31 July 2013

The Watcher: July 2013

Welcome back to The Watcher! Now, there's nine gajillion blogs writing about movies, but very few who tackle television shows, which I think is weird. Television shows are becoming more and more sufficient and even more compelling than cinematic adventures. Naturally, there are examples to the contrary and arguments to the opposition, but for my money, my weekly TV appointments are just as thrilling and worthwhile as my theater outings.

After a year hiatus, The Watcher returns to review Awkward, Doctor Who, Episodes, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, and Orphan Black. Enjoy!

Previously on . . .

Jenna (Ashley Rickards) prepares to give a personal story to a crowd of friends and family.
Awkward: Season 3, Part 1 [Episodes 301-310]
This MTV series hit a sophomore slump last year with scripts that felt like people trying to imitate the excellent first season, if that makes sense. The voice over narration was hollow, the performances less enthusiastic, and the stories lacking the original flare as the freshman season. But with these first ten of the 16-episode third season, Awkward. seems to be back on tip-top form, reminding me exactly why I fell in love with these characters in the first place. Now happily in a relationship with Matty, Jenna has everything she has been pining for the last two years. Naturally, of course, this being a teen show, problems arise in the relationship, such as Jenna spending too much time with Matty, or Matty being a little too clingy, etc., but the series tackles these subjects in a fun and refreshing way. These characters are smart, and their quick wit does an enormous credit to making these redundant teen cliches interesting again. And even though this set of ten is heavy on the Jenna/Matty/Colin triangle, it never feels overbearing or forced. It's this year more than the others that feel very Jenna-based, very, who am I and who do I want to be? As an writer, Jenna also faces the question of what type of writer she wants to be, and how to write honestly and deeply. Moments like those, where Jenna is faced to confront her inner character and wants, like sharing her loss of virginity or making the choice to kiss someone she shouldn't, those are the beats that are beautifully played and portrayed - and also makes this series so damn awesome.

To the shows credit, Jenna's best friends Tamara and Ming have their own highly entertaining arcs. Ming's rivalry with the high school Asian mafia has some surprising and hilarious results, and Tamra's relationship with Jenna's ex Jake is a match made in heaven as the two compliment each other extremely well, and thus boast the second most interesting dynamic on the show. One of the great things is that these feel like flesh and blood characters now, and with the exception of the now-irritable voice over from Jenna, the series doesn't feel scripted. It's one of the more intelligent teen shows on the air right now, and for it being on MTV, that's saying something.

Season 3.1 ended on a note of Jenna emotionally moving on from Matty, with Matty being none the wiser. For the first two years Matty was seen through the perspective of Jenna, as this object of yearning that doesn't feel the same back, or refuses to take the chance of making a move. This year has had more Matty than ever before, and he's so well written that instead of taking Jenna's side on the whole front, we're kinda rooting for Matty, even though we understand high school romance and the inevitability of people changing and moving on. That said, this new person Jenna's interested in - a wee bit too much like a walking, talking cliche, thank you very much. Still, Awkward. is on a roll, and I can't wait to see how this all blows up and gets resolved. Half-Season Score: B

The Doctor (Matt Smith) addresses the Old God in "The Rings of Akhatan"
Doctor Who: Series 7, Part 2 [Episodes 6-13]
Back in September, the Ponds left the TARDIS, and in December, viewers were given their second glimpse of what would eventually be the new companion. Finally, at the end of March, Series 7 resumed, and we were introduced to the new companion proper. Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is the mystery The Doctor can't solve, the woman twice dead, his Impossible Girl, and he can't stay away without knowing the answer. Ultimately, despite a strong and impressive performance from Coleman, Clara lacks enough of a personality to label her a true character; instead, the mystery surrounding Clara becomes much more important than who she is and what she represents. And despite how wonderful it was to have Doctor Who back after what felt like short bursts of happiness spread across two galaxies worth of waiting, the unfortunate thing is that these episodes are pretty mediocre.

"The Rings of Akahtan", "Hide", "Nightmare in Silver", and "The Name of The Doctor" are clear highlights from an eight-episode half season that boasted many very interesting ideas that were slave to a running time that simply couldn't do the stories justice. And because these episodes were brimming with setup and ideas, the key component of storytelling and the main strength of the Russell T. Davies era - the emphasis on character - is pushed to the back in favor of spiffy special effects and overly complex storytelling. Alright, perhaps not complex, but 'misguided'. Sure, it's great to be ambitious in scope, but if the time allotted can't contain it, I vote it's better to include character beats moreso than epic notions, and that's what's so great with "Rings of Akahtan" and "Hide", two stories that are pretty simple in nature and let The Doctor experience and feel something that he doesn't normally, and therefore, we get just a tiny bit more insight into the character. "Nightmare in Silver" was a mixed bag of good and bad, but it's undeniable that Matt Smith gives one hell of a performance playing against himself. And we come to "The Name of The Doctor", an episode so hyped that the end result was kinda so-so. Of course, the episode title refers to something else, and of course, the episode doesn't go anywhere you'd expect it. Mostly, though, it was a rousing success. The opening bits with Clara and the shocking conclusion that leads directly into the 50th - quite amazing.

