Let me introduce you to something I like to call "the Judy Greer analogy". It's named after that annoying trope in romantic comedies wherein the blonde, perky, hilariously scatterbrained lead is given able back-up by their doting best friend, a character usually played by a Judy Greer, or a Joan Cusack, or a Rita Wilson. One of them will do. But, in these circumstances, the word 'character' ought to be used loosely, since these 'characters' bear little in the way of a discernible existence removed from the romantic tribulations of the movie's lead. Their every move or line of dialogue is somehow related to their on-screen BFF, and they have no real personality away from every once in a while having a funny 'quirk' that'll get a couple of laughs during the movie.
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Friday, January 25, 2013
American Horror Story: Asylum was the Madonna and the Whore of TV shows. It wanted to tell unsettling, unimaginably awful stories based on true fact -- the lobotomies, the disturbed therapies, and so forth; and it wanted to feature outlandish tales of hooker lactation, Frankenstein monsters and murder babies. This has not been a steady journey. But Madness Ends is the first episode of late to actually bring forth a satisfactory conclusion. Meshing together both extremes of the show's identity to frequently powerful returns, this is a finale that winds up the most cohesive episode in months, bringing to a close what quickly became a messy second season.
It's interesting to wonder whether or not season six's slump is due to the show focusing so much energy on its ancillary characters. Has the show just reached a point where the original ensemble have become exhausted, with nowhere to go? Because it sure seems like it on-screen. Audrey's the benefactor of the season's sole showy storyline, while every other major character is being driven by the needs and desires of people that have only been introduced within the last twelve episodes. Even Pacey is being positioned at the center of other people's actions, adrift in a situation he seemingly has no control over. It's not a whole lot of fun, and only adds to the feeling that this season just isn't working.
For a show that is relatively conventional in its storytelling, it's no surprise that every once in a while the writers decide to recreate the few episodes which seemed to break new ground. The only problem with Day Out of Days re-using the same time-manipulation angle that made The Longest Day so spectacular is that this episode doesn't seem to fully utilize its potential. While The Longest Day was all about varying perspectives and how the same experiences can spiral off into wildly different tangents, Day Out of Days merely uses the 'day of the week' device as a kind of showy visual stunt, only there to distract from the generally banal plotting.
I remember liking the new environments of the college years at one point in time, but it sure is nice to return to Capeside every once in a while. With that in mind, it's disappointing that Merry Mayhem doesn't capitalize more on the 'original recipe Dawson's Creek' vibe, instead very much being swallowed by the various annoying Boston stories that the ensemble have been involved with of late, making the entire episode something of a missed opportunity. I have no idea why the show decided to drag Natasha and Todd and Audrey's boozing all the way back to the old Leery house, but it's another in a series of ridiculous storytelling decisions this year.
Dawson's Creek has recently had this tendency to let story guide the narrative rather than its characters. It's something that plagues most serialized dramas in their later seasons, but it's particularly noticeable on a show that was at one point so driven by emotions and feelings rather than soapy contrivance. This episode was all about characters randomly doing things that didn't have a ton of internal logic behind them, every story being all about the surface and entirely falling apart when actually analyzed or remotely thought about. It leaves the show itself at a strange crossroads, stories already drab and uninteresting, but anchored by characters that don't even ring true anymore.
Legacy is a routine breaking-and-entering episode brought to life by a series of fun character moments. Most of the cast have a singular goal here: to rescue Nadia, who is slowly being drained of Rambaldi information by a troubled Sloane. That story isn't hugely rewarding on its own, but does at least feature Sloane once again battling between his conscience and his heart. Nadia means so much to him, only he's still driven by his thirst for Rambaldi and all that that entails. In the end, he abandons further attempts to drain her, proving that there's still some emotional warmth there, even if it may sometimes be buried beneath elaborate myth-arc hooey.
It's funny that the show is once again returning to the ever-changing concept of family, a theme that brought the show to a whole different level in its first two seasons. Season three, up till this point, never really had a major overarching theme, instead a bunch of storylines drowned out in romantic tension and intentional vagueness. Here, with the arrival of Sydney's secret half-sister Nadia, we begin to see more of a mythology building, pulling in everybody from Vaughn's deceased father to Sloane and his wavering devotions. It goes without saying that the show seems to have a sense of direction once again.
