Wednesday, January 16, 2019

SEVEN BLESSINGS: THE BEST MOMENTS OF GAME OF THRONES, SEASON SIX

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In honor of the faith of the Seven, and to pass the interminable wait for the conclusive episodes of Game Of Thrones, and not at all to scratch a compulsive itch that wouldn't go away once the idea occurred to me, I have decided to list my seven favorite moments from each of the first seven seasons.  Videos will be embedded in the headings.  Anyway, without further ado...


1. Tormund Bites Suggestively Into a Ham Hock   (6.04 - "The Book Of The Stranger")


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Tormund’s immediate, childlike crush on Brienne was one of those delightful little surprises that a show this sprawling can spring upon even its most faithful fans.  A thing so small that you don’t give the potential any thought, but feels wholly appropriate, even obvious, when it pops up.  And Kristofer Hivju and Gwendoline Christie play the little, mostly silent bits for all they are worth.      


 2.   Hold The Door (6.05 – “The Door”)

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Bran’s storyline has never been my favorite, because, like Dany’s, it has been constrained by it’s centrality to the mythology guaranteeing that whatever setbacks he experiences can’t be too final. It's not that it has been predictable exactly, but the threat of death that hangs over all the scenes on the show feels more hollow for those two characters than any of the rest.

So if these storylines are to shock or thrill us, it is down to the individual execution of scenes to do it, and for supporting characters to be the targets of any threats we are supposed to take seriously. Bran’s story managed it most wrenchingly with the combination of exit and origin story for the simpleminded giant Hodor.  Due to his supporting status, we had not had much cause to mull over how his impediments might be illuminated by Bran’s mystical abilities. The show had certainly delivered comparably sad deaths before, but the way it diverted into sci-fi territory with the time travel aspect upped the shock factor and made the gutpunch land all the harder. Hodor’s trademark diction was not a mystery we felt really needed to be solved, but that is precisely why it was such a satisfying surprise when it came.  And as other entries in this post will bear out, when the show can find genuinely new things to show us after so long, or ways to show them, it makes a big impression.


3.  I Choose Violence (6.08 – “No One”) 


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This is the second time Ser Gregor Clegane has appeared on one of these lists, specifically for annihilating someone’s head with his bare hands.  So it goes.

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B-b-b-b-b-bonus Smush!
  
We had to wait a full season for the FrankenMountain to shamble his way out of Qyburn’s lab, and the better part of another one to see it properly unleashed. And we had been waiting for longer than that for someone to take the High Sparrow and his band of violent prigs down a peg. Cersei has been waiting as impatiently as the rest of us. And so it’s one of the series’s sneaky tricks of perspective that when this woman, who has been an unabashed villain for the life of the series, emphatically chooses undead violence over continued capitulation to the fanatical mob, we feel the same catharsis she does. 


4.      Now They’re Starving – (6.09 – “Battle Of The Bastards”)

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The titular battle is full of fantastic moments, as intense and well-rendered a medieval battle sequence as I’ve seen on screens of any size. Deciding what moment to highlight from such a bravura sequence was a challenge – Jon facing down a cavalry charge alone? Wun Wun breaking down the gate? Jon nearly getting crushed at the base of the mountain of corpses?  But ultimately, I find that the battle is a strange case, one that works on the micro level of those fantastically executed moments, and the macro level in that I buy the general course of events (Jon rallies a smaller force to challenge the Boltons and triumphs thanks to Sansa calling in the knights of the Vale). But in between the bird’s eye view and the immediacy of the filmmaking - a space where most of the experience of actually watching the show falls - it is marred by the out-of-character stupidity of Sansa hiding the existence of an entire friendly army from her own generals for no discernible reason.

