Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

television Archive

Wednesday

3

May 2017

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Too Much of a Good Fring?

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

Gus Fring is one of TV’s all time greatest villains. Giancarlo Esposito portrayed Breaking Bad’s archvillian with a chill that never cooled his potential for cruelty. It was only a matter of time before the mild mannered fast food chicken/meth tycoon popped up on Better Call Saul. The only question was, when?

Despite its season opening flash forwards and cameos from Breaking Bad characters, Better Call Saul has done a great job establishing itself as its own show independent of its source material. It’s not really a prequel in the conventional sense since Breaking Bad wasn’t really about Saul Goodman’s rise from American Samoa law graduate to Cinnabon manager. Jimmy McGill’s story will inevitably tackle the origins of Breaking Bad, possibly even including Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, but all roads don’t need to lead to baby blue.

Gus Fring’s arrival does not have to change that. Better Call Saul has done a great job letting Mike Ehrmantraut do his own thing when the story doesn’t call for him to share the screen with McGill. The trouble is that Ehrmantraut, however endearing to the audience, is a supporting character. Better Call Saul works with Ehrmantraut crafting elaborate schemes that have nothing to do with Jimmy McGill’s war with his brother because we as the audience recognize how subplots work.

Gus is different. He is Breaking Bad’s closest equivalent to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer “big bad,” who put up one hell of a fight against the heroes before suffering an epic, and gruesome, demise. All eyes turn to Fring when he’s on the screen because he’s supposed to command your attention. Mike may do that because you like him, but that’s not his character’s job necessarily. Gus was crafted to be the man who pushed Walter to his limits, leaving a trail of innocent blood along the way. Mike was crafted to clean up the body of Jesse’s overdosed girlfriend.

Gus’ story can exist independent of Jimmy’s, but it competes for the spotlight in a way that Mike’s never did. Mike offers a breather from the main plot, allowing the HHM story to move at a comfortable, but occasionally sluggish, pace. Gus Fring is a far more interesting character than Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill. The rise of a meth kingpin will always be more interesting to watch than brotherly squabbles, no matter how fun Michael McKean is to watch.

To some, this might not be a problem. If Gus is more interesting than Jimmy, wouldn’t his addition improve Better Call Saul? Maybe. It’s only been three episodes, but Gus has begun to command the spotlight, as any actor with Esposito’s talent would. This wouldn’t be an issue to mention if it wasn’t for the fact that Better Call Saul was already a great show. The phrase “less is more” exists for a reason.

My big concern is timing. We knew Gus would pop up, but Better Call Saul is only just starting its third season. If BCS follows BB’s run, we’re only a third of the way through the show. If BCS does last six seasons and Esposito stays on the show for the duration of its run, he’ll have been on Saul for twice as long as he was on Breaking Bad. There’s a reason Gus and Mike didn’t stay on Breaking Bad for the duration of the show’s run. As great as they are, they ran out of things to do.

All prequels have to deal with the matter of maintaining dramatic suspense. It’s harder to keep viewers engaged when they know what’s going to happen in the end. This hasn’t been as big an issue for Better Call Saul as say, the Star Wars prequels because Saul and Mike weren’t lead characters. Neither character appeared in Breaking Bad’s premiere or its finale. We can watch last season’s feud between Mike and Hector Salamanca with suspense even though we know both will die eventually because we don’t really know these characters’ relationship with each other.

The same can’t really be said for Gus and Hector. There’s a lot to Gus’ origin story we don’t know about, but it’s hard to imagine anything being half as memorable as Hector killing them both with a pipe bomb, taking half of Gus’ face with them. Gus’ status as a “big bad” makes his presence in the prequel far more complicated.

Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have a role to play in Better Call Saul. The question of how Saul came to be professionally acquainted with Gus was the thing I was most excited for before the show premiered. Two seasons in, I’m still excited for that moment, but I don’t need to know now. The questions I’m more interested in right now is how the show will utilize Gus for upwards of four years.

Better Call Saul isn’t strictly Jimmy’s story just as Breaking Bad wasn’t just about Walter White. But Better Call Saul isn’t just about setting up Breaking Bad either. There’s a great story to be told independent of what came before. Gus will be a part of that, but he’ll also take away from the story that’s been established over the past two years. Early reports indicated that Saul could wade into Breaking Bad’s timeline. That kind of uncertainty is rare and refreshing for a prequel, but complicated by the presence of the source material’s most memorable villain. We know how that will end, and it isn’t at a Cinnabon.

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Monday

25

April 2016

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Game of Thrones Season 6 Recap: Episode 1

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones

This recap features analysis from a devoted book fan. As the show has largely deviated from the books I’m not sure how much this matters, but if you hate spoilers you should probably not read these articles. I encourage you to subscribe so you never miss a recap. Thank you for reading. 

I found myself constantly wondering about the timeline as the season opener progressed. At the beginning of A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin clarifies that the chapters aren’t necessarily linear and the show hasn’t always been either. The fact that several of the episode’s plotlines, mainly The Wall and Sansa/Reek appeared to happen immediately after last episode while others, mainly Dorne/King’s Landing/Meereen, clearly happened a little while later created a bit of uncertainty for me at least.

Pacing a ten episode season with a massive ensemble cast is very difficult. With that in mind, it seems hard to praise Davos’ bravery at the Wall with him still locked in that room by the end of the episode. I’m inclined to give this a pass, especially since I’m trying to purge the image of old naked Melisandre from my mind and am okay if that involves forgetting the rest of the plotline at Castle Black.

