alden’s story is heading; the former fed now on the run and living a mundane existence is a ridiculously interesting comeuppance for what was once the “good guy” (who happened to murder his partner, who had in turn murdered a potential witness on Nucky’s orders). Less interesting is Margaret’s battle with the powers-that-be at St. Theresa’s hospital in order to facilitate the creation of a women’s health program.
If I have any complaint about this season, it’s that the resolution of Margaret’s giving away millions of dollars worth of Nucky’s property to the church — without his consent — was never seen by viewers. It was dealt with “between seasons”. It could not have been pretty. I doubt Nucky would have let her get away with it, given his temperament. SOMETHING must have been introduced to alleviate the situation. As viewers, we got a bit ripped off there. I suspect — perhaps hope — that a flashback episode will deal with the ramifications of that transaction.
Homeland (S02 – Ep: 1-3) Boots and I caught up with all of Season 1 over the course of a weekend late last month. We really couldn’t help it. The sign of a great show is one that hooks you in Episode 01. Immediately. None of this “well it starts kinda slow/weak but it REALLY picks up 8 or 9 episodes into it” garbage. Feh. From the very get-go, Homeland sinks its hooks into you and doesn’t relent. This season has been no exception, with the cast firing on all cylinders. I never thought much of Claire Danes as an actress (positive or negative) until we watched her masterful turn in 2010’s HBO movie Temple Grandin. Her performance as an autistic woman who went on to become one of the leading authorities of livestock behavior was one of the best films of the year (TV or otherwise), and she performed the role believably and compellingly, without resorting to any of the “magical mystical outcast” clichés; you know what I’m talking about, films where well-meaning “normal” people learn “valuable lessons” from a mentally/emotionally disabled person who is picked-on by “normal” society… OK I’m getting tangential again. Focus. My point was that Danes is a smart actress and she is absolutely on fire in her role here as a CIA operative with a crippling bipolar disorder. Damian Lewis’s performance as Nick Brody, the Marine sergeant and former POW turned traitor, is also masterful. It’s a difficult role to sell to audiences; you have to make your character believable and dimensional, one where you have to compel audiences to understand (and perhaps even sympathize with) someone who would betray his country to a terrorist organization.
For my money, no one is doing better work than Mandy Patinkin, whose performance as CIA chief Saul Berenson is probably the most understated and convincing on the show. I’ve always been a fan of his work, and I don’t think he’s ever been this good. Talk about combining a great actor with a great role, this is it.
This season has started out really well, although Episode 03 was definite filler; almost non-existent plot advancement with few standout character moments (save for Morena Baccarin’s long-suffering wife), and an almost quizzically illogical plot development (send your most valuable and most visible undercover resource out on a “Pick-up and transport a terrorist” mission? REALLY?). Still, sometimes you need to take a breather after an especially intense previous episode, and the story is well positioned for a BIGTIME payoff. My only question… my only concern, really, is that the writers might be tempted to continually fall back on certain beats/tropes that are already starting to feel a little played-out. How many “last second reprieves” and “almost got-’ems” can they pull out before the chronic eye-rolling begins? This is what killed 24, as much as I never missed an episode. “Oh, really, another CTU mole? <sighs>”
Once Upon A Time (S02 – Ep: 01-03): Ahh, the oft-mentioned “Gay Lost”. So be it. This is still a well-written, ridiculously entertaining show. Season 2 literally picks up moments after the first season ended, and continues with its strong blend of characterization, mystery, fantasy, and serialized storytelling that bounces between both flashbacks and current day, as well as the “fantasy” universe and our own. I like the show because, unlike, say, Lost (which admittedly I never watched, but only heard about) and The X-Files (which I worshipped until right around that first movie came out), Once Upon A Time doesn’t just introduce new mysteries, characters, and plot developments arbitrarily and summarily ignore previous ones in lieu of resolving them. It really seems to build upon itself, advancing the storyline, adding new elements, but never ignoring or trivializing what came before, or — even worse — making shit up as it goes along without any focused narrative. As for the characters, a lot of them are broadly drawn; if you’re looking for subtlety and nuance, you’re watching the wrong show, Mister Sister. But they are fun and (mostly) true to their roots. Snow White should never be allowed to wear that pixie haircut. Regina (the “Evil Queen”) is 37 shades of smokin’ hot. Prince Charming took awhile to grow on me, but he eventually did. The Seven Dwarves are a hoot. My only concerns are in the two new characters; the actress playing Mulan (who was on Real World: San Diego, if I recall correctly) is kind of terrible, and while I have no problem with a black Lancelot in and of itself, he should at the very least have a French accent. Still, this is a great show, a pleasure that you don’t actually have to feel guilty about.
Arrow (S01 – Ep: 01): I had to watch this, didn’t I? I’ve been an unwavering comics/superhero fan since as long as I can remember reading, primarily a DC Comics fan, and even more, a HUGE Green Arrow geek. Heroes who specialized in archery were always my favorites; I must have watched the Errol Flynn Robin Hood so many times as a child, it’s now part of my DNA. I naturally gravitated towards Oliver Queen as the archer with a quiver full of trick arrows and a daredevil, social crusading personality. Well the good news is that the CW’s new show is actually fairly decent. Nothing extraordinary, but enjoyable superhero-esque fun. The Oliver Queen on this show is far from the Van Dyke-sporting hero from the comics of my youth. On Arrow he’s basically your stock early-20-something from CW central casting, buff and beautiful and brooding, but the writers have given him enough of a compelling back story and layered enough mysteries to keep me intrigued. I’ll come back for more. For now. But no Black Canary, no sale.
Revolution (S01 – Ep: 01-04): Why do I want to like this show more than I do? I’m watching it, I’m curious just enough to see where things go, but there isn’t a single breathing, flesh-and-blood human character in the entire cast. Everyone is just caricature after caricature. Brooding girl. Dopey geek. Handsome badass. Enigmatic stranger. Sadistic badguy. I dig the premise enough but almost everyone looks like they just walked off a shampoo commercial. It’s too slick. Too glossy. There’s no real verisimilitude to any of the affairs, which is a shame because, again, there’s some interesting plot mechanics going on in this story. Enough to keep me tuning in for now. But for the love of all things holy, give me a human pulse I can cling to.
The Walking Dead (S03 – Ep:01): Holy freakin’ Moley. This was fantastic. The season premiere was much more action- and plot-focused than anything else, but it delivered in a big way. I was a huge fan of Robert Kirkman’s comic long before I watched the show — Geek-Fu judo chop! — and I have no problem with the show and the comic being two entirely separate entities. It gives me just enough recognition factor to see where things are generally heading, but enough new elements to keep things fresh and surprising. This was a great episode to really kick the barn door in and deliver white-knuckle suspense, terror, and more than a few genuine creep-out moments. Bravo.
Downton Abbey (S03 – Ep:01-05): The third season of this acclaimed show has not yet been broadcast in North America. It would have been through thoroughly illicit means to have watched the first five amazing episodes of what is allegedly shaping up to be an incredible season. Thus far. Allegedly.
Well those are the Big Ones for right now. American Horror Story comes back tonight, which was my favorite new show of last year, and of course we had the hilarious return of the sublime It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia last week. More on those in the next BTR… whenever that happens.