Monday, March 31, 2014

How I Met Your Mother Series Finale Review: "Last Forever" - Endings and Beginnings

Ted and Tracy together at last in "How I Met Your Mother"

I am not a “that finale ruined the last X years of the show for me” kind of person.  I swear, I’m not.  In fact, I’m generally very forgiving of series finales, even the controversial ones.  I loved most of the Lost finale even if I thought the actual plot was a bit of a mess.  I wasn’t totally sold on the Battlestar Galactica finale but it hit enough emotionally satisfying beats for me that I could ultimately enjoy it.  When it comes to finales, I don’t need every plot point wrapped with a neat little bow.  I don’t need numerous callbacks to the show’s best running jokes.  I just need emotional closure that feels earned and to feel like the ending of the show is appropriate to the seasons that came before it.  And while the How I Met Your Mother finale actually almost did one of these things it only managed to accomplish that feat by taking back every single thing the show has spent the last nine years telling us.

“The Mother was dead to begin with…This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Looking back, it was obvious.  It was plainly obvious that this wasn’t the story of how Ted met his kids’ mother.  It was the story of how he never got over their Aunt Robin.  We’ve seen countless times that Ted has never been able to leave Robin behind.  Even in the week before her wedding he searched far and wide for the token he thought could win her back.  Sure he backed off at the last second, but the intent was still clear.  And it was clear that Barney and Robin couldn’t last.  Their relationship was just too volatile.  I mean, they spent their entire wedding weekend fighting over every little thing and while I appreciate the callback to Barney’s vow never to lie to Robin this wasn’t a relationship built on trust and respect.  It was a relationship built on narrative convenience.   It was easy to put the two together so they did it, logic be damned. 

What is most infuriating is how my rage over this finale revealed how much I was actually invested in these characters and how quickly and meticulously the writers dismantled that investment.  I discovered that I actually liked the idea of Barney and Robin as a couple.  Well, too bad, because we’re going to break them up before the first commercial break.  I discovered that I was really invested in the Mother, but apparently Bays and Thomas decided that I didn’t need to see any stories between when they got married and when she died except for a ten-second narrated scene of her in the hospital.  I discovered during this finale that I wanted to see these characters find love and happiness.  Instead we got divorce and death.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with death and divorce on a sitcom.  After all, this is a show about friends in their 30s moving into their 40s and these are things that happen.  Friends break up.  We lose family members.  But HIMYM was not a show based on pain and loss.  Sure we saw these things occasionally, most notably in the death of Marshall's father.  But fundamentally, it was a show based on, above all else, the idea that love matters.  That love is worth the wait.  And maybe that’s the story Bays and Thomas were trying to tell.  That the love between Ted and Robin was worth the wait.  It was worth eight years of going back and forth.  It was worth a marriage to the wrong man and the death of the right woman.  All those things were worth going through to get to the point where Ted could stand on Robin’s stoop, blue French horn in hand.  That’s the moment they wanted (clearly since they wrote and filmed it eight years ago), but here’s the thing, if you want that moment you don’t call the show How I Met Your Mother.  You call it How I Moved On From Your Mother (h/t Ryan McGee).  You don’t spend nine seasons bringing two couples together only to rip them asunder in the last forty minutes.  That’s not fair play.  It’s not earned storytelling.  It’s a trick played on the audience.  It’s saying “Ha Ha! You thought you were watching one thing when it was really another.  Joke’s on you!”  And maybe the joke is on me.  But, as I said before, I don’t want my finales to be clever.  I want them to be emotionally satisfying.  And when you spend nine years (at least one in earnest) getting me to invest in a certain storyline, I’ll be upset when the rug is yanked out from beneath me.

I think that Bays and Thomas really did want us to see this as a happy ending.  The kids (who are obviously the audience surrogates) tell Ted that they’re on board with him dating Aunt Robin.  After all, “it’s been six years.”  But for us it hasn’t been six years.  It’s been thirty seconds since we got confirmation that the Mother, this character we’ve been investing the last 22 episodes in, is dead.  Even if that particular plot development was implied a few weeks ago and heavily hinted at throughout the evening, you still need to give your audience time to digest.  You don’t just get to drop the character with a thudding “and then she died, but I got over it.”

