Monday, July 31, 2017

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Degrassi: Next Class provides fun and farewells in its best season yet

I always worry about a new season of Degrassi: Next Class, because I constantly wonder whether this will be the one where its streak of quality ends and it slides into teen soap mediocrity, but I was especially worried about season four going into it.  After all, this was going to be the last season for the seniors (or Grade 12s, to use Canadian parlance) -- the first time Next Class has had to send off graduating characters.  Is the show, in its current 10-episodes-per-season incarnation, capable of sustaining this kind of arc?  Will storylines for the non-graduating characters fall by the wayside in service of wrapping things up for those who are?  How will they lay the groundwork for the show's future after parting with half the cast?  These were the questions on my mind as I queued up the premiere episode.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A postmortem on The Americans' divisive fifth season

From looking at the building adulation around The Americans, FX's simmering Cold War character drama, over the course of its first four seasons, one would think that it was essentially bulletproof.  But season five, which concluded a few weeks ago, proved that such a thing wasn't the case.  You can see the reaction to this season as evidence of just how thin a tightrope the show had been walking all along, as many took issues with this year's sense of pace and purpose, two things it always seemed to excel at.  In many ways, these grumblings are just part and parcel for series that decide on their endpoint more than a season in advance. By announcing last year that the show had been renewed for two final years, it effectively turned them into one season split into two parts.  That makes season five of The Americans similar to the first part of final seasons of shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad -- all of which received similar misgivings.

After such a propulsive and sweat-inducing fourth season, The Americans almost had no choice but to follow it up with a bit of a comedown season.  But season five seemed to take that to its extreme.  It was a season littered with anti-climaxes and half-storylines, starting from the very beginning.  First, we're introduced to a new project Philip and Elizabeth are working on to uncover America's effort to contaminate the Soviet Union's wheat supply, only for it to eventually be revealed that America is actually trying to create a strain of wheat that can withstand any infestation.  Then there was the whole Mischa business, a plot that seemed to be steadily building for a while and then petered out once he had to turn back to Russia without meeting Philip.  Not to mention the little Martha cameos or the quiet place the finale ends at.  Throughout the season, viewers were often left to wonder how all the pieces showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg were throwing out fit into the larger puzzle of the overall narrative, especially so close to the end.

So the problems that people had with season five could be boiled down to two main things: nothing happened and it was hard to discern what the point of all it was.  I take some issue with the complaint that nothing happened over the course of these 13 episodes though.  Actually, this season had quite a bit of movement, but if there was any problem with it, it was that the progression of the plot only seemed to serve to set up the show's endgame, as opposed to having meaning of its own.  That extends to the second issue as well.  I don't necessarily mind not knowing where everything is going while it happens.  The Americans has always been known to play its cards close to its chest, showing how everything comes together at the last possible moment.  It's just that this year, something like Oleg's arc in Russia wasn't really compelling from week to week.

Still, it's hard not to admire the wonderful interiority of the series, something it doubled down on even further this year.  This was a ruminative season that marinated on a variety of hefty themes, most notably the idea of family.  Whether real, surrogate, or manufactured, the family unit was seen as something that must be maintained, for its fracturing could cause the whole world to crack open.  And who can blame everyone for feeling that way?  More so than ever, The Americans is soaked in a sense of grim fatalism as characters concern themselves less with "how can we prevent this?" and more with "how long can we prolong the inevitable?"  The weariness from the grind is setting in.  It's no wonder the idea of steeling one's self was such a strong motif, from the indestructible wheat strain to the finger technique Philip and Elizabeth teach Paige to help her maintain her composure and shut out the pain.

The show is allowed to retreat inward like it did because it's still the best show around at building scenes and episodes.  The Americans lives on suggestion, calculating the perfect amount of time to let things linger, the optimal moment to shoot a meaningful glance.  The tiniest moments give you so much to chew on through the use of framing, blocking, and body language.  Even when the momentum wasn't there in season five, the craft always was.

Lately I've been thinking about how critics and the overall TV community approaches seasons like this.  There has been so much talk this year about how much prestige TV has become ossified, stuck using the same old trappings as a shorthand for quality.  And yet, there's grumbling whenever we get something that attempts to paint outside of the established lines.  It happened last year with Mr. Robot's oblique second season, it's happening a little bit with the gonzo return of Twin Peaks, and it happened with this perversely muted season of The Americans.  Television like this shouldn't automatically be celebrated.  But we would do well not to reject it as quickly as many have.