[The introduction is largely copied from previous years.]
In 2010, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.
When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.
This year's winner actually started in November of 2016, but it finished in January of 2017, so I think it counts. I'm talking about Sweet/Vicious, about which I wrote:
Sweet/Vicious is easy to summarize, for anyone who is thinking of checking it out. The problem is, the summary tells you nothing about the execution. (This can be said of many works, of course.) I haven’t recommended it to anyone, even though it just finished its first season, if for no other reason than it is built around the kinds of triggers that many people will understandably avoid. For the set-up of Sweet/Vicious is that a rape survivor and her friend become vigilantes, fighting against those who assault women.
And it’s not always a serious drama....
Sweet/Vicious is an audacious show about a topic that is hidden far too often. It is never exploitative. And while it always returns to the story of survivors, it isn’t particularly preachy.
It got terrible ratings, and was cancelled by MTV (which is where it aired). So one season is all we'll get. And Sweet/Vicious was just finding its voice. The great Mo Ryan had a lot to say about the cancellation, and I'm going to quote her a bit here.
“Sweet/Vicious” set itself apart in a very crowded TV landscape, and though it was barely promoted, it found a small but loyal audience. I grind my teeth at the thought of what kind of impression it could have made, and what kind of audience could have been built up, had MTV allocated even a little more money and promotional resources to it.
One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to thenervous system. You start watching a pilot, and a delightful feeling creeps over you: “Oh, this is good! Who made this? What is this? I want more!”
“Sweet/Vicious” was one of those shows. It wasn’t just smart, funny and able to craft engaging stories on a very low budget. It wasn’t just an excellent vehicle for its talented stars, Eliza Bennett and Taylor Dearden. It was about something....
And, perhaps to the point of the Karen Sisco Award:
“Sweet/Vicious,” handled in the right way, could have become a steady performer for the network, not to mention a media darling....
Regardless of whether you agree about the flood of questionable renewals, the fact is, it’s all too easy for shows, new or old, to get lost in the shuffle. But some shows that already made their mark deserve more life. Especially if they were just getting started.
“Sweet/Vicious” was a gem. Some savvy executive should recognize that, and do something sweet — and smart.
Like many of the previous winners of this award, Sweet/Vicious was barely recognized during its run. Terriers still has fans, and it turns up on streaming services on occasion, and while Lights Out remains little-known, star Holt McCallany is on people's minds after his co-starring role in Mindhunter. And, of course, Peggy Carter and Hayley Atwell still make cameo appearances in the Marvel world.
But I don't think Sweet/Vicious will be remembered, even as much as something like Lights Out. And that is especially sad because, as much as anything, Sweet/Vicious was a victim of bad timing. If it started in November of this year, it would be talked about all over social media. There would be arguments about whether its approach to vigilante justice was the right message for the #MeToo movement. But it would not be ignored. And I wouldn't be writing about it now as the winner of an award no one wants: a good show that was cancelled too soon.
The idea behind the Karen Sisco Award is to draw attention to these shows, so that you'll know they are worthy if you come across them down the road on streaming services.
Again, the winners:
2011: Lights Out
2016: Agent Carter
Here are a few clips from Sweet/Vicious. Trigger warnings may apply.
In his review of Physical Graffiti for Rolling Stone back in 1975, Jim Miller spent a lot of time on Jimmy Page, both his guitar playing and his producing/arranging:
The album's — and the band's — mainspring is Jimmy Page, guitarist extraordinaire....
His primary concern, both as producer and guitarist, is sound. His playing lacks the lyricism of Eric Clapton, the funk of Jimi Hendrix, the rhythmic flair of Peter Townshend; but of all the virtuoso guitarists of the Sixties, Page, along with Hendrix, has most expanded the instrument's sonic vocabulary.
He has always exhibited a studio musician's knack for functionalism. Unlike many of his peers, he rarely overplays, especially on record ...
A facile soloist, Page excels at fills, obbligatos and tags. Playing off stock riffs, he modulates sonorities, developing momentum by modifying instrumental colors. To this end, he uses a wide array of effects ... But his signature remains distortion. Avoiding "clean" timbres, Page usually pits fuzzed out overtones against a hugely recorded bottom, weaving his guitar in and out of the total mix, sometimes echoing Robert Plant's contorted screams, sometimes tunneling behind a dryly thudding drum....
Thanks to Page's production, Led Zeppelin quickly outdistanced such predecessors as Cream and the Yardbirds.... Taking his cues from old Sun and Chess records, he used reverb and echo to mold the band into a unit, always accenting the bottom (bass and drums), always aiming at the biggest possible sound.....
Physical Graffiti testifies to Page's taste and Led Zeppelin's versatility. Taken as a whole, it offers an astonishing variety of music, produced impeccably by Page.