It is also important to note that there will likely only be thirteen episodes of the rest of the series after this season, which makes me think that a Sansa/revived Jon Snow/Stark reunion could happen sooner rather than later, depending on how quickly the inevitable Wildling/Alliser Throne conflict lasts. I say this mostly because Sansa’s story lacks any other logical direction and I don’t see how the merry band of Brienne, Poderick, Sansa, and Reek can wander around in the cold indefinitely.

Though it made sense for Brienne to finally stop wandering around Westeros in search of spare Starks, I have a bit of trouble accepting the fact that this woman obsessed with “duty” killed Stannis in cold blood. Longtime readers know my feelings regarding a certain One True King quite well, but this isn’t so much about what you think about Stannis, but rather whether or not Brienne’s actions were just.

Now you can make the case that Game of Thrones isn’t a show that’s concerned with having its characters have a black and white sense of moral justice, except that’s far truer in the books. We saw this on display in Ramsey’s first scene, where he displays a shocking amount of remorse for Miranda’s death. I was completely taken aback by how sympathetic the character was portrayed as, especially considering how controversial his rape of Sansa was last season. The show made up for this almost immediately with a rather out of place comment by Ramsey to merely feed her body to the dogs. Of course, Ramsey is a psychopath, but we didn’t need that scene to remind us of that. It seems puzzling as to what that scene tried to accomplish besides simply screen time for the character.

I have a hard time buying into the Lannister threat to the Boltons. In theory, this makes sense, but the Lannisters have never looked weaker. Who really thinks they’re in any position to move on Winterfell?

Cersei and Jaime aren’t really up to much at all. The whole prophecy bit made sense and all, but neither sibling seemed particularly troubled by Myrcella’s death and Tommen wasn’t even mention at all. For a show that constantly brings out the question, “who will win the game of thrones,” it doesn’t seem too concerned with who’s actually sitting on it.

The fact that Trystane Martell wasn’t even under arrest says it all about what the writers are trying to do with Dorne. I spent much of last season wondering where all of that was going and the answer is clear. Now that the show is freed from most of its obligations to the books, it doesn’t want people like Doran Martell and Stannis around.

I’m kind of okay with that. Book fanatics have been trying to figure out Doran’s plan for years. The show basically went and admitted that he doesn’t have one at all, but this shouldn’t alarm book fans. The show simply doesn’t have time to integrate a character like that into its end goal in any substantial way.

So why include them at all? I have no idea. The Sand Snakes don’t seem to have much appeal to anyone, especially after they committed needless treason. Is the viewer supposed to feel sympathetic to their desires for vengeance, which involved killing two innocent teenagers? Like much of their dialogue, this plot is laughable.

The Dothraki dialogue was also painful to read. I still can’t believe the writers won an Emmy last year. Pathetic.

Margaery in jail could have been handled better. It took me a while to remember why she was even there (for lying about Loras’ homosexuality). Jonathan Pryce is always a treat to watch, but it’s hard to care about what they’re doing.

I like the direction of Dany’s story. She likely needed Dothraki help even before the Sons of the Harpy burned her Meereen fleet. As a character, Dany works best as the underdog and it’ll be interesting to see how the Vaes Dothrak storyline plays out.

Obligatory Jorah still has greyscale for no reason mention (yes we’re still doing that and we always will). It looks worse. The scene where he and Daario discuss his weird love for Dany was creepy. Not as creepy as old naked Melisandre, but then again few things are.

The Tyrion/Varys exchange was a pleasant throwback to season two, but that also highlighted a major problem with Tyrion’s plotlines since. Tyrion hasn’t really done much big picture stuff since he commanded the troops at the Battle of the Blackwater. He spent season three recovering, four in prison, and five on the road/hanging out with Jorah. Now he has power, but he’s really far away from the main action. Peter Dinklage is one of the show’s biggest assets and while keeping him in Meereen makes sense given the timeline of the books, it doesn’t seem like the best place for him now that the show has gone completely off book.

Which is something that needs to be considered as the show moves forward if the rumors about there only being thirteen episodes left are to be believed. The show doesn’t have a ton of time to waste having Tyrion rule a city that’s relatively inconsequential to the bigger picture. I don’t want to come down too harshly on the whole plot based on five minutes of screen time, but the last season didn’t inspire a ton of confidence in that realm.

Arya is actually still relatively on book. Her blindness only lasts a single chapter in the books though. I don’t think blind Arya is particularly interesting so hopefully the show follows a similar path.

No Littlefinger, Samwell, Ironborne (if they’re actually coming), or Bran this episode. I hope there’s some direction for LF’s incomprehensible Northern plans. I sure don’t see any logic there.

All in all, this was a pretty good premiere. I don’t think it completely fixed the wrongs of season five, but there does seem to be some direction for most of the major players. After last year’s mess, I’ll settle for some entertaining set-up that promises better things to come.

Just a slight programming note. After each episode airs, I’ll do a live video on my Facebook page summarizing my thoughts. Written recaps will be posted on Mondays. Thank you for reading.

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Friday

6

November 2015

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Breaking Down Why The Bastard Executioner Is So Unwatchable

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

We’re living in a wonderful time for the action/fantasy costume drama. There’s never been so much to choose from. Regardless of whether you want to watch something that’s going to be a Emmy contender (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful, hopefully Outlander next year), something with well choreographed fight scenes (Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Black Sails), or merely something to fall asleep to after a second nightcap (Olympus), there’s something for everyone.

