TV reviews

Best thing you’ll see all week: Better Call Saul (season 3, episode 3)

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The unique problem for television as a medium is that it has so much space to fill. A typical series is at least 10 hour-long episodes. By my math — I’ve worked it out on the back of this Talking Dead transcript — that’s ten hours of television. Ten hours of me sitting, watching, listening, presumably being entertained. Ten hours of storytelling. But the average script simply doesn’t have ten hours of storytelling. So the average television show fills out those ten hours with padding. I can think of very few TV series that wouldn’t be better off trimmed of their fat and compressed into movie-length features.

But then there’s Better Call Saul. Continue reading →

Not the worst thing you’ll see all week: Rick and Morty

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“Did you ever hear about this alligator who went into a restaurant?” Lamar Thigpen took them by the neck and drew them close as lovers.

“No, I didn’t,” said the courteous engineer, though he had. Jokes always made him nervous. He had to attend to the perilous needs of the joke-teller.

–Walker Percy, The Last Gentlemen

Two minutes into this excruciatingly long ten minute video, I’ve seen all it has to show me. But I’m still watching it because my friend thought it was funny. “Oh, let me show you this,” he had said excitedly, typing the words “nightclub mashup” into YouTube.

Instead of telling each other jokes anymore, we show each other videos. Continue reading →

Best thing you’ll see all week: Catastrophe

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I have a problem with the first season of the UK sitcom Catastrophe. It sets itself up as two people making the most of a difficult situation. Presumably a catastrophic situation, hence the title. Rob has unintentionally gotten Sharon pregnant; they decide to give it a go. It superficially resembles Knocked Up, the Judd Apatow comedy in which Seth Rogen unintentionally gets Katherine Heigl pregnant and they decide to give it a go. Knocked Up is indeed a catastrophe. She’s a woman with a promising career who behaves like an adult. He’s Hollywood’s typical manchild stoner out-of-shape slob loser whose shortcomings are entirely excused because he’s funny. Obviously, Hollywood says, he’ll make a great dad. Oh, and husband. Never mind what Heigl’s character could have gone on to do with her life, pregnant or not.

But whereas Knocked Up pretends it’s not a catastrophe, Catastrophe pretends it’s not a perfect match. But Rob and Sharon are as perfect a couple as you could ever hope to see on TV.

They’re the opposite of a catastrophe. Continue reading →

Best thing you’ll see all week: The Walking Dead

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After two seasons of about 25% classic zombie apocalypse and 75% episodic soap operatics, I went into the third season of The Walking Dead with a half-hearted “might as well” attitude. I might have even sighed tiredly. But after last night’s episode, the fourth in the new season, I couldn’t be happier with how the series is turning out.

I thought there would be no room for the uniquely dire demands of a zombie apocalypse on television. Time and again, AMC has proved me wrong with their willingness to resort to over-the-top gore, to kill off significant cast members, and to give the end of the world its due in a way that Falling Skies and Revolution never will. It’s the difference between networks with a “B” and a “C” in their names, and everyone else.

Futhermore, a TV show has the luxury to trace character arcs more precisely, more languidly, with more detail than a 90-minute movie. But too often these character arcs take a back seat to the episodic tendency to reset to zero, or the sanctity of the cast, or the focus grouping of the demographic, or TV’s tendency towards telegenics over talent, or whatever unholy forces so often make a series forgettable and safe.

Consider how rarely TV shows know what to do with growing children. For a variety of reasons, it’s a tricky proposition to cast a child in an ongoing series, particularly a successful one. Poor RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad has faded sullenly into back bedrooms. I cringe at the out-of-his-depth child actor who plays Manny on Modern Family. And who knows whatever happened to Walt on Lost. Kids grow up. Maybe they aren’t good actors. Maybe the storyline doesn’t have room to involve them. Maybe the show is busy catering to the adults.

But last night, one of Walking Dead’s most dramatic twists wasn’t what happened during the plot. That was staggering, to be sure, and another sign that AMC has the ruthlessness needed for a zombie apocalypse. But to me, the most dramatic twist was how Walking Dead doubled down on its confidence in apple-cheeked Chandler Riggs, the child actor who plays Carl Grimes. Zombie apocalypses have the dire tradition of never playing it safe with children, living or undead, starting in the basement of the house in Night of the Living Dead and now going all the way to the boiler room of the prison in Walking Dead.

The best thing you’ll see all week: Girls

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-I’m sorry you don’t get what’s so hilarious about me peeing on you.
-Okay, you are not a good apologizer. Just FYI.

Hannah Horvath sits in a dark theater, watching the tech rehearsal for a friend’s play. Opening night is two weeks out, so the edges are a little rough, but she is entranced. For good reason. The man she is watching, her friend Adam, is utterly captivating. Confident. Sexy. Powerful. Raw. Scary. She is almost alone with him in the theater, and as he shifts from his monologue to the next beat in the tech rehearsal, she seems about to lean forward and give a bit of direction. It’s a jarring moment, since while Hannah is played by Lena Dunham, the creator of the show and a woman undoubtedly able to give direction, Hannah the character could never do that. At least not competently.

Shortly after that theater scene there is a moment in this eighth episode of the first season of HBO’s Girls when the show seems to be directly talking about itself. Hannah is telling Adam why he should do the play when he has decided to quit. But Girls is not only talking about itself–plenty of shows do that–it’s also pulling thoughts out of our heads:

Do you know how unusual it is to see someone doing something like that? Like what you were doing, okay? That’s so open and honest and weird and you’re not making fun of them in your mind?

Lena Dunham has found a way to scramble our brains. She does it naturally, instinctively, just the way Adam does his monologue, and just the way he quits it. She shows us herself and not without fear, but without winking. She’s created something that is open and honest and weird and I’m not making fun of it in my mind.