I could go on, but I think I’m going to stop.  I got my point across.  This was a series finale that fundamentally betrayed everything the show had been about for nine seasons.  It took characters and relationships that it had built over that time and meticulously deconstructed them for no other purpose than to pull one over on the audience.  This is not an objection to the individual plot points.  I think they could have served perfectly well had HIMYM been canceled after its first season (when this ending was apparently written and filmed) and Victoria would have been the mother.  But as the culmination of nine seasons worth of storytelling, they failed to bring closure to the series they had created.  Perhaps HIMYM can serve as a warning to all future serialized storytellers that the ending you have at the beginning might not be the one you need in the end.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and amateur television critic.  You can email him at tytalkstvATgmailDOTcom or find him on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Requiem for Television Without Pity

Spare the snark.  Spoil the networks.  – Television Without Pity

In the summer of 2003 I was bored.  I was home between my junior and senior years of college and was working a job with really long hours while most of my friends were holding down typical 8-5s.  The result was that I had two or three days each week where I wasn’t working but my friends were, and I had nothing to do.  And then I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I’d heard a bit about the show at school but hadn’t actually gotten a chance to see it.  After all, my school didn’t have cable in the dorms and this was a pre-Tivo, pre-Netflix era, so my only chance to watch anything was live via rabbit ears.  But one summer Tuesday night, home alone, I stumbled across “Hell’s Bells” airing on UPN and I decided to give it a shot. 

In retrospect, “Hell’s Bells” is a pretty crappy episode of Buffy, but I was transfixed.  I hadn’t seen anything like it on television.  It’s not like I hadn’t watched much television to that point in my life, but I was much more into sports than scripted television.  The only series that had any lasting impact on me from my pre-college years  was MacGyver.  But Buffy was something different.  After doing a little browsing online I discovered that FX was airing back-to-back episodes daily in the afternoon and that the pilot was going to be airing the next day.  It was perfect.  I set my VCR to record both episodes while I was at work and then would binge two, four, or six episodes on my days off (yep, I was binge-watching before it was cool). 

Thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to completely catch up on the show by the time its seventh and final season began airing in September.  Finally watching live, I did what any television-obsessed fan does: I scoured the internet for any and all sites about the show I could find.  That’s what led me to Television Without Pity (TWoP).  I devoured their Buffy recaps, which led me to Angel, and Firefly, the entire Joss Whedon oeuvre, and the whole world of television.  Most, if not all of the shows I watched over the next several years I discovered through TWoP.  Even those shows I didn’t “find” through TWoP, required reading the site’s recaps.  After all, TWoP was ahead of its time in pioneering two of the principal features of today’s internet television landscape: Weekly recaps/reviews and a venue for viewer engagement.

Television Without Pity may not necessarily have been the first of its kind, but it was definitely the best of the first wave of new criticism, which it why it was so sad today to read that NBC Universal will be shutting the site’s doors next week.  No website has had a greater impact on television criticism.  If you have ever read a review of a non-pilot episode of a television series, it’s thanks to TWoP.  If you have ever seen television discussed in a professional setting with a conversational tone, it’s thanks to TWoP.  I also credit the site for popularizing the word “snark.”

The sad truth though is that, while TWoP was ahead of its time, the world of television has moved past it.  I realized that fact today as I considered the site today and realized that I hadn’t visited it in more than a year.  One reason is because I moved beyond the level of analysis that the site had to offer.  As one critic (whose name escapes me) once wrote, “A recap tells you what you saw; a review tells you what it meant.”  As I watched more television and began treating it as a true art form rather than a distraction, I moved beyond the need for recaps (no matter how witty and entertaining they were) and began looking for deeper analysis.  And the TWoP forums were long ago supplanted by Twitter, Facebook, and other websites as the places to go for timely television discussion.

The other truth is that the TWoP of 2014 was not the TWoP of 2003.  In 2007, the site was purchased by Bravo (later to be purchased by NBC Universal).  In 2008, the principal editorial staff left, later to form and throughout the years many of site’s best writers have moved on to bigger and better things.  Most notably from my perspective is Linda Holmes, now a writer and personality at NPR, whose Amazing Race recaps I still reference today. These people have been replaced by capable writers, and some originals remain, but for me it never felt the same.

