The last two episodes of Game of Thrones, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" from last week and "The Long Night" from last night, will be remembered for different reasons. Both episodes worked as culminations of the last eight years of watching. "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" draws its power from the ways we have come to know the characters over the years. "The Long Night" ended the part of the saga that began in the first scene of the first episode, when we met the White Walkers. Some complained about "Seven Kingdoms" because "nothing happens", which translates to "where was the action?" Meanwhile, "The Long Knight" was basically one long, epic battle. Game of Thrones has always been about both character and action (and sex) ... perhaps it's appropriate that, taken together, these two episodes cover all the ground.
Still, it seemed to me that the episodes foregrounded the way different people in the audience expect different things from the series. At best, the action fans tolerated "Seven Kingdoms" because they knew of the big battle to come. They would feel cheated, though, if the show went multiple episodes without some action of some sort. People like me enjoy action scenes, but absent interesting characters, the action would get old fast, and I found "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" to be one of the finest episodes in the show's run. Many pairings of characters came to resolution in "Seven Kingdoms", resolution that didn't rely solely on "let's kill some White Walkers". This may be the best moment ever in a series of best moments:
Without trying very hard, you can find reactions to "The Long Night", most of which are about how dark the episode was. For once, "dark" doesn't refer to the tone of the series, but to something else, which Dave Itzkoff summarized perfectly, tweeting "just an incredible episode so far" and adding this screen capture:
Meanwhile, I'll tip toe around spoilers, and just say that in a crucial scene involving Arya, I was reminded of something I wrote about Avengers: Endgame:
Captain Marvel kicked some serious ass, which resulted in some screenplay chicanery ... early on, she explains that there is so much trouble in the universe that she has to cover a lot of ground. Thus, she disappears for a good part of the movie, only returning when she is needed to kick ass. If she had stuck around at the beginning, the movie might have been half as long.
I'm not saying I wish Game of Thrones had only lasted for four seasons, and like many, I find Arya to be one of the best characters on the show. Her character arc over the years has been well-done, and her big moment in "The Long Night" is appropriate. But, as with Captain Marvel and Endgame, I couldn't help wondering why I sat through 80 minutes of barely-visible action when matters could apparently have been settled in far less time.
OK, I've got to stop. Alan Sepinwall started a Twitter thread listing the ten best TV characters of the last 20 years. Which was interesting, but he's been posting replies to his own thread, each one adding another 10 to the list, and for all I know he's going to keep adding until we've all gone to bed. Plus, there's an unstated but eventually obvious note: all of his suggested best are female characters. So, just looking at the ones he has posted as of the time of this writing, working off the top of my head without coming up with any choices of my own because this is a lazy post, here are my choices for the ten best female TV characters of the last 20 years that Alan has listed so far ... you'll note I cheated because I came up with 12, so I combined two pairs from the same show. The order is semi-random. And yes, I'm sure I've left out plenty of good ones.
Laura Roslin/Kara Thrace
And an honorable mention, since I didn't see them, at least not yet, on Alan's lists ... Clexa:
In the end, Broad City mattered so much more than we could have expected when it began.
It was always a comedy, full of what were, to cite the title of one of the last episodes, "shenanigans". The shenanigans were what you told your friends about the day after an episode ... and after 49 episodes (not including the web series), there were plenty of them: trying and failing to see Lil Wayne, Abbi hallucinating a giant Bingo Bronson stuffed toy, Abbi filling in for Ilana at the latter's food co-op, the pegging episode. And Broad City always made use of guest stars playing themselves in delightfully off-center ways: a hard-partying Kelly Ripa, Hillary Clinton as Hillary Clinton, a well-endowed basketball star Blake Griffin, Shania Twain getting a workout. Not to mention the perfect casting of Susie Essman as Ilana's mom, and Alia Shawkat as Ilana's doppelganger. But even when there was stunt casting, Broad City's center was Abbi and Ilana.
And in the final two seasons, the series became arguably less funny, with a tone that wasn't exactly serious, but which showed more of how the real world tried to impinge on the women's friendship. This last season in particular sees Abbi and Ilana faced with growing up. It's not that their younger selves were exposed as trivial, far from it, but the characters must move on, just as the real-life Abbi and Ilana have more projects on which to work, together and separately. The final season matters more because of the first four seasons, because the friendship of Abbi and Ilana was so accurate and imperfect and loyal that our knowledge that the series was ending, and the way the show itself dealt with this ending, was heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure.
