TV reviews

Better Call Saul: so many star wipes in a row

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One of the cases to be made for Better Call Saul being better than Breaking Bad is consistency of tone. Breaking Bad frequently strayed from family soap opera, to hard-hitting crime drama, to wacky character comedy, to drug cartel intrigue. You could argue that was one of its strengths, because it allowed for episodes like the one with the fly and the magnet heist. Breaking Bad went wherever it felt like going. From Mr. Chips to Scarface, as Vince Gilligan is on record as saying. But with multiple layovers.

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The Wire, season 1, episode 4: fucking elementary, my dear McNulty

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“This case is nowhere near anything we’re doing,” McNulty complains to his partner. They’re getting ready to investigate the scene of an old unsolved murder case. But we know he’s wrong. We know it’s directly adjacent to what they’re doing. We know the murder was committed by the very same person who put into motion everything that has happened.

Baltimore is a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world (one out of every 2000 people in Baltimore has been murdered this year), and yet McNulty and Bunk have been randomly assigned the one murder that relates directly to everything else they’re doing? I’m not sure how I feel about such massive coincidence in a procedural. But I know how I feel about the investigation scene that’s about to happen. Continue reading →

The Wire, season 1, episode 2: Read all about it! Read all about it!

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I could watch a full hour of Lance Reddick giving a briefing. And then I could watch another full hour of him at home being debriefed by his wife. He listens as she walks him through the dilemma he’s in. “You can’t lose if you don’t play,” she explains. For an officious hotel clerk in John Wick and a sinister government agent in The Guest, it takes an actor who can listen as well as he can tell.

Okay, this is really dumb, but I might as well get it off my chest before it fades into technological obscurity along with phone cords, typewriters, and Crown Victorias. All of which appear in The Wire, by the way.

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The Wire, season 1, episode 1: the boy who would be Johnny Storm

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Here I am, finally watching The Wire. How long has it even been? How long did I miss out? How long have I had to endure people prattling on about how good The Wire is? Ten years? Twenty years? Who knows. I saw a pager in the title sequence and my mind shifted into “okay, now you’re watching something from the 90s” mode. It certainly has the cinematography and the aspect ratio of the 90s. To think we used to watch TV is a narrow square box. Then there’s a scene with McNulty and an FBI guy about how the feds have been “getting out of drugs” since the Towers fell. Oops, okay, not the 90s.

My mind’s 90s mode explains why I thought the kid who plays one of the drug dealers looks like Michael B. Jordan. He does a thing where he knits his brow while he licks his lips, and then pulls his lips in, like he’s thinking really hard about something. Just like Michael B. Jordan does. He also has a funny bit where he points out that Alexander Hamilton was not, in fact, a President even though he’s on the $10 bill. And this from a time when most people associated the name Manuel with a Panamanian dictator instead of a Broadway sensation. Then the credits roll and, hey, it is Michael B. Jordan! Well, yeah, that’s about the age he would have been ten years ago, when The Wire began its run. I guess this is the dawn of TV getting good enough to have actors worthy of being movie stars. And there’s Idris Elba, who I used to think of as the guy from that British TV series about vampires. That’s how most people know him, right? From Ultraviolet? Or was it this Wire thing that really kicked his career into high gear?

See what happens to your perspective when you go twenty years not watching The Wire.

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.