The saddest part of this story is not that TWoP is dying.  Websites come and go all the time.  The most disappointing aspect is that, while NBC has promised to archive the site, it is not making that archive publicly available.  This is 20 years of work being lost to the ether.  The formative period of television criticism will be gone as of next Friday.  Hopefully, some group will step up to try to make at least some of the content available permanently (and I’ll contribute what time I can).  But it just goes to show how fleeting the modern age of media culture can be.  I can go to the shelves in my library and find a book set with the entire history of Variety’s television reviews, from the 1950s to the early 2000s.  But the principal source for early-twentieth century television criticism is about to disappear, possibly forever.

I would not watch television, think about television, or write about television the way I do today were it not for Television Without Pity.  TV criticism would not be what it is today without TWoP.  Its passing is not an omen for the future.  But it is a warning against critical outlets that would consider selling out to content providers and it is a notice that not all media criticism is permanently available in today’s internet culture.  I hope that TWoP will live on some way.  But at the very least I am thankful that it gave us the lively, relevant television culture that we have today. 

One more thought – 

If you were ever a fan of the show, you owe it to yourself to read Jacob Clifton’s Battlestar Galactica recaps.  They are some of the best television writing I have ever read.  And you only have a week to do it.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and amateur television critic. You can follow him on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cosmos Review: "Some of the Things Molecules Do" - Life Finds a Way

The Ship of the Imagination skims Titan's methane lakes in "Cosmos"

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a clear reverence for Carl Sagan and the original Cosmos.  We saw it in the very first episode when he reintroduced viewers to the Spaceship of the Imagination, Earth’s stellar address, and the Cosmic Calendar.  The episode closed with a remembrance of Sagan and a reflection on his importance, not just to the world of science, but to an individual scientist, Tyson, in particular.  This reverence will be a good thing if it means that Cosmos will have the same passion for science and for communicating science.  But it can also cause problems when that reverence leads to the insertion of incidental or ill-explained material into the narrative.

Sunday night’s episode, “Some of the Things Molecules Do” had two such problems.  First were the title and the closing line, quoted from the original Cosmos, “some of the things molecules do.”  In the second episode of the original Comsos, “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue,” Sagan went much more in depth into molecules and their roles in the creation and maintenance of life on our planet.  Tyson, on the other hand, took a much broader view of evolution even while he was focusing on one particular body part, the eye.  The result is that, by the end of the episode, we really don’t have any conception of what role molecules play in evolution.

The second problem is related to the first and comes in the animation used to illustrate human evolution at the end of the episode.  This piece of animation was taken directly from Sagan’s Cosmos and was remarkable for the time.  In fact, it was one of the first representations of computer-generated imagery on television.  But it was part of an eight-minute segment in which Sagan carefully explained the idea of human evolution from the very dawn of life to the present day.  He also detailed the points at which other forms of life branched off from our own.  It’s a very important piece of the Cosmos story, but the 40-second animation is merely the finale to a longer discussion.  To present it here, bereft of context, strips it of its power.

I may be nitpicking because the first forty minutes of “Some of the Things Molecules Do” were fantastic.  Like Sagan, Tyson uses an example of artificial selection to demonstrate the processes of natural selection.  Whereas Sagan used the Heikegani crab* for his example, Tyson looks at dogs and it’s an extremely compelling argument.  Realizing that the entire world’s population of dogs is descended from the first domesticated wolves (or the wolves who first domesticated humans depending on how you look at it) is a big step in understanding the process of natural selection.  Artificial selection, combined with the discussion of how the eye evolved (a common bugaboo among young-earth creationists) makes for a very compelling case for evolution.

* The Heikegani is a species of crab native to Japan.  They are notable for their shell patterns that resemble the faces of Samurai.  Some scientists hypothesized that Japanese fishermen would throw the crab most resembling human faces back into the ocean out of reverence for the samurai while keeping those that did not resemble human faces for food or tools, thus artificially selecting for crabs that look more like humans.  This hypothesis has been questioned, though, in recent years.

