Monday, September 30, 2013

And Then We Came to the End: The Final Season of Breaking Bad

Final seasons are very hard to do.  When you have a show that has run for a few seasons, all of that accumulation of story leads to threads that feel like they need to be tied up.  With so many different masters to serve, results are often mixed at best.  One way to do it is The Sopranos way.  Its final season is one that largely abandons traditional plot in favor of drifting in a fog of overwhelming malaise, giving off the feeling that everything is coming to an end not with a bang, but a whimper.  Yet it could only get away with this because it was a show that never really cared about plot in the first place, preferring to deal in anticlimaxes and slow deflation.  The final season of The Sopranos will come up alot in this post, not only because it was split into two parts much in the way that Breaking Bad's was, but also because by bucking the usual trends of what we expect from a final season of television, it manages to be a major success.

Then there's the Breaking Bad way of doing a final season.  Breaking Bad is another show that benefits from having its construction be tailored in a way that suits a relatively mess-free conclusion.  Throughout its 5 season run, it remained so laser-focused that it never grew to an unwieldy size in the way that many other shows do.  It also wasn't a show that was very heavy on mythology, so there weren't any real notions of needing to "answer questions," like fans demanded of Lost and Battlestar Galactica.  By the time season 5b (which is what we'll use to denote the split halves of season 5, in true Sopranos fashion) rolled around, the show had mostly cleared all of the pieces off the board, leaving behind only the necessary players for the endgame.

That's an apt metaphor to make, since much of the beginning of 5b felt like an intricate game of chess between Hank and Walt.  Each of them are smart, prideful, determined men hellbent on winning, and watching them make moves to try to get a leg up on one another was a jolt to the early stages of the season.  It's some of the ballsiest storytelling that the show has ever done, making decisions in one episode where other shows would take four.  Though Hank tries to play a slow game when he first has the revelation that his brother-in-law is the infamous Heisenberg, Walt forces his hand, setting off the explosive confrontation between the two of them in Hank's garage.  From there, you them both lining up their pieces, with Hank trying to approach Skyler, Walt taping a confession that implicates Hank, and Hank getting Jesse on his side.  It's kind of crazy how far away all of that starts to feel, as it begins another passage around the time of Hank's death, both in terms of plot and tone.

I consider myself an agnostic person heavily leaning towards atheism, but for some reason, I really love shows that explore the idea of God in a very abstract sense, usually in the form of souls.  The Sopranos' final season was all about the loss of one's soul in a way.  The entire season was littered with moments of the show walking characters to the edge and asking them if they want to step back or dive into the black, and it's made all the more compelling because they're so unaware of this.  It's never explicitly said, but it's clear that there is a reckoning hovering just out of view.  Similarly, there is no mention of God in Breaking Bad, but it exists in a world that's clearly guided by the hand of some moral judge.  Just take a look at the plane crash at the end of season 2.  It's a moment that I don't love -- I feel like it goes out of its way just to make a thematic point -- but the point is one that reverberates throughout the series.  Actions have consequences, and the final season specifically hammered down on that idea.  The question was never whether Walt had lost his soul -- that's a given.  But would he ever become aware of it?  That very question is what makes "Ozymandias" such a magnificent episode -- it's the beginning of Walt truly understanding what he has wrought.  Hank is dead, Skyler and Walt Jr. consider him a monster, and even Holly doesn't recognize this man, calling for her mother after Walt absconds away with her.

The Albuquerque setting has always been one of the many things that makes Breaking Bad so unique, and season 5b seemed to utilize the desert setting more than any other season since the first.  It's not just for the sake of visual beauty either; it's because the whole half-season (or at least the back half of this half-season -- so many halves!) is all about erosion.  There's an argument to be made that "Ozymandias" is the true end of the show, and if that's so, then the last two episodes are the start of a new mode -- the denouement.  It's the first show that I've seen that truly devotes a large amount of time to the slow decline, the ending after the ending, instead of just allocating ten minutes to it (to reference The Sopranos again: that final season doesn't count because the entire show was about a slow decline).  I've seen some complaints about "Granite State" being uneven, and they're valid, but the solitary scenes of Walt in his New Hampshire cabin are so overpowering that they outweigh any of the busy work going on in Albuquerque.  Here we see a dying man with all of the time in the world to ruminate upon his failures and disappointments, his body fading in the same way his moral compass did so long ago.  It's no coincidence that the finale features numerous scenes of Walt being ghostlike, lurking in the background and watching the world function in the wake of his actions.  But it's not just Walt who faces erosion, everybody of significance gets chipped at during this final stretch: Jesse is enslaved; Marie loses her husband; and Skyler, most strikingly, sits alone in a dim house, a hollow version of herself.  Like the scene after the cold open in "Ozymandias," the episode that begins this meditative falling action, everything just slowly weathers away.

As for the finale itself, I think it did a great job of delivering the goods to the various subsets of the show's fandom.  There's that clockwork sense that everything is connected, as its revealed that the return of Gretchen and Elliot into the picture is a way for Walt to finally get the money he's made to Walt Jr.  There's the scientific ingenuity from the first few seasons in the contraption that Walt builds to take out Uncle Jack and the neo-Nazis.  But of course, my favorite moments were the ruminative portions, like the final scene between Walt and Skyler.  For the last few episodes, we saw Walt cling to the idea of family, the excuse he uses to feel like it all wasn't for nothing, so to see him admit to himself what we knew all along -- that he mostly did everything because he liked it -- was a really powerful moment.  It's one of the many scenes in the finale that made me feel for these characters that I thought I stopped having an emotional connection to two seasons ago.  

Of course, the ending has led to a large amount of internet hyperbole and annoying, near-sighted "BEST EVER" proclamations.  So is Breaking Bad the best show of all time?  Well personally, I'm not really interested in these kinds of conversations.  They're so clouded by a recency bias, diminishing the art of television by not respecting its history in the same way that we do with film.  Forget The Wire, The Sopranos, or Deadwood; when people blindly anoint Breaking Bad as the best of all time, they usually do so without even putting shows like St. Elsewhere or Hill Street Blues into perspective.  In the same way that we wouldn't go around shouting that a film that came out this year is the best of all time, maybe we should take a while to reflect on a TV show before we determine its placement in the pantheon of great television.

Is this the best final season of all time?  Well, like I said, final seasons are hard to do, and this one was not without its flaws.  First, I've always thought that Todd and his neo-Nazi family connection was a bit too convenient, and having them be the villains of the season made sense thematically (showing the gate that Walt opened for the kind of ruthless people who thrive in this world), but never quite worked for me.  That, coupled with the incorporation of Lydia into the show, felt like protruding threads in a tightly wound narrative.  Speaking of tightly wound, there were times where I felt like 5b (and 5a, for that matter) leaned too heavily on plot and led to it feeling a bit engineered, and Breaking Bad was always at its best when it had gears turning, while also giving off the impression of loose improvisation.  This mechanical nature of the final season never felt more pronounced than in "To'hajiilee," where characters make decisions mostly because it feels like the plot demands it, rather than it being what they'd actually do.  It results in a terrific and tense ending, but one that's cheapened by the leaps needed to get there.  It's still an incredible season despite those small quibbles, but the fitful, moody nature of The Sopranos' final season will always be something I respond to more.

Is this the best series finale of all time then? It certainly deserves to be in the pantheon of great finales, along with The Shield, Cheers, and Six Feet Under (a big fat "ugh" to that show in general, but almost everyone can agree on the finale); but I wouldn't call it my favorite.  The final 20 minutes of the episode, which I've deliberately neglected to mention until now, have an inevitability that makes it feel a bit perfunctory as a result.  Plus, once again, I've got to give a shout out to The Sopranos.  Shortly after "Felina" ended last night, many people on Twitter were quick to start up a "Breaking Bad = closure" vs. "The Sopranos = open-ended" argument.  Whether they love it or hate it, everybody tends to reduce the Sopranos finale to its ending, but what they forget is that the rest of "Made in America" is so beautiful and mesmerizing, which is why it's still my favorite series finale.  But regardless, "Felina" was terrific stuff and I felt satisfied when the credits rolled.  Most importantly, it stayed true to the characters until the very end.  Walt may have had his moment where he gets to return to the place he felt the most "alive," and happy music plays in the background, but we know the real deal.  He's left a wake of destruction and all of his loved ones are either dead or irrevocably damaged.  Once and for all we understand that he is not the one to root for, and while Heisenberg might be a name that's talked about in hushed whispers for a while, eventually it will fade.  In the end, everything dissolves.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: Week 2 of Fall's TV Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Back in the Game (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 PM)
My brother said it best when he saw a promo for Back in the Game, and remarked "this feels like it's more suited to be the plot of a movie."  The thing is, the show will quickly move away from focusing on its premise in the pilot, where we see Maggie Lawson's character start up a little league baseball team comprised of all the kids who were rejected from the rest of the teams in the league.  Until then, we'll probably be stuck with episodes that are as tedious as the pilot is.  The central relationship between Lawson and her father is supposed to be the anchor that keeps everything moored, but their dynamic is way too toothless and squeaky clean to generate any laughs or drama.  The entire rhythm of this show just felt off, wobbling along at its languid, laughless pace.  Overall, Back in the Game feels so confused.  It has all the trappings of a family sitcom, but the pilot is littered with cringeworthy lowbrow humor.  Nevertheless, it's a good fit for ABC's Wednesday comedy block, so I guess that's something.
Grade: C

