Monday, December 16, 2013

How Your Mother Got Her Band (Review)

Series: How I Met Your Mother
Episode Title: "Bass Player Wanted"
Episode Grade: B+

It's easy when talking about How I Met Your Mother to focus on love and romance. The show has long had a strong, confident voice on those topics, and those are obviously the show's driving themes.

But How I Met Your Mother is also, to a very real extent, about friendship. The platonic relationships between these five people have carried the show when its broader romance arc lurched and started started straining under the weight of eight seasons. Put simply, it's been fun to watch these guys hang out, and that was always enough to see the show throw the darkness.

"Bass Player Wanted" is essentially a celebration of these friendships, a chance for How I Met Your Mother to toast its characters and their relationships with each other. So, yeah, it's a little easy and self-congratulatory at points, but the show has earned that at this point in its life.

Plus, we get a nifty little storyline for The Mother!

"Bass Player" revolves around the antics of guest star Andrew Rannells, who I've never heard of before in my life but who apparently does quite a lot of voice work for cartoons. Rannells plays Darren, who The Mother labels a "fire-starter" for his ability to ingratiate himself with a couple friends, find out their deepest secrets, then immediately spill them and ruin the friendships. He's also the lead singer of The Mother's band, which comes up later.

We know all of this because The Mother, in one of those bullshit plot devices we're willing to forgive a beloved show in its ninth and final season, drives by Marshall trying to walk the five miles to the Farhampton Inn and picks him up.

The early scenes where Darren manages to utterly charm Robin and Lilly and then Ted and Barney are charming for the contemptuous ease of his approach; Robin is immediately won over when Darren recognizes how "hilarious and adorable" she and Lily are. Barney and Ted, meanwhile, lose their objectivity when Darren breaks out a story about losing his mother in a hunting trip that was inspired by Bambi (he later tells the bartender that his mother was eaten by a barracuda, which The Mother angrily points out is just from Finding Nemo).

There's an element of the 80's sitcom to the resulting conflicts: the friends all have their little spats over relatively minor issues (Robin sort of sides with Marshall in the whole "Judge vs. Italy" debate, but mainly because she's afraid of losing her best friend, while Barney is outraged to learn that Ted is moving to Chicago and hasn't told anyone besides Lily), there's a commercial break, a couple friends make big gestures and all is forgiven and everything is fine.

But again, this is the kind of thing you can get away with when you have nine seasons of character equity build up. We understand the depth of the connection these friends have with each other, and at this late point in the show's run we're willing to accept a certain amount of short-hand from characters we've grown to know so well.

And besides, the big gestures are pretty cute and character appropriate. Robin holds the arms of Lily's "Marsh-pillow" so Lily can beat it up, and Ted steals an extraordinarily expensive bottle of scotch for Barney, who notes approvingly that it could have gotten Ted thrown in jail (Barney thinks going to jail for your best friend is "living the dream").

And hey, The Mother! Cristin Milioti has integrated into the show really well, and "Bass Player Wanted" actually gives her a little plot of her own. It doesn't really add up to much; she used to be the lead singer of her band "Super Freakonomics" (she started it with a bunch of her business school friends), only to be gradually pushed out by Darren. She's trying to work up the courage to confront him, but simply can't.

This is all pretty feather-light stuff, though it gets a reasonably funny conclusion when Darren accidentally breaks the $600 bottle of scotch Ted stole for Barney (the third such bottle to get broken over the weekend) and gets punched out as a result. But Milioti does a really good, really funny job of selling the character's righteous, utterly impotent rage, and, not to overshare, I can certainly appreciate a character struggling with confrontation.

As I've written before, I'm acutely vulnerable to the "awwww...." moments, and How I Met Your Mother has always specialized in them. But it has worked for them over nine years of excellent character work and solid writing that establishes the gang as a group of people worth watching and rooting for. I'm OK with a little bit of reflection in this final season.

