Monday, December 31, 2018


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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.


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


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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.


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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.  

Thursday, December 27, 2018


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Big Mouth is dirty. Like, really dirty. As in, the filthiest show on TV by a substantial margin. But it is also an object lesson in how dirty does not have to mean heartless.  Big Mouth is also perhaps the most empathetic show on TV.  By externalizing all of the characters’ worst impulses into various monsters and spirits and talking pubes constantly hissing and grunting terrible advice into their ears, it keeps them sympathetic no matter how filthy or selfish their actions become. This year saw the Ghost of Duke Ellington phased out, probably as much because of Jordan Peele’s limited availability as because he turned out to be rather superfluous as a source of bad suggestions with the all the hormone monsters running around.

But in his place, we got the Shame Wizard, which was a perfect addition and counterpoint to the perpetual grunting and shrieking encouragement of the hormone monsters. David Thewlis is the perfect voice for the embodiment of shame and self-doubt, at once oily and horribly, British-ly logical, but also nailing the exasperated and wounded notes when called for. Also perfect: the autographed photo of Septa Unella on the wall of his office in the Department Of Puberty. Less perfect is John Gemberling’s intentionally but utterly insufferable and stunted hormone monster, but even he has his moments.

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All these spirits and horny devils on the kids’ shoulders are not just raunchy joke machines, though Lord knows they produce those at a firehouse clip. They also demonstrate a more sophisticated examination of sex in the #MeToo era than you would expect from a joke-a-minute dirty cartoon. That’s an incredibly positive movement, don’t get me wrong, but at its most zealous and clumsiest points it can engender a feeling that sex or desire itself has been criminalized. And what Big Mouth and its monsters say is not just that everyone gets horny, and so anything goes. The characters are always, ultimately, accountable for how they behave, but the monsters literalize the idea that even fundamentally good people are only able to be “good” in constant defiance of their own natures.  It’s a compassionate perspective that goes deeper than boners, as the monsters voice not just the horniness, but all the shame, jealousy, fear, and selfishness the characters have no choice but to feel as they sheepishly shuffle toward adulthood. Because those monsters, even the seemingly-villainous Shame Wizard, are not presented as Bad Guys to be defeated.  They are just facts of life, fellow passengers that may be bad influences, but it's not until the kids act on that advice that any talk of good/bad guys and girls starts entering into it.

But to get back to the filth, whoooo boy is it filthy. Much of it explicitly, but it also constantly proves Patton Oswalt’s point that you can be gross without using swearwords. If I never hear a more disturbing euphemism for sex than “make thick in her warm”, that’s probably for the best.

Watch It For: Maya Rudolph’s incredible cadences as Connie the Hormone Monstress. If the Emmy’s gave awards for single line deliveries, as they should, she would win them all just for how she bounces out the syllables of “bubble bath”. To say nothing of “pharmacy”, which comes out as something like fuh-wyarm-azz-zee



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Gustavo Fring sits at the hospital bedside of a fallen enemy, unspooling a Bond Villain monologue about how the enemy has more suffering in store before he will be granted permission to die. It ends with him declaring “I believe you will wake up, Hector,” and the most of us who have seen Breaking Bad know that he is correct and exactly how this continued torment will play out for the both of them. As he leaves, the camera pans down to the comatose hand, and the finger that will ring the trademark bell that introduced us to the character so distinctively. And we wait for it to twitch, as we know it will. As it has to. But it doesn’t. The medical machines continue their indifferent beeping and the hand stays still. We know what is coming, and the show knows we know, and that it doesn’t have to hurry to remind us. Like Gus Fring himself, it is both extremely purposeful and extremely restrained.

So it goes for the slow descent of elder-care advocate Jimmy McGill into the shucking and jiving Saul Goodman, the primary narrative of Better Call Saul. This lack of hurry is the most important trait that Saul inherited from its parent show; the ability to move its plot forward deceptively fast while crafting individual scenes and sequences that take their time and luxuriate in performances and stylish visual storytelling. These flourishes can risk coming off as indulgent; I look to Sam Esmail’s work on Mr. Robot and Homecoming as a handy contemporary comparison for just how easily such bravura style can drown out the substance of a story if the balance isn’t maintained with the scrupulous precision of a Mike Ehrmantraut. But the stylistics of BCS are anything but empty; each lengthy monologue or showy montage moves the narrative and emotional ball forward. Like BB (once it got its feet under it), it churns through a lot of plot while never seeming to be in a rush.

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This is a truly rare feat amongst modern day TV shows. Most strive for the feeling of constant movement, even as they try to kick their narrative cans endlessly down the road of serialization. And they don’t seem to realize that a lack of movement is actually preferable to pointless movement. Audiences, even the majority of those who are unable and/or simply disinterested in articulating exactly how a show pleases and displeases them, have an intuitive understanding of what actually matters to a story, and recognize when they are being sold a bill of goods. Lately, Netflix has been the worst offender in this arena, with its dramas (particularly within its Marvel brand) acquiring a reputation for sputtering in the middle of seasons as wheels are spun to pad out season lengths. In the most egregious cases, there are entire episodes that feel like they could be skipped entirely without having much effect on the finale.  Perhaps Netflix is making a knowing calculation that quantity of content is more important than quality to their business model.  But maybe their producers just need to watch Saul, to learn that it's better to walk with a purpose than sprint in circles.

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Or maybe too much of what makes Saul work is not reproducible.  It's been 4 years now and I’m still amazed this show doesn’t suck. Because on paper, it still looks like it makes a ton of bad decisions. As this year opened with sudden vacuums in the dramatic ecosystems of both main storylines left by the sudden removal of Chuck McGill and Hector Salamanca, I didn’t know exactly where it should go next. But if you had asked me what it should definitely not do, I could have made a quick list. Spending a whole year with Jimmy running out the clock on his suspension from the legal profession. Continuing to sideline Michael Mando’s already-marginalized Nacho, in favor of bringing Gus Fring, the character whose development is shackled thickest and heaviest by the prequel of it all, more directly to the center of the plot. Devoting an entire season to building (half) the Superlab, which still sounds like a horrendous waste of time in the abstract, even after I’ve seen how the show was able to make it all sing.

The keys to making it work are the eloquent visual filmmaking, and the performances. Not just from Odenkirk and workhouses like Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito, but utility players like Mando and Patrick Fabian, and most especially Rhea Seehorn. The role of Kim is vital to make us feel the weight of Jimmy’s transition, as the character is the least shackled by the prequel of it all, so the threats to her future feel the most acute even compared to the characters that have constant threats to their lives. And Seehorn makes her immensely relatable, seeming entirely natural while threading a needle that makes Kim neither a saint nor a dummy nor a harpy. More than any other character, she mirrors what attracts and repels the audience about our protagonist, so we follow her reactions instinctively. When she explodes into a fiery monologue of protectiveness of Jimmy, we are right there with her. And when she recoils silently from the birth of Saul Goodman, we are there too. She is the lynchpin of the cast, giving arguably the best performance on TV, and while I am still unconvinced that this (or any) prequel really needed to exist, introducing her to the Breaking Bad-verse has to be one of the biggest feathers in its cap.

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Watch It For: The best schemes and heists of the year whether it is a rocky Hubbel figurine robbery, a fraught gangland assassination attempt, or an elaborate legal grift involving fabricating an entire Louisiana church and congregation of accents to match.