There's something about putting Jack and Sloane together that brings out the best in character-driven drama on this show. Both characters have this elaborate history full of deceit and betrayal, and have recently been granted additional layers of intrigue with the revelation of Sloane's affair with Irina. It's still hard to entirely trust Sloane, despite his pleas of wanting to meet the daughter he never knew, but he seems to have a greater handle on Irina's powers of seduction, confronting Jack over how much she has affected him for the worse. But while it originally looks like Sloane is occupying the moral high ground (shocking, right?), it still winds up being Jack who holds all the cards, sending Sloane to his death only for it to be revealed as a lengthy ruse.
Over the holidays I watched The Bourne Legacy, a standard action movie conspiracy yarn with little emotional heft or much memorable beyond a couple of bursts of random intensity. What lingered, though, was a scene involving an array of characters being shot one by one by a rogue agent. Individuals locked in a room, hiding in peril, an emotionless gunman slowly moving from person to person and murdering them in blunt horror. Watching it only a couple of days after the Newtown tragedy put a darker spin on the moment -- it was a scene that suddenly felt especially perverse, almost gleeful in its grotesque madness as we saw these people weeping on the ground, hoping that they wouldn't be spotted by the man with the gun.
Despite Amy's outward eagerness to please, one of the most difficult marks against her character has been her frequent arrogance when it comes to her Cogentiva colleagues. It's in the way she casually decides that their lives are empty and soulless, or the way she writes them off as beneath her. Even Tyler, arguably her only real friend in the world, is constantly the victim of her passive aggression -- he's depressed, and is risking nothing by actively trying to bring down his management. In her eyes, anyway. Revenge Play spins on the fact that Amy has been ignoring the human face of Abaddonn in pursuit of some kind of justice, exposing the inner guilt that arrives when people begin to get caught in the crossfire. Like with any large social movement, the first to be affected are the underlings, the ones who can be removed with no problem. And that realization makes Amy question everything.
Monday, January 21, 2013
For anybody even casually familiar with Ryan Murphy's work, you'll know that he likes nothing more than a cool idea. From his early satirical work with Popular to the initial color, pop and energy of Glee, he's an incredible innovator, somebody who can engineer strong, mainstream television complete with an emotional underbelly. What he lacks is follow-through, instead an eagerness to explore something new instead of sticking stories out, leaving numerous arcs from his various series feeling half-baked -- such strong openings, but a tendency to peter out.
No Doubt are one of my favorite bands. Gwen Stefani has been the coolest, most authentic pop star for years and, based on her current appearance, clearly bathes in the blood of virgins every night in order to still look so ridiculously youthful. With all that in mind, you know it takes a lot to make me scream at No Doubt to get the hell off my television set. Spiderwebs is one overlong promotional commercial for their 2002 album Rock Steady, complete with three lengthy song performances, repeated references to their talent, extreme close-ups of their new CD, and merchandising and stickers all over the place. It's insane. Not that the actual narrative is all that interesting either, but I've never been more eager for Gwen Stefani to go away.
It's still hard to care about Audrey right now, despite her clear depression and her eagerness to escape her misery by way of partying and drinking. Ordinarily, the show would depict this from her point of view, but so far the writers seem to be placing all of us at home in a strange position: we're observers of her insanity, not keenly aware of why she's doing these things. It only leaves Audrey appearing like an obnoxious wreck, attacking everybody around her but with little relatable reasoning behind it. It's hard to discern her problem with Pacey, it's even harder to understand why she's suddenly feeling so wronged by Joey. She's now this huge pain in the ass, a character that doesn't have enough audience goodwill to make this story anything but a drag.
I can't be the only one who wanted Audrey to just shut the hell up and get dumped this week. I don't think I've ever seen such an exaggerated turnaround in personality outside of bad slasher movies with an inexplicable whodunnit mystery at their center. What makes it even sadder is that Audrey's presumed breakdown is being really well performed by Busy Philipps. The girl's become this huge walking car wreck; ditching classes, boozing and slapping Pacey around the head. But away from Philipps' enthusiasm, what makes all of it so inauthentic is that we've never seen this kind of behavior from Audrey before, or even some indication that she's prone to this kind of thing. Last season depicted her as this fun comedic relief character with real perspectives on things, despite her wonky history with her parents. But seeing her become judgmental, obnoxious and prone to making day-to-day relationship trials into enormous slights on her... gah, it's just ugly to watch.
I don't think there's ever been a stretch of Dawson's Creek episodes that were universally flawless. There's always been at least one subplot that doesn't hold a ton of interest, but it's usually outweighed by a couple of stronger storylines that feature real emotional resonance and themes that any young adult can relate to. But the show has really hit a wall this season, literally every storyline making little sense and filled with overwhelming levels of disinterest. It may just be my personal opinion and less a statement on the quality of the show itself, but I'm really struggling here.
The only scene this week that bristles with vintage Alias intensity is the one in which Jack and Vaughn compare notes on their evil wives, Jack informing him of the warning signs, having experienced so much pain and turmoil as a result of Irina's betrayal all those years ago, and Vaughn steadfastly denying that Lauren could ever work for the enemy. It's a moment with real dramatic weight, instigated by a man who can't help but distrust those around him, spoken to another man far too naive. But it also brought home the obvious parallels between Lauren and Irina, something I embarrassingly hadn't really noticed up till now. Then again, Lauren is such an unintentional enigma, even this far into the season, that it's sort of understandable why the connection flew over my head.
Dixon's transformation this year is one of those things I'm sure the writers were initially really excited for. What better way to grant Carl Lumbly greater importance on the show than by making his character head of Sydney's department? Dixon moves up in the world, a TV veteran like Lumbly gets a bigger role to play -- what could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, it's a decision that has so far resulted in saddling Dixon with a couple of lines of expository dialogue all season, turning a person who was at one point Sydney's closest secret agent ally into a less interesting version of Basil Exposition, lacking in any real personality and merely telling his underlings about the latest threat or a vague new device that shady groups want to get their hands on. It's incredibly disappointing.
The job of a wheel is to go round and round, a machine engineered to push something forward, or accelerate speed. It's used literally this week as a slide projector, something that projects memories and past emotions, but it's also used as a metaphor for the ways our lives constantly unravel, the wheel keeping on turning despite our occasional eagerness for it to stop. Because sometimes life unfolds so perfectly -- you get that promotion, or you realize the importance of family and the love around you; but the speed of life insists on moving past that point in time. And that leads to disappointments, or a surprise baby, or loneliness. Motion is everlasting, and it's impossible to pull the brakes. This is a flawless finale, but you probably knew that already.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Enlightened's opening year remains one of my personal favorite seasons of television. It may have just been my own personal identification with it at the time it aired, but the connection it formed between myself and the characters on screen was unlike anything that came before it. With that in mind, however, I wouldn't have been devastated if HBO decided not to renew. Not for any malicious reason, but purely because season one was just so perfectly executed that surely the only direction to head from here is down. Season two arrives with a tougher concept to navigate around, the idea of corporate espionage and whistle blowing, and parts of The Key are enough to make you a little concerned.
It's easy to forget that Sex and the City was once a really interesting show. The word 'groundbreaking' is tossed around like candy today, but there was a time in which frank discussion of female sexuality on cable television, genuine or not, was hugely innovative and important. Regardless of the original show's sometimes demeaning fascination with materialism and its tendency to make the four leads draggy and broad at the best of times, it was a show with a voice and sense of self, as well as a breezy, light charisma that has made it sort of timeless.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Back when season two began, it was marked by a lack of character-driven structure. There wasn't so much one singular protagonist, or even one singular threat, but instead a disparate collection of horror stories. Each involved a dueling sensibility, usually two characters up against one another in a kind of war or tussle. Then events began to converge, there was crossover between the separate sagas, and characters began to intersect. But as we reach the end of the season, the show has once again decided to split off most of the cast. Instead of trying to have all the stories overlap at the same time, however, Spilt Milk is designed almost as a series of vignettes, each additional chapter seeming to bring things to a close.