Because I buy the basic set up of the conflict and its resolution, the abject pointlessness of that decision only serves to distract me from the battle itself, and I pretty much snap back to attention for the aftermath. So I chose to highlight Ramsay’s highly appropriate end, as Sansa turns his own dogs, the instruments of so much of his cruelty, into his executioners. A brutal end, but no fictional character has ever deserved it more. And in addition to the satisfaction of seeing Sansa realize her vengeance, there was also simple relief. While I knew that the Starks had to succeed in retaking Winterfell, I'd half expected Ramsay himself to somehow slither away and cause trouble another day. Thankfully, that was not to be, and we got to enter the final stretch without the constant threat of every episode grinding to a halt to watch him play repetitively sadistic games with people who can’t clap back. And Sansa got to have the last word with her most brutal tormentor.

5. The Light Of The Seven – (6.10 – “The Winds Of Winter”)

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For better or worse, the visual style of a television series is generally set by the first episode. And that is usually worse, because the occasional LOST or Walking Dead aside, pilot episodes tend to be unpolished and underfunded compared to what that show can manage after success has afforded them more time and money to put in service of big spectacle. Game Of Thrones is an object lesson in this regard; the first season elided big battle scenes, opting for what could charitably be described as a Shakespearean approach, i.e. having someone enter stage left and inform another character of the outcome rather than actually showing the battle.  Even “Blackwater”, while focused entirely on depicting a battle, confined all its fighting to a small, nondescript patch of dirt and a small, nondescript patch of battlement. That episode makes up with narrative craft what it lacks in filmmaking verve, but the point of this is that GOT early on established a visual palette that was very much not flashy. And that actually does fit in with the overall ethos of a series that is so defined by its deglamorization of standard fantasy settings and tropes; if the filmmaking was consistently hyper-stylized, you would be courting the vague dissonance that permeates Zach Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation (where the director’s high-gloss visual style undermines the story’s focus on deglamorizing superhero fantasy).

But after 6 years, the series has earned the right to showboat a bit, and when it does go for a full Godfather-style montage (with just a dash of Children Of The Corn, for flavor), it really stands out. Ramin Djawadi’s most elaborate musical composition to date, and the years of familiarity we have built up with the multitude of characters, settings and bits of lore that play into the sequence, allow it to carry us through nearly ten minutes and the violent deaths of a half dozen regular or recurring characters with minimal dialogue. Even though all of us obsessives had sussed out Cersei’s plan from the first hint a few weeks prior, the presentation was so strikingly, surprisingly stylish that it blew us away anyhow. This is a standout sequence precisely because it is such a departure from the show’s general MO, but it also wouldn’t work as well if the “regular” version of the show hadn’t grounded us so thoroughly in the contours and cultures of this strange fictional world.

6. Vengeance. Justice. Fire And Blood.  - (6.10 – “The Winds Of Winter”)


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Season 6 was, for the most part, an odd mix of unusually accelerated and thinly-sketched plotting (the abrupt ends of Doran, Balon and Roose, Sam and Jaime and the Greyjoys bopping across the world in a single scene where once people spent entire seasons traveling such distances) and the belaboring of inevitabilities (taking over half a season to get Jon back to life and out of Castle Black, Cersei and the Tyrells remaining imprisoned until the very end, the slavers finally self-owning themselves out of the picture entirely, Arya working her way into and out of the graces of the Faceless again). But it all came together magnificently in the end, with the Battle Of The Bastards, Cersei’s fiery purge of King’s Landing, and Dany finally, finally leaving the tutorial level of Essos to join the fray for realsies.

And while I could have chosen that final image of her at the head of the fleet, I want to highlight this scene instead. For one, it features a vengeful Olenna turning her sharp tongue on the Sand Snakes, and Olenna is awesome. But for another, it highlights how for all the frustrations that the wonkier timelines of the latter seasons cause (don’t get me started on that whole frozen lake sequence), that fuzziness can also be used to disarm the audience to powerful dramatic effect. As we have become more accustomed to the series’s narrative habits and tricks, it becomes harder to drop our jaws as consistently as those early seasons did. But this scene moves us forward so quickly that it took me by surprise even though it represented an entirely logical progression of the story threads. When you think about it, the scene must take place weeks after the destruction of the sept, for Olenna to have made a trip to Dorne to discuss it. The throughline from one event to the other is clear enough that we don’t have any trouble following it, but we are so unused to an episode making that sort of leap forward from scene to scene that we are immediately off balance. And the notable absence of the Dornish women since their coup in the premiere, while wonky in its own right, did also contribute to their sudden reappearance feeling surprising rather than inevitable.

The point is, while it seems logical that Olenna would make common cause with the other sworn enemies of the Lannisters after Cersei literally blew up their alliance, we simply hadn’t yet had enough time to process that event and parse out these implications. And the scene moves along so quickly that we certainly haven’t had time to thread the implications of this new alliance over to Dany’s storyline, so when Varys comes out to drop the mic, it’s even more surprising. And doubly exciting, because while various players have made their way from Westeros over to her in seasons past, this is the first time that her storyline has actively imposed itself onto the primary political arena. I have frequently identified Dany’s storyline as being the source of the most frustration on the show, because it is so clearly treading water. But this one line feels like 6 years of patience is finally paying off.


7. King In The North (Reprise) – (6.10 – “The Winds Of Winter”)


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We’ve seen this scene before, when Robb’s bannermen held an impromptu coronation to hail him King In The North. But at that point we were still novices in the political history of Westeros, and so the full import was a bit lost. Back then I didn’t really understand that this title harkens back to a time before the Iron Throne existed. And while Robb had already lost his father at that point, that’s but a drop in the ocean of suffering we’ve seen the remaining Starks endure since. Which makes it all the more rewarding to see them reclaim their home and avenge their murdered kin so directly. It’s beyond satisfying to see the itinerant lords of the North sincerely acknowledging their mistake in losing faith, all the more so because they are delightfully shamed into it by badass lil’ lady Mormont. When the music swells over the chant proclaiming Jon king, it’s as purely triumphant a moment as the show has ever provided outside of Dany’s storyline. And in contrast to beating up on hapless slavers for years on end, this triumph feels as bitterly and thoroughly earned as any could.

I think about this moment when GOT is referenced as a nihilistic parade of sadism. I don’t think that the series is nihilistic, or even entirely cynical. The wicked in Westeros always seem to get what’s coming to them. Eventually. And the good, at least those that survive, do eventually triumph. There is a moral arc in this world, but it moves slower than its years-long seasons. And to be able to see that requires much more patience, and a much stronger stomach, than about any other narrative I can think of. Fantasy or otherwise. And like another world I can think of, the victories for the good people are so rare and difficult to get to that they must be savored when they come.

Monday, December 31, 2018

BEST OF 2018 - THE AMERICANS LEAVES BEHIND A LEGACY OF PAIN AND GREAT SUBPLOTTING

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1.   THE AMERICANS (FX)


The most striking thing about The Americans, from its crackerjack pilot to its inevitably tragic close, is all things it didn’t need to do. It didn’t need elaborate action sequences to get our blood pumping (or more frequently, run cold).  It didn't need to juice its body count to find new ways to torment its characters. It didn’t need to feed big speeches to the actors to explicate the conflict between its guarded, unsentimental characters, not when Mathew Rhys and Keri Russell (and Noah Emmerich and Frank Langella and Margo Martindale and Alison Wright and Costa Ronin) could communicate worlds of devastation and longing and resignation in pained looks. It didn’t need to weigh us down with mounds of exposition before dropping midstream into a new elaborate espionage operation with a new mark and phony identities. It didn’t need to make Stan a complete dunderhead to draw out the tension over whether he will figure out that the sleeper agent he’s been hunting for 5 years is living across the street. It didn’t need to make Philip and Elizabeth’s espionage antics ahistorically earth-shattering to feel like they had real consequence. It didn’t need to force a car chase or a gunfight into every episode to maintain our interest, if it felt a quieter, more character-driven avenue would be more interesting that week, and at the same time it didn’t need to give filler storylines to the children and spouses of the leads when they ceased having direct bearing on the plot.

On that last point, I'd like to talk to you about bad subplotting for a bit. Even the best shows generally have a clunker storyline or two lousing up their joints, particularly if they lived a full life instead of getting cancelled tragically young. You may have your own “favorite” example; maybe it is Jack’s Tattoos, or Marie’s kleptomania, or Vito’s New Hampshire sojourn, or Vito Jr.’s scatological showers, or Vince Masuka’s daughter, or Riley getting recreationally bitten, or Betty Draper’s weight gain, or Nucky’s nephew’s misadventures in college, or Lee Adama becoming a hard-boiled-but-undercooked detective, or Munch and Bayliss buying a bar, or The Hound building a church. I'm pulling exclusively from shows that were, or at least could be, great there, and I barely scratched the surface of possible examples. I don’t rattle them off to trash the shows, but just to point out that even at the best of times the tedious subplot is for the most part an unavoidable part of the weather patterns of the prestige TV landscape.

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"And next week we have a high chance of wheel-spinning in the A plot,
which may turn to pretentious bullshittery overnight..."

I kind of get why it happens, but like with bad weather, understanding how the storm forms does little to alleviate the burden of living through it in real time, and that experience can be either a brief annoyance or a prolonged catastrophe. Some bad subplots are single episode tangents that never manage the feint at a larger relevance. Some eat up huge swathes of a season with ludicrous contrivances or dull, pretentious non-incidents. Sometimes they form because the show is grasping so desperately to reheat a stale characterization that it lands on something entirely out-of-character, sometimes it is just the strained belaboring of a forgone conclusion. In the worst cases, it feels like the writers are chafing at the confines of the narrative boxes they created for themselves in the first place, and so they just hijack the pieces of the show the audience actually gives a shit about in order to inflict their ersatz versions of Ibsen upon them.

For prestige TV junkies, this can be especially painful because you develop a sense for spotting the formations of a pointless subplot before it has even begun to disappoint.  The brow furrows at the focus suddenly shifting to an ensemble player, or (shudder) the teenage child of a lead, out on their own. A new character pops up with a suddenly intense or deep-but-never-before-alluded-to connection to a lead, and you flinch (cruelly, such characters often appear wearing the skin of an over-qualified character actor who you would actually be a great fit for the show if they received real material). An established character is discovered to have a secret talent, through which they start stumbling into a new profession, although that resides at a considerable remove from the main focus of the narrative, and irl said profession is highly competitive to break into even for those with ability, experience, intentionality, and the requisite degrees on their side.

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"You're a radio DJ now, why not?"
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"And you're a staffed comedy writer, sure.  No one else is in LA is trying to do that anyway."
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"Hung out with a journalist once?  Guess you're a reporter now."

The Americans, though, had a real knack for making its subplots feel meaningful. Some were more impactful than others, certainly, but none of them felt truly superfluous. Part of that is the good sense not to walk into certain traps; to not impose Aderholt’s home life upon us, or force poor, oblivious Henry to carry his own subplots when they would be so vestigial to the body of the show. But a lot of it also flowed out of the basic premise.  So many shows, especially once they have burned through a first season of planned arcs, struggle to contrive ways to place the characters into unfamiliar settings that will challenge them in fresh ways and reveal some new aspect of their personalities, and those shows suffer when those settings stray too far from whatever basic dramatic nucleus they have established. By contrast, The Jennings’ espionage activity required them to constantly contrive to place themselves into such situations, and so they always fed naturally back into that fundamental nucleus of the drama rather than feeling like a retreat from it.