Then there are the clunkers, like "Cold War", which was just a brilliant idea but so horrendously written and executed, or "The Crimson Horror" (both by Mark Gatiss) that feels odd and kind of worthless. It doesn't help that my interest in Strax, Jenny and Madame Vastra has diminished completely, and I'd rather enjoy them all being thrown into a black hole. "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" was also one of those brilliant ideas, but just couldn't be given adequate justice in the time span given to it, and there's just a general feeling of mediocrity with the whole preceding. The Series 7B opener "The Bells of St. John" is just as equally 'meh', having scattered moments of interest, but overall lacking in being something worthwhile. Still, nice new outfit, Doctor.

I hate feeling such negativity for a show I enormously love, but Series 7 is definitely not the best Doctor Who has to offer, although it is a step up for the so-so Series 6. Was the wait between Series 6 to Series 7, and the wait between Series 7A and 7B worth it? Erm, no. I fall into the camp where I'd rather enjoy more content. Yes, it takes nine months to film a season, and a couple more for post. Yes, it's a grueling schedule. But more episodes means I can wash away the taste of the less good-y ones much easier. And we get more Doctor Who. It's a double edged sword, really. More episodes and faster production could mean more lackluster episodes, but the selfish side of me is sick of all this silly waiting. Anyway, enough complaining, Series 7 as a whole wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great, either. I thought the whole notion of having slutty Hollywood titles worked quite well, and having a different theme or genre each episode also helped keep things fresh week after week. So, overall Season Grade: B-

Game of Thrones: Season 3
I'll probably be regarded as a heretic for saying this, but the first two seasons of Game of Thrones failed to really capture my interest. It felt like the other HBO series Rome, but just with dragon eggs and Sean Bean. There didn't seem to be anything particularly noteworthy, magical, or all that interesting going on with the series for two years. Sure, Tyrion was always funny and a highlight in every episode he was in, and Daenerys Targaryen's ascent to a role of power was highly riveting thanks to Emilia Clarke being pretty much awesome, but there was something missing in those first twenty episodes that were suddenly found in this third year. Finally, I felt like these were characters. Finally, I felt like these were characters worth involving oneself in. Finally, I felt like this was a living, breathing world of fantastical elements, not just the Rome set redressed. Finally, I felt like everyone had a voice, a motive, a plot, a reason. Finally, the series knew how to balance the storylines and even have them compliment each other. And finally, stories were unraveling that gave me a reason to give a damn. This is an unpopular opinion, and I'm sure to get some grub about disliking seasons 1 and 2 of Game of Thrones, but alas, it is what it is.

What this season did is that it made everything matter. It gave weight to characters, their arcs, their dialogue, their emotional spectrum, the whole damn thing, and I can't give the show enough props for it. Even in this world of magic and dragons giant mute armies and people killing each other for a throne, the showrunners never forgot about character, and that's the big strength of this year. Jamie Lannister was given more depth to him than I could ever have predicted, throwing him in the darkest recesses of shit; the Star family continues to get screwed over more and more; Tyrion is still navigating what to do and what not to do in front of father; Joffrey's manipulative and deadly abilities further devilishly grows; Dany's quest for the throne leads her to a power stance of 'no slaves', and she's willing to bring down whole cities to prove her point, and I'm sure there's loads more, but the point is is that these ten episodes completely and utterly worked.

The writing was top notch. The transitions were well thought out. The performances were spectacular. The visuals have never looked more gorgeous and cinematic (last seasons Blackwater episode included). The characters are real. Sure, there were problems with this whole Theon/Ramsey torture crap that seemed to go nowhere, and I'm still fuzzy on the Red Witch and the Lord of Light rubbish, but with such wonderful character beats like Arya's descent into darkness, Tyrion's forced marriage and his highly suitable reaction to it, and Jamie's wake up call to reality - all that is just so damn amazing and so damn impressive that any and all faults of the season just seem like immaterial. And season 3 also boasts some truly 'wow' highlights, like the brilliant moment in 3.04 where Dany subverts the ruler of Astapor and the Unsullied pledge their allegiance to her, and 3.09, the much-talked about Red Wedding. I'm curious to see how and what season 4 can deliver that will be anywhere near as exciting. Overall, a damn good 10-episode run. