These are the episodes of television I watched that aired this week, not including any previously aired episodes that I watched in addition:
Bates Motel: “Underwater” (1.09) - B-
The Fall: “Dark Descent” (1.01) - B
Family Tree: “The Box” (1.01) - B
Game of Thrones: “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” (3.07) - B
Hannibal: “Fromage” (1.08) - C
Mad Men: “Man with a Plan” (6.07) - D
The Office: “Finale” (9.24/9.25) - C+
Orphan Black: “Entangled Bank” (1.08) - B
Revolution: “The Longest Day” (1.17) - B
Saturday Night Live: “Ben Affleck/Kanye West” (38.21) - C+
Scandal: “White Hat’s Back On” (2.22) - B+
Veep: “Helsinki” (2.05) - C-
These are the episodes of television I watched that aired this week, not including any previously aired episodes that I watched in addition:
These are the episodes of television I watched that aired this week, not including any previously aired episodes that I watched in addition:
Bates Motel: “A Boy and His Dog” (1.08) - B-
Community: “Advanced Introduction to Finality” (4.13) - F
Game of Thrones: “The Climb” (3.06) - B-
Hannibal: “Sorbet” (1.07) - B
Mad Men: “For Immediate Release” (6.06) - A-
The Office: “A.A.R.M.” (9.22/9.23) - D
Orphan Black: “Parts Developed in an Unusual Manner” (1.07) - B+
Revolution: “The Love Boat” (1.16) - C+
Saturday Night Live: “Kristen Wiig/Vampire Weekend” (38.20) - D+
Scandal: “Any Questions?” (2.21) - B-
Veep: “The Vic Allen Dinner” (2.04) - C+
I have to say, I was quite disappointed by the first season of Luther. That’s not to say that I necessarily found it bad, but more so that it didn’t live up to the hopes I had for it or the positive word I had heard from many others in regards to it. I’m a huge fan of Idris Elba and of British crime dramas, and yet this felt like such a routinely generic imitation of any standard American procedural you can find at four in the morning on TNT. The plots are bland, the criminals are completely forgettable and disposable and the whole thing runs through the same open-and-close procedure in almost each episode. The only ones that stand out against that are the first episode, which opens up the fascinating relationship between John Luther (Elba) and Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) that I wish would have been explored more, and the final episode which is propelled by a horrendously undeveloped and unconvincing twist.
Aside from the weakness in the proceedings from one episode to the next, everything else about Luther is loaded with one dull cliche after another, with the exception of the Luther and Alice dynamic. The towering cop who is ace at his job but can’t keep a handle on his short temper (I swear I was close to busting into a laugh whenever Luther began to throw things around during his hissy fits), the cop who is plagued with guilt over a questionable decision he made on a case prior (that he’s under investigation for), the tortured cop trying to get back together with his ex-wife who has left him for an actual decent guy but still finds herself pulled towards him for some inexplicable reason. It’s all convention and the only thing that gives it a slight taste of originality is that odd and ambiguous Alice and Luther relationship, but that’s not enough to hold it up over the completely banal derivative nature of everything else contained within the series.
Elba is typically superb and Wilson is positively chilling, but all of the other performances strain for credibility or just melt into the background with as little intrigue as just about everything else in this series. I kept hoping that it was slowly building up to something more worthwhile and interesting, but it only got worse and more trying as the season wore on. That twist that drives into the season finale is so out of nowhere it feels like the writers were desperate to give this some kind of energy going into the final episode and they failed miserably, with that finale only highlighting the fact that they weren’t capable of giving me any kind of emotional involvement in any of these characters.
Not doing anything new or exciting doesn’t make you particularly awful, but it does make you completely forgettable and that’s what I found Luther to be. The season ends on a cliffhanger and yet I feel no desire or motivation to watch the next season to see how it resolves itself. A major disappointment, Luther doesn’t hold anywhere near the kind of emotional weight or gripping intensity of its contemporaries like Sherlock and The Shadow Line. It’s a rote, by-the-books police procedural that belongs on something like CBS, not on a network known for much finer productions.
It was just announced yesterday that ABC has cancelled Happy Endings after three seasons on the air, and if you ask me this decision is a crime against quality television. Not only do I feel that Happy Endings was the most consistent and funniest comedy on television for its entire run, but I’d go as far to say that it ranked only behind Louie in terms of overall quality for comedies. You can’t blame ABC for cancelling a show that wasn’t performing well in the ratings, but you can most certainly blame them for never even giving it a chance. I was honestly stunned each time the show had been renewed these past two seasons, as the network seemed to really not want it to be on their schedule any longer.
Whether they were airing the episodes out of order or out of season, pulling it off the air for months at a time in the middle of a season or throwing it into a confounding array of different time slots that ultimately resulted in them rapidly dumping out two episodes back-to-back each week on Friday nights, anyone could see that they never wanted this show to succeed. Why they let it remain on the air so long is a mystery to me as their inconsistent behavior towards it never made any sense, but at least I can be grateful that I was able to get three seasons out of this charming and side-splitting collection of some of the best characters and performances put on comedy television in years.
I’ve always been a firm believer in limiting runs of television shows instead letting them go on to the point of repetition or shark jumping that is so prevalent in extended series. This is especially true for comedies, where it’s difficult to really evolve your characters much beyond the confines of the genre and as a result later seasons become an unfortunate display of diminishing returns with one-note jokes and retread plots that only do damage to how great they were at one point. There are many comedies running on the air right now (and many that have passed) that are prime examples of this belief, and maybe if Happy Endings had gone on for more years it would have met the same fate, but part of the reason why I’m so frustrated by its cancellation is the fact that I think it could have been the rare series to defy the odds and remain as consistent as it was in its three-year run for many more seasons. The 23 episodes of this third season ultimately brought the series to 57 episodes total and there was never a time where I felt it even began to get stale or repeat itself too much. Yes, some episodes in this season (like any season) didn’t work as well as others, but it never had the kind of slump that other shows have that will last for long stretches, even many seasons, as the occasional weak episode here was immediately met by a strong one that picked it back up and even the weaker ones remained a cut above most of what passes for comedy television these days.
If I do have one complaint about the third season, it would be in the way that they splintered off the characters for a decent amount of the episodes. I think there are an endless amount of possibilities that you can get with putting these characters together in different pairings, but the re-emergence of the Dave and Alex relationship hurt it by pinning these characters too closely together for the majority of the season. Both characters can work well on their own, but I never found the comedic spark between them as strong as when they were with other characters. Elisha Cuthbert, as Alex, really stole the second season in practically every episode but this season I felt like she was dragged down by being forced together with Zachary Knighton’s Dave and it was a combination that just didn’t work as well comedically as the rest of the group, especially considering how many plots had just the two of them being separated from the other four. Them being in a romantic relationship never really mattered as the show can put these characters together anyway no matter what, but I just feel like this particular pairing is the one weak spot among the sixtet and unfortunately it was given a lot of attention this season.
That one complaint out of the way, what made Happy Endings such a rare figure in the modern television climate was that growing more familiar with these characters only seemed to make them more pleasurable to be around. While other shows get into that habit of becoming too predictable and one-note with their humor in later years, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the characters here were able to feel just as fresh, honest and amusing despite the fact that we knew exactly how they would react to certain situations. The third season of Happy Endings never had any surprise in its humor the way that the first and second seasons were able to when we were still getting to know these people, but this season had them evolve into a kind of family that the audience was a part of just as much as the six friends who made up that group. There’s a genuine warmth and comfort that grew into this season that made each new episode feel like you were returning home to your loved ones. That’s something that you can’t just fake and you really have to evolve with and it likely could have gotten even better if the series had continued.
Sadly it wasn’t to be and now us fans will have to sit and wait to see if the series is saved by another network, hoping that maybe someone out there will be able to give it the proper treatment it deserves. I think if there’s any comedy on television right now that deserves and could benefit from an extended run it is this one, and I can only cross my fingers that someone allows it to live on. If so, that’s fantastic and I hope that my theories on the show continuing to grow in many ways will be proven right. If not, it’s a real shame that this is the end of seeing this group traverse their way through troubled love lives, hilarious friendship dynamics and more pop-culture references than you can believe, but at least we got three seasons of genuine pleasure out of it.
01. “She Got Game Night” (3.18)
02. “No-Ho-Ho” (3.07)
03. “The Ex Factor” (3.11)
04. “Cazsh Dummy Spillionaires” (3.01)
05. “Boys II Menorah” (3.03)
As someone who found the fourth season of Parks and Recreation to be a significant decline from the utter brilliance of the third, I went into the fifth season a bit reluctant that they would be able to win me back over. One of the obstacles that any show faces as they extend near the mark of a half dozen seasons is having to maintain a sense of creativeness and originality while still remaining true to your characters. This is especially true for comedies which have to continually build for jokes as opposed to having a plot that they can push forward in broad strokes, and especially true for sitcoms who are often confined to one or a few locations for their characters to interact within.
The one thing that I admired about the fourth season of Parks was that it took the rare courage for a sitcom of drastically altering its format, removing Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her Parks Department employees from their usual setting and embarking on the great campaign trail to get her elected to city office. They were a success, but despite my appreciation of their boldness in changing things up I never felt like the campaign narrative really worked for me. It was awkwardly loaded with supporting characters I didn’t care for, subplots that were totally strained and forgettable and worst of all I felt like the season completely lost sight of its characters, which more than anything else is the biggest mistake a sitcom can make. It’s difficult in this format of television to develop your characters too much without straining believability or losing the things that make them so enjoyable in the first place, but the fourth season of Parks fell off the map in a much different way by not even bothering to try and do anything new with their characters and losing the true heart that the show once possessed.
The first season of this show got off to a rough start with its obvious attempt to be the new Office, but in the second and third seasons it totally established itself as something unique, vibrant and full of warmth. While other NBC shows dwindled, it was Parks that took its place on top of the pack and in my opinion quickly became the best comedy on television. Its combination of heart and humor was a perfect blend that had me in tears and stitches throughout the majority of those two seasons, but all of that faded in the fourth with progressively more extravagant plotlines and a very bitter shade to the humor that felt far too mean-spirited for the previously nice and comforting environment of Pawnee. There were always the bad apples in the basket, but when Leslie Knope talked about her love for Pawnee you could feel the honesty in her voice and the show depicted that place beautifully. For all of its flaws and hilariously violent history, you could understand why someone would fall in love with the fourth most obese town in the United States. Along with that, our main characters themselves were really dropped into these dark holes of shallow repetition, just mindlessly repeating the exact same jokes over and over again with absolutely no soul. I admired the ambition of the fourth season of Parks, but it really lost its way where it counted.
I’m spending so much time talking about the history of the show and harping on the negative qualities of the fourth season but I’m only doing that so I can give a solid background when I say that I felt the fifth season was a real rise for the show and I couldn’t be more pleased to be saying that. This show meant a lot for me in many ways in that second and third season and while the fifth wasn’t nearly a return to that high level that it once existed at, it was certainly a significant improvement over the fourth. Parks and Recreation seems to be the anti-thesis to the regular sitcom format, in that changing things up really hurt it but returning back to what was routine in those two great seasons is what has brought it back a little bit closer to my heart.
The fifth season started out its 22 episodes with the characters splintered off, with Leslie’s love Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) working in Washington D.C. with April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) by his side and Leslie doing her City Council thing, and at the start I was feeling like the show was just as bland and uninspired as it had left us at the end of Season 4. However, somewhere along the line the show began to creep back into the way that things used to be and as it returned all of its characters to Pawnee and brought them back together on a week-to-week basis it really began to spark with that spirit of kindness and sincerity that once made it so great. By the time the season ended, I had honestly forgotten that Leslie was even on the City Council anymore as the plotlines felt just like anything that she would’ve been involved with in the earlier seasons when she was working for the Parks Department.
The fourth season of Parks and Recreation made some attempts at character development that felt too far out of character or too ridiculous to work, but the fifth season really managed to even that out by giving honest and believable development that made me look forward to seeing someone like Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) again in his new relationship with his love (Lucy Lawless) and actually begin to once again start liking Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and April, two characters that I had grown to absolutely despise over the course of the fourth season. The writers disappointed me in a big way last year by turning one of my favorite shows into one frustrating bag of lost hopes and dreams and while this season wasn’t a full return to form, it does really feel like they could be making their way back up there. I’m surprised to say it, but I really am looking forward to Season 6 and hope to see it continue on the road that Season 5 began to pave. Who knows, maybe they can finally figure out something worthwhile to do with Ann and Chris (Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe)? This whole baby thing is pretty ridiculous and came out of nowhere, but at least she’s not dating Tom and he’s not having an emotional breakdown.
The beauty of Parks and Recreation is that it was obviously never about where these people were working, but it was about the fact that they were all doing it together. Splitting them up was a big mistake, and it seems the writers realized that and wisely brought them all back together for some episodes that began to hark back to the show’s brightest points. This season definitely wasn’t able to capture the kind of side-splitting laughs or beautiful tears that it used to get out of me on a regular basis, but I slowly began to look forward to having it in my life each week and that’s something that I haven’t been able to say about this show for quite some time now. It was a real gift in a time where formerly excellent shows like The Office and Community were churning out absolute garbage week after week to have at least one show that was giving a decent effort at maintaining some semblance of its former glory. It may have struggled to get there at times, but at least it gave it a good try and with it just receiving a renewal for a sixth season I can only hope that it continues down this path.
01. “Emergency Response” (5.13)
02. “Are You Better Off?” (5.22)
03. “Article Two” (5.19)
04. “Women in Garbage” (5.11)
05. “Leslie and Ben” (5.14)
Going into the production-troubled fourth season of Community, the one thing that I didn’t want new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port to do was to try too hard to make their version of Dan Harmon’s Community, the show that we saw for those first three seasons. Yes, shows should retain some consistency and familiarity from one season to the next, but Harmon’s Community was such a distinct, undefined endeavor that a new vision wouldn’t have felt out of place at all and were they to just try and make a carbon-copy it would undoubtedly come off more as imitation than anything else. Along with that, I had found my interest and appreciation for the show waning drastically over the course of the third season to the point where I was actually excited by the potential for a new voice to come on board at the head of the show and resuscitate it from the tedious, self-referential grave that Harmon had begun to dug for it. Unlike many members of the show’s audience, I was hoping that it was going to get cancelled after the weak third season, but when the new staff was announced I found myself excited about the show’s potential for the first time in quite a while.
Unfortunately, Guarascio and Port spent far too much time in Season 4 doing exactly what I wanted them to avoid and not enough carving their own path. More often than not, Season 4 felt like nothing more than fan-service, calling back to old jokes and bringing back the same kind of routines that had already become tired under Harmon’s direction and only looked worse now given the forced, lazy and uninspired approach that the writers took to it this time around. Episodes like “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” (Abed makes a documentary…again) and “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” (an episode where the cast are portrayed as puppets…who sing) felt like such desperate reaches to try to appeal to the core fanbase of the audience, but none of them popped with the kind of energy and creativeness that earlier episodes of the show contained.