The Bastard Executioner should have been a welcome addition to the second tier. A historical drama created by Kurt Sutter, the man who brought us Sons of Anarchy, had all the makings of a show that would fit in well with the current mix of offerings.

It doesn’t. It’s not just a bad show, it’s a downright unwatchable travesty. Calling it worse than Marco Polo is almost insulting to the underwhelming Netflix entry to the genre.

It took me a few weeks to figure out why this show is this bad and it’s not because the show had perhaps the worst name in television history. It’s not even that the show has bland characters and feels highly derivative. The Last Kingdom has essentially the same plot as Vikings and is still an excellent new show (worth noting that TLK is based off of a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, which makes the similarities more acceptable).

I’ve seen four episodes of the show and I’ve found it hard to care about anyone on the program. Even Stephen Moyer, who can’t seem to make anything work with the bland writing. As much as I enjoy Katey Sagal, her character is unbearable with that completely baffling accent. Her character looks like something out of The Legend of the Seeker, which is hardly a compliment for a show on a network like FX (though I enjoyed Seeker and The Sword of Truth books its based on).

The show has no obvious likable characters. No Tyrion, no Jon, no Ragnar, no Floki. Just a bunch of crappy generic characters with generic names. There’s no fun to be had at all with this lot.

Some shows take time to develop, even the ones that were good from the get-go. Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Outlander are all different programs now than when they started (which would be a bit unusual in Outlander’s case if it wasn’t following its source material). Problem is, The Bastard Executioner makes it downright impossible for you to actually get through the episodes.

As we learned with the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter is not a man who likes to be edited. Since 2012, SOA episodes almost always ran for at least 90 minutes on commercial TV, often longer. This trend has unfortunately continued with The Bastard Executioner.

It takes the saying “too much of a good thing” to a whole new level. It’s too much of a terrible thing. A show trying to work through its growing pains doesn’t need to air episodes that are longer than most HBO shows on a regular basis. I assume Sutter has a fair amount of pull at FX. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work to the benefit of the show.

While I’d say the long run times are the show’s biggest problem, the fight scenes are very subpar. They’re sloppy and have way too much gore. You can’t exactly blame the budget either, when fellow non-premium cable show Vikings produces the most consistently great fight scenes on television.

I’d imagine that Sutter set out to beat Vikings at its own game. I don’t think he seriously expected a show with the title, The Bastard Executioner, to be an Emmy contender. While Vikings isn’t going to challenge for Best Drama either, it has grown into one of the best shows on TV with amazing visuals, great action, and most importantly, compelling characters.

The Bastard Executioner has no redeeming qualities and that’s a shame. Sutter should have been able to do better than this. If his ego is half as bloated as his show’s run time, it’s possible he’s oblivious to how terrible the finished product is.

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Tuesday

25

August 2015

1

COMMENTS

Interviews of Ice and Fire: Ashaya of History of Westeros Podcast

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones, IOIAF, Pop Culture

It is a pleasure to welcome Ashaya of History of Westeros Podcast to the site. History of Westeros is one of the most in depth ASOIAF resources available; creating episodes that piece together the series’ confusing timeline along with commentary on the houses, theories, reviews of Game of Thrones, and just about anything else imaginable. HoW recently wrapped up an in-depth series on Summerhall. You can support HoW through their Patreon campaign.

HoW just wrapped up two podcasts on the Tragedy of Summerhall, one of the series’ strangest mysteries and certainly one that’s overlooked by casual fans. Given how little information there is on the topic, can you tell us a little bit about how you approached it? In terms of difficulty, how did it compare to some of your other series?

 The episodes in our Religion & Magic series are generally the hardest to put together, specifically the episodes on weirwoods. The possibilities of magic are just so wide open, and that tends to make it harder to decide how to frame the narrative of the episode, and how to organize and present everything. The Tragedy of Summerhall episodes weren’t part of that series, but they obviously deal with magic as well, and so they did have some extra difficulty. We speculated about the magical aspect of it a bit, but more so focused on the role of prophecy and on the impact Summerhall had on characters like Aerys, Rhaella, and Rhaegar (and the realm).

 One thing that’s stuck with me since listening is the potential involvement of the pyromancers and how Jaime had a particular hatred of them. Given that they had seemingly no friends in court during Robert’s reign and plenty of people who don’t seem like they would be particularly fond of their line of work (Robert, Jon Arryn, Stannis), why do you think they were kept around at all?

I don’t think Robert or Jon Arryn would have felt any particular motivation to outright end the Alchemists’ Guild, which is a rather drastic course of action. If we’d had Jaime in a position of power, he likely would have, though! That said, their power has waned and waxed over time, so they weren’t as prominent during Robert’s time as they are currently in the series or (obviously) during Aerys’ reign.

One thing you mentioned that I’ve never even thought about was Aerys II’s lack of known bastards. Do you think that is an oversight on GRRM’s part or could something larger be at play?

 Questions like these are difficult because well, I do often find myself debating whether something can be explained sufficiently in-universe or whether the Doylist method is more appropriate. I know that there are a lot of fans who are pretty firmly Watsonian, but I enjoy both types of explanation, though I favor the Watsonian view overall. So often obscure things in A Song of Ice and Fire make perfect sense, and you don’t have to look at things from an out-of-universe perspective. My answer, then, is that while I think it’s possible that it was an oversight, I think there are a number of in-universe explanations, namely a) Aerys had issues with fertility (my pick) or b) Varys dealt with his bastards.