The Blacklist (NBC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
The Blacklist is a deeply silly show.  It's a blatant ripoff of Silence of the Lambs, it features James Spader hamming it up all over the place, and there's some really dumb plotting.  Yet it moves along at such a breakneck pace that you don't even notice how much the show is straining credulity at any given moment.  And sure, James Spader is chewing scenery in this pilot, but all of the scenes between him and the also strong Megan Boone are quite fun to watch.  It seems like his character is conveniently best buds with every terrorist on the planet, but you just sort of roll with it because the show does.  And for every bit of bad exposition (like the info dump in the form of a mission briefing), there's some really smart exposition (the self-profiling scene) to balance things out.  Basically, I'm kind of taken aback by how much I enjoyed The Blacklist, even if I was reluctant the whole time I was watching.  It's very stupid, but if it can keep delivering something as thrilling as that incredible highway setpiece in the middle of the episode, I'll stay on for the ride.
Grade: B

The Crazy Ones (CBS, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
I think I've cracked the Robin Williams Code.  Nobody actually thinks he's funny; he just commits to one of his bits and goes on for so long that eventually audiences come around through the sheer power of attrition.  He's just trying so hard that you get groggy enough to laugh in delirium.  And Robin Williams is working very hard in the pilot of The Crazy Ones, to the point where the show feels completely overwhelmed by his presence.  I didn't enjoy this show, but I laughed at it more than many other comedy pilots because, I don't just sort of wears you down.  It's a shame that Robin Williams derails things with his interminable bits, because the rest of the cast is lined with funny people.  Say what you will about Sarah Michelle Gellar as a dramatic actor, but she's got great comedic timing, and James Wolk is just as game.  I could see a version of this show being a solid comedy if they just dialed down the Robin Williams factor, but I doubt that'll happen.
Grade: C+

The Goldbergs (ABC, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Hey, did you know that The Goldbergs is set in the 1980s?  If you didn't, you'd quickly be reminded of it in the first few minutes.  And then the next few minutes after that.  And the next few minutes after that.  There isn't really much else to the show than the fact that it tosses out references REO Speedwagon, Flava Flav, jean jackets, Back to the Future, and everything else that signifies the decade.  Perhaps the show pushes its "HEY LOOK AT THE 80s" message because even it knows that it's so bland, there's nothing else there to talk about.  There's a family at the center of it all, but they're all archetypes -- the nerdy kid, the wacky mom, the hard-nosed dad.  Yet the one character who feels the least like an archetype, the older brother, is also the one who induces the most groans in the pilot.  Oh, and did I mention that this show is set in the 1980s?
Grade: C-

Hostages (CBS, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Like The Blacklist, its night and timeslot competitor on NBC, Hostages is a deeply silly show.  The problem is that it doesn't embrace its silliness at all.  Where The Blacklist zealously bathes in the pulpiness of its premise, Hostages tries to take the idea of a surgeon (Toni Collette) being forced to lethally botch a surgery on the president of the United States seriously.  With that premise, you wouldn't think that the show could be boring, even if it was terrible, but Hostages is absolutely somnolent.  Much of the episode takes place in Collette's house, where her and her family are being held hostage, and it's supposed to be tense, but it ends up being listless and enervating.  And I haven't even mentioned Dylan McDermott, who's giving a performance worthy of his work on American Horror Story in terms of its awfulness.  Or the bad dialogue, like a woman being told "you're a 10, honey."  It's not even very coherently edited either.  This show is just kind of a mess -- a soporific mess.
Grade: D+

Lucky 7 (ABC, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
This pilot could've been an interesting exploration of the lower-middle class and what they do to get by, and then once they win the lottery, it could transition into telling a story about these same people adjusting to their newfound wealth and realizing that it's not enough to fill the holes that existed within them.  Lucky 7 is decidedly not that, and unfortunately it trades in what could've been a quiet and nuanced show for full-on melodrama.  But I don't want to critique what the show could've been, let's talk about the show we got.  My main gripe is that it just doesn't earn any of its emotion.  We don't get enough definition from these characters to be invested in what winning the lottery means to them.  There's a scene near the end of the episode where one of the characters has a teary breakdown, but who is this person and why are we supposed to care?  It tries to sell you on the idea that these people who just work at a gas station together are like a family, and it doesn't work at all.  I really wanted to like this one because of its premise, and there are moments that make me want to watch the second episode, but not enough to make me actually do it.
Grade: C+

The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 PM)
The Michael J. Fox Show serves as a bit of a meta-narrative for Michael J. Fox's real life story -- it's about a beloved, award winning actor returning to TV after being diagnosed with a debilitating disease.  Lest we misunderstand the motives behind the show, Fox's character quickly comments on the fact that he's returning because he wants to work, not because it would make a inspirational puff piece.  And the show as a whole combats any suspicions of emotional manipulation by frequently making Fox's character and his Parkinson's the butt of jokes.  Unfortunately, the Parkinson's becomes a double-edged sword -- it gives the show a strong focus and point of view, but the pilot leans far too heavily on it as a source of comedy.  Maybe they just need to get it out of their system in the first few episodes before they move away from relying on it, but for now it's pretty tiresome.  The biggest problem, however, is the thing that is plaguing many of the new comedies this year -- it isn't very funny.  Really, only the always entertaining Wendell Pierce generates any laughs in the first episode.  Luckily, the cast is strong enough that even when the script isn't making you laugh, the actors work to at least make you smile.  Plus, the whole thing goes down pretty easily, which is more than I can say about some of these other pilots.
Grade: B-

Mom (CBS, Mondays at 9:30 PM)
People always talk about Anna Faris' underutilized talent, and now that she's the lead of a multi-cam sitcom, it seems crazy that the world was trying to make her a movie star when this is the perfect medium for her strengths.  She's got this big theatricality to her, and it's basically engineered for the format, which is almost like a stage play.  Couple that with Allison Janney, who plays the mother with whom she has a strained relationship, and what you've got is a show that's much better than its Chuck Lorre Productions pedigree would lead you to believe.  Faris and Janney sell the material, but the reason why the comedy works is because much of it comes from a real emotional place: resentment, struggle, and disappointment.  The pilot deftly hides exposition in conflict, and the fraught relationship between Faris and Janney really centers everything.  It's a multi-cam sitcom, so of course it feels the need to underline things a little more than I'd like, but I came away from it quite surprised.
Grade: B

Trophy Wife (ABC, Tuesdays at 9:30)
The Trophy Wife premiere is very much a premise pilot -- relying heavily on narration to start off the episode -- but it sets things up very economically.  It's also another show that proves that it's much easier to make a funny show when you've got a great cast.  Malin Ackerman may be known by many as "that horrible actress from Watchmen" but anybody who's seen Adult Swim's Childrens Hospital knows that she's got incredible comedic chops.  She's very good at displaying daft charm, and that comes into play when she has do a huge physical gag in the middle of the episode that ends up being the biggest laugh of the pilot.  The kid actors are also surprisingly tolerable, mostly because they stay out of the way, although I'm not sure about the youngest one yet (who gives me Manny from Modern Family vibes -- not a good thing).  If there's one quibble to make, it's that the show feels a little overstuffed, introducing not one, but two ex-wives of Ackerman's husband (played by Bradley Whitford) to deal with.  Regardless, there's alot of upside to this, and I can see it becoming one of the major successes of this TV season.  It made me smile alot, which classifies it as a solid episode of comedy, but an even more impressive pilot.
Grade: B+

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: Week One of Fall's TV Pilots


Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Ahh, another year, another season of networks delivering their (mostly mediocre) new shows.  For the past few years, I've been trying to watch as many pilots as possible, which is always pretty tortuous, and I end up mostly just watching all the comedies and skipping out on the dramas that I don't care about.  Sitting through a half-hour sitcom that isn't very good is one thing, but a terrible hour-long drama is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.  Apparently, I hate myself though, because I figured I'd try to watch and review almost every pilot in this fall season now that I've got this blog.  Who knows whether I'll make it to the end, because the rigors of college are calling and early screener buzz doesn't bode well for my enjoyment of this process.  I'm planning on putting one-paragraph reviews of all the pilots that air in a given week all in one post.  This first one is being posted in the middle of the week because Whedon Week pushed my scheduling back, but expect the rest of this series to release at the end of every week.  So let's start out by taking a look at the three Fox pilots that aired last week.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, Tuesdays at 8:30PM)
The most refreshing thing about Brooklyn Nine-Nine was how well-structured it was.  The pilot hits all of the notes that it should, introducing you to these characters you're going to be watching in the first act, showing you they're funny in the second, and deepening them in the third, all while telling a story that gets wrapped up by the end of the episode.  It seems like such a simple, bare-minimum requirement, but so many pilots fail to do so (see: the show below).  Luckily, Brooklyn Nine-Nine's got more to it than mere competence.  Not only is the police department setting (which we haven't seen in a network comedy since 1982 with Police Squad! and Barney Miller) refreshing, but the cast is surprisingly diverse.  Most network shows are determined to fill their ensembles with as many white people as possible, but this cast has two Hispanic actors and two African Americans (whose characters are the two highest on the chain of command), and feels like it more accurately reflects the way a police precinct in Brooklyn would look.  It certainly isn't perfect, but pilots rarely are.  Andy Samberg is one of those guys who can be very funny when properly managed, but in the wrong hands his silly charm can easily transform into grating immaturity.  There were times where he ventured into the latter territory, and in the future he'll need to dial it back, or else his character will become tiresome.  The first act also probably spends a bit too much time with the set-up and is largely laughless, but the episode becomes much sharper when the pace picks up and the laughs increase in the second act.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine's got all of the necessary pieces -- great cast, writing staff with a high pedigree, the dynamic between Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher -- and I can easily see the show finding a way to put those pieces together perfectly and becoming one of my favorite comedies.
Grade: B+

Dads (Fox, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
Much has been said about the apparent racism in the Dads pilot, and yeah, it certainly is racist.  There's a joke about the size of an Asian man's penis, one of the titular dads mistakes Vanessa Minnillo for a maid just because she's Hispanic, and Brenda Song is forced to dress up in a Sailor Moon outfit to impress Chinese businessmen.  But aside from that, the show is more offensive simply because of how terrible it is.  Throughout the course of this episode's 30 minutes, I found myself thinking that the show felt like it was made by somebody who doesn't understand how to make television, despite there being many TV veterans involved behind the scenes.  The whole thing just seems so poorly constructed, shuffling along for an interminable half hour, without a laugh to be found.  A scene between the two dads trying to pass the check off on one another at a diner is the closest scene that comes to being funny, but even that's pretty dismal.  And maybe the racism would be slightly more tolerable if there was any kind of perspective to it.  Instead, we're just supposed to automatically love these characters and laugh at every offensive thing that they say, but they're all vile human beings.  Dads isn't even an entertaining kind of terrible, the kind you can sit back and hate-watch.  This pilot wore me out, and left me more depressed than any episode of a "comedy" should.
Grade: F

Sleepy Hollow (Fox, Mondays at 9:00 PM)
Based on the logo at the top, the inane trailer, and the fact that it's got three of the biggest peddlers of schlock in Hollywood (Len Wiseman, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci) at the helm, I was expecting Sleepy Hollow to be the worst new show of the fall season.  But it's surprisingly got a few good things going for it.  Like all Fox shows, the pilot is absolutely gorgeous, and there's an atmospheric sense of wonder in the early scenes.  It also doesn't wait around to get to the point, strapping you in and telling you "There was a guy who cut off another guy's head once and now they're both back.  You know the drill."  It doesn't stop there either, seemingly throwing everything at the viewer: magical priests, a glowy eyed horse, mystic birds, mysterious white trees, a police file labeled "occultism," a woman burnt for witchcraft revealed to be an actual witch, a head in a jar, a headless man with a machine gun, and some sort of ram demon.  And yet, my biggest problem with Sleepy Hollow is that it's just not crazy enough.  Sure, I just listed a bunch of things that seem to make it pretty bizarre, but all of those ludicrous elements are presented with such a bored shrug.  It's a show that tries to be campy but falls flat, especially when it attempts to derive humor from Ichabod Crane's fish-out-of-water situation, despite Tom Mison's agreeable charm.  I don't see how this show can last very long based on its premise, particularly when the first episode burns through about 40 ideas, but the writers need to find one brand of crazy and turn the dial up to 11 if there's going to be any hope that it gets better.
Grade: C+

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Whedon Week: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pilot Review

Well folks, the wait is finally over.  Whedon Week has come to a close, because the Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot aired last night.  And with the conclusion of the waiting is the end of all the hopes and fears that came with it.  That period of anticipation was when the show could turn out to be anything.  At its worst, it could be a gigantic failure, detrimentally affected by its status as a TV show, and filled with corny instances of people saying "Oh hey, you just missed Tony Stark a few minutes ago..."  At its best, it could tap into the magic of Joss Whedon, perfectly melding comedy, drama, and action-adventure to tell the kind of small-scale stories that happen on the periphery of the Marvel world.  With just a pilot to go on, it's hard to tell which of the two options this show is, but I'd lean more towards the latter.

The first half of the episode is a slick introduction to the world and its characters, taking steps toward developing the kind of group that makes every other Joss Whedon show so strong.  Of course, the question on everybody's mind is "What's the deal with Agent Coulson"?  The pilot does a good job of providing an explanation for why he's alive after being stabbed to death by Loki in The Avengers, while also making it clear that there's a deeper mystery going on under the surface.  Whedon chooses to have two different characters be the entry-point into this world, which is an interesting, albeit slightly unnecessary choice.  Out of the two, Skye, the computer hacker, is definitely the more fun one.  Chloe Bennet fills what I call "The Dushku Role," offering up a heap of sass, but replacing edginess with and enjoyable effervescence.  On the other hand, there's Agent Ward, the stoic lone wolf of the group.  For now, both he and Agent Melinda May are mostly there for the action, and their characters are the least defined so far.  Meanwhile, Agent Simmons and Agent Fitz are the most Whedon-y of the bunch, and are the best as a result.  Over the course of the pilot, you get a complete sense of their dynamic, and the way they frenetically bounce off of each other is a real delight to watch.  The cast may not be as fully formed as those on other Whedon shows, but I can see them gelling together as the season progresses.

When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was first announced, many people brought up Gotham Central, the DC comic about that focuses on the police officers in Gotham City, as a reference point.  It's an apt comparison to make since it focuses on S.H.I.E.L.D., the everyday heroes whose work gets overlooked in the midst of all the capes and cowls.  But it's also reminiscent of the Kurt Busiek comic, Astro City, in the way that it deals with the denizens of a city coming to grips with the existence of superheroes walking (and flying) among them.  It's an interesting expansion of the world we've only seen highlights of in the Marvel films.  And while there may be something hokey like a character saying "He's got the best spy score since Agent Romanov," there are also very cool nods to the movies, most notably the Extremis arc from Iron Man 3 coming into play.  Joss Whedon shows have always been instilled with a deep mistrust of authority, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes his pet theme and turns it on its head, asking "what happens when you are the mistrusted authority"?

I've seen some complaints about the pilot, stating that it's too straightforward, and I'm willing to admit that the show feels a bit safe so far.  It's never more evident than in one of the final scenes, which teases a moment that feels like the kind of shocking and dark turn that Whedon is know for, only to reveal a rosier conclusion.  Still, I balk at the claim of the pilot lacking surprises when it features that terrific scene where Coulson injects Agent Ward with truth serum.  Aside from that, there are little moments of spark that come in the form of quippy lines and snappy direction throughout the episode.  The real concern is whether the show can ever truly develop a unique personality with so many cooks in the kitchen.  ABC has alot invested in this show's success, which leads to the kind of stifling network interference that ruins shows.  The behind the scenes rumors about script difficulties don't do much to dispel the fear that ABC isn't letting Whedon and his crew just be great.  For now though, let's put the worrying aside and enjoy this pilot, which is solid enough to hope that the show can blossom into something special.