A murder mystery is probably the easiest hook in terms of plotting. You've got the body, even better when said body lived a life that was all kinds of shady, a scattering of vaguely intense and mysterious murder suspects, an abundance of potential motives, and voila! Instant audience bait. Deception breaks zero new ground when it comes to its central murder mystery, but the inherent intrigue of the format at least makes this pilot episode somewhat engrossing, enough at least to distract from the red flags everywhere else.
You have to feel for the actors contractually stuck on a TV show and experiencing out-of-nowhere character assassination that entirely undermines all the work they had done to create said character in the first place. Busy Philipps recently spoke about feeling like a "talking prop" on Dawson's Creek, I guess like an object that moves from point A to point B with little discernible motivation. It's something that's particularly evident here, an episode in which Audrey displays behavior that seems to go entirely against her character as we knew her, and only winds up making her seem petty, irrational and obnoxious. If it's jarring for the audience at home, I can't imagine how hurtful it must be for the actor themselves.
As the first 'everyday' episode of Dawson's Creek's final season, this doesn't inspire a huge amount of confidence in the rest of the year. At best, most of the storylines feel like pail imitations of stories in previous seasons. At worst, it's ridiculously boring. The A-plot involves Joey accidentally sending a heartfelt email meant for Dawson to the entire Worthington campus, leaving her broken and humiliated as students and professors lecture her about what she did wrong and how embarrassing it must be. We never get to see the e-mail itself, so it's a story that's mostly surface, and not particularly believable at that.
And they're over. Joey and Dawson, man. I guess it's not surprising that the two of them would wind up hating each other all over again, weeping in the mirror and lamenting any kind of intimacy they once shared. But lord is it frustrating. What this exposes is writer's intent, because the two of them can actually work well together. Their courtship towards the end of season four was so adult and mature and relatable, and the show could easily keep that intact and allow them to just be happy, but instead they choose to tear them down again. So I'm assuming that it's truly done, that these two will never be happy and that the show will always make sure that they're doomed as a couple.
For the third season in a row, Dawson's Creek opens up a new year with the characters coming back together again after a summer in which they were all apart from one another. And people grew up in that summer. Relationships were formed, there were a couple of moments of cross-country longing. It's actually a little funny how similar The Kids Are Alright is to every other recent season premiere. But there's naturally something fresh and exciting about the start of a new season, the writers having regrouped and hopefully formed a greater groundwork for the show to follow. This is also Dawson's Creek's final season, so there's obviously a feeling of things building to a climax, characters on course to discover where they should end up in life, and who they should be with once those lives truly begin.
Ugh. Isn't Ricky Gervais just the worst? I think a stapler to the testicles would be more of a laugh riot than spending thirty seconds in his company. And what's even more aggravating is that I have to be all objective and stuff and have to... you know... sort of admit that Gervais isn't... totally... terrible here. Like, he's actually kind of convincing. Which just freaks me out, but is something I need to admit if I aspire to be considered sort of legit as a writer. Facade is the very best standalone episode in a long while, an episode that catapults from fun moment to fun moment, utilizing most of the key players successfully and featuring various levels of unpredictability along the way.
Something that's been missing this season is a sense of characters living their own double lives. Alias' original premise was heavily rooted in Sydney existing in two forms: one mundane and normal, a girl-next-door college student; and the other full of action and bullets and extraordinary spy hijinks. Since Phase One, Sydney has been somewhat neutered as a character, now a sort-of-routine secret agent pursuing shady organizations. What Blowback does so well is actually bring the show back to that idea of double lives and dueling agendas, only it's no longer Sydney balancing both sides of herself -- it's Lauren.
As a character, Sydney is becoming far too reliant on Vaughn. Every one of her recent actions seems driven by him, and following the uneven resolution to the lost years arc, Sydney's main goal is seemingly trying to get back together with him. She tells him that she doesn't want to be "the other woman", but it's still all she ever talks about. The story is just another thing making Sydney a little less absorbing this season, especially as Vaughn isn't all that interesting. She's become more and more one-note, at least compared to how multi-dimensional she once was.