Notes:

  • I am a little worried about Ted's eventual breakdown, which we've been lead to think occurs as a result of a final, failed attempt to win Robin back. Ted and Barney share a nice moment where Barney recognizes that Ted has trouble hanging around Robin and doesn't say anything, and this season has done such a nice job exploring the bond between Robin and Barney. It would be a shame to lose some of that for the sake of cheap drama.
  • Marshall realizes he's hallucinating on the walk to the inn because he saw Bigfoot smoking by the side of the road, and everyone realizes Bigfoot quit smoking years ago.
  • The Mother is wearing driving gloves, which is a wonderful little callback to the first episode of the season.
  • Barney just wants Marshall to be a judge so he can get all of his public urination citations dismissed. Robin seems really, really proud of all those citations.
  • Milioti does a nice job selling a bit where she pretends to be a psychic who knows all of Marshall's history before revealing that she met Lily on the train.
  • Barney doesn't think Chicago is a real place. It's just a style of pizza. "You can't live in a pizza, Ted!"

Sunday, December 15, 2013

And My Partner, Silly Funshow (Review)

Series: Psych
Episode Title: "Psych: The Musical"
Episode Grade: A-

A show has to reach a certain point and achieve a certain position in order to justify a musical episode. It takes a secure position and a heaping helping of confidence to successfully sell your network on such a risky and potentially silly experiment. That or a complete lack of ideas.

Fortunately, it's the former with Psych.

There's something rather extraordinary about the fact that Psych has been on the air for seven years and has reached a point where it can pull off a musical episode. This is a series that, at its most self-important and self-serious, is about as substantial as a bowl of sugary cereal. It's a silly, frankly stupid affair that mines a formula established in its earliest episode and relies on a lead performance that is always just this side of insufferable.

It's also one of the most consistently entertaining shows on television, and it has more than earned the indulgence of a musical episode.

And here's the best part: the musical episode is really good. It's a little bloated, to be sure; Psych rarely has enough material to really justify its one-hour runtime, and two hours is a bit much for a show with so little ambition. The case of the week (kind of a misnomer, as the show hasn't aired an episode since May) is one of the more compelling investigations I can remember, but it's wrapped up in a fairly standard and boring fashion, as the culprits turn out to be a couple dudes we barely spoke to earlier in the episode.

But damn, this was fun. Everyone involved with the production clearly had a blast, and it's also obvious that the show's writers are passionate fans of musicals. The songs are clever, catchy, well-crafted numbers, and, perhaps most impressively, the episode is confident enough to let large stretches of time pass without a forced musical number.

Psych episodes derive a lot of their quality from the strength of their guest stars, and tonight's as a good one in Rent's Anthony Rapp, bringing a little bit of professionalism to the show as "Z," a playwright locked up in a mental institution after he apparently set a fire in his old playhouse upon learning that his beloved Jack the Ripper play would die an early death.

When Z, seven years after his imprisonment, escapes from his institution and the director of a new, purportedly unique Ripper musical ends up dead, the Santa Barbara police department swings into action, aided by our old friends Shawn and Gus.

As I said earlier, this is actually pretty enjoyable stuff. The investigation itself is basically a jumbo-sized version of the usual procedural work we see on Psych; there are a lot of red herrings, Shawn and Lassiter (an always-delightful Timothy Omundson) disagree on most things, Shawn fingers a suspect who ends up dying in the middle of the investigation, etc.

Still, this is a big, sprawling affair, and I found myself enjoying all the little twists more than I usually do. A lot of this can be chalked up to Ally Sheedy, making her fourth (and, sadly, final) appearance as "Yang," the serial killer from an earlier story arc. Sheedy has always brought a really impressive, deranged charisma to her role, and it was clever plotting to tie her into the big event.

Yang even gets a death that is, of all things, heroic and more than a little heartbreaking. There's a surprisingly touching little musical number with Jimmi Simpson's Mary Lightly, who shows up to welcome Yang into the afterlife. She's probably going to Hell, but Mary will ask around, see if he can get Heaven to lighten up and let her in. He's not optimistic.