One reason their connection was so strong was because they accepted each other's quirks, they had no boundaries, neither of them was perfect, which made their friendship seem more perfect. In the final episode, Glazer and Jacobson create a situation that is believable and excruciating, just as it would be in real life. But, as the final shot demonstrates, not only does the world go on, but the world is filled with best friends living lives together, unbeknownst to the world at large.
Myles McNutt has been recapping Shameless for The AV Club for the last four seasons ... he may have been doing it elsewhere before that, I've been reading Myles seemingly forever, I think he was still a grad student when I started, he's now a professor at Old Dominion. He has been the most reliable writer regarding the show for some time, and he's been frustrated with Shameless for a long time. Here is how he described the series after the Season Six premiere, which marked McNutt's debut for AV Club:
But unlike a family sitcom like The Middle, the stakes are high on Shameless. In this sense, it’s a distinct televisual artifact, unlike any of the premium—or even basic—cable shows around it. It is at its core a family “soapcom,” adopting the dense serialization and action/consequence plotting of soap operas but within a more tightly focused character structure seen in sitcoms. The “plot” as it were rarely extends beyond individual situations, and is almost always driven by characters and their relationships. It’s created one of my most dysfunctional television viewing experiences, as I find myself wanting to spend time with the Gallaghers like they’re a sitcom family, whilst simultaneously spending entire episodes watching through my fingers as they flirt with tragedy at every turn.
McNutt is referring in part to the claim (by Showtime and by show honcho John Wells) that Shameless is, at its core, a comedy. McNutt, rightly, says that is nonsense. This season he has stated more than once that Wells doesn't understand his show's strengths and weaknesses the way, well, Myles McNutt does. Since I agree with Myles, I've found his writing invaluable over the years as Shameless has fallen from its heights, much like virtually every Showtime series. Here are some of the things I've said.
Shameless is a character study, and one reason Season Four was the best yet is that we know these characters, but they are still evolving, so we see them in more depth. And their circumstances change. From the beginning, Shameless promised to be a show about the lower classes that felt real even as the plot got silly. As Paul Abbott, who created the U.K. original, said, “It’s not blue collar; it’s no collar.” The essential core of Shameless is the extended Gallagher family, and again, it’s the combination of deep characters and their interesting evolution that carries the core.
Showtime always lets their shows run for too long. That would seem to be a problem here, but somehow, Shameless is still very good. The changes in the characters over the years are believable (at least within the cockeyed world of the show), Emmy Rossum deserved more than one of those awards named after her, and I’m glad it’s still on. Oddly, the least-interesting character is the one played by William H. Macy, the de facto star. Macy is excellent, his character is not.
Shameless has never been a comedy, despite the many funny scenes over the years. And William H. Macy gets Emmy nominations every year, while Emmy Rossum has never gotten even one for playing Fiona. Yet Macy plays Frank, the least-interesting character on the show, a character that should have been dumped many seasons ago.
Season 9 has too much Frank, as have too many recent seasons. Meanwhile, it seems like the writers no longer know what to do with Fiona. I don't blame Rossum for announcing she is leaving the show.
Shameless has been on a downward spiral for a long time, now. It took longer than usual for a Showtime series, but it's barely worth watching now. I'm sticking with it until the end of the season ... I feel I owe it to Rossum. But it's a shadow of its former excellence.
As can be seen, I loved the show for a long time, and was still optimistic as recently as Season 7. But it's been a downhill slide ever since, and the only reason I've kept watching is to see Emmy Rossum's final episodes. Rossum is moving on, and her character has been written out of the show ... the last we see her, she is on her first plane ride, going who knows where. The idea that the show can continue without Rossum is delusional, although it still has a following, and Showtime isn't going to let a popular show exit until it has drained everything. But then, Rossum has always taken a back seat to William H. Macy. It's not his fault that he's the most famous actor on the show, and he does wonders with his character. But neither he nor his character belong at the center of Shameless ... that's Emmy Rossum and Fiona.
The plotting has become positively careless the last couple of seasons. In that respect, it reminds me of The L Word, which ignored character continuity whenever they decided to try something new. I have to return to Myles McNutt again, because he has obsessed about this ever since it happened, and since I share his obsession, it deserves mention. In one of the many goofy plots on Shameless, Carl gets married to Kassidi. Once the character has served her purpose, the powers that be decided something needed to be done. And so, in the first episode of Season 9, someone who wants to impress Carl offers to take care of Kassidi, telling Carl not to worry, no one will ever find the body. Kassidi never returns, and we can only assume she has been murdered. After which, she is never mentioned again. It's as if she was never on the show, that she had never married Carl, that she had never been murdered. This is the worst example of how Shameless ran off the rails. Sadly, it's not the only example.
Myles is a better man than I. He finished his final Season 9 recap by writing, "As much as I don’t blame anyone for bailing on the show along with Fiona, I’m sticking it out to see just what exactly John Wells thinks Shameless without Fiona looks like. It’s certainly going to be an adventure." As I said on Twitter, I might keep reading Myles' recaps, but I doubt I'll still be watching the series ... at this point, his recaps are better than the show.
Pretty much everyone I've read who offers up an introductory review of Russian Doll says the same thing: the less you know going in, the better. The trailer, which you can find at the bottom of this post, does a decent job of making you believe you know what the show is about without actually telling you, so it's safe. But for the most part, it's true: you don't want to know anything before you watch Russian Doll. So what I say here will be purposely vague and fragmented.
A friend asked me if they should watch it. I replied that I couldn't decide about Russian Doll, at least as something I'd recommend. If, like me, you think Natasha Lyonne can do no wrong, then it's a no-brainer to watch an 8-episode show she co-created, co-wrote, directed an episode, and is the star. And if she drives you crazy, don't watch! I thought it was kinda funny, then mid-way it took a darker turn, then I guess maybe it had a happy ending, not sure. It's one of those confusing shows. And even there, I've said more about it than I should ... it's best to come at it blind. I liked it.
My friend's comment was, "You had me at Natasha Lyonne", and so yeah, if you are a fan, by all means, jump right in. The 8 episodes are all 30 minutes or less, so it's not a big batch of time to watch the whole thing. I'm not big on binging, myself, but I watched Russian Doll in two days.
On the other hand, when I mentioned the show to my brother, he was basically "who's Natasha Lyonne", so it didn't do him any good to say his feelings towards her would affect how he liked the show. I mentioned But I'm a Cheerleader, but he hadn't seen that. He knew the name from Orange Is the New Black, but hadn't seen the show. Movies like The Intervention are too obscure for anyone to have seen them. And he's 71 years old and not really the target audience for the American Pie movies. He finally remembered her when I mentioned her role as Opal in Pee-wee's Playhouse, which was interesting since she was only 7 years old when she made that show, and she was only in the first season (clearly she made quite an impression!).
This gives me an excuse to show a favorite YouTube video, if you can get past the rather slimy interviewer:
I suppose I should say something about Russian Doll. I could mention the cast, which includes Charlie Barnett, Elizabeth Ashley, Dascha Polanco, Burt Young, and Chloë Sevigny, all of whom are great. (When Ashley and Lyonne get together, it's a marvelous blend of two wonderfully scratchy voices.) I'm not usually a fan of stories that are complicated enough to confuse me, but Russian Doll moves so quickly and Lyonne is so watchable that I didn't mind in this case. And I can't say I understood the ending, but it brought me to tears of joy. Go figure.
Honestly, if after reading the above, you think you'd like Russian Doll, you are probably right. Which I guess is my thumbs-up recommendation.
Counterpart is an interesting series on Starz that is a bit out of my comfort zone. I began watching it because it has Oscar winner J.K. "Schillinger" Simmons in a dual role. It's a hybrid, part espionage thriller, part sci-fi parallel worlds tale. It is admittedly quite ingenious, but a lot of it is over my head. I tend to get lost in the plots of espionage thrillers ... can't follow what's going on ... and the sci-fi angle doesn't help, since it expands the thriller in ways that exponentially increase my confusion level. At a basic level, I'm always wondering which of the parallel worlds we are in from one scene to the next. And Counterpart is not like my beloved Philip K. Dick stories, where the parallel worlds have a hallucinatory feel.
Well, Simmons and the rest of the cast (Olivia Williams, Sara Serraiocco, Stephen Rea, Lotte Verbeek, Jamie Bamber, Richard Schiff, Jacqueline Bisset, and many others) kept me interested through Season One. Interested, but confused. And I've stuck with it through about half of Season Two. The most recent episode, the 16th overall, was directed by series creator Justin Marks for the first time, so you know it was going to be a big deal. As if to emphasize the unique nature of this episode, J.K. Simmons is absent from everything except Previously On. The episode, "Twin Cities", takes us back to the beginning of the story, when the world split in two. By the end of the episode, I had a much clearer understanding of the basis for the show. I wish I'd seen it 16 episodes ago. Thus, I was mystified by a review from Robin Burks which appeared on Screen Rant.