The campaigns for Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy both represented these enormously influential political frameworks, in which age was seen as a flaw, youth and sex appeal forcibly promoted, and backgrounds carefully smoothed over depending on which corner you wanted to exploit... or suppress. It's an idea that provides season one's penultimate episode its most interesting symbolism, Don and Pete representing both extremes -- Don the self-made man in more ways than one, who rose through the ranks to get where he is today; and Pete the silver-spoon son of money, bristling with entitlement because of what he believes should be the natural order of things. They finally collide here, not only due to Pete's blackmail and Don's package of secrets, but because of their own social complexities.
Peggy has long worked as an audience surrogate for us at home, not only because she's discovering the world at the same time as we are, but also because she so often represents the values and work ethic that a lot of us take for granted today. She's somebody at the forefront of all that change, and it's easy to root for her as she becomes one of the first women to break through that glass-ceiling. It's obviously still early days, but she's getting there. But something that surprised me during this re-watch is how little she's been used so far, not anchoring as much of the series as Don, Pete or even Betty. As season one develops, however, she's coming into her own as a character, and Indian Summer really promotes her importance as a major Mad Men player.
Network television is rough. You put in all this effort, work your butt off to create a vivid universe that keeps viewer interest intact, drop small hints at a bigger picture at work, and then your show gets canceled just as you begin to tell the story you want to tell. Now Undercovers didn't entirely reach that pinnacle of intrigue that the above sentences imply, but what was notable over the last run of episodes was a palpable feeling of plot strands coming together in one way or another, that the writers were aware that the mission-of-the-week routine could never sustain people's attention in the long run and that they had to create a kind of narrative spine in order to survive.
I'm a perfectionist at heart, and the sight of a show left half finished on this blog of mine can't help but bring me out in hives. So, a year after they first washed up on some obscure Australian network and two years since I last watched the show, here are the last two episodes of the short-lived JJ Abrams series Undercovers. Remember it? No? That's not surprising. Undercovers was a half-baked attempt to merge trademark Abrams espionage action with romantic comedy, concerning a pair of married spies who are just as likely to be seen shooting a bad guy as they are bickering over onions or whatever, both of them being caterers in their downtime. The show was an instant bomb, staying on the air for a couple of weeks due to NBC's network miseries at the time.
Saturday, January 5, 2013
The Name Game brought to mind American Horror Story's ability to just do whatever the hell it wants to do. Like Mary Eunice singing along to You Don't Own Me earlier this season, it's difficult for the show to disguise the fact that sometimes they just feel like doing something outlandish and nutty for the sake of it. Sure, they grant Sister Jude's musical number an explanation here, but in general the idea remains awkwardly tossed in. That Ryan Murphy decided to do it due to a random suggestion by Jessica Lange is either a wonderful testament to this show's flexibility, or a concerning indictment of how directionless a lot of season two could be described as, considering the scene could occur with such ease. I'm still undecided.
Is there any dramatic cliché more predictable than the last-minute dash to the airport? A character professing their love just before their loved one steps onto that plane... But despite how ridiculously generic it all is, part of me still gets wrapped up in the urgency, the throw-caution-to-the-wind adrenaline of just yelling 'screw it!' and pursuing what you've always wanted. Swan Song is mostly set in that airport lounge, characters coming together and deciding to travel down new roads purely because it's the right thing to do. After a season that has struggled to say anything heartfelt or interesting, Dawson's Creek returns to its melodramatic best, in a finale that leaves you with a lasting sense of warmth.
There's nothing worse than a last-minute twenty-third episode. Especially in a season which has felt even more stretched than normal. The Abby strains so hard to fill the hour allotted, everybody given material that struggles to be about anything of consequence. It's really noticeable how characters are merely discussing things happening, instead of actually being part of things that are happening. So we get Joey talking about visiting her dad, and Jen talking about staying with her parents for the summer. This is total filler material, staggering events for the finale in as broad a manner as possible.
It's hard to create drama for happy couples. Romantic contentment is believable and true to life, but lacks the attention-grabbing histrionics that make so many drama series like catnip for audiences. I can only think of two long-running series, Friday Night Lights and Medium, that allowed its lead couples to just be, and not get plagued by affairs or cheating or resentments. I bring this up because Dawson's Creek unsurprisingly went down the infidelity route this week, saddling Pacey and Audrey with a predictable pot-boiler story instigated by a mysterious third party that we still don't totally understand as a character. For a couple who, up to this week, seemed so connected and perfect for each other, it's frustrating that the writers decided to travel down this road with so little effort.