It would be silly and pointless to run through all the developments in the case, most of which, again, hit the expected Psych beats. Z, it turns out, didn't actually kill anyone, which Shawn figures out relatively early and thus must be true and only proven at the very end of the episode. The producer and director of the original show had accidentally killed the critic who was going to ruin their Ripper musical, then framed Z and, seven years later, found his original, awesome script for the play and revived it under a new title.

The resolution is a little unsatisfying, simply because one of the killers (the producer) is dead, and the other (the director) got about a minute and a half of screentime. The motives ascribed to them make sense, and I certainly buy the overall story, but it would have been nice to see just a little more of these guys; I don't even remember the characters' names, and I'm drawing a blank in trying to remember anything about the producer. It's not like this episode lacked time.

Still, this is nit-picking. "Psych: The Musical" is a big, fury ball of joy, much like the series as a whole. There's precious little to complain about, and so much to enjoy.

Notes

  • I'm not sure if any of the cast had their voices dubbed over with professional singers (Jenna Fisher's voice was replaced during the musical numbers in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), but assuming those were the natural voices, that was an impressive display of talent. I particularly enjoyed Maggie Lawson's voice.
  • I want to single out Dule Hill for some special praise in this section. He's been wonderful during his entire run on Psych, and I say that as someone who really didn't care for his performance on The West Wing. Here, he shows off his exceptional dancing skills (according to IMDB he got his start as a tap-dancer on Broadway) and generally lights up the screen.
  • "I see a light." "Do you see fire and brimstone?"
  • The Skype product placement tonight was a little blatant.
  • "Z crushed you? With a piano? Like in the Roadrunner?"
  • "He was the Phantom." "Billy Zane!" "The other Phantom." "There is no other Phantom."
  • "It's set in London in 1888." "So what are you saying? Black people hadn't been invented yet?"
  • "Just jam in as many syllables as you can before the break/It's literally impossible to make a mistake."

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Inevitability (Review)

Series: Rome
Episode Title: "The Kalends of February"
Original Air Date: November 20, 2005
Episode Grade: B

Caesar's assassination has loomed large over Rome's first season. I wasn't watching the show during its original run, so I can't say if it did the same back in 2005. I imagine, however, that the show's viewers had been anticipating the extraordinary moment throughout the first season, and it wouldn't be surprising to learn that HBO's executives were looking forward to it from the moment they green-lit the show.

So how does "The Kalends of February" handle the whole affair? Well enough, I suppose. The actual assassination scene is more workmanlike than inspired. But considering Rome's somewhat rocky history with big moments, they pulled this one off well enough.

The assassination scene does a good job showing the brutality and the messiness of the whole affair; a dozen guys stabbing another guy is going to be unpleasant, and depictions of Caesar's assassination can gloss over that in an effort to get at the grand historical drama of the moment. There's a particularly good shot here looking down on the scrum, as the Senators weave around Caesar, their white and red robes swirling, knives plunging into Caesar. 

The most powerful moments, however, come after the assassination, when the Senators look on their work. Tobias Menzies has done an excellent job these last few episodes, and it continues in "Kalends," though he only gets a couple scenes. Though Brutus organized the whole affair and urged the Senators to do the killing themselves, he falters in the moment, and has to be persuaded into delivering the final blow to Caesar. 

And in the near-silent aftermath, as Brutus sits on a bench looking at the dead body of his slain friend, he lets out a wordless, animalistic howl that's more effective than it has any right to be. A viewer might reasonably quibble about the believability of Brutus' sudden spasm of conscience, but I'm willing to accept it as a fair response to the brutality of what he's seeing.

"Kalends" also does solid work when laying the groundwork for the assassination, though a lot of that labor was already completed in previous episodes. There's a kind of "on the one hand, on the other hand" approach here that does grate a bit; Caesar is given a rather ham-handed bit of symbolism when he walks on a large map of Rome laid out on the Senate floor, while the conspiring Senators are as elitist and arrogant as they are patriotic, arguably more concerned with Caesar's introduction of low men (including Lucius Vorenus) into the Senate than they are with Caesar's supposedly "tyrannical" actions. 

Stories can get in trouble when they try to take the "everyone sucks equally" path between two opposing points of views. It was one of my view complaints about BioShock Infinite, for example. But again, Menzies salvages the set-up with his obvious sincerity and patriotic concern. Brutus isn't entirely above his colleagues' elitism, but he is genuinely worried about the direction Rome is taking under Caesar. And Rome has displayed a nuanced enough understanding of Caesar throughout this season that one can accept a few loaded moments like the map scene.

But, of course, "Kalends" isn't just about Caesar's assassination. It's also concerned with Lucius Vorenus and his relationship with Niobe. This is normally fertile soil for the show, and it works again here. Most of "Kalends" is taken up with showing the full evolution of this marriage, and it's a truly beautiful, truly earned set of scenes.

Even in its weakest episodes Rome was able to exploit Kevin McKidd's excellent work and explore the dynamic between Vorenus and Niobe. Their chemistry in "Kalends" is truly extraordinary, and watching the two simply interact is a joy. Vorenus has been the consistent strong point in this first season, and his evolution from a strict, traditionalist Roman into a loving and caring husband has been both dramatic and natural. 

But things don't end there. Vorenus' elevation to the Senate brings his plotlines with Niobe and Caesar together. Caesar's decision to give Vorenus a Senatorial posting is not really about recognizing Vorenus' merit, of course. Nor is it just about appeasing the Roman mob, which loves Vorenus after his stunt with Pullo in the arena.

Instead, Caesar sees Vorenus as a kind of bodyguard and wants Lucius by his side should anyone try anything. Once Brutus figures this out, his mother takes over. Servilia sends a servant to whisper the truth about his "grandson's" parentage in his ear. Vorenus storms off, leaving Caesar alone. And since Antony is also detained...knife time.

There's something kind of ironic about the fact that Julius Caesar's assassination is only the second-most jarring death of this episode. Of course, we knew to expect it. We didn't know the same thing about Niobe.

Again, there's nothing particularly innovative about the moment when Vorenus confronts Niobe. He's throwing the expected rage fit, and Niobe cringes and cries appropriately. McKidd and Indira Varma both play their roles well in this scene, and it's always good to be reminded of the kind of physical presence McKidd can be when the situation calls for it. 

Still, it's a measure of the painstaking character work both actors have turned in over the course of the season that it's genuinely shocking to see Niobe push herself off the balcony of her house and onto the stone courtyard below, saying only, "The boy is blameless."

I have been rather harsh on Rome at various points over the course of the first season. The first several episodes of the show's run were, by and large, weak episodes that failed to achieve much of anything when McKidd wasn't on-screen.

Still, it's impossible to deny the uptick in quality that Rome displayed over the last four episodes or so. Nothing here reached true greatness, and not much really approached it. But Ray Stevenson reached deep, impressive levels of emotion with Titus Pullo, Vorenus' storyline ended in a skillful if heartbreaking fashion and the show didn't botch Caesar's end. 

Season Grade: B-

Notes
  • I knocked this episode grade down a notch because of Pullo's storyline, which reached its true climax in "The Spoils." That he's genuinely remorseful about killing Eirene's fiancee is believable, and Pullo sells it. I'm far, far less willing to accept that she ends this hour holding his hand as they walk away from a religious shrine.
  • Part of the reason that annoys me so much is that there's a great moment early in the episode where Eirene seethes outside listening to Pullo and Vorenus laugh. It's a wonderful, quiet commentary on the Roman social system, where Pullo can brutally kill a slave and still end up laughing with an old friend (remember, he only got in trouble for killing an important man). Eirene's anger is futile and righteous and thus compelling. It's also completely neutered by the end of the episode.
  • Atia: She hates me. Antony: So do I. That's no bar to friendship.
  • Antony's slow, silent retreat from the Senate chamber into the darkness after seeing Caesar's body is somehow quite threatening.
  • A sad goodbye to Ciaran Hinds, who was wonderful to the end. He's particularly good at playing Caesar's shock and disbelief, even while bleeding out.
  • Housekeeping note: We're going to take a brief break from Rome reviews. Look for a review of the Psych musical episode instead next week. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Satellite of Hate