Because of this, storylines that would have the highest potential for tedium became some of the strongest in the series.  Far from becoming the narrative orphans that other teen daughters of antiheroes like Meadow Soprano, Kim Bauer, or Dana Brody became in their shows later seasons, Page Jennings only became more central and interesting as she was exposed to more of her parents’ secrets. A slow-burning subplot about hardened killer Elizabeth learning to draw from a terminally ill artist sure sounds like the worst, most indulgent thing for the show to be wasting time on in its home stretch. But because it was always directly tied to the espionage, it gets to mine the subtle character-building pathos of the situation without it ever feeling cloying, or like it was just marking time to pad out the episode count, or as though the writers were looking down their noses at the genre elements of their own premise as they indulge their frustrated pretensions at arthouse verite'.

That storyline is emblematic of what a rare and deft touch The Americans had with such material. It is not pure plot mechanics, and it is neither rushed nor heavy-handed in spelling out its full thematic meaning. But neither is it willfully oblique; there is room for interpretation of exactly what it means, but when the dust settles, it’s not leaving the average Joe wondering just what the hell that was all about. That’s the hallmark of a story with actual depth, not purposeful obfuscation meant to suggest depth.

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Howdy, pardner.

[OKAY, SERIOUS AND HIGHLY SPECIFIC SPOILERS FOR THE FINALE NOW]


The Americans was not always my favorite peak TV drama, but for five years it remained as harrowing and unpredictable as any of them, while being the most understated. And it somehow managed to craft an ending that maintained that understatement while also being suitably climactic. To get back to the theme of things the final season didn’t need: it didn’t need more than a single scene of Stan confronting his neighbors with all the cards finally on the table to feel like it paid off all those years of deception fully. And it didn’t need any of them to kill each other to pay it all down. Nor did it need to kill Oleg to underline the magnitude of what his conscience cost his whole family. It didn’t need to send the main characters to jail to “punish” them properly.  It didn’t even need to destroy their marriage, even after a masterful misdirect of a storyline that set up a seemingly-inevitable schism and spy-vs-spy conflict between them for the show’s endgame. On paper, the final resolutions for the characters may look like a series of pulled punches, but it’s not because the show went soft on its leads as antihero dramas are prone to do (something even an all-timer like Breaking Bad couldn’t entirely resist). It could be as cruel as any similarly intense drama, but it was never, ever wanton. Could the ending have been more explosive? Surely. But The Americans was never concerned with explosiveness, only with weight. And for as light on violent death as it was, that finale was heavy, man.

I don’t want to discourage any other shows from going out with the biggest bang possible, as I think the impulse to swing big should be encouraged when crafting an ending, particularly in an age where longform storytelling is becoming so defined by soft-headed indulgence of the audience and the increasing inevitability that anything mildly successful will be subjected to reboot/revival/resurrection in 5, 10, or 30 years. But I hope the people crafting those endings will also study The Americans, and how it managed to surprise us with the final content of the butcher’s bill, even as that bill was presented with the muted authority of someone with nothing to prove. 
 

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Watch It For: The 80s deep cuts, which like so much of the show, were rarely obvious and always perfect.

Friday, December 28, 2018

BEST OF 2018 - ATLANTA: ROBBIN' SEASON IS A VANITY PROJECT WITHOUT THE VANITY

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2.  ATLANTA: ROBBIN' SEASON  (FX)

Sophomore slumps are real, and the first season of Atlanta was such a singular surprise that the second seemed destined to disappoint. Somehow it didn’t, getting if anything weirder and darker than the first. This is the preeminent auteur-driven, sad sitcom of the sort I have developed a healthy disdain for, but I don’t get fed up with it as I do those others. Which honestly confuses me. Last year, I posited that it was because it was simply funnier than most comedies that have more "important" things than on their mind than telling jokes. But as I think back on its second and perhaps even better season, it’s not the funny bits that stand out (although I do still recall having to pause to catch my breath after an ex-con’s musings about how Bojack Horseman plays with his sympathies, or the freeze-frame/smash cut payoff to the strip club episode).

