Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Yes, Game of Thrones is a great TV show - still

Game of Thrones aired its super-size season finale Sunday. I liked it - zombie ice dragon! Other people were less enthusiastic, which is fine - my pop culture opinions have not yet acquired the force of law. 

In and of itself, that's not really notable. I haven't been a journalist for about a thousand years, but I don't think "People Disagree On Merits of Television Episode" is much of a headline. But the reaction to Game of Thrones' finale and its 7th season - as well as the usual end-of-season "state of the show" think pieces - illustrates a really fascinating set of dynamics that define the critical conversation around HBO's smash hit.

It's fair, I think, to say that critics have turned on Game of Thrones. One need not rely on childish fanboy whining about people "hating" the show to make that observation - it's more or less objectively the case that most prominent TV critics are less fond of the show than they used to be.

A pretty representative articulation of that can be found at Vox's listing of the 18 best TV shows airing right now, curated by the great Todd VanDerWerff. Here's part of the Game of Thrones entry:

"Sure, Game of Thrones can be a little same-y and unbearable at times, but goodness, at least it's not you who's getting stabbed in the head. And it's still TV's most opulent drama, produced within an inch of its life and gorgeous to look at. The show might never be the all-time classic TV series it was once poised to become, but it’s still essential, if only to know what everybody else is talking about."


That's about as backhanded as compliments get. "Still essential, if only to know what everybody else is talking about?" But setting that aside, the most revealing - and typical - part of that passage is the implication that Game of Thrones is a show in decline - or, at the very least, a show that has fallen from its previous heights and has become something noticeably less than it once was.

VanDerWerff is hardly unusual in this diagnosis. You can find any number of pieces making that same argument. You can even find Adult Swim bumps to that effect.

There's no critical hive mind, of course, and every Game of Thrones skeptic came to that position at a different point in the show's run. But for most, the cut-off point was somewhere around the season four finale. For some, that point came a season earlier or later.

Regardless, the show's "decline" essentially comes down to a simple turning point: when Game of Thrones gained the resources it needed to really indulge in spectacle and grandeur. 

Or, phrased another way, critics mostly loved Game of Thrones when they could plausibly portray it as anything other than an epic fantasy series. It was a political thriller! It was a workplace drama! It was a road trip movie! It was a mis-matched buddy comedy! 

But, as Matt Zoller Seitz observed in a thoughtful and nuanced piece, Game of Thrones "isn't what it once was." And if it once was possible to downplay the show's epic fantasy elements, that time is past. Game of Thrones is epic fantasy, a fact it now has the money and manpower to show off more or less every week. It's not a coincidence that the critical consensus soured on the show once it fully embraced a soaring, sweeping ethos.

Allow me, then, to submit the following proposition: Game of Thrones remains a great show on track for all-time classic status. The show's current critical reputation has less to do with a significant decline in quality and more to do with a built-in disdain for genre fiction and a strong critical bias for small-scale, grounded, relatable drama.

It's not wrong to say that Game of Thrones has changed over the years. It is a bigger show now, more inclined to shoot for the Big Moment and the extraordinary setpiece. It's a show defined by spectacle and grandeur in a way that it never was before. 

And there's no denying that in the process of becoming spectacular, the show has lost some of its subtlety and nuance. There's less room for the smaller, character-driven moments that defined much of the show's earlier days. Quiet, candle-lit conversations between two characters have been replaced by dragon attacks on loot trains and zombie dragons spewing blue fire to bring down The Wall. 

It's possible to take this observation too far. Game of Thrones is still eminently capable of creating those intimate, small-scale, character-driven moments. The Sansa-Arya feud from this past season is an excellent example - the relationship between the two sisters is a fascinating examination of the way trauma sticks to even the best-intentioned of individuals, of how it can poison and subvert our closest relationships and most promising futures. The reunion of these two women was a triumphant moment, but it did not wipe away all they had experienced.

Instead, their pasts colored their views of each other and made them vulnerable to Littlefinger's machinations and manipulations. After all, Sansa had spent the most recent years of her life either living in a den of homicidal lions in King's Landing or married to a monstrous Ramsey Bolton. Arya had spent hers moving through a series of horrifying situations and environments in which any slip-up could have proven lethal. Neither Stark sister was in a position to trust, and into that environment Littlefinger slipped quite easily, taking advantage of Sansa through the classic abuser's trick of isolating her from friends and family and building a world in which she could rely only on him.

And for all that, the resolution - the discovery and unmasking of Littlefinger's plot, and the death of this long-running character - was both satisfying and earned. It was ironic and yet fitting that Littlefinger - the ultimate schemer, the man so profoundly in love with his own cleverness - would doom himself by giving the woman he loved the tools she needed to see through his scheming.