Due to issues with DirecTV reception, there will be no review of American Horror Story: Coven tonight.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Rhyme Time (Review)

Series: How I Met Your Mother
Episode Title: "Bedtime Stories"
Episode Grade: B

One of the themes most prevalent in discussions about How I Met Your Mother's final season has been creative exhaustion. Nine seasons is just a long damn run for a sitcom, and it's easy to exhaust most of your compelling plots and character beats. How, then, would the show fare in its last season, especially with the curious choice to set it over the course of a weekend?

The answer has generally been a positive one. There has been an energy to this season that has been lacking from the last few years of the show. It's as if Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, so close to the finish line, have finally found the themes they dreamed about when they first pitched How I Met Your Mother.

That said, if anyone wants to argue that "Bedtime Stories" is an example of creative exhaustion, it would be hard to disagree. It's a classic gimmick episode, a half-hour divided into three rhyming stories, set within the framing device of Marshall trying to talk young Marvin to sleep. It's the kind of idea one can imagine being tossed out in frustration in an exhausted writer's room after several hours of futile attempts to think up new stories.

And let's be clear about what "Bedtime Stories" is and is not. It's not a meaningful or substantive episode of the show. It's not a classic half-hour of television. It's not going to stick in the memory for long.

It is a gimmick episode. But it is also fun and funny and it's evidence of a mind at work. Sometimes desperation is the spark of genius, and sometimes it's the spark of inanity. This week, however, it's the spark of a light-hearted romp that everyone involved clearly enjoyed.

Look, there's only so much you can say about "Bedtime Stories." It doesn't explore any new territory. In the first story, "Mosby at the Bat," Ted wonders whether his dinner with a beautiful young professor is a date or a business meeting. In the second story, "Robin Takes the Cake," Robin steals the wedding cake belonging to her old Canadian high school flame James Van Der Beek (back for a lovely cameo, and looking sharp), only to turn the day into something triumphant by eating the whole thing. In the third, "Barney Stinson: Player King of New York City," Barney has sex with a dumb woman.

The bigger problem is that this is even a hard episode to do the "here are some funny quotes" thing for, as the language is precise enough that it punishes those of us trying to watch live and take notes at the same time. So it's hard to point at concrete examples of why I enjoyed this episode as much as I did.

I would only say this: I kicked off this blog with a defense of Aaron Sorkin centered around the idea that I place more weight on the quality of language than most critics. It's fun for me to watch skilled writers play around with language, explore its limits and shape it into something unique or interesting.

And that's what "Bedtime Stories" is all about: a bunch of sitcom writers letting their hair down for a bit and getting back to the sheer joy of playing with words. Yes, it's basically the television equivalent of eating popcorn for dinner. But we're all allowed to indulge from time-to-time.

Notes

  • Barney's story is basically just an excuse to let Neil Patrick Harris ham it up as six different characters on the "Players' Council." Long Island Lou is a particular favorite.
  • Cobie Smoulders has that wonderfully useful television quality of looking beautiful even when she looks awful. 
  • Ted's date is played by Camille Guaty. I mention this only because I used to watch Las Vegas when I was un-employed and it was syndicated on TBS. She played a concierge named Piper in that show's final season, aka "The Tom Selleck Season." A beautiful woman, no doubt.
  • Here, she plays a physics professor who slept with Derek Jeter (Barney in a t-shirt that says "Jeter"). There's also a funny little moment where she claims that architecture is boring and Ted takes great offense. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Memory of Honor (Review)

Series: Rome
Episode Title: "The Spoils"
Original Air Date: November 13, 2005
Episode Grade: B+

That Rome was a rather honor-obsessed society is no great insight. That men are often torn between their sense of honor and the reality of the world in which they live is not an original observation. And that politics can trample all of our principles and lead us to places we never thought we'd step is nothing more than a cliche.