One more Summerhall question as you mentioned Shiera Seastar and she’s one of my favorite tertiary characters. I’ve often viewed her as a parallel character to Bloodraven. As unanswerable as this is, does her being Quaithe preclude her from being somehow involved in Summerhall?

No, though I personally don’t subscribe to that theory myself.

My favorite HoW episodes are the ones you did on the Battle of Ice. Granted, the two are completely different but have any of your thoughts changed since season 5?

The landscape (hah get it) of the show is indeed entirely different from the books; for instance, we theorized about the ice lakes (now you get it) having a role in the battle, with Stannis laying a trap for the Freys (we also theorized that it might backfire and get the Manderlys, but let’s ignore that). I would say that it had an effect on me, but I strongly feel that if Stannis is going to be the one to burn Shireen in the books, it will be for something far direr, and so I still don’t think that the Battle of Ice is the end for Stannis in the books. In the podcast, I said I thought that Stannis would win, and I still feel that way (with a touch more doubt, admittedly).

Since Euron = Daario seems to be unanswerable, I shall ask, how do you feel about that theory in general? Do you think there are too many identity theories floating around?

There are definitely too many identity theories! Why, I’ve even seen theories that Amin of A Podcast of Ice and Fire is my very own Aziz of History of Westeros. I try to be diplomatic about most theories, but I can’t do it for theories about Euron being Daario, Rhaegar being Mance, Arthur being Mance, etc.

If you could pick the topic for the next The Princess and the Queen or The Rogue Prince style novella, what would you pick?

Fun question! My answer for this is different than what it would be if it were for a more traditional style rather than the masterly historical style of those novellas. I would love to read an account of the Rhoynar migration and find out more specifics about the people Nymeria traveled with and so on…that might be a bit large for a novella, though, even in the history style. Alternatively, the Conquest of Dorne.

What is the craziest theory you think might actually be true.

I’m not a big theorist, especially not crazy theories, but I’m fond of the Citadel Conspiracy theory, Jojenpaste, and, (our own idea), the theory (more of a hypothesis really) that weirwoods have some sort of connection to genetics, with family looks sticking for thousands of years due to their influence. In the case of the Citadel theory, I don’t think there’s a mass conspiracy, but I think their bias is clear and should always be considered in analysis. In the case of Jojenpaste, I just like it and think it’s (deliciously) dark. The third is pretty crazy for us, but given the length of time that the appearances of these families have remained in stasis, and that we know magic is involved in the genetics, I still find myself liking the idea.

I know HoW has been to many fan conventions over the years. Can you think of a highlight that you’d like to share?

Not as many as I’d like! Though we have plans to go to Mysticon and Balticon next year, so soon there will be more under our belt. It was a huge honor to meet George, talk to him, give him our card, etc., but I think hearing him read the History of the Westerlands from The World of Ice and Fire was the highlight for me. This was prior to the release of the book, and so we were particularly hoping for material from TWOIAF. When we met GRRM the day before and told him that our podcast was titled ‘History of Westeros’, he told us that we should be excited for the reading the next day, then, so we knew in advance that we would for sure be getting new material. Let me just say…it was so hard to sleep! But then at least it was very easy to get up early due to my excitement. We frantically took notes at the reading, and were able to publish it on our website, which brought us some good publicity, which was a nice bonus. But! The day got even better, because during the Q&A after the reading, GRRM picked me to ask him a question….I was able to ask a long-burning question (what is the Unnamed Princess of Dorne’s name?), which was a dream, even if he didn’t have an answer (boo). One day I’ll have a name for her!

What shocked you the most about season 5?

That Tyene used the phrase “bad pussy”, which is, by the way, a non-canon piece of slang that has never been used in A Song of Ice and Fire, save for once in the term “pussy willows” in The Mystery Knight.

How many times a day do you get asked if Jon Snow is still alive?

Me, personally? Hardly ever. How many times a day do I have to read other people speculating based on things like his hair? Often. As an aside – it’s always the wrong question, anyway, he’s obviously dead, the question is whether Jon Snow will be brought back to life.

Will HoW do book to show episodes next season?

Definitely! They were a lot of fun, and it was great to have more opportunities to have guests like Radio Westeros on. I myself will likely be in the first few and then drop out for the rest of the season, as I did this past season. I like talking about the characters when they are first introduced, and speculating on where the season will take us, but, at least last season, I quickly got burnt out and frustrated. We’ll see, though, for all I know, I’m going to love every episode of next season! (I crack myself up)

Generic question, but who is your favorite character? Is the same true for the show?

I’ve actually done this great ASOIAF character sorter, which takes hours and hours, and I found that my number one is Sansa Stark for both A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (the GoT sorter…yes I did both). It’s difficult to compare POV characters with minor characters, but some of my other favorites are Arianne Martell, Samwell Tarly, Maester Aemon, Varys, Wylla Manderly, Alys Karstark, and of course the usual suspects like Arya, Tyrion, and Jaime. I need a historical character sorter still, but I am particularly fond of Rohanne Webber, Egg/Aegon V, Nymeria of Ny Sar, and of course our patron saint, Septon Barth.

What’s next for HoW?

We are continuing our series on the Blackfyre Rebellions as well as preparing episodes on a few different houses like House Dayne and House Royce, and preparing an episode on Nymeria of the Rhoynar. We will also have live Q&A episodes more often as we are close to hitting that milestone on Patreon.

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Saturday

22

August 2015

0

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Aqua Teen Hunger Force Is Difficult To Eulogize When It Doesn’t Feel Like The End

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Aqua Teen Hunger Force is supposed to end tomorrow. I should say, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is ending tomorrow since it is actually ending, but I can’t really bring myself to accept it. This is after all, a show that’s changed its own name four times.

I shouldn’t say ending. It’s being cancelled, which is baffling. It even feels weird to type that blasphemy.

Maybe it’s because it’s the last Adult Swim original to call it day, with a run that was longer than the other three combined (Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, and Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law). ATHF is practically synonymous with the network itself, which ushered in a new era of animated excellence and for better or for worse, gave us more Family Guy (and Futurama, though that was mostly a good thing).

It could be because popular, long running animated comedies don’t really end. The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park are older and still going strong in certain ways. The ones that did end, King of the Hill and Futurama, were cancelled. While it would be silly to suggest that ATHF ever reached the worldwide popularity of the first three mentioned, it is the flagship program of its own network, which certainly should mean that cancellation shouldn’t be an issue.

Its fifth and final title, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever might seem ironic since it’s the last one, but it is rather appropriate. With co-creator Dave Willis remaining at Adult Swim, it seems plausible that the show could, and probably will, resurface at a later date, considering Adult Swim’s antics (Perfect Hair Forever anyone?) and the current trend in TV to bring old stuff back, which I doubt is going away anytime soon.

Patti Smith has recorded a somber elegy for ATHF. I’m not sure what else should be said since I refuse to believe this is actually the end. Call it denial, but it’s more than that.

We know at some point in time, Master Shake, Frylock, Meatwad, and Carl will show up. Whether it’s another season, movie, or an April Fool’s Day gag, we haven’t seen the last of anyone’s favorite cartoon “detectives.” I’m not even fully convinced we won’t see them next year with another season.

I could point out that TV hasn’t always been kind to the surreal and the unconventional. Shows that dare to be different often get cancelled, though normally not after fifteen years. That’s what I can’t seem to wrap my head around.

ATHF has never been an easy one to assess from a critical standpoint, making it hard to say whether or not it’s gone downhill in recent years. Adult Swim President Mike Lazzo said he was ready to move on. Was that for good reason?

I’m going to go ahead and say no. Recent years have probably had more hit or miss episodes and the same is true for nearly every long running series. Aqua TV Show Show’s ninth episode “Piranha Germs” remains one of my favorite of the whole series. With humor like that and a will to continue, I think it’s safe to say ATHF had plenty left in the tank.

So it ends. For now, or maybe not. Perhaps I’m wrong and we’ll never see those guys again. I hope not.

I’ll end this “eulogy” with this, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is one of the greatest animated comedies of all time. I suppose some will disagree and I hope Master Shake throws those people on the ground before going back to his reclining chair. Why didn’t he have a bedroom?

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Monday

17

August 2015

0

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Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp Succeeds Where Arrested Development Failed

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As someone who enjoyed Wet Hot American Summer, but not to the same degree as much of its cult fanbase, I was skeptical of how the Netflix prequel series was going to turn out. It’s highly doubtful that this would’ve been made had cast members like Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, and Paul Rudd not become huge stars fourteen years down the road, but that also presents a problem. Huge stars typically don’t have much time for projects like these.

This was the problem with Arrested Development’s fourth season. Its cast was busy, so the show filmed around them which didn’t really work that well. It’s hard to recapture the magic when half the people who helped make it in the first pace are only in it for two seconds and rarely at the same time.

WHAS: FDOC had a couple things going for it right from the start. Creators David Wain and Michael Showalter were obviously locks for every episode, but the series benefitted from the fact that a good chunk of the cast hadn’t necessarily gone on to “bigger better things.” In actors like Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino’s case, they were pretty much doing the same sort of stuff of Comedy Central and Adult Swim.

Which isn’t to say that WHAS: FDOC solely relied on cast members that weren’t appearing in blockbuster films. Rudd, Poehler and Elizabeth Banks have ample amounts of screen time. Mad Men’s John Slattery was brought on to aid Poehler’s scenes in cases where Cooper wasn’t available and you don’t necessarily feel like anyone’s missing.

The series also added numerous big stars to its cast. In addition to Slattery, Jon Hamm, Jason Scharztman, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Josh Charles, Jordan Peele, and Michael Cera aid the show tremendously, giving the viewer the idea that this isn’t merely a harebrained scheme that Wain and Showalter managed to trick Netflix into funding. WHAS isn’t strictly back for nostalgic value, it also has something new to bring to the table.

It’s hard to write this sentence about WHAS, but much of the humor in the series is actually pretty subtle. It’s filled with quotable moments, but the metahumor is what really sucked me in. Most of the cast looks phenomenal, but this is a prequel starring a cast that’s now a decade and a half older than when the first was made. Some of them do look pretty old, which definitely plays into the wackiness of the series as a whole. A lot has changed and yet much of it looks the same.

Is it accessible for people who weren’t fans of the original film? Probably not, but it earns points for not trying to be. The show managed to have a pretty A list cast for a Netflix mini-series based off a box office bomb. I think it’s doing just fine.