As Burks noted, "This episode explained many of the mysteries that surrounded Counterpart in its first season with a focus on what happens next." But then Burks added, "Most shows would not give up their mysteries so early." Well, this was Episode 16, and it was the first time we were given any clue about what the hell is going on, so for me, at least, it was far from early.
The question is, will I find subsequent episodes more interesting, now that I've gotten the backstory? Ask me in four more episodes.
I should add that somewhere along the way, Starz has become quite the network for original series. Ash vs. Evil Dead, Outlander, Counterpart, Vida ... and those are just the ones I watch.
Quick thoughts on three favorite Sunday shows that are all disappointing in their own way.
Outlander has one more episode in Season 4, which has turned out to be the worst so far. "Worst" is harsh, for the show retains much of its appeal (i.e., Claire and Jamie Fraser). But this season takes place mostly in colonial America, and the folks in charge don't seem to know what to do with slavery or Native Americans. A few episodes take place on a family plantation, and here, Outlander is only marginally better than Gone with the Wind. In fact, the black "characters" (most of them don't rise to even the level of an identifiable character) exist mostly to show how the white heroine is disgusted by slavery. That is, the problem with slavery isn't being a slave, it's being a sensitive white person. Meanwhile, the Native Americans are never more than plot devices. I understand that there is only so much time to squeeze in everything from the books on which the series is based, but this is worse than nothing.
Shameless returns for the second half of Season 9, also known as The Season Where Emmy Rossum Leaves the Show. Shameless has been on a downward spiral for a long time, now. It took longer than usual for a Showtime series, but it's barely worth watching now. I'm sticking with it until the end of the season ... I feel I owe it to Rossum. But it's a shadow of its former excellence.
SMILF just began its second season. It's a unique half-hour charmer, unlike most other shows, and Frankie Shaw, who created, writes, and at times directs, while taking on the title character, is a revelation. It's the one show of these three that looks to still be at the top of its game. Except ... there are accusations of misconduct on the set, and you can't watch SMILF without remembering that fact.
For those with long memories, Angie Tribeca is a child of Police Squad!, the short-lived series the led to the Naked Gun movies. It is stupid and silly, and you'll know after watching two minutes of any episode whether Angie Tribeca is your cup of tea. Season Four brings the total number of episodes up to 40, which is 34 more than Police Squad! ever got (although Angie hasn't gotten any feature-length movies yet).
The easiest thing for me to do is offer a couple of lists. Consider them a consumer guide ... if they sound funny to you, watch the show (it's on TBS, with the first three seasons on Hulu).
First list: some character names from the first three seasons.
Detective Jason "Jay" Geils. Lieutenant Pritikin Atkins. Dr. Scholls. Sgt Eddie Pepper. Mayor, then Vice-President Joe Perry and his wife, Katy. Diane Duran. Angie's mom Peggy, played by Peggy Lipton. Pierre Cardin. Jean Naté. Fisher Price. Special Agent Laurie Partridge. Samantha Stevens. Dr. Moreau. Betty Crocker.
Angie Tribeca has also managed to corral an amazing list of guest appearances (this list is far from complete):
Alfred Molina, James Franco, Heather Graham, Lisa Kudrow, Bill Murray, Gene Simmons, Aaron Carter, Joe Jonas, Michelle Dockery, Natalie Portman, Lizzy Caplan. Season Four added such actors as Anjelica Huston, Rose Byrne, Gina Torres, Carl Reiner, Kathryn Hahn, and Carol Burnett as the President of the United States.
And I haven't mentioned Jagger as Hoffman, a crucial member of the team. Jagger is a dog, as is Hoffman.
Meanwhile, Bobby Cannavale joined the cast as Angie's son Angela Geils, Jr. At the beginning of the season, Angie is getting out after spending 20 years in jail for murdering Angie Tribeca (I told you it was silly). When she emerges from jail, she looks the same, as do all her workmates. Cannavale is her son, and by the plot would appear to be around 22 years old, but neither he nor Rashida Jones wear any makeup to help them look different ages. There was the episode "Freezing Cold Prestige Drama" that parodied Fargo, and one called "Irrational Treasures" (I'll let you guess which movie that one takes on).
Hoffman may be the best joke the show has. Because it's the same joke every time ... a dog is doing police work ... and somehow it's as funny at the end of Season Four as it was at the beginning of Season One.
So, what the hell is this? Is it an episode of Black Mirror, a movie from the Black Mirror crew, or something else? It feels like a Black Mirror episode, albeit a movie-length one. But I've noticed in the couple of days since I watched it, that I refer to the experience as "playing", as in "when you're playing it, if you choose X". So maybe it's just a fancy video game. I'm at a loss for how exactly to evaluate it.
In case you've missed the hype, "Bandersnatch" is an interactive movie that works like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Every once in awhile, a choice of two items appears on the screen. For instance, at the beginning, our young hero, a games programmer, comes down to breakfast. His father asks him what he wants, Frosties or Sugar Puffs, and those words are shown at the bottom of the screen. You choose one, and the story proceeds, informed by your choice. (I took Frosties.) The choices get increasingly troubling, such as deciding which character will kill themselves by jumping off a balcony. This being Black Mirror, there are no happy endings ... although there are apparently at least five possible endings, none of them work out well for the protagonist.
You can see why this is hard to evaluate. Just on a basic level, the "Bandersnatch" I saw, which followed my choices, is different from the one you will see, or even from any subsequent viewings by myself (there are supposedly over a trillion unique permutations). There's no use judging the plot, because it's never the same from one viewing to the next.
The question thus becomes, does this stunt have value beyond the playfulness of its construction? At least in the one time I watched/played, the movie was seamless. There were never any glitches to remind me I was watching/playing a movie that was making decisions every step of the way. Because of that seamlessness, it's easy to forget the technical aspects. Honestly, though, I can't say "Bandersnatch" had much going on beyond the trickery, which isn't to say it was pointless ... it was fun, even intriguing. The best part came when the hero starts thinking he is being controlled by some force, some other people. At first, it just seems like part of his growing alienation and paranoia, but then he gets specific: I don't know why I chose Frosties over Sugar Puffs, I just did, someone controlled my decision. And the viewer realizes that we have become part of the story, for we are the ones controlling him.
It's all perfect for the kind of endless examination of minutiae that flourishes on the Internet ... within hours of its release, people were posting flowcharts of all the possible choices, and spotting the frequent Easter eggs, many of which are call backs to other Black Mirror episodes. This is not where I would suggest people start who are new to Black Mirror ... it is far from the best episode. But it is a different kind of viewing experience, worth a shot (or two, or five, or a trillion).
[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.
For one thing, it's hard to know when a series is cancelled. Some shows get a two-season order before any episodes have aired. Many cancelled shows get rescued ... Sense8 lasted two expensive seasons on Netflix before getting cut, only to revive for a final movie-length episode due to fan uproar:
Later tonight, another cancelled show, Timeless, which also lasted two seasons, will get a two-hour finale. Timeless might have been a Karen Sisco winner after its cancellation after one season, but the cancellation only lasted a few days before NBC reconsidered. And Deadwood, one of the greatest shows of all time, which ran its final episode in 2006 after three seasons, has been revived with the original cast for a two-hour movie to appear in 2019.
There are two patterns at work. One is like what happened with Sense8 and Timeless, a fairly instant chance to close loose ends. The other perhaps speaks to a certain lack of imagination ... it's when old and popular shows are rebooted, or, like Deadwood, just continued. With all of this, the question of when a show is finally finished is messy at best.
It's also true that the catalogs of the big streamers mean a lot of shows never go away.
So, most of the shows I mentioned in my earlier wrap-up of 2018 TV are either still with us, or properly ended. In fact, the opposite problem remains ... a show like Shameless will seemingly last forever, no matter if it's still worth watching.
With all of the great television in the still-active era of Peak TV, it may not be necessary to single out shows that only lasted one season. So many people have yet to watch The Americans, which means you have a lot to look forward to. And you can still catch up on some of the best shows still out there ... Atlanta, Killing Eve, GLOW, Outlander, Vida. It's hard to mourn shows we've lost when there are still so many that have so far gone unseen. Sense8 only has 24 episodes ... you can binge that. Vida, which just finished its first season, only has 6 half-hour episodes ... if you can find it, you can watch the entire season in three hours. And you can always find recent classics like Rectify. Or Sweet/Vicious, for that matter, since if anything it is even more timely than it was when it ran.
And don't sleep on Peggy Carter, who knew her value.