But it's said that there are really only seven stories to tell, and the quality of a story is probably not best measured by its originality. "The Spoils" is about all of the well-worn tropes listed in the opening paragraph, and it doesn't offer any real penetrating insights into any of them.

What it does is effectively exploit some of its stronger performances and weave together themes of honor and self-doubt across a number of characters in disparate circumstances. It's a solid episode of television, and helps Rome to what is really its first true winning streak of this initial season.

The motivating dynamic in "The Spoils" is the yawning abyss between Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo; the former, now an honored magistrate, the latter, a murderer-for-hire who opens the episode tracking and killing some anonymous victim through a deserted street.

Pullo's problems are many, and go beyond his utter lack of honor. He's not actually a good assassin; his targets die well enough, but Pullo never really got the hang of subtlety, and that's a problem for a crime boss with certain pretensions of respectability. And, ultimately, Pullo doesn't have the make-up of a hired killer: he botches another job when he's unwilling to kill the lone witness to his murder, and he ends up in jail as a result.

Vorenus' problems are somewhat different. He's now Caesar's man, which is an uncomfortable position, and when Mascius, a former comrade from the 13th Legion, comes by to demand Italian land for Caesar's veterans, Vorenus is forced to put him off.

I feel like I spend a lot of time in these reviews starting sentences by saying "Kevin McKidd does a good job...," so forgive me a little more of that praise here. What's fascinating about McKidd's performance in the early portions of this episode is that his conflict is conveyed without any dialogue; he is, at all points, Caesar's loyal magistrate. He doesn't express any overt sympathy with Mascius, and he doesn't berate Caesar behind closed doors.

There's not even a scene where Vorenus pours his heart out to Niobe. Instead, McKidd manages through his tone and facial expressions to make clear that he is riven by the memories of his service with the 13th and his loyalty to Caesar. And when he "persuades" Mascius into supporting Caesar's offer of land in Pannonia with a bribe of some 12,000 denarii, there's no tearing of hair or gnashing of teeth, no flashing neon sign that says "COMPROMISED PRINCIPLES." Instead, there's just the simple reality of what he has done, and where he is as a man.

"The Spoils" plays this note out a little bit further when it brings Pullo and Vorenus together by the latter's attendance at the former's "trial." Caesar has made clear that he can't help Pullo; the man Titus killed was an important member of the "Nailmakers' Association" and an enemy of Caesar. He cannot have it look as if he is killing his enemies and protecting the murderers.

Vorenus again serves as Caesar's champion when he makes that exact point to Mascius, who has brought together some former members of the 13th Legion to rescue Pullo after the trial (his conviction is never in doubt, despite the best efforts of his youthful, desperate lawyer). Lucius has to take another step down the political chasm by threatening Mascius with the revelation of his bribe and then watches as Pullo is sentenced to death in the arena.

It is in the arena that "The Spoils" moves from workmanlike to genuinely excellent. Rome has often struggled with the large-scale battles that shaped its world, but the fight in the arena is at a scale it can truly master. It's a spectacular, brutal piece of work, one that finally makes clear what a genuine bad-ass Pullo is.

Watching Pullo, roused from his apathy by his gladiatorial executioners' ill-considered taunts of the 13th Legion, brutally slice up all comers is a hell of an experience. The scene is cruel and unsparing, and it's handled skillfully.

Is it a little much to have the scene inspire Vorenus to jump into the arena and save Pullo as he's about to be killed by the final gladiator? Maybe. But the strength and brutality of the scene does a lot of the work here, and McKidd, as usual, manages to sell the emotions of watching his brother fight for nothing but the honor of their former legion.