This could have been really terrible, which isn’t to say that it hits its mark 100% of the time. The show does fall flat a little bit in the middle episodes, but it’s never awful, unless you hated the show to begin with.

We’re going to see a lot of revivals in the coming months. Even Coach is coming back. Many of these will suck, like Arrested Development’s fourth season and for many, that will tarnish the legacy of the source material.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp chose not to rest on its laurels. It’s a worthy successor that enhances one’s enjoyment of the original in many ways. I never went to summer camp, but I hope most of them are exactly like Camp Firewood, talking cans of vegetables and all.

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Wednesday

22

July 2015

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UnReal Is The Perfect Summer TV Show

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

There are two types of shows that air in the summer. There’s summer TV and shows that happen to air in the summer. Six Feet Under is a summer TV show. True Detective is a show that airs in the summer. Rescue Me is a summer TV show. Masters of Sex is a show that airs in the summer. Burn Notice is a summer TV show. Rectify is a show that airs in the summer.

You might be confused with what the difference is, especially since none of these shows really have anything in common with each other. There’s really only one word that makes a TV show that airs in the summer, a summer TV show. Fun.

It’s hard to imagine summer TV being what it is now without Six Feet Under, which aired in the infant stages of cable television’s rise to power. Back in a day when channels like HBO protected their especially quirky shows by airing in them in the broadcast TV offseason, a show about a family that ran a funeral home could plant its dark comedic roots without being slaughtered by the likes of an ER or a CSI.

That’s less important nowadays when the overwhelming majority of shows that anyone cares to talk about air on cable anyway, but summer TV has always maintained a niche that at least in theory separates itself from the rest of the year. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Netflix drops all the Orange is the New Black episodes in the summer months, when everyone craves something a little lighter than say, House of Cards.

Which isn’t to say that dramedies don’t air at all times of the year. Only that they flourish in the months when the days are long and people tune in at night to see something with a little more flair than a conventional drama, perhaps with a margarita or a Corona. This year’s line-up is packed with shows, but not necessarily many that fit the label I’ve described besides OINTB, which caters to the binge watchers.

I don’t think it should be too surprising to see Lifetime produce a hit scripted drama. After all, History managed it with Vikings. Fifteen years ago, the notion that AMC was capable of producing one of the most successful shows of all time was laughable. Turns out, the channel didn’t even need to stray very far for its core philosophy either.

UnReal is about the behind the scenes madness of a Bachelor stand in show called Everlasting. As you can probably imagine, the show is heavy on the melodrama. What was really shocking is how well that worked.

UnReal’s best asset is its cast. Shiri Appleby does a marvelous job playing the enigmatic lead Rachel, whose shadiness goes well beyond the point of absurdity. I can think of about a hundred ways in which her character could ruin the whole show, but Appleby keeps her grounded enough to make it all work.

House of Cards alum Constance Zimmer is also superb, though it takes a minute to fully comprehend how an actress so misused on a Netflix show could then be properly utilized on a Lifetime scripted drama. Craig Bierko, who played one of my least favorite characters on Boston Legal (one of my all time favorite shows), also plays his part to perfection.

What makes UnReal so satisfying? The show isn’t afraid to be what it is, a scripted drama about a reality show that’s lauded as a joke that airs on a network that also happens to be lauded as a joke. One might say UnReal itself was in on the joke.

It’s a show that’s self aware of the medium it exists in. It knows it can get away with wildly outlandish plots and dreamy sequences played to the tune of a Lifetime TV movie. UnReal isn’t trying to be anything else, which is perhaps why it succeeds. It’s a genuinely original idea in a world that’s starving for ideas to the point where it brought back Coach and Prison Break.

The true appeal lies with UnReal’s delivery. It could survive on being “so bad it’s good,” like the recent A Deadly Adoption Lifetime TV movie starring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. Instead, it uses its quality cast and lets them run wild in the absurdist playground.

Which is what makes a perfect summer TV show. Six Feet Under’s black humor would’ve worked at any point in the year, but it felt especially delectable when the weather melts away your other worries. The fact that it airs on a Monday might matter during the fall months, but here it carries the “c’est la vie” mentality that makes it all the more refreshing. An excuse to have a glass of wine at 10 pm on a Monday and a good one at that!

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Monday

23

March 2015

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House of Cards’ Lackluster Third Season Exposes Flaws in Netflix’s Business Model

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If House of Cards was airing on television, it’d be about a fourth of the way through its season. It can be hard to believe it’s only been a month since the entire third season premiered on Netflix. There’s a good explanation for this.

It wasn’t very good.

This article isn’t intended to be a review, but I’d just like to highlight a couple reasons why I hated this season. It wasn’t fun at all. Frank’s manipulations weren’t clever and the infrequency of his inner monologues damaged his relationship with the viewers. Everything about Doug was terrible and the same is true for most of what Claire was up to (including the bizarre hair color changes).

Of course opinions are subjective, but what isn’t up for debate is the fact that no one is really talking about House of Cards anymore besides a few blog sites that have staggered the reviews. To a certain extent, this shouldn’t be a complete surprise. There aren’t any new episodes. All of them came out on the same day. Problem is that previous seasons of HOC as well as Orange is the New Black did get plenty of buzz weeks after they came out.

The reasoning for this is simple. Word got out that this season was crap quickly. Shows tend not to get as much buzz when the reviews aren’t so hot.

Netflix spends tens of millions on shows like House of Cards for one reason. Buzz. Original content garners attention and gets subscribers. That’s why Netflix doesn’t just fill its library with Cheers and Magnum P.I., which come at a fraction of the cost of original programming.