Hey, I'm not here to argue ... all of the members of Led Zeppelin made important contributions, but as a listener who wasn't in the studio to see exactly how their records were made, I've always given extra credit to Page, for the reasons Miller mentions and more.
Miller didn't think "In the Light" quite worked.
"In the Light," one of the album's most ambitious efforts, similarly fizzles down the home stretch, although the problem here is not tedium but a fragmentary composition that never quite jells: When Page on the final release plays an ascending run intended to sound majestic, the effect is more stilted than stately.
Even here, the only band member he mentions is Page, although John Paul Jones was the person most responsible for the sound ... his synthesizer dominates. Led Zeppelin never played "In the Light" in concert, supposedly because Jones didn't feel he could properly match the synth playing on stage. (Both Page and Plant performed the song in concerts outside of Led Zeppelin.)
Let's say Miller is right that "In the Light" is fragmentary. In that case, it might be perfect as accompaniment for a movie or TV scene. And in fact, that's what made me think of it for this post, because it plays during the final scene of Season One of David Fincher's Mindhunter, the interesting Netflix series with Jonathan Groff, the great Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv. Here is part of that scene (spoilers, for those who care). The song had begun at the beginning, with Jones' synth a perfect background for the action. It picked up again at the end of the scene, as you see here. Most of the time, I get frustrated when a song is hacked up to fit what is happening on the screen. But the missing middle of "In the Light" here disposes of Miller's complaint that the song is fragmentary. The editing makes it more fragmentary, of course, but it makes sense, because it's not just a track on an album, it's the soundtrack for what we're watching.
Here is the complete "In the Light":
A sampling of the comments on YouTube:
Devon Palmer: The editing and use of this song made mindhunters ending so disturbing it was amazing.
Brian Merriman: I don't generally applaud when watching tv, but couldn't help myself on this one. Ten minutes of brilliance the equal of anything on a small or large screen in recent memory.
TwisTr71: Best execution of music fitting a scene I have ever experienced
Better Things. Season One: "Adlon is the perfect center of a show like this, and all three of the actresses who play her daughters are strong (casting of kids is often the downfall of shows with families). Definitely looking forward to Season Two." So far, so good. Season Two is getting raves for being even better than last year. I can't say I notice the difference ... it's still the same show, with the same strengths. Adlon directs every episode this season, and if it wasn't already clear, Better Things is her show. The show's family feels real, no matter if the events of a particular episode are a bit outrageous. And despite Adlon being the perfect center, she is very generous with the actresses who play her daughters. An excellent show. The most recent episode as I type, "Eulogy", was outstanding, called the season's best by many, and the show has been renewed for a third season.
Broad City. Abbi and Ilana are actually showing signs of growing up a bit, best personified by Ilana's new job, which she is actually good at. Having said that, it's still Broad City. Last year I said, "Comedies like this are never 100% perfect, but when Broad City hits, nothing compares." That still holds true. And the episode where they do mushrooms is an all-time classic. The follow up, where we meet Abbi's mom, was also wonderful.
Curb Your Enthusiasm. Nothing seems different, a few episodes into the first new season in six years. This is not where you start if you've decided to dive in, nor is it the place to give it another try if you've seen it before and found it wanting. But fans are happy, I imagine. Perhaps it's just a matter of degree, but at times Larry seems even more cruel than ever.
The Deuce. Some typical David Simon tics: lots of characters, most of whom get plenty of screen time, and a slow, gradual movement into the milieu of the show. Also some great acting and writing. Another winner from Simon.
Mr. Robot. The Season Three premiere featured a monologue by Elliot that will be watched long after the series has died. A sample:
I can stand here and blame Evil Corp and every conglomerate out there for taking advantage of us, and I can blame the FBI, NSA and CIA for letting them get away with it, blame all the world leaders for aiding and abetting them, and blame Adam Smith for inventing modern day capitalism in the first fucking place, and blame money for dividing us, and blame us for letting it — but none of that's true. The truth is, I'm the one to blame. I'm the problem. This was my fault. All of it. I did this. Fuck me.
Outlander. The first several episodes kept Claire and Jamie apart, and the show is always better when they are together. But the wait was worth it ... their reunion episode, "A. Malcolm", made up for lost time while reminding us once again of how much the male gaze is absent on this show.
The Strain. Done after 4 seasons and 46 episodes. Four seasons may be just right ... The Strain never got too crappy, although I'd argue it also never got great. But it was good enough for four seasons, thanks in part to a cast that was generally solid (although Zach was always irritating, I think he was written that way).
