Friday, December 26, 2014

The Best of Television 2014, pt. 1: The Newcomers and the Dearly Departed

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were amazing in "True Detective"

I wrote last year about how strange the whole concept of year-end Best Of lists is to me, but I like discussing television, especially good television, so I’m back again this year to talk about the shows I think were the best in 2014.  I said last year that "television has never been this deep, broad, and good" and I feel the same about this year.  For that reason it feels unfair to limit my list to only ten selections.  So, as with last year, I’m not going to hold myself to naming only ten shows but will instead lead into my year-end Top Ten with a pair of pieces looking at the also-rans, which this year numbered fifteen on top of my ten favorite shows.  Today, I’ll be looking at my “Next Best” shows that either debuted this year or that ended their runs in 2014.

The Newcomers –

Carrie Coon gave one of the most emotionally raw performances of the year in "The Leftovers"

The Leftovers (HBO) –
I don’t know that any show on television this year was more divisive than HBO’s The Leftovers.  It was an exceedingly gloomy and dire affair and yet was filled with magnetic performances that kept me glued to the screen even as the characters went through every trial and tribulation imaginable.  Maybe that’s the way a show needs to play out a depressed world in which two percent of the Earth’s population has mysteriously vanished, but it made for an incredibly difficult piece of television to view.

The only thing keeping The Leftovers off my Top Ten list is the fact that it was a bit uneven.  Had every episode been as compelling as “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” in which Christopher Eccleston’s Reverend Jamison attempts to save his church only to fail in a sucker punch of a closing scene, or “Guest,” which mostly follows standout star Carrie Coon’s Nora to a conference in New York City, it would have been a shoo-in for a top spot as those were two of my very favorite episodes of television this year.  But when the show tried to spread itself out in service of the multitude of disparate storylines that only vaguely came together in the end, it suffered.  The Leftovers is apparently retooling for its second season, including a change of scenery and a trimming of the supporting cast, so maybe that will help alleviate the problems I had with the show.

The Leftovers is available on HBOGo and has been renewed for a second season likely to air in 2015.

The Flash (CW) –
While Marvel has taken the film world by storm, its principle competitor DC Comics has been making its best inroads on television.  Arrow will find its way onto one of these lists later on (spoiler alert), while Gotham has quickly become Fox’s highest-rated series.  Constantine may not be coming back for a second season, but Supergirl, Justice League, and Teen Titans shows are all in development right now.

Frankly, though, the most impressive of all of these series might be the CW’s freshman The Flash.  Most superhero shows take time to find their legs, but The Flash came out of the gates running.  It also largely eschewed my least favorite superhero cliché, which is the secret identity.  Unlike the CW's first superhero series Smallville, which felt the need to keep Clark Kent’s powers a secret for far too long, well beyond the point of credibility, The Flash almost immediately integrated nearly the entire cast into the “Scooby Gang,” so that only one main character remains out of the loop as to The Flash’s real identity. 

The Flash has also figured out how to properly balance the serialized elements that any comic book story has with the needs of producing a weekly television show.  It’s not a perfect show yet, and it’s a little disconcerting that the best episodes have been Arrow crossovers, indicating that it might not yet be able to entirely stand on its own, but The Flash was the second-best new series of the 2014 fall season and fits in nicely in the DC television universe.

The Flash is currently airing its first season on Tuesday nights on the CW.  The most recent five episodes are available for streaming on Hulu+

The Knick (Cinemax) –
A couple of years ago, Cinemax broke in to the scripted original game with a pair of better-than-expected, testosterone-fueled action series in Strike Back and Banshee.  In 2014, the former was sidelined due to an injury to star Sullivan Stapleton while the latter took a step forward and finally showed an interest in being something better than a pulpy action series.

More surprising, however, than Banshee's marked improvement was the network’s announcement that it was partnering with Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh and Oscar-nominated actor Clive Owen to produce The Knick, a series about a drug-addled surgeon set at the turn of the century.  While I didn’t enjoy The Knick a great deal (and had issues with the lack of depth provided to some of the supporting characters), the deft hand Soderbergh shows behind the camera in every episode makes the entire season feel of a single piece.  And Clive Owen and André Holland give remarkable performances that should earn them a great number of awards nominations.  The show, at times, was a bit of a slog for me, as I’ve moved out of my white, male, anti-hero phase, but it was filled with great work both in front of, and behind the camera.