Still, storylines like these are more the exception than the rule in the Game of Thrones of 2017, and the opposite was true in the show's critical salad days. But here's the thing: the idea that subtlety is superior to spectacle, that small is better than large, that Big Moments are easy and the best drama occurs during quiet moments, is just an artistic value system. A perfectly legitimate one, to be sure, but also one that possesses no special claim to objective truth.

Game of Thrones is different than it used to be, but it is not worse. The show possesses an unparalleled ability to induce awe and wonder in its audience. The spectacle that critics invariably preface with the deprecatory adjective "empty" is, in fact, an extraordinary accomplishment, as worthy of critical appreciation as any quiet moment of depression from an intricately drawn anti-hero. At a time when our standards for Games of Thrones' big, effects-driven battle scenes should be un-meetable, the show continues to exceed all expectations for these moments.

Consider, for instance, the fall of The Wall in Sunday's season finale. As a plot point, this wasn't the least bit surprising - we all knew it was coming, going back to the end of season six. But though the moment was more than a year in the making, it surpassed expectations because no one saw a zombie ice dragon coming.

There's nothing subtle about a zombie ice dragon, of course, and there's nothing about it that's going to appeal to observers who consider quiet character work the foundation of great drama. But it's one of the clearest examples yet of a show that's more capable of accomplishing the extraordinary than anything else on television.

Whether in the wight-driven massacre of "Hardhome" or the record-breaking pyrotechnics of "The Spoils of War," Game of Thrones has showcased a once-in-a-lifetime mastery of spectacle and of the emotions its audience experiences while witnessing it. That ability to entrance viewers with moments they cannot find anywhere else on television is not a minor attribute to be acknowledged and quickly dismissed in a parenthetical nested inside a harsh critique - it is a staggering force and a dynamic worthy of genuine respect.

It is also why Game of Thrones remains a great TV show. And why it will be remembered as one of the greatest series in the history of the medium.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

ZZ Ward returns with a strong sophomore effort in The Storm (Review)

Artist: ZZ Ward
Album: The Storm
Grade: B+

The Storm, ZZ Ward's second full-length album, cements Ward's status as one of modern pop's best musicians. But as it confirms that position, it raises another question: is Ward capable of - or even interested in - being anything more?

If pop music is defined by the tension between accessibility and authenticity, then Ward - along with Elle King, whose 2015 hit "Ex's & Oh's" is one of the best pop songs in recent memory - has shown a unique ability to reconcile those qualities. She is an absurdly talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a gift for crafting catchy songs that feel as though they're the product of a singular talent and not a pop song production line.

If nothing else, The Storm works as a perfectly solid demonstration of that particular gift. Album highlight "Cannonball" is the best example, a brilliant, bluesy track that serves as a showcase for Ward's musical versatility (you don't see a ton of skilled harmonica players in modern pop music) and is well-accented by Fantastic Negrito's soulful guest vocals. It's a toe-tapper, a song that mainlines straight to the listener's brain and burrows deep while reveling in Ward's unique talent.

Really, though, the entire album proves the point. There's not a bad song on the album, and from beginning to end The Storm is stuffed with quality. Each track is quality, well-crafted blues rock. They're disciplined, intricately engineered songs without an ounce of fat or an extraneous note - the 11 tracks barely exceed a combined total of 35 minutes, and if the definition of a good work of art is one that leaves the audience wanting more, The Storm certainly qualifies.

Ward has never been a particularly subtle lyricist - her favorite tactic is to wrap her arms tight around a central metaphor and squeeze every ounce of life out of it over the course of a single track. But even going back to "Put The Gun Down," her rollicking, 2012 introduction to the modern pop scene, Ward has shown an admirable willingness to write songs in which she's something less than a noble figure. "Cannonball" and "Bag of Bones" both evocatively paint a picture of weakness and desperation, while "If U Stayed," with its chorus of "And when you're holding on to your very first child/I hope you think of me and everything we had/And everything we couldn't be," conveys those ignoble feelings we experience in the aftermath of a breakup and in the face of our desire to be above such bitterness.

So why, then, does The Storm fall just short of genuine greatness? Why is there the gnawing sense that something is missing?

It's tempting to say that The Storm represents a step back from Til The Casket Drops, Ward's debut album, and, indeed, there's nothing here with the propulsive energy of "Put the Gun Down" or the smoldering intensity of "Blue Eyes Blind" (Ward's best song). And Ward's voice is less of a potent weapon here than on her first album, where she showcased a remarkable ability to range up and down the full length of the vocal register at will.