Supergirl. I bring this up because the new season has just begun. I don't know why I still watch, which isn't to say it's a bad series, just that it's nothing special and there are other things to watch. They have done a good job with the lesbian relationship.
The Tick. Half a dozen episodes in what is either a truncated first season, or the first half of a longer season. Every version of The Tick has its moments, and this one is a bit darker as it deals with Arthur's semi-traumatic real life. It's OK, but my wife likes it more than I do, as she always has.
If you are looking for a show to binge, I'd go with Better Things, since there is still a reasonable number of episodes. Besides that, the best shows on the above list include Broad City, Mr. Robot, and Outlander, with The Deuce likely to join them.
Ten years tonight, we went to a public showing of Once More, With Feeling. In the spirit of "I'm in Spain, right now", I'll post some excerpts from what I wrote at the time.
We went in a bit before midnight, got some popcorn, and were given our “goodie bag” (Sara, I got an extra for you!). In the bag was: a kazoo (I forget what it was for), bubbles (for Dawn’s ballet), vampire teeth (no reason, they just thought we should have some), a finger puppet (so we could hold it in the air and move it across the sky, while singing the “Grrrr Arrgh” part), and one of those poppers that shoot streamers and make the air smell like cap pistols have gone off (reason to be explain in a bit). Robin actually got half-a-dozen of the poppers, for no reason we could figure outside of luck. ...
The crowd had a great time, although audience participation wasn't as goofy as I'd expected. I think this might have been because there was a group acting out the scenes on stage in front of the screen, Rocky Horror-style, which was entertaining but may have encouraged us to watch more than act out ourselves. The highlight of this came in the notorious "Under Your Spell," the video to which I linked yesterday. This is the song Tara sings about her love for Willow, which concludes with Willow off-screen, apparently performing some juicy acts between Tara's legs. The actresses playing the two onstage had quite a lot of fun showing us what didn't make it to the screen, as "Willow" pulled one piece of undergarment after another from "Tara" to wild screams of delight from the crowd. At the precise moment (can't say "climax," that's kinda the point) when the screen cut away from Tara, as instructed, we all shot off our poppers. Streamers filled the air as we celebrated Tara's sweet release.
The rest of the episode was more of the same, people acting out the parts on stage, us in the audience singing along. Whenever Dawn said anything, we all yelled out "SHUT UP, DAWN!" The highlights from the onstage actors were what you'd expect, the hottest numbers from the "real" version: Anya's heavy-metal "Bunnies" interlude and her dance with Xander in the middle of "I'll Never Tell," Buffy trying to dance herself to self-immolation in "Something to Sing About."
The latter song was in some ways the most interesting of the night. Despite the aggressively campy nature of the sing-a-long, when "Something to Sing About" arrived, I was sucked in as I always am. Sarah Michelle Gellar isn't a singer, not the way Anthony Head is, or Amber Benson or James Marsters or the surprising Emma Caulfield. She can carry a tune, but her flat voice lacks projection, which makes Buffy more hesitant-sounding in this episode than is usual. But for this big number, Gellar uses that flatness to great effect, forcing us to listen carefully to her big revelation, that her friends had pulled her out of heaven when they brought her back to life. I'm just a sucker for that moment, or rather, moments: the way she talk-sings "I think I was in heaven," the looks on the faces of the Scoobies as they realize the import of what she has just stated, the death-wish dance that follows, Spike the vampire stopping her to sing "Life’s not a song, life isn’t bliss, life is just this, it’s living.... You have to go on living, so one of us is living." I always get choked up, which isn't quite the point at 2 in the morning at a goofy sing-a-long.
I said before I even saw the pilot that The Deuce was already my favorite show. This was based on the involvement of David Simon. When you have a serious attachment to someone's work, you'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Ronald D. Moore convinced me with Battlestar Galactica that he was someone to watch. I watched Caprica for its short run. I watched the first season of Helix, although Moore's involvement turned out to be minimal. Finally, Moore had another success with Outlander, which begins its third season tonight. The period between Galactica and Outlander was not very fruitful for fans of Moore, but now we've been rewarded with two excellent series.
So, given that David Simon was the creator of my #1 show, The Wire, and has been a driving force behind The Corner, Generation Kill, Treme, and Show Me a Hero, I'm going to cut Simon a lot of slack with The Deuce.
The pilot got my attention, to be sure. Like most pilots, it is clearly just the beginning of the world building, which is one reason it helps if you're already inclined to go with what the creator is offering. (The Wire was nearly incomprehensible at first.) I knew I liked it, I could see potential, critics were raving, and I was a happy fellow.
But then a friend, whose critical acumen I respect, ripped the pilot to shreds, calling it awful. I don't want to go overboard ... this was a four-sentence Facebook post, and thus lacked a detailed analysis. But it made me question my own response to the show.