The Knick is currently available for streaming on MaxGo, Cinemax’s streaming app.  It has been renewed for a second season, to be aired at an as yet undetermined date, likely in 2015.

Manhattan (WGN America) –
No show surprised me more this year than WGN America’s Manhattan.  For the last few years, the network has been trying to distance itself from its Chicago roots and transition to a national cable network, much like TBS did a decade or so ago.  Manhattan was their second attempt at original programming, following the far less interesting genre piece Salem and it ends up on this list, as so many new shows do, by being far better than it has any reason to be.

On its surface, it’s fairly easy to explain the appeal of Manhattan.  It’s a period piece, set in World War II, covering the exploits of a team of scientists as they work to develop what we are led to believe will be a failed alternative to the nuclear bomb that will eventually be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But beyond that, this is a drama filled with fascinating characters, including John Benjamin Hickey’s old stalwart Frank Winter, the leader of the project and the man around whom most of the drama unfolds, Ashley Zukerman’s young upstart Charlie Isaacs, whom everybody thinks the world of, but whom might actually be a fraud, and their wives, Liza Winter (Olivia Williams), a brilliant scientist in her own right forced to subjugate her professional desires to the needs of her husband and the nation, and Abby Isaacs (Rachel Brosnahan), who is the audience's entry point into the world of the military wives who keep Los Alamos running, and who is harboring her own secrets.

Ultimately, Manhattan didn’t hit the highs that The Leftovers or The Knick (or the two following shows for that matter) hit, but it was a solid drama that ended up being far better than I ever expected and deserves a much larger audience than the 300,000-400,000 viewers it normally averages.

The first season of Manhattan is currently available on Hulu+ and the second will air some time in 2015.

True Detective (HBO) –
If you had asked me for my Top Ten list in March, True Detective would have been very near the top.  That it now finds itself on my “also receiving votes” list is not an indictment of the show itself but a remarkable statement on the quality of television today.  For the most part, True Detective was a great show.  The writing was tight, the directing was top-notch, even outside of the much-discussed tracking shot, and the acting was among the best television saw in 2014.

Maybe I’m being unfair, then, to hold True Detective to a higher standard than I might Banshee or Manhattan, but the fact that it did so many things so well only made the weak moments seem that much worse.  For example, the show has a serious problem with its treatment of women, who mostly exist either to sleep with or berate the male main characters.  Like I said, it might be unfair, but the last two years or so have seen such a marked increase in diversity on television, with male-driven shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad giving way to great shows featuring male and female leads like The Americans, The Bridge, and Masters of Sex, that True Detective feels almost like a throwback to the television of five or ten years ago.  Even some of the overly masculine shows on television today (I’m thinking specifically of Hannibal and Banshee) manage to have well-developed female characters.  That True Detective couldn’t figure that out ends up being enough of a mark against it to drop the show out of my Top Ten.  But it was still very good television, nonetheless.

True Detective is currently available on HBOGo.  A second season has been ordered and cast, though an air date has not yet been set and I wouldn’t expect to see it until late 2015 or early 2016.

The Dearly Departed –

"The Bridge" ended well, if just too soon.

The Bridge (FX) –
I had The Bridge on my favorite newcomers list last year so it is with a heavy heart that I must discuss it as dearly departed in 2014 because the truth is that it was a much better show this year, having largely eschewed the serial killer storyline that so plagued its first season.  Yes, the plot came back here and there but, for the most part, the second season of The Bridge was simply the story of two detectives and their increasingly quixotic quest to control crime along the US-Mexico border.

In the show’s second season, Demián Bichir gets to do a lot of the heavy lifting as his character develops an increasingly close relationship with cartel leader Fausto Galvan, but it is his co-lead Diane Kruger who rather surprisingly becomes the emotional center of the show, despite her character’s suggested Asperger’s symptoms creating a distinct separation from most of the other characters on the show.  I would like to think that, had the show’s writers known they wouldn’t be getting a third season (ratings were down about 40-50 percent from the first season to the second), they would have crafted a more definitive ending but, in truth, the closing scene of the finale is absolutely gorgeous and works to close out the series about as well as anything else could have.

The first season of The Bridge is currently available on Hulu+, though the second is not yet available.