Grade: B

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Whedon Week: The top 30 episodes of Joss Whedon's shows

This was, by far, the hardest list to produce.  How do you narrow a total of 294 episodes down to a list of 30?  After a long and difficult ranking process, I finally was able to do it.  I wanted to try to have a well-distributed representation, or else it would mostly just be Buffy episodes, due to the fact that it's my favorite, and the nature of the show allowed for there to be more standouts.  So the order might be a little wonky, so as to not clog the top 10 with one show, and also because every episode here is so good that it doesn't matter whether something is 24 and another is 23.  I tend to have pretty different favorites from others (I love "Doublemeat Palace" -- that's all you need to know about me), so I imagine many Whedon fans would be pretty annoyed by this list, seeing as there are some big ones missing.  But overall, I'm pretty happy with it.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Whedon Week/The Canon #8: Dollhouse - "Belonging" (2009)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

There's an argument to be made for the goodness within the protagonists of almost every Joss Whedon show.  It's easiest for Buffy, which was always a show with a clear sense of right and wrong, and when characters did become evil, they were justly punished for it.  Characters on Angel, on the other hand, often questioned whether they were crossing the line between good and evil, before eventually being assured that they were not.  The crew on Firefly were outlaws, sure, but the lovable kind that you're supposed to root for.  Plus, they're outlaws from a government that's clearly seen as corrupt.  But the characters that run the titular organization on Whedon's most recent show, Dollhouse, are unequivocally people whose morals have been compromised.  Part of the reason why the first season episode, "Man on the Street," is seen as such a turning point for the show is because it's the first one that truly examines how the Dollhouse takes people's lives and identities, all in order to service lonely and predatory clients.

But no episode is better at exploring the deplorable nature of the Dollhouse than "Belonging," the fourth episode of the show's second season.  It starts off with flashbacks of Sierra, before her time in the Dollhouse, when she was just an artist named Priya.  Enter Nolan, one of the Dollhouse's biggest clients, who notices her artwork and tries to court her, only to have his advances rebuffed.  The episode does a great job of exploring power dynamics -- how the powerful use their considerable advantage over the powerless -- when Nolan resorts to seedier methods to win Priya over.  Once he has her in his sights there's nothing she can do, as Nolan drugs Priya so that she appears to be psychotic enough to be committed to the Dollhouse, and he can have her at any time.  Priya's paintings frequently featured birds, and at one point a character suggests that the birds are a metaphor for her -- free but unsure of where she's going.  But the real metaphor is that she's now a caged bird: trapped and only brought out when her master wants her.

For as much as the episode is devoted to Priya/Sierra, it's equally a character piece for Topher.  One of the best decisions that the show made in season 2 was to introduce characters higher up on the chain of command at Rossum.  It gave the writers an opportunity for people like Adelle and Topher to have something to fight against, while never letting them off the hook.  If the show is all about exploring the moral blackness of what is essentially a high class prostitution ring, then season 2 is primarily interested in discovering where these characters draw the line, and clearly "Belonging" is the line for Topher.  Once Echo brings the unsettling artwork that Sierra has been doing to his attention, he begins to investigate, eventually discovering the true nature of Sierra's arrival at the Dollhouse.  It's a real turnaround for Topher, who had been previously depicted as an evil scientist who only thinks of the dolls as his experiments.  "I'm not the bad man," he says early in the episode, but when he's forced to face the collateral damage that his science has caused, he has to take a hard look at himself.  It's what causes him to unleash an altered Priya on Nolan, which results in Nolan's death.

There are many plots moving along at the periphery too, giving us more progress in the slowly building connective tissues in Echo's mind, Sierra and Victor's growing bond, and a glimpse into Victor's pre-Dollhouse past.  It's also thematically hefty to boot, examining and shattering the lies that these characters tell themselves to keep going.  For all of the talk that Adelle and Topher give about how what they're doing is helping people, they are still complicit in ruining Priya's life.  As we see in the scene where Victor has flashbacks to his time in the Middle East before becoming an Active, the Dollhouse only colors over the pain of the past; they don't erase it.  And in the process they've picked up some emotional scars too.  At the end of the day, Priya gets to forget the blood spilled, but Topher has to live with what they've been through every day.

Is this the darkest episode in the Whedonverse?  He's been known to get grim, but "Belonging" is pitch black.  I remember watching its original airing and being slack-jawed, amazed by the boldness of Sierra's tragic origins.  This the last episode before the intense serialization that follows in the 9 episodes that close out the series, and it sets them up well, hinting at the mistrust of authority that drives the explosive events to come.  At this point, the season is only just starting, but it never gets better than this episode, which reminds the audience and characters alike that the Dollhouse is a dirty business, and nobody's slate can ever truly be clean.

Whedon Week: I love season 6 of Buffy and here's why you should too

Although the order of preference may shift, there seems to be a general consensus when it comes to Buffy seasons.  Season 1 is rough compared to the others, the back half of season 2 is ridiculously good, season 3 is the most consistent, season 4 has the best standalones, season 5 contains "The Body" and "The Gift" which overrides anything else that happens in the rest of the season, and most people prefer not to speak of season 7.  But it's hard to get a gauge on how the fandom feels about season 6 as a whole.  There are some who hate it with a fiery passion, but then there are also some fervent defenders of it.  Season 6 isn't my favorite season of the show (my order would be: 5, 3, 6, 2, 4, 7, 1), but I'm in the fervent defender camp, because I absolutely adore it.

It seems like some people's thoughts on season 6 are colored by the narrative that it technically shouldn't have existed.  "The Gift," the season 5 finale, was so perfect of an ending that many people jokingly say "Buffy ended with 'The Gift'" and pretend that the last 2 seasons didn't happen.  Buffy had been killed off and The WB didn't want the show anymore, so many fans were already turned off by the idea of it continuing on UPN.  But to me, the show justifies its existence the moment it brings Buffy back to life at the beginning of season 6.  It's not so much the act itself -- once you know that the show is continuing and you figure that Buffy: the Vampire Slayer needs Buffy, it's pretty easy to then conclude that bringing her back will involve some sort of spell -- it's the implications that the act has.  From the brief bits we get of the Scooby Gang continuing their slaying without Buffy, it's clear to see that they're doing relatively fine, so bringing her back is something that they do because they miss their friend.  But what was done out of longing ended up being a really selfish act, when it's revealed that Buffy was in heaven and that she was actually happy.    I can't stress how much I love that moment in "After Life," when Buffy tells Spike about the true nature of her being brought back to life.  I think it's the boldest thing I've ever seen on television, and I remember my jaw dropping as I gasped and shouted "WHAT?!" once the gravity of the moment hit me.  After all of the struggling that we saw her go through in the 5th season, she was finally at peace, and then her friends ripped her out of Heaven, forcing her to return to everything she had escaped.  All of the responsibilities, all of the loss, all of the bills, all of the drudgery.  All of it.

This reveal, and her determination to keep it from her friends, leads to alot of the resentment and listlessness she feels.  The beginning of season 6 is all about keeping secrets.  In fact, the first 7 episodes are an interesting little mini-arc to start off the season.  As we all know, this is a Joss Whedon show, and in Joss Whedon shows, the truth always comes out.  And it's unleashed in a big way, as everything finally stumbles out into the open in "Once More, with Feeling," an episode upon which every fan can agree.  It has the gimmick of being "the musical episode," but what's most impressive about it is just how much plot is stuffed in there.  Buffy's resentment about being ripped out of heaven, Willow using magic on Tara to make her forget their fighting, Anya and Xander's anxieties about their future, Buffy and Spike's budding romance, Giles feeling the need to let Buffy go -- all of those tensions clash together and explode near the end of the hour.  It's an episode so monumental, that the rest of the season is spent dealing with the fallout of the revelations that occur in it.

One of the big problems that people have with season 6 is its middle section.  After "Once More, with Feeling" it's hard for anything afterward to not feel like a disappointment, and on my initial run through the series, I do remember feeling like the middle sagged a bit.  But looking back, there are actually only three episodes that I don't like.  I hate "Smashed" and "Wrecked," and I was never into Riley and therefore wasn't big on his return in "As You Were," but aside from those, there's some strong stuff in there.  I know I'm the only one who feels this way, but I love "Doublemeat Palace," so that, "Dead Things," and "Older and Far Away" is just a killer 1-2-3 punch.  Listen, I think the Willow addiction metaphor is pretty weak, and the middle/end of the season takes a relationship I really adored in Spike and Buffy and sends it to very ugly places, but all of the good material elsewhere in the stretch outweighs those two problems.  Plus, I could argue that the Willow storyline is worth it, simply because of where it ends up, and that Buffy's self-sabotage is a natural reaction to the pain that she's feeling.

Honestly -- and pardon me for making a blanket statement -- I think that people who don't like season 6 of Buffy have never been really depressed.  I suffer from depression, and I watched the show while being at a particularly low point, so this season was some of the most raw and real television I've ever seen.  Buffy may come off as whiny and mopey to some, but to me it's one of the best depictions of clinical depression on television.  The unrelenting bleakness turns many people off -- and to be clear, it is an exhausting and unpleasant season to watch -- but when you're in a certain mindset it's easy to let the mood just envelope you.  Another big gripe that people have is that there's a tonal inconsistency to the season, complaining that the usual goofier standalones don't mesh very well with the dark tone of the season.  I call BS on that complaint too, as it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of depression.  I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine about how miserable I am, and she responded, perhaps disbelievingly "but you never seem that way when I see you."  People who are depressed aren't incapable of happiness, and it's true that I'm quite a jocular person when I'm around others, but the season understands the nuance of the shifting emotions that come with mental illness.  So episodes like "Gone," "Doublemeat Palace," and "Tabula Rasa" work for me in the midst of all the emotional turmoil.

Season 6 of Buffy puts every character through the grinder and by the end, you feel like you've been on a long, grueling journey with them.  So when Xander talks Willow down at the edge of that cliff or when Buffy climbs out of that ditch her and Dawn got stuck in -- LITERALLY CLIMBING OUT OF HER STATE OF DESPAIR -- it's so freaking cathartic and oh my god I can't take it.  There's so much pain in these episodes: the pain of losing a loved one, the pain of clinical depression, the pain of being betrayed, the pain of growing up and realizing that life isn't going to turn out like you hoped and dreamed it would.  If you can't find the beauty in that, then I don't know what to tell you.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Whedon Week/The Canon #7: Firefly - "Out of Gas" (2002)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

For all of the supernatural and science-fiction plotting that appears in Joss Whedon shows, they are, at their core, primarily relationship-based.  The dynamic between the entire crew of the Serenity is one of my favorite things about Firefly, but there are smaller relationships that play out over the show's limited run too.  There's Zoe and Wash, the married couple who seem unlikely at first, but whose rhythm feels like the product of years together.  There's River and Simon, the brother and sister who've bonded over the tough circumstances they've both faced.  But one of the most interesting of these -- and one that may not readily come to mind -- is the one between Mal and the Serenity itself.  Malcolm Reynolds almost functions as a post-hero -- a man who is aware of the existence of heroes in stories and is attempting to be one himself.  He tries his hardest to have the steeliest resolve and the wittiest rejoinders, all with a certain level of self-awareness.  And if he is the post-hero, then the Serenity is his post-sidekick.  "Out of Gas" is a remarkable episode for many reasons, but especially because of how much it fleshes out Mal's relationship with his beloved ship.

The episode is written by Whedon cadet Tim Minear, who is the master of the flashback, a technique that is employed throughout the course of the hour.  "Out of Gas" opens near the end, with Mal collapsing on the floor of the ship, blood dripping from his abdomen, before cutting to an earlier point in the story.  Minear layers on the flashbacks, alternating between the present (Mal's bloody amble through the ship), the past (how he got into this situation), and the distant past (his first meeting with the rest of the crew), and keeps things from getting messy due to some slick editing.  There's a bit of symmetry between the cuts, as one scene in the present directly informs the jumping off point for a flashback.  The episode shows the events that led up to these people originally coming together, highlighting how inextricably linked they are.  Like all protagonists in a Joss Whedon show, they have a bit of a familial bond.

Of course, we soon learn that the cause of this sticky situation is an explosion that happens on the ship, brought about by a broken part that Kaylee told Mal needed fixing way back in the pilot.  Conditions are dire -- there is no spare part, Zoe was knocked unconscious by the explosion, and they only have a few hours of oxygen left.  The deterioration of the ship causes a breakdown within the crew, as Mal and Wash become embroiled in brief squabbling over what to do, and some of the others panic in the face of their impending deaths.  Usually, this would be an easy bit of symbolism, but the ties between these people and their ship are so tangled that it feels organic and logical for this crisis to have such fractious results.  The deepest investment in the state of the ship comes from Mal, who eventually sacrifices himself by staying on the ship and sending everybody else off on shuttles to try to find safety.

There certainly are episodes of Firefly that are funnier ("Our Mrs. Reynolds," my personal favorite), more exciting ("Ariel"), or brainier ("Objects in Space").  The thing about "Out of Gas," though is that it's the episode that's most essential to understanding the heart of the show.  The Serenity is the thing that unites all of these disparate people, and like the catalizer that initially causes the explosion on the ship, Mal is the component that keeps things running.  Yet, in the end, it's not Mal getting the new catalizer into place that saves the ship -- it's the rest of the crew coming back to him after Zoe regains consciousness.  As much as "Out of Gas" is about a man and his ship, it's also about those other people who make his time on that ship so much more enjoyable.

Whedon Week: Ranking the Joss Whedon deaths

Whedon is nothing if not a master of death, truly believing that there are no happy endings in life and that nobody is safe.  While researching this list, it really hit me just how many major characters die in his work.  What's worse is that it usually happens right when that person finds some sort of peace and happiness in their lives.  Although The Whedon Death may be sudden, they often come with a great deal of emotional weight.  I tried to include every death that seemed relatively important, but I'm sure I've missed a few (seriously, there are so many deaths!).  My criteria for these rankings is a mixture of how well-executed I thought a given death was and how much it specifically affected me.  Obviously, there are many plot reveals in this list so:


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Whedon Week/The Canon #6: Angel - "Waiting in the Wings" (2002)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

Television writing is a very collaborative medium.  Although there are some writers; like Aaron Sorkin, David E. Kelley, and David Milch; who prefer to take up most of the scripting duties on their own, for the most part, the writing of episodes in a season is shared amongst a room of writers.  Creators and showrunners tend to only step in a few times per season, usually for the premiere, finale, and any other "big" episode in the middle of a season.  Before I started watching any Joss Whedon show, I was always aware of the reverence that people had for episodes that were written by him.  Look at any discussion of Buffy and you'll quickly see somebody say that all of the best episodes of that show were the ones written by Whedon.  Many of his episodes are the best of a given show, but even when they're not, the one mark of a Joss Whedon episode is that it "feels" different than the rest of the episodes.  In particular, they always feel very cinematic, an early indication of the huge directing career he'd eventually have.  While a number of them can be described as "gimmick episodes," a script credited to Joss always manages to be interesting and high-concept, while also packing in so much story and character, moving things forward substantially.  In that case, "Waiting in the Wings," the 13th episode of the 3rd season of Angel, is a textbook Joss Whedon episode.

One of the dominant themes in all of Joss Whedon's work is that he loves to explore the inner-workings that exist within a large group of people.  Where the Scooby Gang on Buffy functioned much like a makeshift family, the Angel Investigations crew on Angel had the rhythms of a tight-knit workplace.  As is the case with all workplaces, whenever you spend all that time together, relationships are bound to develop.  By the time "Waiting in the Wings" rolls around, the crew is right at the point of combustion with all of the relationships that have been bubbling under the surface.  There are so many layers of romantic entanglement going on in the middle of season 3 -- Angel likes Cordelia, Cordelia likes Angel, Gunn likes Fred, Wesley likes Fred, Fred likes Gunn, Cordelia thinks that Fred likes Wesley -- and Whedon understands the tension that comes from characters not saying what they truly feel.  Stories come to a climax in his shows when everything finally boils over and the truth reveals itself.  When Angel gets tickets to a ballet show and the group gets all dressed up to go together, passions run high, and it's pretty clear that the furtive nature of these affections will soon come to an end.

But in true Whedon fashion, things get much stranger from there.  Angel quickly realizes that the dancers that they're watching on stage are the same ones from the last time he saw the show...but the problem is that that was over a hundred years ago.  Seeing that something fishy is going on, he and Cordelia go to investigate, and they find themselves backstage in an endless hallway where there is no exit.  Adding to the mystery of this ballet company is a room where they begin to feel the feelings and thoughts of people from long ago.  The scene between Angel and Cordelia in this room is electrifying, serving as a bit of a redux of a scene at the end of the season 2 Buffy episode "I Only Have Eyes For You," but stretched out even longer.  What makes the villain plot in "Waiting in the Wings" so masterful is that this transference of emotions only serves to heighten what's already there.  Angel and Cordelia may be acting out the lust of former lovers, but it blends in with their own buried feelings and neither can hardly tell what's real.

As Angel and Cordelia find out from the room of transference, the leader of the ballet troupe loved one of the ballerinas, but his affections were unrequited, so he put a spell on everyone, forcing them to perform the same routine for eternity just so he can watch his love dance.  The intensity of love is a connective thread throughout every story in the episode -- once Fred, Wesley, and Gunn notice that Angel and Cordelia have been gone for a while, they decide to look into it, and their tensions only get intensified once they sneak backstage too.  The love triangle between the three of them is a classic bit of storytelling, and it plays out with all of the weight that comes with unrequited affections.  

But it all comes back to the ballet.  "Waiting in the Wings" is peppered with scenes of the trapped ballerina (Summer Glau, in a role that eventually got her cast on Firefly) performing onstage, adding to the graceful beauty of the episode.  And just like ballet, which communicates through opaque non-verbal movements, all of these characters are elegantly dancing around one another instead of confronting each other head on.  Love often renders the loved as nothing more than an object; they only exist as a performance on a stage for you to enjoy.  With such thinking, and a set-up as intricate as the Angel Investigation crew's, there could never be a solution where everyone wound up happy.  Although Fred and Gunn get to experience love as a two-person dance, Wesley is left the odd man out, and Angel's inaction leads him to losing Cordelia at the last second, as Groo returns from Pylea before the episode closes.

"Waiting in the Wings," doesn't receive the overwhelming praise that many other episodes written and directed by Joss Whedon do, and that could be caused by the fact that it feels like a bit of greatest hits collection of his more popular episodes.  On top of that, it doesn't have the repeat value of something like "Hush," the season 4 Buffy episode that's similar in terms of theme and tone, but is a bit more fast-paced.  However, it makes up for those shortcomings with its laser focus, resulting in a very insightful and moving exploration of the notion of desire.  It takes something as juvenile and melodramatic as secret crushes and love triangles and elevates it to the level of poetry, and the result is a funny, sexy, and thoughtful episode of television.

Whedon Week: The Top 5 Joss Whedon Characters

Only in an alternate timeline, Jonathan

Joss Whedon shows are known for their distinct characters and the way that they naturally progress over the course of many seasons.  Not only do they grow and change throughout the years, the change comes slowly and subtly, almost always building logically.  These characters are strong on their own, but they also work well as smaller parts of a larger ensemble.  I could easily just have any character on this list (give or take a Riley), but I've managed to narrow it down to five.  But first some honorable mentions...

Honorable mention: Buffy Summers (Buffy), Xander Harris (Buffy), Fred Burkle (Angel), Wash (Firefly), Adelle Dewitt (Dollhouse)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Whedon Week/The Canon #5: Buffy - "The Body" (2001)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

There's such a specificity in grief -- both in terms of the vivid emotions we feel and how it can vary with each individual case.  "The Body," the 16th episode of the 5th season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is the greatest expression of grief that I've ever seen put to film, and certainly my favorite episode of television.  I've never lost anybody in my life, yet I still feel such a deep connection with the Scooby Gang dealing with the death of Buffy's mother.  Stylistically, the episode is unlike anything the show had done before, and to this day it still feels different from every other TV episode I've ever watched.  Buffy and the gang have just experienced something that has shaken their world, and everything has been rendered slightly off because of it.  Sights and sounds that usually have no significance become vivid and bold -- the numbers on a phone, the patterns on the rug make their previously unobtrusive existence known.  But what strikes me the most about "The Body" is how quiet the whole thing feels.  The scene in Dawn's art class (where the picture up top derives from), which is about the negative space between objects, is kind of a description of the whole episode -- exploring all of the emotions that occupy the gaps between grief.

Not only is the episode masterfully directed, the script is just as raw and devastating, featuring several moving passages about death and how we deal with it.  The impressive thing is that there are only about 5 scenes that fill the episode, and as they go on deliberately, endlessly; we hope that they'll just cut away, much like the characters don't want to come to terms with the reality of the situation.  Loss can feel like such a singular, all-consuming thing, and Whedon does a great job of reflecting that sensation.  Just look at the scene where Buffy tells Dawn about their mother's death, and how all of Dawn's classmates seem to be drawn like magnets toward them.  But it also shows how in actuality, the rest of the world just keeps going, so regardless of whether Xander is grieving or not, he still gets a ticket for being double parked.  There's this hyper-real tone to "The Body," and it's so obsessed with the idea of processes.  What do I do?  What do I wear?  How do I act?  Anything to avoid thinking about the real question: why does this happen?  Season 5 of Buffy is about God in many ways, and Joyce's passing is major to the themes of the season, as it's the only death in the entire show brought about by natural causes.

Whenever something really bad happens to me, I get stuck in a stage that's a weird mixture of denial and bargaining.  I imagine it not happening, thinking that maybe if I formulate all of these elaborate alternative scenarios, one will eventually become true.  The minute you snap back to reality and realize that that's never going to happen, you're weighed down by an even heavier sense of pain.  That's why the parts that get me the most in this episode are the two or three scenes where Buffy imagines that her mom is actually alive.  You can see her thinking "If I could just do this one thing differently..."  But in the end, like Dawn in the closing scene, she's reaching for someone she can never truly touch again.  Joyce Summers is there no longer.  All that's left is the body.

"I wish that Joyce didn't die.  Because she was nice.  And now we all hurt." --Anya

Whedon Week: Ranking the works of Joss Whedon

It would be hard enough to rank Joss Whedon's oeuvre if we were just talking about his television work.  How do you compare his shows that had longevity (Buffy and Angel) to his short-lived shows that never had the chance to experience the same peaks and valleys (Firefly and Dollhouse)?  But it becomes even more difficult now that he's made his recent foray into movies.  What's the criteria for comparing movies, which come in a short 2-hour burst, to the weekly installments of television?  Somehow, despite these questions, I managed to concoct a list in which I order his movies and television shows from my favorite to least favorite.  Take these rankings with a grain of salt, because I love everything he does so much that, aside from my number 1 (which is clearly the greatest thing ever), most of these are interchangeable.  So without further ado...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Whedon Week: Do The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods hold up a year later?

Judging by the way his films dominated my best of the year list, you could certainly say that 2012 was the year of Joss Whedon.  The Avengers was my 3rd favorite film of last year (behind only Margaret and The Master) and The Cabin in the Woods was my 5th favorite film.  Whedon gets alot of credit for Cabin in the Woods, despite the fact that it was directed and co-written by Drew Goddard, but Goddard was a writer on Buffy and Angel, so he shares much of Whedon's sensibility.  If I were to pick Joss Whedon's two greatest strengths, it would definitely be his knack for exploring group dynamics through propulsive action-adventure and his genre experimentation, and The Avengers allowed him to show off the former while Cabin in the Woods displayed the latter.  Netflix just recently added the two films on Watch Instantly, so I figured it'd be fun to revisit both of them and see how they hold up a year later.

When I watched The Avengers in theaters, I remember the first act being a bit lackluster and boring.  I'd already seen all of the individual films that led up to it, so all of the brick-laying was very repetitive and frustrating.  But upon rewatching, I found that the film starts out with two really sharp scenes.  The opening scene where Loki steals the Tesseract has that great Nick Fury line where he says "You say 'freedom' but I kinda think you mean the other thing" and the scene with Black Widow in Russia is packed with the kind of witty repartee that Whedon is known for.  There's definitely a little bit of table-setting after that, but otherwise the film is clear skies from here on out.  

More than any of the other directors of Marvel films, Joss Whedon truly has a handle on the comic book tone.  The film is full of all the dynamic angles, splashy spectacle, and forward momentum that you'd find in a monthly Avengers comic.  Another leg up that it has over the individual Marvel films is that the action setpieces are amazing.  The action in Thor and Captain America was serviceable at best, and even the Iron Man films, which were the best of the lead-ups, really punted their final action setpieces.  Not only are the sequences in The Avengers big, fun, and fluid, but everybody gets something to do in them.  The film definitely makes use of popular action movie tropes -- the villain getting captured but it was his plan all along!, large-scale city destruction -- but pulls them off with an aplomb that sets it apart from the rest of the pack.

Once the group is set up, the dynamics get to play out, and the writing feels much more authentic for each character than it does in their solo films.  Whedon has a particular feel for Captain America, really honing in on his boy scout attitude and friction with Tony Stark.  It isn't just the in-group conflicts that are handled well, the scenes of the team slowly gelling are great as well, and the bond between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner in particular is one of my favorite parts of the film.  Cabin in the Woods may be more Whedon-y overall, but The Avengers still has his touch.  He can do big physical gags (like the Hulk punching Thor), but he also fits in more subtle, language-based jokes.  For all of the slapstick fun, the film does slow down and get a bit meditative for a few brief moments.  When Agent Coulson dies -- in true Whedon fashion, at that -- it's not particularly moving, but it's effective in the way that it serves as a jumping off point for rumination on the nature of heroism.  In fact, there are a number of satisfying arcs for the characters, as well as a thematic throughline about the effects of secrets and lies.

While The Avengers completely delivered on its promise of nonstop superhero action, the marketing for Cabin in the Woods was a bit more deceptive, giving alot of people the impression of a much more straightforward horror flick.  But for all ballyhooing about the film's bait-and-switch, and people being urged to go into the film without knowing much about it, I was surprised in my rewatch to see how early the film tips its hand.  The twist is that the whole thing is simultaneously a love letter to and a hate rant against horror movies.  It treats the horror plot as something that's engineered, and there's all these subtle nods to the "rules" of the game, the tropes that it requires to keep functioning.  It's such a great deconstruction of the genre that I don't know why some people were upset that they didn't get an actual horror film.  The film itself seems to be saying to those people, "Really?  You're not tired of this?"  Yet even though they're nothing more than pieces to be commented upon, the film still does a good job of making the 5 college kids funny and interesting.

But the real brilliance comes from the behind-the-scenes portions of the film.  Those scenes play like a workplace comedy, made all the more funny because of its juxtaposition with the scenes of the leads in the cabin.  The workplace stuff elevates the film from useless genre exercise to biting satire.  And the film doesn't just stop there, presenting a slasher construction and just poking at it the whole time.  It spends most of its run decrying the fact that there's nothing new, but then at the end, it reveals that it contains some freshness of its own, sharply veering into complete insanity in the last 20 minutes.  Every idea is thrown into the mix -- literally and figuratively -- and carnage gleefully ensues.

In short: both films hold up remarkably well.  The only difference is that now I would probably swap The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods in my order of preference.  The Avengers loses a bit when viewed outside of the theater, where the scale and the spectacle really hits you.  On the other hand, all of the little touches in Cabin become more noticeable on a second viewing, and I was really impressed by the level of commentary they were able to pack into such a blast of a film.  Although Whedon already had experience in film with Serenity, these two introduced him to the wider world, and he didn't lose any of his magic in the process.

Whedon Week: What makes Joss Whedon so great

Next week, on September 24th, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will premiere on ABC at 8 pm.  This is the most I've ever been excited for a new show, less because I'm a Marvel fan, and more because it's technically Joss Whedon's return to television.  Although he'll only write and direct the pilot, he's giving away the reigns to frequent collaborators like his brother Jed, Maurissa Tanchereon, and Jeffrey Bell; and I'm hoping that it still has that Whedon feel.  So as a way to channel my enthusiasm, I've decided to do something called Whedon Week.  For the next 6 days, I'll be posting various pieces about Joss Whedon's work, ending with a review of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot after it airs.

If you were to ask me for my favorite writers in any medium, there's a handful that readily come to mind: Jason Katims, David Chase, John Green, Todd VanDerWerff, Christopher Ware, etc.  However, Joss Whedon might be the writer I feel the most passionate about.  To me, his oeuvre has no real weak spot (not even Dollhouse, as some people would like you to believe).  One of the greatest strengths of his work is its high rewatchability factor.  Breaking Bad is ending in less than two weeks and even though it's one of my favorite shows ever, I don't imagine rewatching it anytime soon.  But right after I finished Buffy and Angel, I immediately wanted to rewatch them again.  Whenever I have free time, I'll occasionally watch one of my favorite episodes, just so I can revisit the lively worlds and even livelier characters that inhabit them.

Joss Whedon writes how I aspire to write if I were to ever make TV shows or movies.  His scripts are funny, emotional, twisty, experimental -- the list goes on.  Many of the great TV writers are known for making prestige drama, but Whedon's shows always have some sort of sci-fi or supernatural element to them.  He uses genre to play with the exaggerated emotions on display in his shows, and he does it better than anybody I can think of.  Most of his work also has a strong sense of family, with a great mastery of the long game when unfolding relationships.  Characters on Joss Whedon shows grow, change, hurt each other, make mistakes, and act out of deep pain; and it's always well-developed and originates from a logical place.  On top of that, the way that he deals with grief and depression is as raw as it gets.  Some find his excessive need to kill characters (particularly right after they reach a state of peace and happiness in their lives) annoying, and "The Whedon Death" can be very cruel, but the lack of safety regarding the people you love to watch and be around just adds to the excitement.

Most of all, it just boils down to an intangibility factor.  I'm not even sure why he inspires such rabid fandom, but there's something deep within his writing that's so easy to get attached to.  I'm glad he's gained popularity in the movie business, where he was able to extrapolate his knack for experimentation and action-adventure in Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers, because now more of the world will be able to experience the joy of Joss Whedon.  There's a little bit of something for everyone in his work, so dive in if you haven't already.  You'll be in awe of what you find...

Monday, September 16, 2013

No really, Parenthood is one of the best dramas on television

This year, NBC struck gold with Hannibal, and everybody's been quick to call it the best drama on the network.  But in this excitement for the hot new thing, people have forgotten about Parenthood, Jason Katims' successor to the great Friday Night Lights.  Parenthood is not just the best NBC drama or the best network drama, it's one of the best dramas on television in general.  People might not readily accept this idea because of the show's name or because a cursory glance can make it seem like "that annoying show about annoying white people and their annoying problems."  It certainly doesn't have a cool hook like many of the other great dramas do either.  Nevertheless, it proceeds to quietly make its qualitative case, continually getting better every year, to the point where it was my #2 show of 2012 (ahead of the likes of cable giants such as Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Justified).

And it's that lack of a hook that's one of the most appealing things about the show to me.  Parenthood manages to avoid melodrama or any other sort of heightened emotion, instead choosing to provide an unvarnished look at family life.  Its exploration of different family dynamics and heartwarming charm has inspired other underrated shows like The Fosters and Switched at Birth, but it remains the best at balancing these elements.  The first few episodes have tonal shifts that feel slightly off, but after that it becomes perfectly modulated, fully capable of making you cry big, ugly tears in one scene and flash a giant grin in the very next one.

Of course, a family drama wouldn't work without a good family, and the Bravermans aren't just great; they're very well-constructed too.  They're like a normal American family, except much bigger, and the stretched-out ranks allow for there to be something relatable for people to find in any one of the characters.  These little groupings of the family span years and income levels, and the cross-generational, inter-familial parallels that unite them provide a backbone for the series' most potent stories.  There's alot of love to go around amongst the Bravermans, to the point where it can almost feel cultish, but the writers use this to generate wonderful little conflicts that come about when what you want contradicts with the wants and needs of others.  It's all relatively low-stakes, but Parenthood has a habit of highlighting how failures and triumphs alike seem to magnify when they involve those closest to you.

Jason Katims and the rest of the writing staff have no ambitions of rewriting the family drama playbook.  In fact, they recycle through storylines you've seen before, but find originality in the execution.  Katims is less interested in the big events that checkpoint our lives than he is in burrowing into the spaces in between, and mining beautiful moments from them.  Whenever I find myself rolling my eyes about where I anticipate the direction of a plotline going, I find myself proven wrong.  Take the arc in season 2, for instance, where Crosby sleeps with Gaby (played FNL alum, Minka Kelly), the behavioral therapist of his nephew, Max.  It's a plotline taken straight out of a lesser quality, more soapy show; but the way it fractures Adam and Crosby's relationship is so perfectly pitched that it ends up being rich, compelling drama.  

For its first two and a half seasons, the show was great, and certainly capable of short bursts of excellence -- like the aforementioned Crosby arc in season 2 -- but it started becoming transcendent television in the back half of season 3.  The writers were just firing on all cylinders at this point, tossing out stellar standalone stories ("Road Trip," the Haddie storyline in "It Is What It Is") and course-correcting problematic storylines from the first half.  Julia's Great Baby Caper was one of my least favorite things about season 3 for a long time, but it wound up being the most devastating storyline by the end.  And somehow, season 4 managed to be even better.  The Kristina cancer plot, another one that initially induced some worried sighs on my part before becoming magnificent, gave the season a stable center, and almost every arc got caught in its orbit in some way or another.  Between the back half of season 3 and the first two-thirds of season 4, 2012 was an impressive run, the kind that some shows can only hope to have, even during their creative peak.

I'm hoping that season 5, which premieres next Thursday night, can continue to work at a similarly high level.  Parenthood is a show about the small stories that spring up when you're in a family; about finally communicating with your taciturn teen, about explaining the complexities of race issues to your young child, about finally getting those Skittles in the darn vending machines at school.  While that may not be of interest to some, if it resonates with you, then Parenthood can soar to wild heights.  So catch up with the show on Neftlix if you don't already watch it.  The Braverman clan will be there to welcome you with open arms.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Has Comedy Bang! Bang! taken The Leap?

Shows -- especially comedies -- usually take a while to truly get good.  It's difficult to come out of the gate free of kinks, so the first few episodes are a feeling-out process, tinkering with the established formula until the perfect variables are set in place.  Even a show that's already good can have an uptick, where it finds another gear and ascends to the level of greatness.  This is where the concept of The Leap comes in.  Whether it comes 6 episodes in or after an entire season, when a show finally realizes its full potential, it can be an electrifying thing to watch.  A strong case can be made for Comedy Bang! Bang!, which just concluded the first half of what has been a magnificent second season, taking The Leap.