So I watched it again, looking for the things my friend had noted. Mostly, he complained about the stereotypical presentation of 1971 New York City: heart-of-gold whores, dumb whores, harmless johns, menacing black pimps.
And, watching a second time, I saw some of this ... I missed out on the prostitute with a heart of gold, but most of the other stuff does indeed turn up. But I trust Simon. He said, "We’re interested in what it means when profit is the primary metric for what we call society. In that sense, this story is intended as neither prurient nor puritan. It’s about a product, and those human beings who created, sold, profited from and suffered with that product." I think this can co-exist with the elements my friend described, although I admit it's going to be a fine line, and time may prove me wrong.
For now, there are a number of interesting characters, not all of them nice. I didn't get to New York City until 1982, but the representation of 1971 NYC seems legit to me. Your tolerance for James Franco will be put to the test, as he plays identical twins who come off as variants of Charlie and Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. Franco is excellent as the Charlie-Twin, while the Johnny Boy-Twin is annoying (admittedly, he is supposed to be). The talent behind the camera is also solid, especially Michelle MacLaren, who has directed episodes of many shows I like, including recent favorites like The Leftovers and Westworld.
I can't guarantee that you'll love The Deuce. My friend is a good example. But I'd give it a try, based on Simon's track record, if nothing else.
For all the fighting that goes on between the various pretenders to the throne, one thing rises above all else: dragons. Daenerys has them. Finally, in "The Spoils of War", she unleashed her dragons, demonstrating that while there are many pretenders, there is only one Mother of Dragons.
There are many great series in this era of Peak TV, so many that even the critics have admitted they can't watch them all. There have always been great series that slipped through the cracks, but especially now, amidst so much competition, shows need something that makes them stand out. There are so many pretenders to the top of the list of Peak TV. But only one show has dragons: Game of Thrones.
Oh, there are other shows with fantastical beings. But the dragons of GoT have HBO money behind them, so they are more impressive than anyone else's. Well, money, and the talent behind the cameras that makes this a great show.
For six seasons, the dragons were anticipated more than they were seen in action. Just as winter was always coming, so, too, the dragons were always ready for action. The wait was almost unbearable. But for six seasons, GoT managed to give us enough spectacle, combined with wonderful acting and plots that were involving, albeit convoluted.
Game of Thrones has never lacked for great acting and impressive spectacle. But now that the dragons have shown their power on the battlefield, the series is rather like the Lannisters' army: after the "Loot Train Attack", there is very little to be done.
And so we get nonsense like the relationship between Sansa and Arya. Arya in particular acts in ways that don't match what we've learned about her. That the sisters worked together to defeated Littlefinger was fun, but it was also just an easy way to excuse the poor character development. "Oh, don't complain about Arya, things were happening that you didn't see." More than once I was reminded of The L Word, which regularly threw continuity to the winds so that characters could change, unbelievably, so new narratives would make sense in their moment.
This doesn't bother me as much as it usually does. As I told my son some years ago, half of the time I don't know what is going on, but the individual scenes win me over, and the big scenes are always worth it. My relationship to the overarching narratives of Game of Thrones is reflected in the opening credits. Each week, we move over a map intended to put the Houses in place, and apparently, these credits will change to reflect happenings in the plot. Honestly, though, I have never understood those credits. I don't recognize the Houses by the buildings on the map, I don't notice whatever changes might have happened ... the only things I get from the credits are that GoT has one of the all-time best theme songs, and that I am confused.
When I care about the characters, I have something to enjoy between the spectacular moments. But, for the main characters, I find myself caring less. Cersei is Cersei, Jon Snow is Jon Snow, Bran irritates the shit out of me. The palace intrigues are supposed to keep us going from week to week and season to season, but I'm mostly tired of them now. Which means the spectacle is, more than ever, what I like best.
This is a reductionist view of my responses to the show. I still love many of the characters. They just tend to be secondary characters: Bronn, Brienne of Tarth, Hodor RIP, The Hound, Olenna RIP. Some of my all-time favorite Game of Thrones scenes came when Brienne and Jaime traveled together. And I am not immune to the plot shenanigans.
But dragons. Now one of the dragons is a Bad Guy, which should be fun. But at this point, I don't really care who sits on the Iron Throne. I don't care that Khaleesi and Jon Snow finally did it ... those two have maybe half the intensity that Jon Snow had with Ygritte, who always told him he knew nothing.
Game of Thrones has rightfully secured its place as one of the central series of its time. I have rated it highly in the past. But I don't think it has ever been the best show on television, and Season Seven did nothing to change my opinion. Grade for "The Spoils of War": A+. Grade for Season Seven: A-.