But though Til The Casket Drops was a genuinely brilliant album, that criticism is not quite on the mark. The issue is not that The Storm is worse than Ward's first album - it's that it feels like nothing more than a continuation of it.

Everything you can say about The Storm can be cross-applied more or less directly to Til The Casket Drops. Ward's style and approach haven't evolved much at all in the five years or so since her first album.

And, to be sure, there wasn't much need for evolution, or even room for maturation. Til The Casket Drops was already an impressively mature album, especially for a debut offering. If there was a flaw with that first album, it was in the lack of flaws - a slight failure of ambition that was noticeable, though eminently forgivable considering the talent on display.

Five years later, that lack of ambition is still forgivable, but it has only grown more glaring with time. There are no fascinating failures here, no epic, cringe-worthy nine-minute tracks on some issue that's close to Ward's heart, no songs that show a still-young musician perhaps a bit too eager to push the limits of her magnificent talent.

I wrote earlier that there's not a bad song on The Storm, and that's true. It's also true that she's yet to release a bad song at all. That is, in one sense, an extraordinary achievement, the reflection of a talented musician with a clear sense of who she is and an iron grip on her style. In another sense - one that's less important, but still real - that's a reflection of an artist who is, perhaps, slightly too comfortable with that style and unwilling to re-draw her boundaries. The basketball player who shoots 100 percent is impossibly, impressively efficient, but he or she is also taking only the easiest of uncontested shots.

There is a sense with The Storm - as, again, there was with Til The Casket Drops - of Ward checking off boxes in order to hit all the expected marks. Here's the stripped-down track that shows off the musician's authenticity ("Bag of Bones"). Here's the soulful, true blues track ("Cannonball"). Here's the tragic ballad ("If U Stayed"). Here's the spunky girl power anthem ("She Ain't Me"). To say that Ward is just checking boxes or hitting marks isn't to say she doesn't check those boxes or hit those marks with great skill - she clearly does.

But every track Ward releases seems precision engineered to achieve a specific goal or convey a specific image. And that is, in some sense, profoundly unnecessary - Ward's talent is obvious, and would shine through in any context.

One of the most insidious mistakes a reviewer can commit is to ignore the work in front of them and instead criticize an artist for failing to make the album/movie/novel/show the reviewer wanted. So it's not fair to say that Ward needs to do anything more than what she's doing or to demand an artistic evolution that's not really necessary.

But there are no surprises on The Storm. Every song demand's the listener's respect, but none demands their attention. There's nothing wrong with the road ZZ Ward is on, but it is well worn, and there's room for the occasional scenic detour.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Mist and The Limits of Psychological Horror

Spike's adaptation of The Mist is bad for many reasons, not the least of which is that the show has very few good actors. Or characters. Or plot points.

It's...not a good show.

But if we're looking for reasons why The Mist has failed so spectacularly, it's worth considering a decision creator and showrunner Christian Torpe and his writers made, a decision that - at least in theory - might have worked to the show's advantage. That decision has, instead, resulted in even more unconvincing and unpleasant moments that fall far closer to "silly" than they do to "horrifying."

It's easy to forget that Stephen King's original story is just that - a story. It's not one of King's back-breaking brick novels. It's about 135 pages and first appeared in a collection of King's short stories. There's not really a ton of incident or narrative momentum in The Mist. The story basically goes like this:


  • Guy and his son go to the store
  • Thick mist rolls in
  • Mist contains horrifying Lovecraftian monsters
  • People barricade themselves in the store
  • People occasionally die in horrific ways
  • Lady in store becomes a religious fanatic, goes crazy
  • Guy and his son break out of store, leave town
Really, that's about it. The Mist is a fine story, but not a lot really happens, all things considered. So if you're going to adapt it into a TV show, even just for the now-standard summer cable run of 10 episodes, you have some work to do in expanding the story to fill your runtime.

Torpe and company settled on a number of ways to do that, almost all of them cringe-worthy - the less said about Adrian, Alex and the pre-mist rape sub-plot, the better. One of the choices that has fared particularly badly is the show's laughable attempts at personalized psychological horror. Essentially, the mist of The Mist is a kind of personalized hell for anyone caught in it. 

Writers love this sort of thing, of course. "Psychological horror" is the respectable sort of horror, the sort that wins you applause from skeptical critics. After all, it doesn't rely on such cheap tactics as scary monsters or sickening gore - it delves into the psyche of characters, and in the age of Prestige Drama, we love nothing more than deep, probing character work.