Those are my picks for the best new shows and canceled shows of 2014 to not make my Top Ten list.  Coming next, the (almost) best continuing series of 2014.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Newsroom Review: "Oh Shenandoah" - Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Sam Waterston finally loses his cool in "The Newsroom"

Hundreds of thousands of words have already been written about this past Sunday’s penultimate episode of The Newsroom, focusing mainly on Sorkin’s misguided attempt to address the story of campus rape and its tenuous relationship to media.  The plot, which involves Don trying to dictate to a rape victim how she should be allowed to tell her story, was paternalistic, utterly lacking in empathy, and grossly tone-deaf.  It also had the misfortune of hitting the air just days after Rolling Stone publicly disavowed its shocking but familiar article on a brutal gang-rape on the campus of the University of Virginia.  But not even better timing could have saved this lead weight of a story.

I do not believe that I am properly equipped as a writer to deal with this particular part of the episode.  I have never in my entire life lived under even the vaguest threat of sexual assault.  I have never been told to take my keys out before I walk to my car.  I’ve never been taught not to accept a drink I didn’t see prepared.  I’ve never carried pepper spray.  I’ve never felt even remotely threatened.  I live a privileged life in that sense and it leaves me utterly incapable of feeling competent in discussing the many, many problems with how Sorkin deals with the subject.  Fortunately, there are a great many writers who are capable of writing about this part of “Oh Shenandoah” and I would highly encourage you to read their fine work.

What I do feel comfortable discussing (and would like to discuss) is the death of the one storyline I was really enjoying, and for that, we must talk about the death of Charlie Skinner, who was literally killed by the conflict between old media and new.

All season long, and really all series long, Sorkin has been exploring that space between the old vanguard and the new wave of media, typically falling, obviously, on the side of the established elite.  And that’s fine.  This is a show, after all, about the heroes of cable news.  We should expect them to be the best at what they do.  But the last few episodes have been asking a much more interesting question: what if being the best isn’t good enough?  What if the war has already been lost because the old guard spent so much time fighting the new guard without ever realizing that they weren’t the real enemy – the audience was?

It seems to me that the fight between old and new media was lost the moment people began to curate their own news – as soon as it stopped being “the news” and became “my news.”  This transformation didn’t start with Facebook and Twitter, though they certainly accelerated it.  You could argue that it started with Fox News and the politicization of the news.  Certainly, they too have been the target of The Newsroom’s wrath, but I think Sorkin misses the point in attacking politicized news, or internet news agencies, or Twitter.  None of these entities is the problem; they are the symptoms.  The disease is our desire to dictate what news we see.

I get most of my news through Twitter today.  For local news I follow the education and political reporters for my local paper.  For national news I follow reporters from the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, USA Today and other publications.  I realize, however, that I am an outlier.  For most people “the news” is funny cat videos, “life-changing gift-wrap hacks,” and “Scarlett Johansson’s secret to getting skinny.”*  All of these examples were taken from my Facebook feed this morning.  This is the type of “news” that most people care about these days and it’s clearly the future that The Newsroom most fears.

* Spoiler Alert: it’s exercise.

What Sorkin fails to realize is that this battle has already been lost; it was lost the moment the audience was allowed to receive only the news it wanted.  What has marked the best news organizations, then, in the modern world of “giving the people what they want” is their ability to marry the new media and the old.  I may give CNN crap for clickbait headlines on its website like “Swastikas on holiday gift wrapping?”* or “Why he’d leave NFL, $7m to retire.”**  But the network is still the best source for unbiased cable news, even if sometimes that “news” is 24/7 coverage of a missing plane.***  While Buzzfeed may be known mostly as the place to go to find out “18 Times Tumblr Summed Up Christmas Perfectly” or to see the “10 Celebrity Moments that Basically Broke Twitter in 2014,” the site does have a legitimate news arm that has exposed, among other things, the practice of imprisoning the victims of domestic abuse when their abusers attack their children.  The Huffington Post, whose Ryan Reilly put out some of the best on-the-ground reporting during the Ferguson protests still has a page dedicated to sideboob.****

* It’s an accidental inclusion in a larger pattern.
** Spoiler Alert: It’s Marshawn Lynch and the article actually contains the line: “The Lynch retirement rumor is almost pure speculation.”
*** Thank God we’ll never have to see Sorkin’s take on that fiasco.
**** Yes, the tag is supposedly a joke, but it’s still there more than two and a half years after the “joke” was relevant.

What these sites all have in common is their ability to give the people both what they want and what they need.  Sure, many people will stick to the quizzes and the .gifs, but they just might learn something along the way.  The fight between traditional and new media is not a zero-sum game, as Sorkin apparently thinks.  That opinion is never more obvious than in “Oh Shenandoah,” as we fast forward eight weeks from the last episode to see what BJ Ryan’s Lucas Pruit has done since taking over ACN.  The arguments here are completely insane - the main one being Pruit's decision to greenlight a celebrity stalker app that Gawker tried and killed seven years ago (which the show explicitly acknowledges).  For comparison’s sake Sorkin’s last show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was still airing when Jimmy Kimmel famously berated Gawker editor Emily Gould on CNN, the exact moment that Sorkin is attempting to recreate.

I get it.  It must be frustrating for a group of people on “a mission to civilize” (and who have largely been succeeding in their goals) to have to give up control to a bunch of interlopers, but Sorkin takes it way over the top.  Successful news organizations figure out how to embrace change and negotiate the space between the past and the future.  But The Newsroom sees only an army of Perez Hiltons coming to kill his Edward R. Murrows.  For ACN there is no negotiating between old media and new because you don’t negotiate with terrorists.

Maybe that’s the unintentional moral of The Newsroom.  Maybe the lesson to be learned from this show is that this is the fate of all those institutions whose hubris leads them to believe that they can dictate what the audience will watch.  Some will rage against the dying of the light, willing to burn the institution down before seeing it fall into enemy hands.  Others will merely retreat to a cold, quiet balcony where they can bitterly mumble nonsensically to themselves about page-view bonuses.  There truly are no winners in The Newsroom’s world, only those who survive to move on.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Newsroom Reviews: "Run" and "Main Justice" - Ups and Downs

Will and company face down "Main Justice"
Editor's Note: Due to various work and family obligations, I haven't had time to finish reviews after the last two episodes, so I'm posting them now.  Each review was written, however, without any knowledge of future episodes.


A common complaint about The Newsroom for its first two seasons was that the show had no stakes.  As a series about brilliant people doing their jobs well and, more importantly, constantly second-guessing the established media, The Newsroom was a show in which characters couldn’t really do anything wrong.  Or, at least, when they did something wrong, the audience knew it was going to be fixed before too long.  There was no problem that was insurmountable for our intrepid heroes and so, as a result, there was no drama.

Season three, especially “Run,” has changed that quite a bit, for the better.  It’s no accident that the best episode of The Newsroom in a long time succeeded in large part by eschewing the Monday Morning Quarterback nature of the show and focusing on fictional stories (the takeover of AWM and Neal’s source in particular).  It’s not that these plotlines are necessarily better or more engaging, but they could fail.  The Lansings could lose the company.  Neal could go to jail, at least for contempt if not for espionage.  The network, fresh off the Genoa scandal, could lose even more credibility in the face of an FBI raid and investigation.  The Newsroom finally figured out that its best drama does not come from the news, but from the people who make the news. 

What has made this season so fascinating thus far is that Sorkin seems finally to be exploring the idea of whether it’s actually worth it for a news organization to be right all the time.  With the exception of the Genoa scandal, which was entirely the result of outsiders conning our core team, ACN has been in the right on pretty much every single story.  After all, that’s the point of the show: to show the news media how they should have done things.  And, even here, ACN is in the right.  They’re doing the news right, even if the cameras are more valuable than the network, as Reese’s step-sister Blair argues (a dubious claim, but we’ll roll with it).  They’re exposing government corruption, just like a good news organization does and it could result in jail time for Neal and the potential shuttering of the network.  And, as we saw last week, even when they’re covering breaking news better than the networks, they still can’t get the ratings.

We’re left, then, with a single question: Will ACN fail?  Despite its high-minded aspirations and largely flawless execution (again, Genoa excepted), will “being right” be enough?  I honestly don’t know.  And that’s what has me really liking the first two episodes of The Newsroom’s final season.  While it’s still fun to watch Jane Fonda prance around a board room chewing scenery and lighting up a slightly cowed but still confident Kat Dennings, the truth is, at this point she’s all bark and no bite.  She doesn’t have four billion dollars and without her own Savannah Capital to come to the rescue, she will lose the company. 

There’s also the team’s quest to expose a government coverup in the fictional Equatorial Kundu.  This storyline gave me my only reservations of the episode, because it seemed to me that the FBI raiding ACN and confiscating its hard drives is an incredibly bad PR move, no matter the stakes and no matter the legal protections.  It just feels to me that there’s no way for the FBI to defend its actions even if they are working entirely in the public’s interest.  The First Amendment provides journalists a great deal of leeway and, even if they can prove that Neal induced a DOD employee to commit treason, the government will have a hard time proving that covering up a potentially illegal operation is worthy of dismantling an international news organization.