The entire episode, in fact, was essentially a 45-minute exploration of Jeff Goldblum’s famous line from Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”  From natural selection to the recovery after extinction events, life finds a way.  It adapts.  It survives.  But it survives as something new.  What came before will lay the groundwork for what comes after, but it will not be the same.  And it’s in the Hall of Extinctions that we first get a hint as to Tyson’s larger argument: We too are headed for an extinction event.  For there is one hallway, still unnamed, that will one day tell the story our demise. 

This isn’t a concept new to Cosmos.  Carl Sagan spoke of the threat of war and nuclear proliferation in his version, an idea he expanded upon in his book Pale Blue Dot.  “The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.”  It’s almost a certainty that the extinction event Tyson will warn us about is the effects of global climate change.  While it would be a disaster for humanity, it’s nice to know that even if we ruin this planet for ourselves, life will likely find a way.

 So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me that my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hannibal Review: "Hassun" - The Smartest Man in the room

Will Graham is on trial in "Hannibal"

If you want reason for why I am so in love with Hannibal right now, it is in a smile.  Hell it’s not even a smile – not even really a half-smile.  Maybe a smirk?  Not quite that, though, either.  It was more of a twitch at the corner of Hannibal Lecter’s mouth at the prosecutor’s mention that Will Graham was the smartest man in the courtroom.  That tiny, infinitesimal, literal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment gives us an enormous amount of information about his state of mind in that particular moment.  Hannibal Lecter is really the smartest man in the room, but nobody knows it.  And that seems to be a problem for him. 

Hannibal Lecter is lonely.  We saw it in the season premiere as he was keeping Will’s session time open for what was apparently nothing more than reflection and staring at an empty chair.  We see it in the fact that he keeps going back to Will in the hospital.  Hannibal needs another mind to play with.  At times last year it was Will, at others it was Abigail.  He got different things from each relationship, but it was clear that merely being the smartest man in the room wasn’t enough for Lecter.  He needs somebody to recognize that genius, to accept him as the smartest man in the room, even as he does his best to hide his true nature. 

It seems like Lecter is trying to mold Jack Crawford as his new foil/protégé, but Crawford is so wrapped up in his guilt over Will that he is unable to really create any kind of connection with Hannibal.  Lecter is also a little less willing to tip his hand and invest emotionally in Crawford, likely because Crawford is much less empathic than was Will.  Will’s mind is like a diary, capable of recording everything but also open to manipulation and entries written by others.  Jack doesn’t possess the same gift/curse, which would prevent Hannibal from changing his perception the way he was able to with Will.

This loneliness plays out in Hannibal’s actions this week.*  One could call it pride that causes Lecter to kill again in such a public fashion.  Perhaps he doesn’t like seeing Will getting all the credit for his crimes.  But that seems out of character.  Instead, I think that Hannibal just can’t stand the idea of losing access to Will.  He doesn’t want to prove that Will is innocent, which could ultimately lead the law to look his way. He just wants to plant enough doubt in the jury’s heads to keep Will in the mental hospital.  It’s a dangerous play that makes Hannibal seem desperate, but maybe it’s his loneliness manifesting itself.

* I’m assuming that Hannibal was behind this week’s two murders.  It may very well be revealed that he’s not, but at this point all signs point to his involvement.

While the character beats in “Hassun” were fantastic, the actual storyline left something to be desired.  It was very mechanical and nobody seemed to be terribly invested in it.  It was delightful to watch Dr. Chilton just tear into Will and meticulously destroy every possible defense he could use.  But that the judge would ignore a murder almost identical to those committed by Will seems far-fetched.  I would think that, at the very least, the trial would be delayed until the police could determine something more than “maybe it was the same killer, maybe it wasn’t.”

Hopefully, the trial stuff won’t come up again because Hannibal as a court procedural isn’t terribly interesting to me.  But the fact that the show can branch outside its comfort zone to tell a different kind of story while still doing great character work makes me extremely happy.

A couple of spare thoughts –

The Will-Alana relationship still confuses me a bit.  I’m just not sure where it’s going.  But, again, the work here by Hugh Dancy and Caroline Davernas is just top-notch.

How great was that opening scene with Will and Hannibal getting dressed to Don Giovanni?

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV