Ian Thomas Malone

Monthly Archive: May 2014



May 2014



2014: The Year Jeopardy! Embraced Continuity

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Between the Battle of the Decades Tournament and the 11 and (as of this article) 17 game win streaks of Arthur Chu and Julia Collins, Jeopardy! has quietly entered its most significant eras in the show’s long and storied history. Each of these events on their own would likely stand out as the most noteworthy event of the year for the venerable quiz show. What’s even more impressive is that these three events all happened at the same time.

While the Battle of the Decades started in February, the tournament was not completed until just a few weeks ago. In that time, nearly every noteworthy contestant of the Alex Trebek era returned in what could very well be the most exciting tournament in the entire history of the show. Though a major part of Jeopardy!’s appeal is that the show is largely the same from episode to episode, the Tournament finals were clearly something special as Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings, and Roger Craig delivered a match for the ages.

It was hard to really miss the tournament in the weeks in between as there were plenty of exciting things going on in regular play. Arthur Chu’s extreme use of the Forrest Bounce, a tactic named for champion Chuck Forrest that involves jumping around the board to throw off opponents, and his large Daily Double bets made him easily the most controversial contestant since Ken Jennings. Chu’s reign was so controversial that it attained more press coverage than the tournament itself.

While Chu lost on March 12th, before the Battle of the Decades reached its quarterfinals, Julia Collins insured that there would be another memorable regular contestant before the tournament was concluded. Collins’ active streak seems like a long time, largely because it is in fact a long time. But since she won her first game on April 21st, those seventeen games have been stretched a lot longer as Brad Rutter won his two million before Collins even made history as longest running female Jeopardy! champion. Collins style couldn’t be more different than Chu’s, but her conservative approach has served her well. Collins is quick with the buzzer and rarely gets Daily Doubles wrong, allowing her to achieve runaways without taking big risks.

It’s hard to believe that since February, nearly every person who has made an impact on Jeopardy! has either been back on the show or made a name for themselves in that time. Aside from David Madden, every major champion came back for the Battle of the Decades while Chu and Collins wrote their own chapters in the Jeopardy! history book. For a show that isn’t known for its continuity, we’ve been flooded with memorable characters for a few months now.

There aren’t that many truly memorable Jeopardy! contestants and yet we’ve seen nearly all of them this year. This span could very well be the most exciting time in the entire history of the show. Unless the expand the number of podiums, we won’t see Rutter, Jennings, Craig, Chu, and Collins all in one game. Even if we did, we wouldn’t likely return to regular play to see another long streak continue when it was over.

Sure there’s purists who would prefer that old five game limit, but the fact that the streaks of players like Jennings, Chu, and Collins happen so infrequently makes them special. We’re closer to the end of the Trebek era than the beginning, which is only natural when a person has been occupying the same job for thirty years. But what isn’t natural is for a decades old show to surprise viewers with a surprisingly memorable time period that will be remembered for years to come.When Collins loses, things will likely go back to normal. It seems weird that we’ll be without a memorable contestant for the first time since snow littered the northeast, but that’s a big reason why Jeopardy! has been such an institution.



May 2014



X-Men: Days of Future Past and the Unimportance of Film Continuity

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As impressive as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been from both a critical and financial standpoint, the evolution of superhero movies does present some risks. Both the X-Men film franchise, which is owned by Fox and therefore is separate from the movies connected to The Avengers, and the DC film universe have followed in Disney’s footsteps of moving away from stand-alone films in favor of franchises with large connected plotlines. In theory, this is pretty smart. If end credit scenes and brief cameos can draw fans to films they might not otherwise be incline to see, then why not? More movies, more money.

X-Men: Days of Future Past took one of Marvel’s most endeared story lines and used it to connect the cast’s of the original trilogy with the cast of X-Men: First Class, which was a deceivingly ambitious effort given the star power involved. With so many Oscar winners and nominees amongst the principal cast, the stakes were high to deliver a top-notch story that correctly utilized the talent involved. With a run time of a little over two hours, an equal division of screen time would’ve certainly come at the cost of the story.

Thankfully, this was something that director Bryan Singer was aware of. While this story called for both casts, the true meat of the film belongs to the newer cast. It’s nice to see Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Ellen Page and Anna Paquin all back in the roles that brought this franchise to the big screen, but James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult are the future and rightfully took point on the film. Hugh Jackman excelled in his role as a mediator between the two generations without stealing all the spotlight. Wolverine might be a fan favorite, but coming off his second solo film, it was smart not to give him all the attention.

The film also deserves credit for choosing to ignore the blatant plot continuity problems brought forth by X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, by far the franchise’s two weakest entries. Old Professor X is back from the dead and the world is in shambles. Why? Who knows and more importantly, who cares?

The biggest problem with a shared universe is the inherent obligation to explain the significance of the other films. This gets you more time with characters who would be in fewer movies without a shared universe, but it comes at a cost. Thor: The Dark World had its moments, but it also felt weighed down by a necessity to intentionally distance itself from The Avengers.

X-Men Days of Future Past chose to only make references to the past films when the plot called for it. The result is a film that’s allowed to embrace the fact that it’s a movie and not a TV show. Part of the reason that this particular film could get away with this is because its source material ignored such problems and also received critical acclaim, but it’s something that other franchise should think about.

Shared universes can take you out of the movie. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering where Iron Man was when Thor was duking it out with the alien guy in The Dark World. That’s not a big problem now, but more movies in the future means more pressure on these films to make an effort to be conscious of their surroundings. Distractions in film are far more problematic than in television.

Days of Future Past had a story to tell and nothing got in the way of that. A summary of the events leading to the dystopian world that the original cast found themselves in could’ve added half an hour to the story. The majority of Paquin’s scenes were cut which suggests that Singer knew that there could be too much of a good thing. Rogue was a good character, but it’s hard to believe that her presence was missed by anyone other than die-hard fans of True Blood.

The success of Days of Future Past calls into question the importance of film continuity when it comes to superhero films. The cameos and the end credit scenes are nice, but as the phases of the MCU evolve, so will the need to adjust to accommodate the ever-growing universe. In a genre known for excess, it would be wise to exercise some restraint on that front. References are fun as long as they don’t alienate those who choose to take a pass on questionable choices like the upcoming Ant-Man.

X-Men: Apocalypse will feature the new cast with no expected involvement from the cast of the original trilogy, even Wolverine though a cameo would not be surprising. It remains to be seen how the new film will address Days of Future Past, but it certainly doesn’t need to. I hope it doesn’t.

In creating complex superhero worlds, we can easily forget what these films are. Silly action movies. That doesn’t mean they need to be devoid of any artistic value, but that value should be derived from the film and not from a cameo from a different superhero or an end credit scene, which teases a different movie. Days of Future Past worked because it lived in the moment, albeit in a moment that fluctuated in time. Those moments didn’t always make sense, but that’s okay. Superhero movies don’t always need to make sense, but they do need to be entertaining.



May 2014



The Troubles of Book to Screen in Game Of Thrones

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As a bibliophile and a TV/film fanatic, I’ve always tried to curtail my expectations for adaptation of books I enjoy. It’s always been my belief that a good adaptation tries to capture the essence of a book rather than mimic it. Blade Runner is a good example of this. The film bears little resemblance to Philip K. Dick’s novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but is excellent in its own right.

When it comes to George R. R. Martin’s epic Song of Ice and Fire, ten hours is simply not enough time to cover everything. More importantly, it would be foolish to even try even if more time was allotted. The show does cover most of the main points with min
or deviations, but that will likely change and the show progresses, even without taking into consideration that the final two books haven’t even been written yet.

There are many differences between TV and books, but the most important with regards to Game of Thrones is pacing. For a series that has hundreds of characters that covers thousands of pages, there’s a lot of downtime in A Song of Ice and Fire. We see this particularly with Daenerys Targaryen, who is given relatively little to do compared to the rest of the series’ major characters. The TV cannot have a character who sits around all season and thus deviation is required. We saw this in season two with the captured dragon plot in Quarth. People can criticize it for not being in the books, but without it we’d be left with a character who mostly roamed around with nothing to do all season.

The pacing also becomes increasingly more confusing with the fourth and fifth books, which take place over roughly the same amount of time and introduce several new POV characters. While the books can get away with this, keeping in mind that neither book received the kind of critical acclaim that the first three received, a TV show can’t. Television doesn’t just one day decide that the lead isn’t the lead anymore.

This requires the show to move certain plotlines along faster than the books do. Theon Grejoy is elevated to POV character in A Clash of Kings, only to disappear for the next two books before becoming important again inA Dance With Dragons. Game of Thrones can’t get away with this. If the producers tried to tell Alfie Allen that his character would be gone for two years, he would go find other work. Further more, people would naturally lose interest.

That’s part of what makes Game of Thrones such a groundbreaking show. Both the books and the show clearly have the Starks as the main protagonists when the story begins. The Starks are responsible for six of the eight POV characters (not counting the prologue) of A Game of Thrones, yet only three of the fourteen in A Dance With Dragons. The books show an increased effort to explore their depth and from the looks of season four, the show does as well.

As the depth expands, so will the deviation. For characters like Theon, Brienne, and Daenerys, we’re starting to get close to where they are in the series as a whole rather than just where they left off in A Storm of Swords.That’s going to anger some fan purists, who want a strict adaptation of the series. But it shouldn’t, especially since the show is going to catch up with the books sooner rather than later.

Game of Thrones should make plot decisions that work for the show and not strictly because that’s the way things happened in the book. Performances from actors like Charles Dance, Diana Rigg, and Richard Madden elevated their character’s significance and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Robb Stark may not have been a POV character, but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t a more interesting character to watch than his brother Bran.

The big advantage of having POV characters is that the reader is given access to the inner thoughts of a wide spread of characters. We get to see what the Starks and the Lannisters are thinking. In TV, we only get to see what they do. That’s not to say that the POV system isn’t without flaws either. Characters like Sansa are often passive characters in specific scenes between non-POV characters. We have to view these scenes through a biased source. The show doesn’t have those limitations.

The biggest problems with deviations occur when they don’t work. Talisa Stark wasn’t a figure of controversy, but Jamie’s rape of Cersei was a whole different story. While, “it didn’t happen in the book,” is far from the only point of objection to the latter scene, things like that are when the differences between book and show are fully exposed.

While personally, I’ll almost always prefer the book to the screen adaptation, I don’t make a comparison between the two a deciding factor. Book purists should avoid the show entirely, because anger at something for not limiting itself strictly to the confines of what came before it isn’t really fair. Books, movies, and television are all very different mediums that don’t flawlessly translate into one another and that’s okay.



May 2014



Community is Gone and That’s Okay

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The rise in original programming from cable and online providers has stripped May Upfront’s of much of its significance. It’s hard to get excited for fall TV when summer TV has gotten so good. The Upfront’s still serve as a time of mourning for the shows that won’t be returning next season. Cancellations aren’t as noteworthy as they used to be because the bar has been lowered and any show that achieves any amount of buzz typically gets more time to prove itself than it might have just a few years ago.

Looking at it that way, the cancellation of Community really isn’t that sad. This was a show that never belonged on network TV in the first place and yet the fans kept it alive for five seasons. It might have fallen short of the #sixseasonsandamovie campaign that played a big part in NBC’s decision to keep it around, but I don’t see failure in that.

There are a couple important factors working against Community’s favor. The fact that the show is produced by Sony meant that NBC wasn’t getting a big slice on the revenue from other streams. The show was a big hit on Hulu, but that’s something that doesn’t mean all that much since Sony and NBC would have to share the not as important as you’d think earnings brought in by the online service. Once its ratings started to slip, the show was in serious trouble.

The end of season’s three and four brought disaster that also could have sunk the show. Season three saw the departure of creator and showrunner Dan Harmon. While that’s fairly common with older shows as the creators leave to form new shows, the fact that he left on bad terms and the show wasn’t doing very well was more than concerning. Season four saw the departure of Chevy Chase as well as the announcement that Donald Glover would leave just a few episodes into season five. With both ratings and critical acclaim dwindling with a subpar season four, it is somewhat surprising that the show was even renewed at all.

Which is what makes its cancellation sour. Harmon came back for season five and it looked like Community was in the clear to get its six seasons (though the movie was always a tremendous longshot). The show did lose half a point in the 18-49 demo, which might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. This show should never have made it to season five in the first place, which propelled the aspirations to get to season six.

Creatively, it looks like the show made its peace this season. Glover’s farewell should go down as one of the most touching cast departures of all time. The show handled the decimation of the study group admirably and made up for season four. The saving of Greendale was significant because it represented the long shot that was this show to begin with.

An immediate revival on a different network looks very unlikely. People have cited Netflix and USA’s revivals of Arrested Development and Cougar Town without considering the fact that both were saved to bring attention to shifts in programming for both networks, a point that has now been accomplished. This is a point that doomed Happy Endings, which was in a better position having only aired three seasons before ABC gave it the axe. Community is an expensive show produced by a company that doesn’t own any channels of its own. There’s little reason for any network to pick it up.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve seen the last of Community. HBO’s recent revival of The Comeback shows that literally anything in possible. The Comeback had a small cult following and lasted one season nine years ago. All this means for Community is that if it came back, it would not be the most farfetched revival ever. But that day may never come and if it does it might look like Arrested Development’s terrible season four (or Community’s season four for that matter). I for one am not a big fan of revivals.

Community’s story is a beautiful tale of fan devotion, which set some important precedents for network TV. Five seasons is a very good run for a show that faced impeding doom more than once. Whether or not it comes back ten years down the road will do little to change its legacy. #sixseasonsandamovie was an idea. Five seasons is a reality and a pretty good one at that.



May 2014



Hannibal, The Good Wife, and Redefining the Network Procedural

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The ever-changing landscape of TV has blurred the lines between content commonly found on network TV and that which you would find on cable. It’s easy to say that network TV has the procedurals and cable focuses on more serialized works and while that’s accurate in a general sense, we’re seeing a shift in concepts that companies are willing to embrace.

This shift comes from both sides and brings us much closer to a middle ground between plot and character focus. Cable networks like USA and TNT feature quirkier characters/dialogue that you wouldn’t necessarily find on CSI, but a show like Graceland still looks aesthetically a lot more like 24 than it does The Wire. That’s not a bad thing either. Few shows can pull off a truly serialized concept like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, and delivering some resolution to the viewer and the end each hour has its benefits. As much as we embrace innovation in television, more traditional shows like NCIS and The Big Bang Theory still dominate the ratings.

While NCIS gets the ratings crown and Breaking Bad gets the Emmy and we can see the starch contrast that lead both these shows to their respective areas of excellence, there’s plenty of other ways to create a compelling TV show that combine the positive aspects of episodic procedurals with character based arcs that reward long time viewers.

This article focuses on Hannibal and The Good Wife, which are in my opinion the two best network TV dramas. Neither one is a ratings powerhouse, but the critics have heralded both as two of the most innovative network shows in a long time. Other than having fairly well known casts, these two don’t appear to have much in common on the surface level.

The Good Wife is a legal drama that’s aired on CBS for the past five seasons. Backed by producer Ridley Scott and boasting a cast that includes Emmy winners Julianna Marguiles, Archie Panjabi, and Christine Baranski, as well as Alan Cumming and until recently, Josh Charles, The Good Wife combines case of the week stories with strong character arcs that span several seasons. The Good Wife made itself unique in the rather saturated field of legal dramas by playing to its strengths. The show’s cast hits most of what they’re given out of the park and manage to balance the show’s large cast and even larger list of well known guest stars with each episode’s plot, which gets resolved each week even if there’s bigger question left looming.eli-alicia-and-marilyn

Hannibal is in a similar boat being a drama that works on so many levels that it’s hard to figure out who to credit with the show’s success. Creator/show runner Bryan Fuller has produced three of the most beloved cult shows of the new millennium with Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, and Pushing Daises deserves much of the credit for crafting a world based off a major film franchise that feels completely different than what we grew to love with Thomas Harris’ books and the film version Silence of the Lambs (and then grew to hate with the film Hannibal). Hannibal’s cast is exceptional as well with Mads Mikkelsen inhibiting a character made legendary by another actor. Five years ago it might have been hard to say that anyone could pull of Dr. Lecter after Anthony Hopkins made the role his but the Danish powerhouse made the character his own without betraying anything we love about the ruthless cannibalistic psychiatrist. Hannibal might have been a pretty good show even if Mikkelsen was its only commendable actor, but with a cast that includes Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne, and Caroline Dhavernas, in plenty of scene-stealers that don’t even include Lecter, Hannibal is easily elevated to one of TV’s gems.

A big reason why both of these shows are successful is that the viewer knows that anything can happen while also knowing that some things will happen over the course of the hour. The viewer will get resolution regarding the killer Will Graham is hunting, but you don’t know what Dr. Lecter is up to. You know that there will be a legal case on The Good Wife, but you don’t know how that will affect the Florrick/Agos split from Lockhart/Gardner.

TV viewing is often a give and take relationship. The payoff for a show like Breaking Bad is more suspenseful, but you’ll have to wait a season to get it. The other side of the spectrum is Law & Order: SVU, which all but guarantees closure at the end of the hour. To quote The New Radicals, “you only get what you give.”

Which is why the middle ground is all the more appealing. Hannibal and The Good Wife throw you a bone every week without compromising the integrity of the show. You don’t really know if each episode will focus more on plot or character, but it’s going to be exciting and worth tuning in for. Predictability in that sense is certainly welcome.

While neither one of these shows are big ratings draws, they’re both fundamentally good for TV. Network TV will always try to deliver programming that gives viewers at least some semblance of satisfaction each week. That doesn’t mean we have to live in a world with a million NCIS and Law & Order clones (maybe just 500,000 of them). Hannibal and The Good Wife show that innovation and tradition aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have your cake and eat it too, just probably not if Dr. Lecter prepared it.