I've been a huge fan of Comedy Bang! Bang! the podcast since high school, so I was hotly anticipating the premiere of the show last year.  The first season was good, and certainly made me laugh quite a bit, yet I couldn't help but compare it to the podcast.  Aside from a few flourishes, the show didn't stray too far away from the format of its progenitor, starting off with a standard interview with somebody in the comedy world, then a visit from a character, and a game to close things out.  Unfortunately, the podcast's odd rhythm is perfectly suited for an hour-plus runtime, and many of the flaws in the first season came from trying to condense that momentum into a 22-minute episode.  Shifts from improvised dialogue to scripted bits were jarring, and many of the popular characters from the podcast had hours of backstory reduced to 4 minutes of screentime.  Most of all, the first season felt insubstantial, the kind of thing you'd thoroughly enjoy in the moment, but not think about after it was done.

Many of those edges have been smoothed out in the second season, and the show has improved in every way because of it.  Few shows reduce me to a giggling mess in the way that this season has, and it has quickly risen to the ranks of my favorite currently running comedies.  There's a better blend between script and improv, allowing for the interview segments to feel more natural.  Guests who are luminaries in the comedy world like Andy Samberg, Aziz Ansari, and Andy Richter mostly bring the laughs by playing skewed versions of themselves, but people like Anna Kendrick and Zoe Saldana have also appeared, and were unexpectedly just as great.  Characters from the podcast are still forced to condense their stories into small chunks, but it's a little more cohesive this time around.  Take last week's episode, "Bill Hader Wears a Grey Button Down Shirt & Sneakers," which featured podcast favorite, Fourvel, the murderous orphan played by Bobby Moynihan.  His segment is essentially a retread of familiar material for any listener of the podcast, but they inject life into the bit by taking the adult-sized Moynihan and shrinking him down to the proportions of a child.  It's just the kind of bizarre, hilarious thing that can only be achieved through a visual medium.

What's been the most impressive thing about this season though is how it has completely blown the doors off of the talk show format.  Like the first season, the show still parodies talk show staples like man-on-the-street and makeover segments, but this year they've been incorporating more long-form ideas that build over the course of an episode.  I've heard accusations of Comedy Bang! Bang! being anti-comedy, but in no way can those criticisms be true when there's so much comedy packed into a given episode.  The show just throws everything out there, stacking bit after bit on top of each other, and fully committing to every single one of them.  The best example of this is the season's 6th episode, "Gillian Jacobs Wears a Red Dress With Sail Boats" (yes, even the episode titles are a running joke), which plays with time, foreshadowing how the episode will end.  Over the course of the show, we get more pieces of how the story will conclude, and how all of the various characters factor into the big event that's being alluded to.  All the while, the normal show is still going on, slowly converging with the flash forwards.  It's bold, dizzying stuff, and the way that the actual conclusion upends the foreshadowing is absolutely perfect.  Even when overarching bits don't quite work, like the Tim Meadows narration in "David Cross Wears a Red Polo & Brown Shoes With Red Laces," it's all just so impressive on a conceptual level that it's hard not to cut the episode some slack.

In alot of ways I'm reminded of Nathan For You, another show from this year that felt like nothing else I've ever seen on television.  There have been other shows that have played with the talk show format, but none as gleefully as Comedy Bang! Bang! does.  Its rhythm takes a while to get used to, but once you're synced up with it, it's a loopy and hilarious experience.  This past week's episode was the midseason finale, but the show will be back on October 18th, and I can't wait to see what it does next.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Season 2 of The Legend of Korra comes out of the gate with two terrific episodes

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite shows of all-time; I think it's essentially the Star Wars of our generation.  So naturally, I was in between and excitement and extreme trepidation when I first heard the news that creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino were making a sequel set 70 years after the original show.  However, The Legend of Korra quickly justified its existence by delivering the same quality of its predecessor without peddling the same content.   In fact, the two shows display an interesting contrast in the way that they depict their worlds.  In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the characters were still children, and that show was about being at the entry point of discovering all these feelings about yourself and the world around you, whereas the teenage protagonists of The Legend of Korra are right in the middle of it.  The former explored broader, more universal themes of friendship, good & evil, and responsibility, and while it wasn't always light and fluffy, its general tone was more firmly rooted in the style of children's programming.  The latter, however, dove deep into mature and complex themes of racial and class inequality; an Occupy Movement for the Nickelodeon crowd.  Sometimes it felt like a miracle that Nickelodeon allowed the show to air at all, because it didn't shy away from the dark undercurrents of its world.  Where Avatar: the Last Airbender went out of its way to avoid death whenever possible, The Legend of Korra had no problems incorporating a murder-suicide into the story in season 1.

The two shows deviate from each other on a pure structure level as well.  Avatar had 20-episode seasons, while Korra's first season was 12 episodes, and the difference between the two boil down to the standard tradeoff between the network and cable drama models.  The 20-episode Avatar structure allowed space for characters to grow along with the story, taking breaks from the larger narrative to tell standalone tales.  Unlike many other cartoons, the "filler" episodes were as vital as the ones that were heavy on plot (listen, I love "The Fortuneteller" and "Cave of Two Lovers" -- sue me).  On the other hand, Korra benefited from the kind of intense, breathless serialization that only 12-14 episode seasons can deliver.

What we see in Korra is a world that has advanced far beyond what we saw in Avatar.  In just 70 years, a universe similar to feudal Japan has transformed into a steampunk, industrial one centered around a place called Republic City.  The progression is jarring, but Konietzko and Dimartino sell it because of their knack for detailed world-building, and you can just tell that all of the interworkings of Republic City have been fully thought out.  Not only do they fill the fringes with fascinating little details, but the world is also populated with rich characters at its center too.  The main trio of Korra, the new Avatar, and brothers Mako and Bolin, resemble the construction from Avatar: the Last Airbender, but they quickly take on their own lives in the first season.  Korra in particular is just a fantastically written character, one of my favorite protagonists on television.  She's the hero of the story, but the writers aren't afraid to bold and underline her hot-headed tendencies, and the first season featured her constantly bristling at orders from her master, Tenzin (the son of Aang from Avatar).  Couple the layered writing with some stellar voice acting and action sequences, and you've got the first season, which was one of the best of 2012.

That's not to say that the show wasn't without its flaws.  One of my biggest complaints about the construction of the show is that it gave into the urge that many prequels, sequels, and spin-offs fail to resist, in that so many characters seemed to have some kind of relation to a character from the original series.  I mentioned that Korra's master is Aang's son, which is an acceptable and logical choice, but throughout the first season you meet a handful of other characters who share genes with those you know and love from Avatar (and a few more in season 2).  A nod or two to fans of the original series is fine, but eventually the world begins to feel a bit small if it's just an elaborate family reunion.  The other problem hearkens back to the pros and cons of a cable-length season, because the first season sometimes felt like it was too rushed, particularly towards the end.  There was less of a chance to get a sense of the characters due to the forward momentum of the plot dealing with Amon and his Equalist movement, so some of the crucial moments didn't land as much as they could've.

Season 2, which premiered in an hour-long installment last night, does much in the way of answering the first complaint.  Like I said, there are still some introductions of characters who tie back to the original series, but making the arc of the season be about spirits is a smart choice if the show wants to expand its focus.  The spirit world was introduced in Avatar: the Last Airbender, but it was only briefly touched upon there.  The main focus of season 2 of Legend of Korra seems to be concerned with exploring the mythology of the spirit world, as Korra goes back to her home in the Southern Water Tribe to find out that the village has been under the constant attack of restless spirits.  Like in season 1, the major arc is a story goal, but it's constructed in such a way that it's essential to her growth as a character as well.  Although she's changed a bit from when we first met her in the pilot, Korra's natural instinct still is to attack problems with immediate action and brute force, but in order to bridge the gap between the human and spirit world, she's going to have to learn careful consideration and spirituality.  It's an interesting choice to have spirits be the obstacle for the season, as opposed to another Big Bad like in the first season.  Essentially this is like the Eastern version of man wrestling with God.  There may be corporeal adversaries along the way, but having this larger force at work in the background makes the show feel more grandiose.

It's too early to tell whether they've answered the second complaint, but these first two episodes were much better paced than anything from the first season.  Overall, "Rebel Spirits" and "The Southern Lights" was a great reintroduction to this rich and fascinating world.  The hour just felt so cohesive, almost like a single movie that reminded us of all the fleshed-out characters and nuanced relationships that exist within the show.  If there's one theme to extract from the premiere, it's the idea that the frustrations of being a teen and being the Avatar have some parallels.  When you're a teenager, you're stuck between having more freedom than you did as a child and still being trapped under the thumb of authority.  Likewise, Korra is essentially "the chosen one," yet there are so many different people trying to advise her and tell her what to do.  The conflict between what Korra wants and actually what's best for her isn't anything new, but it's a fertile well from which to draw stories.  This season's purpose is not only to lengthen the show but to also deepen it, and this central conflict has a chance of finally cashing in on the potential that was built up in the first season.  It's been gone for so long that I forgot how much I missed the show, but The Legend of Korra is back and not taking any time reminding us of its greatness.