But while I’m not exactly reversing course on the comedy-should-be-funny hobby horse that crops up so frequently on Schwartzblogs, there is more that makes Atlanta stand out than that. On the surface, go-to director Hiro Munai simply makes it look way, way better than most shows (or feature films, for that matter), even as it remains tightly grounded in a world of unease and poverty and the endless well of frustrated reaction shots that Bryan Tyree Henry can evince. Then there is the genuine unpredictability that comes with the untethering from strict serialization and continuity, which is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, shows of its auteurist, semi-anthological ilk are entirely impossible to predict, but on the other, predictability is only really an issue for plot-driven offerings like Game Of Thrones or The Expanse, where speculating on the upcoming twists is half the fun. Calling something that has little-to-no plot to begin with “unpredictable” seems like damning it with faint technicalities.

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So maybe “surprising” is a better term than “unpredictable”. Rather than going into each episode with specific expectations or fears for where a particular plotline will turn, I expect a loosely-connected spinoff featuring a familiar character or two. And I remain continually surprised by the directions in which it spins, which this year was increasingly in the direction of outright horror. The real unifying thread between the episodes that otherwise vary so widely in setting, character focus, length and tone, is the sense of anxiety (be it racial, economic, or otherwise) that hums throughout even the lighter parts of Robbin’ Season. This is most obvious in the instantly-iconic “Teddy Perkins”, which actually does boil over into actual scary-movie territory. But it was also there in the discordantly cheerful imagery and costuming of the Oktoberfest episode, in Alfred getting lost in the urban jungle and more literal woods at different points, in a flashback where the wrong tag on a shirt threatens to turn middle school into an inner-city version of The Crucible, right up to a blood-freezing realization in the finale that threatened to turn a difficult year for Earn into an out and out tragedy.

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But perhaps the most significant difference between Atlanta and other auteur-driven "comedies" is that it makes subtly astute decisions to avoid the feeling of a vanity project, which is how they almost always smack to me. And I’ll admit that I was especially concerned about that after an extensive New Yorker profile in the lead up to the second season debut painted Glover as by turns bitter, paranoid and egomanaical in the face of the enormous success of the first season (on top of his various other universally-lauded artistic endeavors). For a show that is to such a degree about frustration, failure, and disappointment, it seemed all too plausible for him to lose touch with those realities, or to turn his own character into a put-upon, unappreciated saint of a genius that the world keeps cruelly stymying. That’s pretty much what I’d expect from anyone with the ego to match his talents.

But the season evinced none of that, to an extent that I occasionally wondered if any of that article was just him idly fucking with a writer that was all set to write about a secretive tortured genius anyway. It's hard to lobby accusations of vanity when so many episodes focused on Earn not actually being all that sharp or savvy about the business he is paid to navigate. Nor does the season go out of its way to establish him as an especially great father, or partner, or whatever other special virtue that most shows would be sure to reiterate in order to guard against the audience’s sympathies drifting away. On the contrary, it seemed to actively court the realignment of those sympathies with big, gruff Alfred and his creeping fear that loyalty to this cousin is squandering the potential his Big Break could have held for both of them. There’s probably even a reading to be made of how Alfred, being the famous face, is actually more of the stand-in for Donald Glover, who did give his own younger brother his first gig writing for Atlanta.  If you bought into that, you could make the case the vanity element is just more obscured by casting trickery than if he had hired himself as a charming “fictionalized” rapper/comedian/Calrissian named Donald. But even if that were true rather than pulled directly out of my ass just now, it wouldn’t change just how well the trick works. That willingness to literally step into the shoes of a figure so much more hapless than the real man, to do the work of finding ways to believably live in the skin of someone so much less impressive than he actually is, that’s not really how vanity works. Or if it is, then this particular form is operating on such a higher level than most that maybe its right to be impressed with itself.

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Watch It For: Zazie Beetz, who I somehow didn’t mention at all.

BEST OF 2018 - BOJACK HORSEMAN IS STILL THE BEST SATIRE IN THE WORLD

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3.  BOJACK HORSEMAN (NETFLIX)

Bojack has reached a point where it's becoming easy to take its brilliance for granted. To accept its dizzying wordplay as de rigeur. The precise and ruthless vivisections of Hollywoo(d) culture as standard smelling-own-farts metacomedy.  The emotionally raw pits the characters reach as scheduled stops on their seasonal journeys, rather than miracles of real characterization developed without slowing the gag-a-second pace of outlandish puns, visual gags, drug humor, stupid names and honest to god jokes that make it a real contender for funniest show on the air, as well as the saddest, and the most perversely honest.

This season is dipping slightly in the rankings because a spare few elements didn’t entirely work. The pair of vaudevillian popsicle-stick joke writers fell flatter than any gag in the life of the show, and crude (in construction and functionality) sexbot Henry Fondle seemed designed to pogo from abject stupidity to hilariously-inspired stupidity, but spent too much time on the abject end of that spectrum. And let’s be honest, part of the problem with him is that his bits tried to mine the same vein of comic antilogic as the show’s most singularly hilarious creation, and Henry can’t measure up to even two of the children in Vincent Adultman’s oversized trenchcoat, much less the third. What man, or machine, possibly could?




If the sexbot’s rise through the corporate ranks didn’t succeed at bringing the sharpened absurdity that the show had previously trained on abortion or gun control debates to the #MeToo arena, the season did find more productive angles from which to approach the what is certainly the defining issue of the era for the entertainment industry, if not for all of society. Their Mel Gibson analogue tees things off nicely, and dropping in the Forgivies awards as a longstanding staple of Hollywoo is the kind of satire where the matter-of-factness gives it a keener edge.

But it's Bojack’s new gig as the eponymous, gritty antihero Philbert that provides the spine of the season and ties it all together.  It introduces us to great new characters in Stephanie Beatriz’s love interest/costar, a talented performer who has maybe learned her place in the Hollywoo pecking order a little too well, and Rami Malek’s showrunner, so convinced by his own tortured artist schtick that he’s…well, basically what I imagine Nick Pizzolatto is like in person. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Bojack produced the best satire of the antihero-driven prestige drama we’ve seen in the two decades those shows have dominated the airwaves/Emmys. And while I remain a total mark for such offerings (spoiler alert, there's one at the top of this very list), they have certainly developed enough  pretensions and overused tropes to make them ripe for parody. But the thing about Bojack’s send-ups, of not just TV but everything really, is that it is brutal but also understanding. While utter disgust can be good for a couple vicious burns, I don’t think you can do any extended form of satire without a real understanding of the appeal of the thing being satirized.

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What elevates Philbert is how it doesn’t just mock  the tropes of an under-parodied genre. It extends that understanding to tie together the entire season’s theme, and present a life-imitates-art feedback loop where men’s bad behind-the-scenes behavior reflects into men’s bad behavior in the scenes which result in an elaborate apologia excusing such bad behavior across the board. It paints an incisive portrait of how personal, artistic, and corporate dysfunction all have a way of developing elaborate ecosystems of justification to sustain themselves, all nesting within and feeding off each other.  But it’s not just moralistic finger-wagging. Bojack isn’t lashing out at another genre, it’s implicating itself along with it (which seems only fair, as I’ve previously written about how favorably that it stacks up against antihero dramas on their own terms). It understands all too well why the entertainments, and justifications, appeal to damaged people and systems.  And in the end, there are still no pat answers about how to balance the need for society to confront patriarchal abuse more forcefully and the moral imperatives to forgive and foster actual growth where it can be found.  

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But there are a lot of really, really good jokes.  And why do we even make jokes, if not because they are the next best thing to answers?


Watch It For: "Free Churro" is getting all the attention as the standout episode this year, but for my money, the follow up "INT. SUB", which filter's our usual gang's dysfunction through the unwitting perspectives (and weak attempts at professional confidentiality) of Diane's therapist and her wife, is the best entry.  It works with the visual whimsy that animation provides, where the staginess  of "Churro" works against it.