Rome has long been at its best when exploring the limitations of Vorenus' honor and traditionalism. This little arc, which sees him succumb through a series of reasonable, understandable decisions to the temptations of a political career, while Pullo falls to new lows as a result of disenchantment with his life and decisions, has been triumphant.

Brutus has his own problems with honor. He was Caesar's friend, then Caesar's enemy, and now he's in a torturously awkward position. Connected to Caesar through the bonds of genuine friendship, he's also disgusted by Caesar's apparent tyranny and by his own cowardice and indecisiveness.

Tobias Menzies does his best with the couple of scenes he's given here, and it's easy enough to understand his conflict. It's less easy to understand how he can go from telling Cassius to fuck off when the latter approaches him with a plot to kill Caesar in the opening scenes to ending the episode by telling his mother he's finally willing to take that step.

The crucial moment, supposedly, is his scene with Caesar, where the newly minted dictator-for-life asks his old friend to govern Macedonia for a year or so. Brutus sees this as the ploy to get him out of Rome that it is, and is, apparently, offended to learn that he hadn't even bought Caesar's trust by selling his honor.

Again, it's easy to see how that could be troublesome. It's not so easy to get from there to, "Well, gotta kill him now."

Still, "The Spoils" manages to do right by its characters in exploring their conflicts and doubts. Heading into the season finale next week, there's reason to be optimistic about the direction Rome has taken.

Notes

  • It's Octavian who broaches the idea of helping Pullo. Still hard to understand why he cares at all.
  • Atia and Antony are back to having sex! Always nice to see those crazy kids making it work.
  • "Men with swords never starve." "But they do die, captains first."
  • Pullo should have known that you don't mess with Big Nail.
  • Turns out that Caesar actually did pay the crime boss to assassinate the nailmaker. 
  • There's a painful gut punch of a scene where Pullo asks his boss for work, gets paid some small pittance in advance, goes to the bar to buy a drink and is ordered out by the boss, as the place is "respectable" and only caters to law-abiding citizens. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

All That Jazz (Review)

Series: American Horror Story: Coven
Episode Title: "The Dead"
Episode Grade: B+

Tonight's edition of American Horror Story features Zoe having a threesome with the dead guy she resurrected and stitched together out of the body parts of her fraternity brothers and the dead actress Lily Rabe resurrected last week.

So, yeah, "The Dead" is kind of about sex.

More precisely, it's about sex, connection and feeling, and the way those things are all tied together. It's about a desperate longing for some sort of companionship at difficult times in our lives. This being American Horror Story, those difficult times include trying to find one's bearings after being resurrected from the dead.

Fiona isn't dead, of course, but chemotherapy's a bitch, even when it works. Her hair's falling out, and for a woman who has largely defined herself by her beauty (as dictated in large part by the society around her), this is a particularly devastating moment.

So along comes The Axeman, and damn, is Danny Huston enjoying this role. What he's offering, and what Fiona accepts in spite of her obvious reluctance and better judgement, is not just great sex, it's that sense of connection, that feeling of being desired that she so strongly values.

She values it so highly, in fact, that she ignores the dead body in the bathtub of Axeman's apartment. She values it so highly that she spends the night after first trying to leave. And she values it so highly that she shows up once more at the end of the episode, even after he tells her that he had spent decades watching her in the coven's house (he was trapped there, you'll recall).

I'll admit, there were no moments during this whole elaborate seduction routine that made me wary. At one point I even wrote in my notes, "Why can't she 'smell the bullshit' on this guy?" But by the end of "The Dead" I had fallen on the thumbs-up side for this particular storyline. Part of that is just the fun of seeing Lange and Huston go round-and-round in a small room.

But in a larger sense, examining Fiona's vulnerabilities and the understandable resulting weaknesses makes for more compelling television. It is, of course, tremendously gratifying to see Lange glide through rooms insulting people, and I certainly don't want to see that element of the show disappear. But a strong character is a character with some weakness, and I enjoy seeing Lange act the hell out of Fiona's desperate longing for some sort of bond at this late point in her life.