Here's the thing: while much of King's horror work is psychological, The Mist is decidedly not. There's nothing personalized about the horrors that lurk in the mist. They're terrifying creatures from another dimension, massive clusters of tentacles and claws and fangs, warped pterodactyl-esque flying beasts, huge spiders that cocoon their human victims in nests of webbing, giant crab creatures that bisect people with a snip of a claw.

None of these creatures are subtle, and none of them are artisanally crafted for the unique contours of the victim's sub-conscious. They're just fucking scary, and they work on that level. They're huge, they're deadly, they're like nothing we've ever seen on Earth. That makes them effective.

Spike's adaptation went a different way. There are some monsters out in the mist, of course, though they tend to be very small scale - deadly insects, mostly. But in the show, the mist works in a different way - by playing on its victims' fears and memories. The mist presents its victims with visions that haunt and taunt, visions that drive victims insane with self-loathing.

In theory, at least. Our protagonists mostly just seem briefly annoyed by their visions before running away. 

Look, could this work? In theory? Sure. Better actors could sell the horror more convincingly. Better characters - with more fully developed interior lives and personal histories - would make these visions more compelling. And better writers could sketch out more dramatic and horrifying scenarios.

But that's kind of a cop-out - good writers, good actors and good characters can make more or less anything work. It's no great defense of the adaptation's decisions to say that they could, conceivably, have worked better in a world where everyone involved with the production was more competent.

One imagines that some part of the decision-making process here was driven by financial considerations. The Mist is a hilariously cheap-looking show, outside of one or two striking visuals in each episode and some occasionally effective gore effects, and it's obvious Torpe and his writers aren't working with much of a budget. Casting an actor for a one-off appearance as a mist vision is surely cheaper than creating a convincing Lovecraftian hell beast, whether you're using CGI or practical effects.

Still, I would submit that the fatal flaw here is the belief that personalized psychological horror is inherently superior to - and more dramatic than - the kind of creature-based horror of King's original story. 

Yes, the "psychological" horror of Spike's adaptation reads like an old person's stereotype of a Millennial's view of horror: "Sure, that 20-foot-tall homicidal spider is scary, but it doesn't really speak to me, you know?" And yes, the show's attempts at personalized terror have been limp and laughable - Kevin sees an image of himself...but a darker, more violent version of himself! Mia sees her dead mom! Alex is spared by a (legitimately spooky!) shadow monster because the thing a teenager fears most is rejection!

But the failing here goes beyond The Mist's unique shortcomings in writing. There's a place for bespoke horror that speaks to the unique psychology of specific characters. But there's also a place for the more universal horrors laid out in King's original story, for the kind of terrifying creatures and demons that - when done well - elevate us out of our individual fears and remind us of something more elemental in our natures. 

In other words, we're all scared of 20-foot-tall homicidal spiders that threaten to spin us in a nest of webbing so they can return later and consume us at their leisure. They don't remind us of the trauma we suffered on the playground in third grade, but they're still scary.

Much of the praise for psychological horror is rooted in a kind of disdain for genre fiction. Implicit in it is the idea that traditional horror - with its monsters and madmen and demons from hell - exists on an inferior plane, somewhere far below respectable literature that understands true drama is the clinking of silverware on plates in a tense family dinner. Bringing that keen understanding of a character's inner life to horror makes it far more like "literature," and is thus inherently superior.

And look, there's nothing wrong with psychological horror, or with horror that plumbs the depths of a character's psyche. King himself has tilled that soil quite well for decades. 

But King has always possessed a keen understanding of the right balance between the personal and the universal. One of the most terrifying scenes King ever wrote was the moment in The Shining where Jack Torrance, having finally succumbed to the evil of the Overlook Hotel, beats his own face in with a roque mallet while his son watches, the illusion of Jack's humanity finally gone forever. 

Yes, it's terrifying because it's personal - a son watching the shell of his dad perform such an extreme act of self-brutalization. But it's terrifying to the reader because it's also universal, because the visual of this...creature walking around afterward with a caved in non-face is sickening and horrifying. The scene doesn't rely entirely on psychology - it proudly and unapologetically calls upon forces that the critic might consider "lesser."

That balance between specific and general, personal and universal, is one of the central tensions of all storytelling, of course. That Spike's adaptation of The Mist fails to achieve this balance is no surprise - it fails at pretty much everything it tries to accomplish. But there is a lesson in that failure, one writers and critics alike might do well to heed - horror doesn't have to be psychological to be effective. There is no reason vivid, well-drawn characters can't exist in a story where the horror is grander than their own traumas. 

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.