Friday, March 30, 2018

ON THE AMERICANS, AND TELEVISION TIME JUMPS


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The premiere of the final season of The Americans may have broken my brain.  Not because its spycraft was more complicated or opaque than previous years, but because everything about its structure should have pissed me off, and somehow none of it did.  That structure was built around a 3 year jump forward from last year's finale, during which various important characters started new families, jobs and relationships.  Now, leaps forward in time can be a fun and jarring tool in show’s toolbox.  But, in my opinion, the time to do them is in the middle of a run.  LOST and BSG did this to great effect at their own midpoints.  The Americans had previously done one themselves in their 4th season episode “The Magic Of David Copperfield”, a jump that was all the more effective because it came not just in the middle of the overall run, but toward the middle of the season, and even with some time to run in the episode itself to establish the new, altered status quo.

In a properly deployed jump, everything hinges on that new status quo.  Like any plot twist, it has to be surprising enough to pique the audience’s interest, but also feel natural enough that it doesn’t feel like the writer is just trying to cop out of storylines that had petered out (which of course, they are).  It is a show doing what the movie industry now calls a “soft reboot”, and regardless of the medium the motivation is the same – a feeling that particular arc had become a drag, but the general premise or characters retain enough promise to warrant different stories being told about them.  This didn't become commonplace until recently, because prior to the digital age of serialization, every episode of a show was essentially a soft reboot.

Given that, the worst time to do a jump would seem to be at the outset of the final season of a heavily serialized, plot-heavy drama like The Americans.  The end of such a show is where the unique advantages of serialized TV are poised to come fully to bear, advantages that are tied directly to the rather strict sense of continuity.  There have been years to build slowly and organically to the climax that is now arriving.  As we enter the home stretch, characters should already be locked into their final collision courses, and slow burning fuses finally reaching their explosive payloads.  The Americans in particular has had five years to methodically set this table, and for it to be in need of drastic resetting at the 11th hour seems indicative of extremely sloppy, aimless storytelling.  Like you couldn't craft a proper ending for the show you'd already made, so you're frantically working to remodel it into a show that fits the ending you have.

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Just look at all the new information the premiere asks the audience to process in the span of an hour.  The set-up around the peace summit and Dead Hand project is not all that different from prior seasons establishing Star Wars or stealth research or bioweapons as the focal point for the year’s espionage.  But even if this aspect would exist to some degree without the time jump doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a compounding effect on all the other changes the viewer has to contend with.  Stan’s new wife and Paige’s new duties are fairly straightforward progressions from where we left them, but Stan has also changed jobs since we saw him last, as has Oleg, who also has a brand new wife and child.  The Aderholts also have a new rugrat, and apparently a relationship with the Jennings.  And while Paige had met Claudia before we left, the two of them suddenly being so chummy was a jarring shift.

It's not that this is too much information for the audience’s wee brains to handle, or that the new developments are incoherent or unbelievable within the world of the show.  Just that with so much change taking place in the offscreen gaps, it invites the question of what was so wrong with the show that they felt it necessary to revamp it so fully right when it should be entering the home stretch.  Or at least, I feel like I should be wondering about that, given my general attitudes toward serialization and continuity.  But the new developments still feel right for the characters and conflicts the show has developed over the years, even if the plotlines that developed them have been swept aside.

For example, I feel like it should bother me that the final conflict between Philip and Elizabeth is air-dropped into their laps 10 episodes from the end of a 75 episode run, by two factions we are just introduced to, who are squabbling over a macguffin we haven’t heard of before.  The analytical part of my brain says that if such big, sudden moves are necessary to set off the climax, it means you haven’t been using the serialized format correctly for the prior 65 hours.  But it didn’t feel off at all while I was watching it.  I think that’s partly because while Dead Hand has not been a plot point that was developed studiously throughout the prior seasons, the capriciousness of the Centre’s operations and the Jennings’ divergent reactions to that have been built into the series from the start.

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On a similar track, if it feels abrupt that the new dynamic of Philip in “retirement” while Elizabeth shoulders the entire spy load basically reaches it's boiling point the moment we actually get to see it for the first time.  On paper, this looks like the show skipping over showing us how this scenario creates a separation within the marriage in favor of just telling us that it has, which is antithetical to the most basic principle of drama.  But it doesn't feel like cheating, in part because the phenomenal performances by Mathew Rhys and Keri Russell communicate such volumes about the drastically divergent paths the characters have traveled with so little dialogue, and mostly because the core of the division is not unfamiliar at all.  It doesn’t matter much that the show didn’t decide whether Star Wars or bioweapons or stealth bomber tech or this Dr. Strangelove machine that would be focus of the Jennings’ final mission until that mission began, because the show has never really been about the USA and the USSR.  It was about Philip and Elizabeth, and what was clear from the start was that this marital Spy Vs. Spy scenario was where the story needed to go in the end, and that the rift between her hardliner stance and his idealism would be at its core.  That an internal Soviet plot against Gorbachev brings that split to a head, rather than Philip attempting to defect to the US, is a turn in the road I didn’t see coming, but the destination still feels inevitable.  And that is the hallmark of the best plotting; when I couldn’t really predict the end in advance, but I feel like I could have with hindsight.

The Americans’ latest time jump highlights is how the details of the conflict’s plot development are completely arbitrary.  And that is fine, if the core of the conflict remains true and rooted in proper character development.


…and your wig game is tight as f***.


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Friday, December 29, 2017

BEST OF 2017: BOJACK HORSEMAN

1.  BOJACK HORSEMAN (NETFLIX)

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Streaming services and DVRs have abounded in recent years with so-called “sadcoms” - half hour explorations of depression, ennui and the pretensions to artiste-ery of people who resent having made their names in the low arts of comedy.  I’ve repeatedly ragged on these shows for being full of themselves, and there’s something perfect about how the funniest show on TV is a half hour exploration of the depression, ennui and pretensions to artiste-ery of a cartoon horse who resents how he made his name in the low art of comedy. 

It’s also better at exploring that depression and ennui than just about any show on TV (last year, I compared it, favorably, to Mad Men more than its more direct cartoon peers).  Despite being entirely consistent in both its comedic and emotional ethos for 4 seasons, it still surprises that some of the most affecting things I saw this year revolved around the disintegrating marriage between a woman and a deranged golden retriever, or the mid-life crisis of a workaholic cat racing against her biological clock with the help of a fertility app voiced by Harvey Fierstein (the voice you want to hear rasping “Let’s put a baby in you!”).  And as I puzzle over why that is, I am struck by the idea that it is the animation that makes not just the jokey jokes, but the heavier emotions hit harder.  With the auteur-driven “sadcom” – a Louie, a Maron, an Insecure, a Master Of None (takes breath…), a Better Things, a One Mississippi,  a Girls, even some I really enjoy like Atlanta – the examinations of despair, addiction, prejudice, grief and other Real Issues can seem to carry an inescapable whiff of self-indulgence.  And I think a lot of that is related to how we know the face on the screen, our guide through this exploration of Real Issues, also belongs to the creator, writer, executive producer and possibly director of this particular exploration, playing an at-best thinly veiled version of themselves that probably shares their first name.  It feels like they are, to use Bojack’s vernacular, “fetishizing their own sadness”.

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So the “heavy” sitcoms that work best for me tend to be the ones that have the auteur/stars playing roles that may be recognizable as their type of characters, but are definitely characters – like Baskets or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. They also tend to have a slightly larger cast to mitigate the solipsistic nature of the more autobiographical material.  Bojack’s animated nature works at once to obscure those autobiographical (and thus potentially self-aggrandizing) elements by adding another layer to the performances, and to sprawl the scope past the myopic perspective of the main character, and to embrace the abject silliness that helps cut through any hints of pretension or treacle.  I know I’ve said some similar things about Brockmire, Rick And Morty, and The Good Place throughout this list, and in other pieces before it, but I am adamant about this point:  comedy should be funny.

And Bojack Horseman is really, screamingly funny.  The grim psychological, and cultural*, insights at the base of the show never get in the way of delivering constant laughs, or drown the basic, hard-won hope (as opposed optimism) at its deepest core.  There are certain fundamental truths that Bojack never loses sight of, no matter how bleak an episode’s final punchline may be: that the unfairness of life is both unrelenting and also really silly, that happiness is possible but really, really hard, and that stupid puns paradoxically get more worth it as their setups grow increasingly tortured and byzantine.  It can be devastating, but it’s also the only sadcom where I always want to see the next episode right away.

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Watch It For:  “Popular actor and soundtrack artisan” Zach Braff being burned alive and eaten by Jessica Biel.  Although it is a refusal to eat an avocado, rather than said act of cannibalism, that derails her campaign for governor of California.



*This season had an entire episode called “Thoughts And Prayers” all about a bunch of disingenuous cartoon ghouls using that meaningless phrase to ignore any inconvenient fallout from constant mass murders, which was released months before Las Vegas saw everyone calling out GOP lawmakers for that exact thing