I have my complaints with the consistency of the seasons under Harmon’s vision and my belief that after the first season he began to progressively sacrifice character for the sake of topping himself with one meta subversion of convention after another, but when this show was at its peak there really wasn’t anything that could eclipse it in terms of that energy and originality that this season was sorely lacking. Too often this season felt like they were just tossing in gimmicks for the sake of it, only further damaged by the really unfortunate frequency in which they resorted to stunt casting in order to get some kind of rise of interest out of its dwindling audience. In a shortened 13-episode season, we saw Jason Alexander, Sara Bareilles, James Brolin, Tricia Helfer, Fred Willard and more all show up and do nothing worthy of note, along with a disappointing return for Giancarlo Esposito, who was one of the few high points of the weak third season.
The trouble with continuing down the path of Harmon’s Community is the same one that began to plague the show in that third season itself and will only continue to hurt the show if it gets renewed and they try to maintain this approach; the writers are so focused on trying to one-up themselves in terms of originality that they are sacrificing the things that made this show work in the first place — the charming collection of oddball characters from an array of diverse backgrounds and personalities. Greendale Community College has such a wide assortment of characters and while I complained in Season 3 about its over-reliance on beefing up supporting characters to the point of annoyance, this season went in the total opposite direction and barely displayed anyone outside of our core study group, Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) and Ben Chang (Ken Jeong). There’s a balance that the first and second season nailed perfectly in giving the proper screentime to all of the main and recurring characters, but the show has lost sight of that. Beyond that, the show has come to a point where breaking convention just doesn’t feel fresh for it anymore. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have that same kind of energy that the earlier seasons had, but it’s gotten to a place where breaking convention for Community feels just as conventional as any other routine sitcom does.
So when it ultimately comes down to it, I would definitely say that this is my least favorite season of the show and I didn’t care for it overall, but that’s not say that I thought everything was bad. In fact, one of the most disappointing aspects of the season for me was the fact that at times I felt like Guarascio and Port actually were making progress in turning this into their own show separate from Harmon’s. For better or worse, there’s really never going to be anything else like Community on television and I don’t think anything will change that, but for the first time in a while it seemed like the new showrunners were making some serious effort towards developing these characters into much more honest people than Harmon had left them. As I said before, I felt like Harmon began to sacrifice his characters for the sake of his genre parodies and subversion, but Guarascio and Port (and the writers, naturally) at times seemed to be making a return to the kind of Community that we saw in Season 1, where the characters were the key component and everything else came second.
Unfortunately, this ended up being a rarity in the fourth season and too often they went back to that fan-service well, but there were a few episodes that I did genuinely have a fond appreciation for in the effort to develop these characters. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) finally confronted his daddy issues head-on, Abed (Danny Pudi) embarks on a real date with minimal meta-referentialiasm (it’s a real shame this was never followed up on) and Troy and Britta (Donald Glover and Gillian Jacobs) spend most of the season in a relationship. There were times where it seemed like they were going to go through with their effort to do more with these people than just use them as stock caricatures inserted as pawns for their eventual game, but whenever they teased the audience with it they would quickly pull the rug out. You’d be forgiven for barely realizing that Troy and Britta were even in a relationship by the time they broke up, since most episodes this season hardly even addressed the fact that they were ever in one to begin with.
One of the most frustrating things about the season for me can’t be blamed on anyone other than Chevy Chase though. Ironically, for the first time in the series I felt like we were beginning to get some genuine fleshing out of Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne, and this excited me as I had always held a desire for him to be removed from the show due to how inappropriate he felt in the context of everything else and the fact that he had always remained in an antagonistic stasis used just to give the group some kind of obstacle. I had always wanted him gone from the show, and now that I finally thought they were doing something interesting and worthwhile with him, Chase up and quits. The writers handled his absence from a few episodes as well as they could have, aside from the awful use of a body double in “Heroic Origins”, and writer Megan Ganz did a solid job giving him an exit from the show in the season finale, “Advanced Introduction to Finality”, which she had to force back in at the last minute, but they were finally taking him in an interesting place and I’m disappointed that if the show is to continue we won’t get to see that.
One other thing that I did genuinely like in the fourth season was their holiday-themed episodes. There was an added little bit of humor in the fact that NBC’s constant wrangling with the show’s scheduling resorted in the episodes airing entirely out of season, giving us a Christmas episode in the middle of April, but even without the amusing untimeliness I felt like these episodes presented a proper balance of parody/homage and genuine sincerity in character. The Rope-influenced Christmas episode, Shawshank rendition of a Thanksgiving episode and especially the Scooby-Doo homage of their Halloween episode (my favorite of the season) presented some of the rare moments that I was able to recall the kind of fondness that I had for this show in its early years.
Unfortunately, these moments were all too rare and the fourth season of Community more often than not felt like a forced imitation of something that they couldn’t capture — something that I didn’t want them to capture in the first place. The strangest thing of all is that while I was hoping it would get cancelled after last season, I genuinely want it to get renewed for a fifth just to see if Guarascio and Port can continue to take it in a new and more honest direction now that they would no longer have the stigma of being the first Harmon-less season. I’d also really prefer for “Advanced Introductions to Finality” to not be the last episode of the show, as it would be an embarrassingly dismal way (I firmly believe it’s the worst episode of the show) to end a show that I once was extremely fond of.
01. “Paranormal Parentage” (4.02)
02. “Herstory of Dance” (4.08)
03. “Intro to Knots” (4.10)
04. “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” (4.05)
05. “Economics of Marine Biology” (4.07)
There’s an immediate obstacle that comes with any television series that places itself in a historical setting, one that takes place in the real world that has been well-documented in history books and is firm in the memories of the viewers. In doing this, you prevent yourself from shocking the audience with any major national events, as we already know everything that’s going to come on that wider scale. For a show like Mad Men, this isn’t particularly significant — it’s a show based around its characters and themes as opposed to a constantly propelling narrative. For a genre show like The Americans, however, this is a much trickier proposition. Whereas in shows that take place in a similar world of espionage like Alias or Homeland their momentum is so driven by the narrative and a need to constantly raise the stakes with one major cliffhanger of epic proportions after another, The Americans doesn’t have the luxury of being able to have major assassination attempts on fictional world leaders or bombings on embassies and other political strongholds, as that historical setting has firmly put in place what the major events are and when they can occur.
As a result, a show like The Americans is presented with two options — you either make the narrative push forward on a smaller, more intimate scale or you build the show as a character drama within this genre format as opposed to a plot-driven one. There are a few bumpy moments in the first season of the show as it tries to establish which path it wants to go down, but by the end of these first thirteen episodes it has firmly placed itself in the latter camp. The first episode of The Americans sets up the plot and makes it look like it’s going to be a lot more about that than anything else. In 1981, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are a married couple living in Washington D.C. with two children, but secretly they are undercover spies for the KGB working against the U.S. The twist that opens the series is that a new family moves in across the street, whose patriarch Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) happens to be a very efficient counter-intelligence agent for the FBI. This sets the show up as the story of two parallel paths between Beeman and the Jennings’, one that will eventually converge when Beeman is sure to discover the truth about who his friendly new neighbors really are.
What makes The Americans work so well is how it cleverly diverts away from this opening promise of a relatively expected and conventional plot by opening up its world to a much wider ensemble of characters and getting into the separate lives of these three people, rather than focusing more intently on the world that they share together. At times the driving narrative of the show almost felt like an afterthought, something put together as a way to constantly move the characters forward while ultimately being more concerned on who they are as people and what operating in this kind of world can do to them. The Americans is a show much more concerned with the mental and emotional struggles of its characters than the physical, something that wisely separates it from the large majority of shows in its genre. By the end of the season, one could be easily forgiven for forgetting that Beeman and the Jennings’ are even neighbors, as this seemingly important plot point has taken a noticeable backseat to the contrasting lives of these characters.
Of course any show that builds itself around characters is going to need to have a cast that can play ball, and The Americans has no shortage of extraordinary players. The central trio of Rhys, Russell and Emmerich bring their best to the forefront of the series and each of them shine in multiple episodes while also lending great support to their companions when required. There’s a contrast to these characters that works so well and each actor knows exactly how to play in their own world while appropriately playing against one another as well. Rhys is more openly vulnerable and sincere, Russell is hardened and ruthless and Emmerich is the do-gooder with a darkness lurking underneath the surface that we get slight teases of and I can’t wait to see emerge further in later episodes. Each actor owns the spotlight when it’s on them but has no problem lending a hand when it’s on someone else.
This is an ensemble that works so well in tune with one another, and that extends into the very talented supporting cast of equally brilliant performances. Margo Martindale makes her return to FX after a stunning, deservedly Emmy-winning role as the villain of Justified’s second season, here playing Philip and Elizabeth’s KGB handler Claudia and creating an unspeakably tense dynamic between herself and Elizabeth. These two characters have some of the most biting scenes of the season and both actresses are more than game to combat one another and refuse to budge and let the other take charge. Martindale is always brilliant, but what was most surprising for me were the performances from Annet Mahendru and Alison Wright. These are two women on opposite sides of the same coin, finding themselves in bed with married men working for opposing governments and yet they couldn’t be more different. Mahendru pays Nina, a Soviet agent who is turned by Beeman and eventually becomes his lover, though a revelation late in the season drives her into a much more dangerous and confusing state that has her loyalty up in the air. The actress almost steals the entire season with her performance that is never allowed to wear anything on its sleeve, working entirely in an internal state as at this point she is so caught up in the lies and betrayals that she can’t possibly know which way is up anymore and can never be her full, honest self with anyone.
Wright, on the other hand, is one who is so ignorant to the true monstrosities of this world, playing Martha Hanson, a secretary in the FBI office and lover to Philip. Martha has no idea who Philip really is though, as he has seduced her in the guise of an alias named Clark (one of the many enjoyable aspects of this season is the neverending assortment of wigs and makeup that Russell and Rhys don in order to portray their character’s different identities). Whereas Nina eventually works herself into a place where she has all of the information from both sides of this covert war (more information than any of the other characters on the show), the tragedy of Martha is that she is just a sweet and naive woman who is hopelessly in love and I truly mean hopelessly. She has no idea of the true nature of the man that she shares her bed with, and it’s heartbreaking to watch her so openly in love with him and consequently blinding herself to the obvious fact that he is not all that he seems. These two characters couldn’t be further apart and yet both women share the fact that they are performed by two actresses who deliver dynamite performances that only get more impressive as the season continues.
It comes as no surprise that this show is loaded with superb female performances, as one of the most pleasantly surprising aspects of the series is the depth and unconventionality that it gives to its portrayal of women in general. Shows that take place in more predominantly “male-skewing” genres like this often shortchange the female characters, thinly writing them into shallow holes as cloying wives and mistresses who are at the mercy of the men, but The Americans subverts these gender dynamics in constantly brilliant ways. Stan and Philip are the big men of the show, but they are often portrayed as much more vulnerable and, frankly, weaker than the strong women who drive it forward. Sure there’s Martha or Stan’s wife Sandra (Susan Misner), who fits directly into that “cloying wife” type, but characters like Elizabeth, Nina and Claudia are the sharpest on the series and are often the ones who hold all of the cards. The men may appear to have the power on the surface, but it’s the women who are making the moves and delivering the goods. When it comes down to it, the women here are the ones who ultimately have the true power, the cunning and the balls that the men aren’t capable of bringing to the table. It’s a very interesting, unique and surprising portrayal of these dynamics in this world and it’s one of the finest aspects of a tremendous first season.
The first season of The Americans definitely has some flaws, the most notable being some awkward retconning of character history into episodes like “Covert War” that try to force more of an emotional connection to character relationships that hadn’t been properly developed leading up to it and therefore fall flat in their weak attempt to establish something more. However, these are just small chinks that are easy to forgive as any show has to get acquainted with itself and see what works and what doesn’t in its opening season. As far as first seasons go, The Americans is definitely one of the most assured and well-developed that television has presented in a while and by the end of these thirteen episodes there is no doubt that this show knows exactly what it is and what it’s going to be moving forward. What began as a somewhat conventional espionage series with the hook of a historical setting has cleverly turned itself into one of the most compelling and emotionally potent character dramas on television — it’s just one that also has some wickedly breathless car chases along the way.
01. “Only You” (1.10)
02. “Safe House” (1.09)
03. “The Colonel” (1.13)
04. “In Control” (1.04)
05. “COMINT” (1.05)
One of my most eagerly anticipated new shows of the past few years, my biggest fear going into The Following was that it would be great and get cancelled. I probably should have thought more about the potential that it wouldn’t meet my hopes for it and yet still get renewed with ease. When the series, created by Scream writer Kevin Williamson, first premiered it was immediately met with ridicule by a large group of critics despite receiving a much more positive audience response. For a while I felt in the minority, standing firm against those who mocked it and defending it as a gripping thriller with a great chemistry between its two leading men. However, as the 15-episode season wore on I began to eat my words and by the time the dreadful finale came around I was having the exact same complaints that those who were against it from the beginning had been having.
I’m sure on reflection I wouldn’t like the opening half of the season as much as I did on first viewing, but that’s because it became more and more clear that the writers of the series didn’t seem to have any idea what they were doing or where they were taking these characters. I never felt that way in the beginning of the series, as the plot established itself quickly and while some episodes did seem like they were creating some padding it still felt like they were building towards an endgame that they went in having already in tact. The show sets itself up as a psychological game between imprisoned serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) and former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), with Hardy being brought back into the fold when a cult of Carroll’s followers emerge and begin taking their own victims as Carroll orchestrates it all behind bars. Hardy was the one who initially put Carroll away years ago, and Bacon plays him well despite the somewhat conventional depiction of the character as a tortured, alcoholic wreck with a heart condition from his encounter with Carroll and a very short temper.
The narrative starts on a relatively small scale, with just a handful of Carroll’s followers being introduced and given their own backstories and at least a trying semblance at some kind of distinguishable personality, but as the season goes on and we’re introduced to the legions of people within this group they all become completely disposable and repetitive. There’s a core trio that are introduced in the first episode, played by Valorie Curry, Adan Canto and Nico Tortorella, but outside of that group any one of the other followers could be dropped at any time and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. Despite being played very well by a roster of guest stars like Marin Ireland (who has been killing it lately on shows like this and Homeland), all of these followers are completely interchangeable. At first we can see glimpses of Carroll’s seductive charm and intellect and you can understand why troubled souls would align themselves with his cause, but after a while it gets to a point where there’s no understanding of why these people were so blindly following his irrational and pointless orders to kill, maim and torture aside from a rather lazy and generic “oh, they’re just crazy” idea.
At the start, the show centers around that dynamic between Hardy and Carroll and it was so well orchestrated and performed by these two great actors who stole any moment they had together and made up for all of the little flaws that were peppered along the way. Some of the characters were flat or too annoying, some of the violence felt a bit too gratuitous (and was at times so dark that you couldn’t even make out what was going on due to it being on network television where they can’t show a lot of the things we were led to believe happened but couldn’t really see) and there were certainly some implausibilities on the motivational and legal side of things, but I was having a thrilling time with it, finding interesting characters portrayed strongly by most of the cast and I was quite intrigued as to where this was all going. The first half built magnificently to the stunning mid-season climax in the seventh episode, titled “Let Me Go”, where a huge twist shatters the structure and takes things in a direction that I wasn’t expecting it to go for quite some time. That episode felt like it would have served well as an epic season finale, but we still had half the season to go and it’s in this half that the season completely fell apart for me.
This is where I’ll start making the same complaints that a lot of other people made about this show from the very start, but I either only found them viable in the back half of the season or I was blinded so much by how thrilling and gripping the first half was for me that I failed to notice them until after this point in the season. As I said earlier, I really did believe that Carroll had a plan and that the writers knew what that was and that they were building toward it very well. I held this belief all the way through “Let Me Go”, but then the series turned and it became clear that they had no idea where they were going to go after this point. For a man who had some sort of big endgame all set up, Carroll spends almost the entire back half of the season doing absolutely nothing but walking around his room and making pointless, tedious phone calls to Ryan just to try and remind the audience that these guys are connected. That being said, that big connection felt more and more like a reach as the season wore on, with these characters not really having anything in common aside from their brief shared history. There are several times throughout the last few episodes where those within Carroll’s camp literally ask one another what their leader’s plan is and the response is just as clueless as the audience, because he doesn’t seem to have one anymore.
What’s worse, Carroll doesn’t even seem to be the same character at all that we met in the opening of this season.When we began I was excited for any scene with him where we could see Purefoy’s endlessly compelling performance, but in that back half of the season I wanted to leave the room anytime we had to endure another torturous scene of Caroll whining like a little brat. He started off with a charm and intellect that made it easy to believe he’d have a league of followers willing to do his bidding, but by the end he was nothing more than a pathetic, incessant little child with absolutely no intimidation factor. Caroll chilled me to the bone when we met him and by the end I felt like a playground bully has more bite than this prattling buffoon had. In introducing him, we learn that Carroll was a failed author whose first book had him laughed off the circuit and his whole big plan for the season was structured as material for him writing his next big novel, pitting the tortured hero against the cruel villain. In the season finale it’s pointed out to him several times by other characters that Carroll is a terrible writer and this almost feels like a genius way for the writers of The Following to excuse themselves by writing a plan that would sensibly come from someone who is terrible at writing, but unfortunately that meta revelation is quelled by the fact that the writing on the rest of the show is so uniformly awful as well.
It’s not just Carroll who makes no sense in terms of believable character development, it’s just about every single member of this frequently dwindling cast, where prominent characters are killed off for nothing beyond the shock factor that is ruined by the time the season ends. Remember that heart condition that Hardy has? It’s given prominent attention as the series begins, with one episode almost entirely revolving around it, but the second we make that turn in the second half until the end of the season it doesn’t get a single mention. This is a heart condition that is aggravated by stress, so naturally one would think that as things got more and more intense, his life was threatened on a constant basis and he continually lost or almost lost people he cared about on the way to the big finish that this would at least be brought up again, right? Not in the world of The Following, where important character details are washed aside and hopefully the audience forgets because they throw in one pointless, unnecessary shock after another to try and keep your attention. I’m tempted to go into more details on the many ways that these characters are bafflingly inconsistent, but this review is already starting to go on quite long and I don’t want to give this show anymore actual critical thought because it’s clearly not asking for it at this point.
I’ll wrap up by saying that for a show that from the very beginning makes it all about the endgame, The Following spends a lot of time looking like it doesn’t know what it’s doing and when it finally gets to that big ender it couldn’t be more lame and generic. The grand finale here falls so flat and only serves as another prominent display of how far the writers of this show had fallen from beginning to end. I honestly can’t think of a time where a show has gone from so good to so bad in such a short amount of time. Usually inconsistent shows have peaks and drops, but The Following had an almost mountain-like structure in its quality — we started solid, built to an epic pinnacle in “Let Me Go” and then immediately flew down at an immeasurable speed to the dreadful conclusion. As I said, the show has already been renewed for a second season and given the little bits of foreshadowing in the season finale I can only imagine the horrendous places it’s going to go next year.
01. “Let Me Go” (1.07)
02. “The Fall” (1.06)
03. “The Siege” (1.05)
04. “Pilot” (1.01)
05. “Love Hurts” (1.09)
Right away, the second season of Aaron Sorkin’s half-hour series Sports Night was able to remedy the biggest intrusion on the excellence of the first season. After struggling with the network, Sorkin was finally able to get his way and have the laugh track and live studio audience removed, opening up the series both creatively and geographically. While I do still wish that he had utilized a wider variety of settings throughout the season (I would have loved to see the home lives of these characters), there is at least some growth in terms of where we can see these characters interact outside of the workplace. Most of that is represented by their seemingly nightly visits to the bar across the street from the offices of CSC (where the fictionalized Sports Night program is created and shot), and while the majority of the scenes here involve our main cast preparing their work it’s still nice to get a little change of scenery every now and then. I’d like to think that if the show had been granted another season we would have seen even further development in this area, but alas it was not to be.
The 22-episode season is of course centered around the offices and studio of Sports Night and in this sophomore year Sorkin did plenty to try and add some dimensions and extra flavor to what we saw in its first year. More times than not, the second season of a show will see the writers introduce a new major character to try and offset the balance that the main cast established in the first season and that’s no different here, as we are given Sam Donovan (played by William H. Macy), a ratings expert brought in by managing editor Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume) to bolster the consistently third-place audience of the show. One of the things that I really loved about the first season of the show was that it never painted any of its characters as the antagonist of the series, or put any of them into areas of black or white. All six members of the main cast had their flaws, but they were all good people striving to do what they believed to be the right thing and whether or not you agreed with them, they never approached anything with malice or aggression. It’s rare to see any show tackle an entire season without any direct opposing force to inflict drama, but Sorkin was able to craft a season built around these characters that felt much more honest and good-hearted than you generally receive in television.
Sam Donovan comes on with a reputation for being fierce, stubborn and brutal and when the staff first meets him he definitely embodies all of that and more. I was worried that one of the things that I loved about the show was now going to go out the window with a season centered around this force coming up against them in a conventionally exaggerated manner, but perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the season was how quickly and refreshingly they developed this character into someone who I grew to care for and yet never once betrayed that reputation he had. Played wonderfully by the always charming Macy, Donovan is a guy who stands strong when there’s a fight to be had and knows that he’s the smartest man in the room in regards to the topics he finds worthy of discussing, but he is also opened up to a lighter side as we learn more about why he chooses a profession that sees him moving from place to place and never being able to establish proper relationships with anyone. Ultimately, he becomes an almost tragic figure.
Donovan’s apathy towards all of the gossip and drama around the office had me in stitches multiple times over the course of the season (and is the perfect contrast for how worked up everyone else gets), but its his relationship with executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) that allows him to expose more of his inner self. It’s no surprise that Macy and Huffman have wonderful chemistry together on screen (the two actors were already married by the time Macy came on board the show), and whether they’re pushing against or pulling towards one another they really light up the show whenever we get to see that relationship. Of course, the growing feelings Dana has towards Sam come in the wake of the rather awkward dismantling of the relationship (or lack thereof) between Dana and Casey McCall (Peter Krause) that was given so much development throughout the first season. While the first season never really had any subplots or character developments that I found hard to buy or rolled my eyes aggressively at, the biggest folly of the second season is that it had quite a few of these and they took up a lot of time.
The season opens with Dana and Casey finally coming together, but unsurprisingly Sorkin felt the need to put something between them again to further drive the audience’s desire for them to be together once and for all. Unfortunately, the manner to which he does this is so forced, contrived and absolutely ridiculous that it made me stop caring about that relationship almost instantly and want them both to move on. Thankfully they do eventually, but this absurd roadblock in their relationship is given way too much time and attention and it never brought anything positive into the show. I can certainly understand wanting to keep them apart for longer (we’ve all seen many shows derailed by bringing a lovelorn couple together), but if he was going to do that I can’t understand why he would even bring them together in the first place. The episodic plots that drive each episode are mostly as solid as they were in the first season, if perhaps a little less engaging and relevant to my interests, but it’s this subplot and one other that led to me ultimately liking the season a bit less than the first.
That other plot revolved around Dan Rydell (Josh Charles), one of my favorite characters on the show, and his growing self-loathing and need to open up whatever it is that drives his bitterness. Over the season Dan becomes more and more confrontational and displeased with his work environment and the relationships he has with the other characters on the show, and in order to mine the cause of this he begins going to therapy. Sorkin has now used the therapist angle in several of his shows to bring open the layers inside of a character, and even if it weren’t for his repetition in this angle it would still feel like a cheap and lazy way to explore a character as quickly as possible. Josh Charles’ performance thankfully saves a lot of this plot, as his anguish is palpable and yet through it all I never stopped caring for the character or wanting him to break through and become himself again, but overall it seemed like a plot that wasn’t given the proper development by Sorkin and was too easily opened up.
Despite these two big complaints with those plots in the season, I still did really enjoy it for the most part and it kept a lot of the things in it that made me love the first season as much as I did. The acting was strong across the board, the characters are all likable and entertaining and I was always ready to start up another episode immediately after I finished one. While Sorkin struggled with some of the plots, I did think the way that he handled the relationship between Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd, still the most adorable thing ever) and Jeremy (Joshua Malina) was honest and brought a lot of emotional depth to the show. Along with that, what I loved most from the main characters was the way that he wrote in Robert Guillaume’s real life stroke into his character and how the two of them used that to develop Isaac Jaffe further. You can really feel the emotion in that portrayal and there’s an honesty there that never feels exploitative or too saccharine. It’s a great development that doesn’t define the character or take up too much time from the meat of the show, but is always there in the background to add another layer of depth to him and the relationships in the show overall. The second season of Sports Night definitely didn’t shine as bright as the first, but I still found it a strong season of television and it’s a show that I’ll miss dearly and greatly wish had received many, many more years. Its cancellation is made even more disappointing with the introduction of a character played by the always welcome Clark Gregg in the final two episodes, who was sure to be a recurring presence on the show had it continued.
01. “The Cut Man Cometh” (2.11)
02. “And the Crowd Goes Wild” (2.14)
03. “Kafelnikov” (2.05)
04. “Dana Get Your Gun” (2.13)
05. “Shane” (2.06)
These are the episodes of television I watched that aired this week, not including any previously aired episodes that I watched in addition:
The Americans: “The Colonel” (1.13) - A-
Bates Motel: “The Man in Number 9” (1.07) - B-
Community: “Heroic Origins” (4.12) - D
The Following: “The Final Chapter” (1.15) - D-
Game of Thrones: “Kissed by Fire” (3.05) - A-
Hannibal: “Entree” (1.06) - C
Happy Endings: “Deuce Babylove 2: Electric Babydeuce” (3.22) - B+
Happy Endings: “Brothas & Sistas” (3.23) - B+
Mad Men: “The Flood” (6.05) - C+
The Office: “Livin’ the Dream” (9.21) - C
Orphan Black: “Variations Under Domestication” (1.06) - B+
Parks and Recreation: “Are You Better Off?” (5.22) - B+
Revolution: “Home” (1.15) - C
Saturday Night Live: “Zach Galifianakis/Of Monsters and Men” (38.19) - B-
Scandal: “A Woman Scorned” (2.20) - C+
Veep: “Hostages” (2.03) - C+
Last year saw the premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, his fourth television series, and it was met largely by critical derision and the complaint that he was repeating himself. Personally, I’d say that if you wanted to level that complaint at The Newsroom you should use it to address his other works as well, but there’s no denying that there’s something familiar about each of his series from top to bottom. All four of them are set in the workplace (three of them being a behind-the-scenes look at the production of a television show), they all feature many similar character arcs and love triangles, they all flow between drama and comedy with his patented mix of dry humor and broad slapstick and they all unfortunately portray this uncomfortable need for him to limit himself to strictly one minority and two female characters among his main cast, as if he’s forcing himself to maintain the bare minimum of some non-existent affirmative action casting handbook and refuses to go higher. Each of Sorkin’s programs move in familiar beats and I can’t deny that, while certainly not disliking it on the level that many critics have, The Newsroom feels pretty derivative at this point.
That being said, if there’s one program that stands out somewhat from the rest of his group it would definitely have to be his first,Sports Night. Right off the bat, the thing that makes Sports Night unique in comparison to his other work is that it’s presented in a completely different format. While his other three programs are your standard hour-long dramas, Sports Night was a half-hour sitcom done with a live audience and a laugh track. This makes Sports Night stand out from the rest of the herd, but that’s not really a positive in this case. While this is his only show that is officially labelled as a comedy, it really isn’t any different in terms of tone or dramatic weight. Sports Night isn’t at all the laugh-a-minute riot that the network (ABC) forced Sorkin to present it as, and the traditional sitcom formatting does a lot more harm than it does good here in the first season. In the second episode alone, titled “The Apology”, one of the main characters Dan Rydell (played by Josh Charles) ends the episode with a monologue about the death of his younger brother due to the poor example he gave him in his teen years. This kind of heavy emotional material doesn’t really flow well coming after a scene that ends with a punchline and the canned laughter of a studio audience.
That’s not to say that this is anything to lay blame on Sorkin for, but rather it’s a case of a network taking the wrong approach for the material and it does become jarring at times. Even beyond the awkward tonal inconsistencies that it presents, Sorkin’s style of humor has never been one designed for the kind of audible laughter that a laugh track tries to force upon its audience. In the modern age the idea of a laugh track at all seems like a relic of an older period of sitcom television, but I can’t deny that there are some series where it can prove to be somewhat effective. Sorkin’s work, however, would never have been one of those series. His humor has always been more based around dry wit, rapid-fire dialogue between characters that ends on a punchline delivered just as quickly as he moves on to his next scene and as such the use of this laugh track is far too intrusive for this kind of show. Thankfully, Sorkin was able to make its usage less and less frequent as the season goes on (and it’s completely gone once the second season begins), but it does present a few jarring moments throughout the season whenever it is utilized.
That’s pretty much the only complaint I have with the first season of Sports Night though, as the rest of it immediately dug itself into my heart and won me over. Anyone who has seen Sorkin’s other programs is sure to feel a sense of familiarity with these characters, themes and tone but there’s something about Sports Night that feels a lot warmer than any of his other work and it really kept me smiling throughout and always wanting to start the next episode whenever I finished with one. It’s addictive television at its finest, and I blew through the entire 23-episode season in two days. Despite the troublesome formatting, once you look past that laugh track and live audience Sports Night is basically just a half-hour incarnation of his other shows but one whose first season was much more consistent, enjoyable and surprisingly emotional than the rest of his work. The cast is uniformly sound, with Charles shining alongside Peter Krause, first season MVP Felicity Huffman, the unbelievably adorable Sabrina Lloyd and Robert Guillaume. I’d say the only weak link among the main cast is Joshua Malina, but even he’s not necessarily bad for the most part; I just don’t think he is able to sell the neurosis of his character as much as Sorkin intends him to be able to.
Sports Night is loaded with heavy themes but it never goes too far as to become preachy or give the impression that Sorkin is just standing on his soapbox using his show to force his own beliefs upon the audience, as has happened with some of his other shows. Rather, every moral dilemma or work crisis feels organic in terms of these characters and over the course of the season they are able to evolve and display many layers to their personalities and life perspective. Sorkin took a great ensemble of actors and gave them some excellent material to deliver fine work day after day, and this is one of the rare seasons of television where I can honestly say that I don’t believe there is a bad episode among them. Comedy television is a tricky endeavor to maintain, with most shows taking a while to really begin to flow smoothly before hitting a quality peak in the early seasons and then dipping tremendously as they begin to wear out their welcome and refuse to evolve, but Sports Night opens up strong and maintains its quality surprisingly well over the course of its entire first season. One of the most consistently enjoyable, emotional and engaging seasons of comedy television I’ve ever seen.
01. “Dear Louise” (1.07)
02. “Thespis” (1.08)
03. “Mary Pat Shelby” (1.05)
04. “Small Town” (1.13)
05. “The Apology” (1.02)
These are the episodes of television I watched that aired this week, not including any previously aired episodes that I watched in addition:
The Americans: “The Oath” (1.12) - B-
Bates Motel: “The Truth” (1.06) - B-
Community: “Basic Human Anatomy” (4.11) - D
The Following: “The End is Near” (1.14) - D
Game of Thrones: “And Now His Watch Is Ended” (3.04) - A+
Hannibal: “Coquilles” (1.05) - C+
Happy Endings: “The Ballad of Lon Sarofsky” (3.20) - B
Happy Endings: “Un-sabotagable” (3.21) - B
Mad Men: “To Have and to Hold” (6.04) - B
The Office: “Paper Airplane” (9.20) - D-
Orphan Black: “Conditions of Existence” (1.05) - B
Parks and Recreation: “Swing Vote” (5.21) - D
Revolution: “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” (1.14) - B
Scandal: “Seven Fifty-Two” (2.19) - C
Veep: “Signals” (2.02) - B
Created by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee, the new mini-series Top of the Lake is a wildly uneven but consistently compelling journey of a female detective investigating the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl. Set in New Zealand, the series stars Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, who is back from her Sydney home in order to visit her cancer-stricken mother. Robin is pulled into the investigation and leads the search for the young Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), who has disappeared soon after revealing that she was pregnant and refusing to reveal the identity of the father. The case is the driving narrative force of Top of the Lake, but what’s most interesting is the way that it simple uses that as the plot device in order to explore its deeper and more engaging themes.
In fact, it’s the search for Tui that brings up most of the flaws present in the 7-episode run, particularly in the lack of momentum contained within it. Campion (who co-wrote the series with Lee and co-directed with Garth Davis) has always been a more reflective and thematically deep filmmaker than one with a lot of surface energy and so it’s not particularly shocking that Top of the Lake never really achieves the kind of adrenaline rush that a detective series would generally lead you to expect. The series starts off a bit rocky in terms of finding its footing, but once it does it hits a nice streak of solid episodes before completely missing the landing in the ludicrous grand finale.
Perhaps the whole thing flows in a much more fluid fashion when you’re able to watch it all at once (as it has screened at several film festivals, including Sundance) but watching it from week to week the series was all over the place and never seemed like it had an established rhythm or core focus. One week would delve into Robin’s past and the next would focus on the search for Tui, but none of it ever felt like it fit together properly, leading to a scattered overall product that never felt like it established its own identity, let alone maintained it. As I said earlier, the strongest aspect of Top of the Lake is the way that it explores its more lasting themes and that is true not only due to the weakness in other elements but also into the strength of that individual facet. While the narrative is muddled, convoluted and sometimes ridiculous or incoherent, the themes are cemented firmly early on and developed very well over the course of the series.
Most fascinating for me was the look into gender roles, particularly the opposing response that the men and women of this world have towards the crimes committed throughout the series. The women are presented as much more reserved, taking their time to concentrate and deliberate on the problems in order to bring the proper justice whereas the men respond immediately with great aggression. As Top of the Lake took more time to explore the past of these characters (something it did very well) in the later episodes, there became a more prevalent exploration into the notion that violence breeds violence and this is where the writing really shined. We’re told of an experience from Robin’s youth where men committed a heinous act and were punished simply with violence, yet in the present day we can see that nothing about them has changed as a result. The writing presents us with this theme and while it doesn’t open itself up for much pondering on the viewer’s part, it manages to address its point and deliver it very well.
Along with the thematic depth, the actors of Top of the Lake are all absolutely on point throughout the entire run of the series. Holly Hunter (reuniting with her The Piano director Campion) is wonderfully kooky and impenetrable in a role that is much less prominent than was advertised, but the two actors who leave the most lasting impressions are Moss and Peter Mullan. As the head of the criminal family in the setting of the series, along with being Tui’s father and suspect for her pregnancy/disappearance, Mullan is a terrifying force of mixed emotions who is as impossible to read as he is intimidating. Mullan’s character is one who is relatively difficult to predict and the actor just explodes off the screen whenever he is unleashing his pent-up personal demons, whether on himself or on others. Moss drives the series though and she’s the one who deserves the most praise, giving in my estimation one of the strongest performances on television in the past year. As we unfold more layers of Robin, Moss’ performance grows and grows in kind and her past is devastatingly etched onto her face that portrays a woman who has endured far more than one would hope to experience in their lifetime. The fourth episode in particular really unleashes her inner anguish and it is heartbreaking to watch.
Unfortunately it’s the narrative that really drags Top of the Lake down, never being able to keep its momentum going or figuring out just where it wants its main focus to lie. The search for Tui almost feels like an afterthought throughout most of the series, but the final episode in particular leaves a shockingly bad taste in the mouth that threatens to derail any of the positives that the series had built up to that point. In that one episode they try to lazily rush in a resolution to the Tui plotline along with all of the other strands that had been developed all series long, but the worst crime of all comes in the form of an absurd, eleventh hour twist that is barely developed and seemingly comes out of nowhere. Top of the Lake spends six and a half hours on one thing and in the last 30 minutes decides that it wants to go in a completely new direction, then realizes that it’s ending so it should probably wrap that up quickly. I was left with my jaw agape at just how poorly developed the whole endeavor was, and it sullies the series at large. Which isn’t even to mention the fact that there’s more than one “your father isn’t your father” twist in the final episode that takes things even further down the hole of dismal absurdity that it had dug itself into. For the most part Top of the Lake has enough positive qualities to outweigh its negative ones, but when your grand finale is as hopelessly inept as the one is here it’s going to leave a dark stain on the entire endeavor.
For a character dramedy that is focused solely on the day-to-day existence of its characters as opposed to any kind of driving plot, it’s not surprising that Shameless can be a very inconsistent show. With a large roster of characters who all get their individual stories, any episode can feature some great moments and some awful ones, but when it’s at its peak this show is one of the best and most underrated currently on television. Much like the second season, the third started out a little rocky but by the final run of episodes it had built itself around to its highest quality since that first beautiful season. There are definitely some weak plots throughout and the season opens up with a lot of them taking plenty of attention.
The show focuses on the Gallagher family, and while it incorporates several characters outside of the family I’ve always found that these characters only work when we see them in relation to the Gallaghers themselves. Any time they got plots separate from the family I find my attention waning and the plots becoming more and more ridiculous and excruciating. Shameless has never been afraid to incorporate some extreme circumstances in its storytelling, but it’s usually still grounded in some realm of exaggerated believability. The third season really veered off course in that respect though, as plots involving Sheila (Joan Cusack) hooking up with her daughter’s baby daddy Jody (Zach McGowan), Veronica (Shanola Hampton) and Kevin (Steve Howey) getting Veronica’s mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) to have sex with Kevin so they can have their own baby and Jimmy (Justin Chatwin) having to ridiculously maintain a fictional relationship with his former lover or else be murdered by her crime lord father all really stretched this season into realms of absurdity that went too far and became more and more annoying as they continued to be featured.
That’s not to say that all of the plots within the Gallagher clan were all great either, though. An early episode was dragged down tremendously with an awful plot involving Lip (Jeremy Allen White) seducing a sex offender, and the multi-episode arc of Frank (William H. Macy) telling his son Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) that he has cancer would have been a total wash if it didn’t end up having a great emotional callback in the season finale. This season more than any before it splintered the ensemble into a lot of different directions and the results came back in kind by being all over the place, to say the least. Still, for every bad Shameless plot there is at least one that stands strong and thankfully this season was mostly made up of those taking the center stage.
While my personal favorite character has always been Lip and that remains the case, it is the leading role of Fiona (Emmy Rossum) that takes priority over the rest and its here where the show pulls off its best work. As with the first and second season, Fiona’s arc in the third put her through a wide range on the emotional spectrum as she struggled with Jimmy, her personal life and the heavy toll that having to raise an entire family on her own places on her. Emmy Rossum continues to deliver one of the most impressive performances currently on television, the kind of acting that brings you to tears whenever she is holding them back herself, and this season really puts that to great use. An arc in the middle of the season occurs after Frank calls child protective services and has the kids taken away from Fiona, which ultimately results in Fiona going to court in order to get custody of the kids put under her name. This is the kind of plot that Shameless excels at, building itself wonderfully through the emotional turmoil to the final climax of Fiona’s speech in court where Rossum delivers perhaps her finest moment yet in the three seasons of this show. Fiona will forever be the backbone of this show and the writers know it, establishing itself firmly within this character and using her (and Rossum) to deliver its finest moments.
While the development of Fiona remains the consistent high point of the show, the most pleasant surprise of the third season was in how it finally gave a little bit of development to Frank. The first two seasons were really hurt by just how over-the-top this character was in his maliciousness, selfishness and all-around despicable nature, never giving the audience even the slightest dash of empathy for him and producing a constant foil to the happiness of the characters you genuinely care about. He takes up a lot of screentime and none of it has met with positive results until the final stretch of this season. While a lot of the season had him delving into the same kind of frustrating, abhorrent behavior that the first two seasons consisted of (again, he told his pre-pubescent son that he had cancer), the final few episodes actually managed to give him a dose of humanity that I desperately hope we see continue in the next season. The third season ended with our characters more at peace than they have been before (well, for the most part — sorry Jimmy) and seemingly ready to move on into the next stage of their growing development. I’m sure the next season will continue to feature various highs and lows, but it will all be worth it if they can continue to demonstrate the ability to end things on such a beautiful high at the end of the day.
01. “Survival of the Fittest” (3.12)
02. “Order Room Service” (3.11)
03. “Frank the Plumber” (3.09)
04. “A Long Way From Home” (3.07)
05. “Cascading Failures” (3.06)
One of the more disappointing shows of recent years, the second season of House of Lies follows in the tradition of the first by taking a superb roster of actors and saddling them with material well below their skill level. Thankfully, the rampant misogyny and gratuitous nudity of the first season was toned down quite a bit but the show still feels like it’s far too shallow and juvenile in its humor and character development to really warrant the talent that it has attained. Picking up where Season 1 left off, Season 2 sees Galweather Stearn getting new management after the sex scandal rocked the company, while the cliffhanger over whether or not Marty (Don Cheadle) and Jeannie (Kristen Bell) hooked up is unfolded through a series of drunken flashbacks detailing how the rest of their night developed.
The Marty/Jeannie dynamic is always more interesting when they’re focusing on the power positioning between the mentor and protegee, and I can’t say that I was really fond of all the attention given to their romantic feelings towards one another. The season was pretty inconsistent in the tug of war it played with their emotions, making it a key plot point one episode only to have it completely absent for the next two. It also presented itself with the lame television stable of having two characters who feel the exact same way towards one another but refuse to tell the other how they feel for….dramatic tension(?) that doesn’t really add anything more than frustration at knowing how it’ll all turn out eventually.
Season 2 featured an overlying arc that had Marty pulling away from Galweather Stern and attempting to establish his own company, but naturally most of the episodes went with the same formula of the first by having “the Pod” taking on new clients and attempting to work their case in ways that usually resulted in some broad and vulgar humor. The weakest aspect of the show remains the supporting characters of Doug (Josh Lawson) and Clyde (Ben Schwartz), who once again feel more like immature shells of actual human beings than anything resembling well-developed characters. While Marty and Jeannie get plenty of development, there’s a disappointing lack of depth in these two who remain around seemingly for the sole purpose of being a punchline or delivering flat jokes that never land. This season does admittedly make some small attempts at giving them something (Doug gets a girlfriend, Clyde is jealous of Jeannie’s career progression) but it seems more like them forcing something on just to work back around to more inefficient humor. Despite the weak writing, the key members of the cast really do continue to elevate this above where it would be without them and the one who stands tall above the rest remains Don Cheadle.
Along with the main cast, the second season also drew in an impressive lineup of guest stars who delivered some mixed results. Adam Brody and Jenny Slate both came on board as love interests for Jeannie and Doug respectively, but for the most part they’re wasted in relatively stock roles that are mainly around to develop relationships outside of their characters. Brody and Kristen Bell in particular had a very nice chemistry that I wish we could have seen a lot more of. That being said, the comedic peak of the season is undoubtedly the arrival of Matt Damon (surely brought on board thanks to Cheadle’s connection — another reason why this show would be nothing without its leading man), playing a foul version of himself who is drugged out of his mind and absolutely runs away with his episode that brings, in one 30-minute period, more laughs than I’ve had with the entirety of the two seasons outside of it. I can’t say this has ever been a show that gets me laughing regularly, but Damon’s episode was one of the funniest I’ve seen on television in the past year.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the second season of House of Lies comes with an arc in the middle of the season that gives a world of added dimension to Marty and actually proves that this show has the potential to be so much better than it regularly is. Marty has always been presented as a kind of soulless, greedy figure but when he gets into bed with a racist, immoral client in order to sustain his own personal goals he becomes tortured by the decision and it leads to some very powerful moments. This small stretch of episodes gives a wealth of material for Don Cheadle, who unsurprisingly knocks it out of the park by shedding some layers off of Marty’s usually cold exterior to give us a taste of what is really underneath. Unfortunately this arc only lasts for a few episodes and the show quickly returns back to its regular routine by the end of the season, a disappointing fall back into their safety net of mediocrity. The season does end with the possibility for some big changes coming forth, and I can only hope that the next season plays more into that dramatic potential that we got a small taste of this season.
01. “The Runner Stumbles” (2.07)
02. “Wonders of the World” (2.08)
03. “Damonschildren.org” (2.04)
04. “Family Values” (2.06)
05. “Exit Strategy” (2.10)