It stands to reason that Netflix’s number one objective should be to protect its buzz in order to maximize its return for an expensive show like HOC. Debuting all the episodes at once caters to the binge-watching crowd and creates a day which in the television world can belong solely to House of Cards.

That’s it.

Think about the buzz breakdown of a typical cable show. Unless it’s a blockbuster like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, you get buzz for the first few weeks and then it naturally tapers off when other shows either start or finish their seasons. The buzz returns when the finale rolls around even if it’s been a lackluster season.

House of Cards got some buzz. Now it’s mostly gone. It’s hardly ridiculous to suggest that this wouldn’t have been the case if Netflix had aired the episodes one at a time rather than all at once.

This would have also protected the show from criticism for much longer. It would’ve been unfair to call the entire season lackluster based off the first few episodes. Because of Netflix’ model, we can write off the season days after it comes out. That’s not particularly great for Netflix.

Is it a problem? Maybe. Netflix doesn’t release views for its shows and even then, comparing it to the rest of television would be difficult.

When House of Cards first premiered, its model was praised as the wave of the future for TV. Three years later, I think it’s safe to say that while it certainly has a place in the grand scheme of television, it’s far from perfect.

While presenting viewers with the option to binge watch straight from the get-go is unique, it doesn’t really need to change anyone’s viewing habits. People can still watch an episode a week and if Netflix released them one at a time, you could still wait until all of them were out before starting. This really isn’t that revolutionary.

Netflix wants to maintain viewers yearlong. Last month, they had two powerhouse shows in HOC and OITNB. Now they have one. It stands to reason that HOC could reclaim this status next year and that season 4 will be inherently talked about, but it still doesn’t change the fact that Netflix is really only front-page news for two days out the year. HBO can top that number by a wide margin with Game of Thrones alone.

Binge-watching might be greater for many viewers, but it’s hard to say it’s really great for the networks themselves. When seasons are great, buzz can be maintained. As we’ve seen with season 3 of HOC, buzz can fizzle out pretty fast. I wouldn’t call that a great business model at all.

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Wednesday

17

December 2014

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Ranking The Office Christmas Episodes

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While Christmas episodes are common for many TV shows, there aren’t too many that have them as seasonal mainstays. Perhaps it’s especially appropriate considering the original UK series ended with a Christmas Special. Christmas at Dunder Mifflin represented a time for humor, plenty of feels, and an excuse to congregate under the mistletoe, while usually drunk off of vodka or beet wine.

This list ranks the seven Christmas episodes. Note seasons one and four did not have Christmas themed episodes, as one was only six episodes and four was during the Writer’s Strike. As with all of these sorts of lists, the rankings are somewhat subjective. I encourage you to debate my findings in the comment section if you disagree.

  1. “Christmas Wishes” (Season 8)

Surprise, surprise! “Christmas Wishes” was actually a high point in an otherwise terrible season, but it pales in comparison to most of the other Christmas episodes. The Jim/Dwight plotline deserves credit for putting a new spin on a tired gag, but ultimately the Erin/Andy mess drags the episode down.

It’s easy to forget how much of the show’s later seasons were tied up in the Andy/Erin romance, which was never as interesting as the show wanted it to be (it’s also featured prominently in “Secret Santa” and “Dwight Christmas,” despite the latter’s lack of Andy). This is an entertaining episode, but it’s easy to see why it’s at the bottom of the list.

  1. “Moroccan Christmas” (Season 5)

“Moroccan Christmas” is another Christmas episode that doesn’t get much of its laughs from its A plot. Michael’s attempted intervention for Meredith wasn’t as funny as it could’ve been and probably should have been relegated to a different episode. Phyllis seems somewhat uncharacteristically mean in this episode, though as “Secret Santa” also shows that this tended to happen in isolated cases.

Dwight’s unicorn toy plotline provides the laughs from a storyline perspective. This episode is fueled by superb Kevin and Creed lines and also from Michael’s attempt to invent new mixed drinks such as the orange vod-jus-ka. Depending on how you feel about Andy, his embarrassing moments are also quite entertaining.

  1. “Classy Christmas” (Season 7)

Being hour-long episodes, “Classy Christmas” and “A Benihana Christmas” are somewhat difficult to place as it’s harder to compare them to the regular length episodes. “Classy Christmas” is light on laughs as it focuses primarily on the return of Holly. As her return signaled the beginning of the end for Michael, this is certainly understandable.

It’s effective in its mission to tug at the heartstrings. The Jim/Dwight dynamic is hilarious while the Daryl subplot falls flat. Ultimately there’s enough here to like, but not as much to love. Besides Jim freaking out in the parking lot as he anticipates a mass snowballing from Dwight of course.

  1. “Secret Santa” (Season 6)

This might be the best episode of the Michael and Jim as co-manager era, depending on how you feel about the morality of “Scott’s Tots.” Michael’s reaction to Phyllis as Jesus is Michael at his best. Angela supporting the presence of Jesus at the party was also a great subtle gag.

The episode also does a great job of showcasing some of Dwight’s subtleties. He’s not sparring with Jim or acting especially crazy, but he’s entertaining nonetheless. Phyllis threatening to bring Bob Vance into the equation was also hysterical. The big news of the sale of Dunder Mifflin was a nice touch and didn’t take away from the jokes at all.