One of my television pet peeves may simply be a product of a lack of budget, but it's still annoying. It's when a show sets a scene in a workplace or a classroom, and the only people who get actual dialogue are the regular cast members and the boss or teacher pulling rank. It just throws me off, like the entire world revolves around the regulars, and all those nameless extras are just window dressing. It's something that constantly bothered me about Pacey's subplot this week, in which Sherilyn Fenn takes over as manager of his restaurant and begins firing most of the employees and restructuring the company. Pacey is the only person who actually talks to her, even when she publicly announces that most of the staff are being forced out. There's no protest, just a bunch of extras pulling shocked expressions in the background while Pacey speaks for all of them. Even later, when the inevitable flirting and banter occurs, nobody else in the restaurant contributes even filler dialogue, and it comes off like these two are the only individuals in the world. It's a small thing, and probably not that interesting to read about, but it's crazily silly.
I think this is around the time that an in medias res opening begins to mean not that a shocking twist is right around the corner, but more that you're about to watch something assy. Crossings tries to explore the Sydney/Vaughn relationship and how it's changed this year, and I feel this is as good a time as any to talk a little about season three itself. While I haven't got a total downer on the show, there seems to be a real lack of direction this year, the Covenant arc remaining vague, Lauren's evilness so sudden that it becomes a little jarring, and characters changing dramatically or being killed off before they really do anything of note (Simon Walker, Allison Doren). The first two seasons were so tight in terms of narrative, and it's wildly different to season three, which feels a lot like a show made by committee and lacking in a connecting thread, especially with the lost years arc bottoming out like it did.
When a series has teased its audience for so long about the possibilities of a certain mystery, it's unsurprising that the audience at home builds up a greater explanation on their own than the one employed by the writers. I bring this up because Alias' big exposition episode, in which we finally discover what actually happened during Sydney's lost years, can't help but feel underwhelming considering all the ambiguity of the previous ten weeks. Surprisingly, I had no issue with Kendall being used as exposition fairy here, or that Sydney sits in open-mouthed shock for the far majority of the hour. The actual disappointment only arrives once we discover the truth, and we're left in open-mouthed shock at how half-baked it all is.
Of the numerous changes that have occurred this season, none has hurt the show more than the removal of Will and Francie. Certain fans may disagree, but their presence really supported the two distinct sides of Sydney Bristow. And while Francie barely featured last season up until she was killed and replaced by a clone, Will became the friend and confidante that Sydney desperately needed, particularly once he learned about her double life. It gave her somebody to open up to, somebody aware of her work life but distant enough to be a somewhat objective presence that she could seek advice from. With Will gone, Sydney has become a little less multi-dimensional, which is unfortunate. The writers have tried to replicate Will's role with Weiss this season, especially in those first couple of episodes, but they only come off as a little phony... Greg Grunberg unable to convey the sense of long-term friendship and tightness that came so easily to Bradley Cooper and Merrin Dungey.
Without trying to sound too much like Jerry Seinfeld, who decided that television needs to be about anything? Every episode of Mad Men feels propulsive in one way or another, that's a given. Just here we have childhood revelations, medical emergencies and romantic consummation. But there's also a real feeling in Mad Men of nothingness, that all these instances have just fallen into place rather than methodically planned. It's a rewarding by-product of this kind of storytelling, and just like Red in the Face a couple of weeks ago, Long Weekend jumps from one experience to the next, every character merely existing within a certain moment, conversing or performing a generic routine, and unexpectedly stumbling into new corners of their lives.
Is there any greater statement on suburban malaise than the Betty montage that closes this episode? She does the laundry, fusses with her children before she takes them to school, and sits passively smoking in the kitchen, bored out of her mind. So she goes outside to curb it, shooting a bunch of her neighbors' pigeons with an enormous rifle. Did it really happen? Was it just an elaborate fantasy? It doesn't really matter, but wonderfully depicts how desperate Betty is for some kind of excitement in her life; a break from the monotony of her existence and eager for something that can quell her inner rage.