That search for a connection is Madama LaLaurie's downfall in this episode. Her plot takes on a different form than Fiona's and Zoe's, of course, but everything is tied together with the same thematic threads. For LaLaurie, her connection with Queenie is her lifeline in an unfamiliar age. But more importantly, it's her shot at redemption for the blood in her past, a way of re-connecting with some basic level of humanity.

Queenie's sudden decision that she's isolated from the other witches is...well, just that: sudden. She thinks it's because of her size, while LaLaurie (not unkindly) attributes it to her race. Introducing that particular dynamic now is a little convenient, and doesn't jive with what we've seen so far; the witches in this coven are fucked up, but there's no hint of racism in them. Hell, Fiona even got a big speech proclaiming her hatred for racists.

All of this is basically an excuse to drive Queenie to Marie Laveau, and, as expected, Angela Bassett is compelling and persuasive. She plays on Queenie's (new-found) sense of isolation and offers her a home where she can experience a true connection with those around her, and all for the low, low price of one Kathy Bates.

It's a price Queenie decides to pay once Bates admits a particularly grievous sin (killing the bastard child of her slave and her husband and using the child's blood for a beauty product). The episode ends with Queenie leading LaLaurie to Laveau, exploiting the former's hunger for friendship in order to deliver her into the hands of her greatest enemy.

As for Madison, FrankenKyle and Zoe...well, this plotline is a wee bit less subtle. The resurrected Madison just wants to feel something, anything, even if it's pain. And as much as Zoe might try to help Kyle recover some humanity, she's not having much success.

Of course, Zoe's not exactly covering herself in glory this season. This week, she leaves Kyle alone with Madison, only to return to find them having sex. Some credit to FrankenKyle, who managed to recover his fine motor skills awfully fast once sex with Emma Roberts was on the table.

I actually don't hate this. Based on what little we see in this episode, the connection Madison is trying to forge with FrankenKyle seems real, and it's about as reasonable a development as we can hope in a story that involves two resurrected dead people having sex. Roberts does solid work here conveying the quiet misery of her new existence, and in an odd, fucked up kind of way it's actually sort of touching watching these two confused, miserable creatures find each other.

Bringing Zoe into it for a threesome...that's less touching (or more, I guess, depending on one's usage of "touching"). Still, the thematic logic to that particular development is sound: Zoe has her own issues with connection, what with the whole "killer vagina" handicap. Finding two people who aren't in danger from simply being with her is meaningful for Zoe.

What I like even more about this episode is how it seems to instigate what one suspects will be the central plot going forward: the splintering of the coven. Queenie has defected to Laveau (though previews indicate she might have seconds thought already). Cordelia discovers tonight that her mother killed Madison, and she ropes Zoe into a conspiracy against Fiona.

We've sort of worked around the edges of that so far this season, but for the first time it's possible to see the outline of a larger arc. A battle between mother and daughter for the future of the coven, a reluctant potential supreme forced to fight for survival, all while a powerful and immortal voodoo priestess plots their destruction.

Oh, and dead people having sex.

Notes

  • Zoe kills Spalding tonight. Normally I'd advise you to say goodbye to Denis O'Hare, but Lily Rabe's character is still hanging around, so hold off on that for a bit.
  • Fiona tells Axeman that "I don't believe in ghosts," which seems to be one of the most hilariously on-point examples of arbitrary skepticism that I can recall. 
  • Speaking of on-point, American Horror Story would like you to know there are similarities between playing music and having sex. You're welcome for the insight. 
  • Madison is given a cringe-worthy voiceover at the start of the episode, comparing her inability to feel anything (what with being a walking corpse) with her generation's supposed similar handicap. This section of AHS brought to you by David Brooks. 
  • I actually really like the cold open, which features Kyle in better days hanging around with his frat brother in a tattoo parlor. The line "I only have one life" is rather on-the-nose, but showing his friends' tattoos, then cutting to the present day and revealing that he has those body parts...creepy and effective.