“Run” still provides a great deal of drama from Neal’s source, largely because of the structure of the season.  Because this is definitively the final season of The Newsroom and because it is only six episodes, sending Neal on the run makes sense.  There’s a legitimate short-term danger and, to be honest, thinking long-term is not this show’s strength.  But with only four episodes left, eschewing the long-term is probably a good idea, so I’m all for emphasizing short-term problems. 

“Run” really managed to hit all the high points for The Newsroom, mostly by leaving the real world and embracing fiction.  It made me believe something I haven’t for nearly the entire run of the series: ACN might not win.

A couple of spare thoughts –

I’m a little surprised Maggie’s interrogation of Paul Lieberstein’s EPA agent Richard Westbrook went as long as it did.  Is “random midlevel government employee slamming President Obama really a story, or is it just going to get a guy fired for no reason?  At least something interesting appears to have come out of it.

“Then how about the sex?!” – Nothing like the “inappropriate statement made suddenly in front of a group of people” that Seth Meyers parodied so well just a week before.

“So when I say that ‘I am literally going to set fire to this building with you in it before I hand over the keys to it’ you don’t know if I’m speaking figuratively or literally.”

"Main Justice"

After last week’s strong episode, I remarked that part of what has made this season succeed (aside from eschewing the real life aspects of the show and embracing fiction) is the fact that, with only six episodes ordered for this final season, there is no time for screwing around.  Whatever story Sorkin wants to tell has to be laid out and developed quickly without any stalling in order to be completed in six episodes.  Unfortunately, as “Main Justice”* showed, even a condensed season can’t eliminate my nemesis: the table-setting episode.

* I know Main Justice is probably a real building where real justice things happen, but every time somebody said that name, I couldn’t help but snigger at the thought of “Maine Justice.”

It’s not that this episode was bad, necessarily; it’s just that it was all setup and no payoff.  The show needs to put Will in danger instead of Neal, so we get an extended farcical meeting in which Will gets to show how smart and calculating he is only to have the triumph undercut at the end when he discovers he’s not nearly as important as he thought he was.  The show needs somebody to rescue ACN from the twins, but that person can’t be an unadulterated hero, so we get BJ Novak as a Jeff Bezos-esque tech billionaire who thinks the future of news is an ultra-personal medium with channels devoted to, among other things, Danny Glover stalkers.

Again, these scenes aren’t bad; the FBI interview scene, in particular, with Will going toe-to-toe with Brian Howe’s assistant Attorney General, had every Sorkinism I tend to love.  But the whole thing felt a little pointless knowing that this was all just the appetizer waiting for the main course still to come.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the best scene in the episode comes from Paul Lieberstein’s EPA official absolutely refusing to concede any hope in our climate situation.  I’m not sure what the point of it all was, since I don’t really know what Westbrook gets out of playing the “doom and gloom” kook on cable news, but it was fun to watch all the same. 

The table-setting episode is a time-honored television tradition.  Hell, The Walking Dead has had a pair of them in the last two weeks, as the characters all come together and arm up for their inevitable season-ending assault on the hospital.  Where The Walking Dead differs from the The Newsroom, however, is that the motivation and endgame is perfectly clear in the former while I’m not still not entirely certain what is driving the characters in the latter.  Clearly they want to run the Kundu story but, at this point, it’s not really a story, it’s a collection of documents with only a single source who can testify to their veracity.  Similarly, the FBI can’t really think they can keep this story from coming out if it’s actually true.  At this point, it’s just both sides firing their bluffs at each other and hoping the other folds. 

Coming off such a strong second outing of the season, I was hoping for a little more from the episode that takes us to the midpoint.  Instead, we got a piece-moving episode designed to put everybody in danger and make clear that the worst case scenario is possible.  With only three episodes left, expect the fallout to come quickly.

A couple of spare thoughts –

What, exactly, did the FBI think was going to happen when they raided the newsroom of a major cable network?  I’m surprised it took Charlie as long as he did to pull out the cameras and threaten to broadcast the bureau’s shenanigans to the entire world.

Chris Chalk singing “Anything Goes” as he walks into the raid-in-progress had me in stitches.

“You think it’s possible I’m not as big of a TV star as I thought?”

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.