  1. “A Benihana Christmas” (Season 3) 

The other Christmas episode to feature Michael feeling sad about a woman is also the other double length episode. This episode is also the first to really showcase Andy’s true character to someone other than Jim and Karen (which isn’t always a good thing). Jim and Pam pull off one of the most memorable Dwight pranks, which was surprising since Jim was dating Karen at the time.

The Jim/Pam tension along with Michael’s somber tone had a lot of potential to derail the laughs. But they’re pretty consistent through the extended episode. The highlight is without a doubt when Michael marks his date with a sharpie to tell her apart from her friend.

  1. “Dwight Christmas” (Season 9)20t49ix

This is the pick I’m going to get the most slack for without a doubt. While the show took a dive after Michael left, season 9 had quite a few standout episodes. But with the exception of the finale, none were as memorable as “Dwight Christmas.”

This episode serves as both a tribute to past Christmas episodes and a reminder as to why these were so cherished in the first place. Dwight’s “traditional” family Christmas was hilarious and the Jim/Pam moments were their highpoint in an otherwise shaky season for the couple. Daryl also shines as he drunkenly broods over Jim’s apparent neglect with regards to the Philadelphia sports job.

  1. “Christmas Party” (Season 2)

This one doesn’t need much explaining. Yankee swap is classic Michael as is his overspending on a gift coupled with his disdain for Phyllis’ homemade oven mitt. Creed’s old man coat rivals Kevin’s foot bath (a gift for himself) for best gift of the episode.

“Christmas Party” also features some of the best Jim/Pam moments and played a big part in their eventual courtship. This episode is more than just the best Christmas episode, it’s one of the best of the whole series. The only thing that could have made it better is if Dwight kept the teapot to use nasally in future episode.

So there are the rankings. Disagree with my order? Comment below. Since it’s the Holiday season, I figure I can get away with pointing out that my book, Five College Dialogues, makes a great gift. Cheers!

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Tuesday

11

November 2014

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Season 5 of Downton Abbey Bides Its Time While Waiting for the End

Written by , Posted in Blog, Downton Abbey, Pop Culture

Change has always had a consistent presence on Downton Abbey. Being a period drama, we have a fairly good idea of where the show is going to go as it creeps closer to its inevitable finale. Despite this, the show has done a remarkable job in breathing new life into the old house and decaying aristocratic society.

We saw this particularly in season three with the arrivals of Alfred, Jimmy, and Ivy, which gave the show’s dynamic a breath of fresh air. The youth movement did wonders to negate the feeling that from here on out, life at Downton would veer from the extravagant to the simplistic. With Alfred’s departure in series four, Ivy’s after the Christmas Special, and Jimmy’s after the first episode of series five, that youthful energy is all but gone, leaving Daisy in a similar holding pattern she was in at the start of the show.

The absence of the three of these characters isn’t a big loss from a story perspective. Eight episodes is hardly enough time to adequately address the show’s ensemble cast anyway. Their departures address something that we’d all rather avoid. Things are winding down and now it’s starting to show.

The future was a predominant theme is season five. Carson, Hughes, Patmore, and the Bates all made arrangements for their retirements while Tom continued to grapple with his desire to leave for America while taking Sybbie’s best interests into consideration. Lord Grantham continued to weigh the interests of the village against his obligation to preserve the way of life that can be threatened by those whose interest lie solely in monetary game. Mrs. Crawley debates a marriage proposal to the disdain of Lady Violet, who fears losing her treasured companion as selfish as that may be.

Problem is, this is all familiar territory. Edith and Tom’s storylines are merely continuations of plots from last season that could, and probably should have been wrapped up. Lady Rose’s late season courtship with Atticus is just about the only fresh plotline to be had other than Mrs. Crawley, who unexpectedly found herself in possession of one of the show’s better stories.

The Bates remain the biggest thorn in Julian Fellows’ paw. He has never really known what to do with them. Sadly, this has resulted in yet another murder plotline that’s even more droll and tedious as the first. It’s hard to imagine that #freebates was ever a legitimate fan rally as the couple hasn’t had a positive moment in years.

Fan sentiment also provides a roadblock for Lady Edith and her illegitimate child. It’s sad story. It isn’t a particularly interesting one and Edith’s years of being an annoying/whiney character didn’t do the plot any favors. After five seasons of watching her mope around, it’s hard to care.

This season had a few shining moments worth remembering. Miss Bunting quickly became of the most hated characters in the show’s history and Fellow’s timed her depature perfectly as to not allow her to overstay her welcome (or rather unwelcome). Thomas received redemption of sorts from Dr. Clarkson in one of the season’s most touching moments. Molesley was Molesley and as such, got his own article.

I watched an old season two episode in between episodes to see the contrast between then and now. It’s to be expected that shows drop off a bit as they get older. Even a worldwide phenomenon like Downton.

The problem is that Downton has an identity crisis, a problem that’s existed since the World War I storyline ended but was exacerbated by Matthew’s death. The show knows where it’s going, but it doesn’t know what to do with itself in the meantime. It seems to be a fairly safe assumption that next season will be the final one, which may not be such a bad idea.

Downton Abbey is certainly more entertaining the most of what’s on TV, but it’s also clear that the show is well past its prime. Fellows overindulged in repetitive storylines and drew out others unnecessarily. It’s hard to call season five bad, but when the bar was raised so high from previous years, the drop in quality is a tad unfortunate. The Dowager would certainly not be impressed.

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