I gave Season One of Orphan Black a B+, but I also singled out star Tatiana Maslany, giving her personally an A. If you managed to miss Orphan Black over the past four years, it's about a group of clones, with the trick being all of them are played by Maslany. I wrote:
There have been many multiple personality roles over the years: Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve, Sally Field in Sybil, Toni Collette in United States of Tara. And all of those actresses won awards for their work. But Maslany has a different task here. She isn’t playing one person with multiple personalities, she is playing multiple people with one personality each. And she pulls it off magnificently....
It gets even more complicated at times. Maslany (who is Canadian) plays Sarah (who is British) pretending to be Beth (Canadian). Alison (Canadian soccer mom) pretends to be Sarah (British petty thief). Helena (Ukranian) pretends to be Sarah. In each case, you know who is behind the mask. It’s like watching Face/Off, with Maslany in both the Nic Cage and John Travolta roles. Most of the time, Maslany is portraying one character, and she inhabits each one. It’s not just the wigs or physical tics … it’s as if you’re watching seven different actresses.
I gave Season Two an A-, but I didn't like it as much. The plot became convoluted in ways that made me realize I mostly didn't care. But Maslany was so good, I couldn't get enough. Eventually, she got her Emmy ... the year she won, she beat out an impressive list of actresses (Claire Danes, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Keri Russell, and Robin Wright).
Orphan Black lasted five seasons, ending this past weekend. While I lost interest in the overall plot arc, I never quit watching the show, and for those who did get into the mythology of the clones, I suspect five seasons was just right. The finale itself was satisfying. Many worse shows have run for far more than five seasons ... kudos to Orphan Black both for making it through five years and for quitting while they were ahead.
Over the years, my obsession with Maslany's performance only grew. Everyone joked about how she should have won an Emmy for every clone she played (I think the number was 7 at the time). And it was impressive, especially when a combination of special effects trickery and the judicious use of doubles for Maslany allowed for more than one clone on the screen at the same time.
But what was truly remarkable was the way in which, as we got to know the various clones of the years, as they became clear individuals, Maslany's skills disappeared. People would say they forgot she was playing multiple roles, but it was bigger than that sounds. I have a tendency to wonder about the heights of actors, and I look it up while I'm watching. So I know that this actress is 5'7" and that actor is 5'10". I also know that Tatiana Maslany is 5'4". But I lost count of the number of times I'd see, say, Maslany-as-Sarah interacting with Maslany-as-Cosima and want to look up who was taller, the actress playing Sarah or the actress playing Cosima. I said Maslany's skills disappeared, but that's not quite accurate. What happened was she was so perfect in creating these various characters that you really did forget they were all her.
I imagine everyone had their favorite clone. Mine was Helena:
While looking back at Orphan Black, I can't help but think of another series I obsess about even more, Sense8. In Orphan Black, you have sisters connected by their clone status. The sensates of Sense8 are different, though. Their connection is psychic, for lack of a better word. And perhaps because they are all played by different actors, their scenes together are emotionally powerful in ways the "tricky" scenes of multiple Maslanys are not. It's mostly apples and oranges, though.
Ultimately, I think I had it right from the beginning. Grade for series: B+. Grade for Tatiana Maslany: A.
Nelsan Ellis died. Probably best known for his turn as Lafayette in True Blood, Ellis always captured the attention of the audience, and based on the outpouring of sentiment, he was a beloved co-worker as well. My sister posted, "I don't watch True Blood, but I really enjoyed him in Elementary." Her phrasing interested me. True Blood ended its 7-season run on HBO three years ago. The retired English professor in me thought, "you should have written 'I didn't watch True Blood'", because the series now exists only in the past.
But I'm wrong. In the world of streaming, no series exists only in the past. If, for instance, you wanted to watch all 80 episodes of True Blood for the first time, you could do that.
Tim Goodman, who over the years has become perhaps our best writer on the business of television, wrote recently about a "staycation" where he did little besides catching up on the TV series he had gotten behind on. Peak TV has assured that viewers will always be behind, because there is so much good stuff to watch. More and more, even TV critics, who are paid to watch stuff, are always behind. There is too much good stuff. Goodman called it "the critic's conundrum ... adjusting to a world where it was frustratingly impossible to watch every (scripted) thing after being able to do just that several seasons prior".
He came to this conclusion:
[W]riting about television in this new world order has an evergreen aspect to it. Yes, there will still be post-mortems from series creators posted right after the finales are over. People who are caught up can read those. And they will still be there, searchable, for whenever everybody else finishes ...
[T]hat opens up an opportunity for change — for a mixture of coverage that is there if you finished on time but will also be there — fresh for you — not because you had to search for it a couple weeks later, but because more critics will be writing and revisiting series on a delayed basis, perhaps writing something more meaningful because they've actually had time to think about it.
This business is changing across the board. As for criticism, I think it's an exciting time to be more thoughtful, brought about by an industry-wide inability to be up to date on everything. And I think there's a huge audience for that, composed of people equally delayed in their viewing because they've been overwhelmed and otherwise busy.
I often write about television, just as I often write about movies. Many/most of those movies are older (7 of the last 10 are from the 20th century). I don't worry that no one is interested in my take on these old films ... I have no illusions about the size of the audience for this blog, but I don't mind if that limited audience is forced to read what I have to say about a movie from the 1950s. Yet when I have written about television, I feel the need to be current. Who wants to read what I'm thinking about an old TV series?
It's not just old, retired series, either. It's the new ones. If I'm not completely caught up, I don't want to write about them. But if I don't get to them until long past their original showing, I assume no one cares what I write.
There is also the hope that if I like something, if I praise something, it might convince a reader to give it a try. But in my old-school mind, this means getting them to watch each episode as it airs. And no one watches TV like that any more.
What I take from Goodman's piece is that I need to get over it. If I'm going to write about Stalag 17 (1953), then there is no reason I can't write about a TV series that recently ended a season.
And so ... GLOW. GLOW is a Netflix series, which says something right from the start. The day the first episode premieres, all of the season's episodes become available. If you have five hours to spare, you can watch the entire first season of GLOW in one day. I am not much of a binger, so I'm more likely to finish a season in ten days than in one day. In this case, it took me about two weeks, by which time there were all sorts of online reviews of the whole season. It feels too late to add my two cents worth. But what the heck.
GLOW comes to us from Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who worked together on Nurse Jackie. Mensch also worked on Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, series from Jenji Kohan. Kohan is an executive producer for GLOW, and it has a real Orange flavor to it: big, diverse cast of women, with lesser-known actors (the biggest names are Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and Marc Maron), and a setup that seems to invite cheese (women's prisons, women's rassling).
I think the achievements of GLOW in its first season might be missed. Yes, it is cheesy. But over the course of ten episodes and five hours, we get a decent idea of who all of those women are. Brie is the "star", but the series doesn't revolve around her ... it revolves around the group. And if you think that group won't grow on you, think again. It's actually a fairly standard concept for sports movies and series, the coming together of a bunch of castoffs into a coherent group whose characters begin to bond and identify with each other. But standard or not, GLOW pulls it off ... it's very entertaining and often funny, but it also works as a character study.
And as we watch the first live GLOW wrestling card at the end of the season, we realize that we care, just as we might in a movie where Mickey and Judy put on a show. We care about the characters ... even more surprising, we care about what happens in the ring.
GLOW is not perfect. It deals with stereotypes ... it's a wrestling show, based on an actual show, set in the mid-80s and featuring women who, no matter their backgrounds, become simpler caricatures in the ring: Liberty Belle (all-American), Machu Picchu (pseudo-Mexican), Beirut the Mad Bomber, the black woman who wrestles as The Welfare Queen, the Cambodian immigrant who becomes Fortune Cookie. Brie, who plays a barely-employed actress, works out her own character: Zoya the Destroya from the Soviet Union, who feuds with Liberty Belle. Brie's Russian accent is hilariously bad, as it is supposed to be. Anyway, GLOW walks the thin line between making a point about stereotypes and exploiting those stereotypes, and it doesn't always fall on the right side.
I was surprised at how emotional I got at the end of the season. I look forward to more.
In the first scene of The Leftovers, a busy mom’s baby disappears from its car seat. A young boy’s dad disappears while pushing a shopping cart. A speeding car (driverless?) crashes into another car. We hear a cacophony of voices on the 911 line. Then silence, and on the screen we read “THREE YEARS LATER”.
From the beginning, a few things were apparent, if not quite clear. As the title suggested, The Leftovers wasn’t going to be a series about the people who were taken in a rapture-like event (2% of the world’s population, it is later explained). Instead, it would be about the 98% of the people who were left behind. Also, while it wasn’t clear from what was on the screen, the series’ co-creator, Damon Lindelof (working with Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel on which the show is based), made sure to tell anyone who would listen that this new series wasn’t going to be a guessing game about what happened that day three years ago. Lindelof was co-creator of Lost, a series that spent six seasons making us guess what the hell was going on and then in the end didn’t answer the question clearly enough for many viewers. At the end of three seasons of The Leftovers, it’s possible to claim that the Departure was just a MacGuffin.
Which leaves the question, what, if anything, was The Leftovers about? For all of the surprises the narrative showed us, the answer isn’t found in a list of “what happened next”. I was reminded of Battlestar Galactica, a genre show with a simple basic storyline (humans create robots to serve them, robots rebel). Sure, BSG was “about” the battle between humans and cylons. But its reach was so great, so ambitious, that a mere description of the storyline was inadequate. The series was about what it means to be human, it was about the role of the military in a time of crisis, it was about politics, it was about religion, and yes, it was also a space opera. Similarly, The Leftovers is about our place in the universe, our relationship to religion/god, and, over everything, about grief.
The plot was often so loopy you needed a notepad to keep up. Maureen Ryan, who had some of the best writing on the series (including one piece I’ll get to later), began a review of one episode as follows:
For my own amusement, I sometimes imagine describing individual episodes of “The Leftovers” to people who’ve never seen the show.
Let’s try it with this installment, shall we?
“A former sheriff from a small town in New York is in Australia, where his father has become convinced of the existence of a song that will stop the planet from being engulfed in a world-ending flood. The father drowns his son, and the son, Kevin, travels to an alternate realm that he has visited before, where he met God, did karaoke, and killed a woman who had been appearing to him in his ‘real’ life. When Kevin enters this realm again, he is both an assassin (as he was the first time he went there), and also the President of the United States, who was elected on a platform of wearing all-white clothes, ending marriage and engaging in the total destruction of basically everything.
“The woman he met and killed the first time through is there; she is the Secretary of Defense and she wants him to launch the nukes that will kill everyone. Another person he knew from his ‘real’ life is there — she’s the Vice President — and she tries to stop the launch from happening, and the VP also helps him find the room that will allow him to communicate with the Prime Minister of Australia. The Prime Minister, Christopher Sunday, may know the crucial song Kevin needs, and despite the fact that she helps him, Kevin kills the Vice President.
“By the way, the ‘real’ Kevin can occupy the body of either Kevin — the President or the assassin — and he switches back and forth between them by looking at reflective surfaces. Eventually there’s a showdown between the Kevins, with the Secretary of Defense urging Kevin to launch the nukes, and he does that after killing one of his selves. Oh, and God is giving Kevin instructions part of the time, and a romance novel one of the Kevins wrote — which was hidden behind a White House portrait of Millard Fillmore — ends up figuring pretty prominently in the whole thing.”
It was fun to watch stuff like this. But the crucial moment in the episode came from the simple act of Kevin nuking the world. For he had used his ... what, ability? ... ability to move back and forth between realms (by dying in the “real” world) to avoid dealing with the complications of life (in the “real” world). It is an enormous step for Kevin to finally cut off access to the “other world” to which he would escape.
You could get hung up on how all of this works ... Ryan gets a lot of humor out of a simple plot description. But you can also avoid the MacGuffin. It’s not about trips to alternate worlds, it’s about a troubled, depressed man trying to access his place in the world, trying to figure out if it is possible for him to be a part of that world, to live.
If this all sounds too depressing to watch, well, most people think the first season was too depressing, but that things changed after that. To be honest, I thought they were exaggerating how Season One came across, but then I looked at what I’d written at the time: “The Leftovers is one of the most relentlessly depressing shows ever made.”
All of which might help you understand how surprised I was in a good way that the series offered what could be perceived as a happy ending. Not a happy ending that explained the Departure, or made everything turn out great for everyone, but an ending with two survivors finally understanding each other, with a life they will now live together.
After Season Two, I wrote, “What makes it so good? The way it looks so closely at how events affect the various characters ... this is part of why it is an uncomfortable series, pain and guilt and depression aren’t comfortable. It has just enough magical elements to keep us on our toes. And there are so many actors doing such great jobs.” This pretty much describes Season Three as well, but where before, I singled out Justin Theroux, now it’s time to give Carrie Coon her due.
Before The Leftovers, I had never heard of Carrie Coon. Now, she’s everywhere (currently starring in Fargo). And she is so amazing, it’s almost impossible to believe we didn’t already know her. Coon, and her character Nora Durst, goes on arguably the greatest journey of everyone. Nora sneaks up on us ... you wouldn’t know in the first episodes that she was a particularly important character (she is the anti-MacGuffin). She is noteworthy mainly because while everyone seems to have lost someone, she has lost her entire family. She would seem to have more reason to grieve than others. But she is stoic. Then, in an episode in the middle of Season One, she hires a prostitute to shoot her while Nora wears a bulletproof vest. She is alive only when she feels pain.
Over the course of the series, Nora as a character takes on more importance, and much of this is thanks to Coon. You can imagine the people behind the show thinking, “This woman is incredible, we have to give her more to do.” She never fails. For this reason among many, it is only appropriate that she gives the long monologue that closes the series. The close-ups are so powerful (props to Mimi Leder, who directed the finale and many other episodes).
The crucial lines are “I believe you” and “I’m here”. It’s not a case of what is true, of whether Nora is “explaining” the Departure. It’s a case of finding someone willing to believe that your world as you experience it is real. And for all of the metaphysical aspects of The Leftovers, it ends with something concrete: “I’m here.”
Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning one of the great pieces of criticism I have ever read. Check that ... great pieces of writing. Mo Ryan, one of our most reliably excellent TV critics, wrote a long and very personal essay.
Whatever our damage, we all just want to be known, to be seen unflinchingly — and maybe even compassionately — no matter how many worlds we inhabit or places we hide. Human beings can find those bonds — those momentary, subatomic collisions — in the most unlikely places: At the bottom of a well, at a dinner table, on a bridge in Texas, on a Tasmanian sex boat.
If we’re lucky, our shaggy, spectacular, evolving, terrible selves are recognized in this life, once in a while. Maybe even all at once — the dream is for all of our quantum locations to be spotted. What if, for the briefest span of time, an observer could pause the hurtling energy of the universe and pin down every single place and time in which we exist? Everything seen, mapped, understood.
I have had some moments like that. More than a few courtesy of an HBO drama featuring an orgy. (I know.)
Those flashes of recognition are not just enough. They are everything.
I wish I didn’t identify with Nora Durst so much, some days. Because Carrie Coon is such a great actress, and because this show is working on such an enormously accomplished level, Nora’s heroic effort to seem normal slays me. It’s perfect, it’s wrenchingly real, it’s a meteor screaming across the sky, one that I can see from every plane of existence.
In flashes, in small moments, Carrie shows you just how monumentally difficult it has always been for Nora to go through the motions, to get through the day, to tell herself that everything is more or less OK. She’s got this.
No one sees the strain, the gears working at capacity, the levers and pistons giving off steam, the boiler close to exploding. But it’s in her eyes; even when she’s silent, she crackles with ropey, alert energy. It’s so much damn work to live, much less to care. Nora can’t stop, she won’t stop, she’s afraid to stop. She can’t afford to know what happens if she does.
For years after the Departure, she kept going, because she didn’t have a choice. Did she?
Actually, for a long time, she chose a lie. I get it.
What monster would deny Nora her lies? That she loves (loved?) Kevin, that she could survive losing her family, that she could find a new career and reasons to keep living, and that it would be OK. Sometimes you fake it ’til you make it, and who’s to say she wouldn’t have made it, if she believed hard enough, if she tried hard enough, if she just endured?
I’ve had people tell me they like when I assign grades to shows. I’m not sure why I often resist this ... I have no problem attaching number rankings to movies. In the case of The Leftovers, the question of ranking is surprising, beyond the fact that rankings are silly. Well, I gave Season One of The Leftovers an A. I gave Season Two of The Leftovers an A, and gave the season finale an A+. And now I’m repeating myself: grade for Season Three, A, grade for series finale, A+. Grade for series? If every season is an A, and the season finales are A+, then it’s safe to say, we’re talking about a really good series. I’m not prepared to say anything beyond that. But I am as surprised as anyone that over the course of three seasons, The Leftovers became a legitimate candidate for what Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz call “The Inner Circle”.
I didn’t expect this post. I didn’t expect that Sense8 would already belong in the “Throwback” category.
The first time I wrote about Sense8, I connected it to the feeling I got experiencing Pink in concert performing “What’s Up?” I quoted from an earlier post about Pink:
No matter how corny the song, or Pink's delivery of the same, it's quite a moment when all those youngsters throw the peace sign in the air and sing "hey hey hey hey, what's going on?" In fact, it's this element of pop community that I like best about Pink concerts ... So now Pink sings that song as if she's known it all her life, and based on the voices in the Fillmore who sang every word, her audience has known it all their lives as well, and it's a great pop moment that reflects the optimism of the young just as other Pink songs reflect their sadness. The song indeed no longer belongs to Linda Perry, it belongs to Pink and the fans who know and sing all the words.
When I see the characters in Sense8 merging, I experience the most beautiful community of them all, one that results from the blending of the eight into one. It is as if my long-ago dreams are manifested on my television screen.
When I wrote those words about Pink, I was reeling from the news that Sleater-Kinney was going on “indefinite hiatus”. As the years approached a decade, “indefinite” seemed like a tease.
After 23 episodes, 16 cities and 13 countries, the story of the Sense8 cluster is coming to an end ... It is everything we and the fans dreamed it would be: bold, emotional, stunning, kick ass, and outright unforgettable. Never has there been a more truly global show with an equally diverse and international cast and crew, which is only mirrored by the connected community of deeply passionate fans all around the world.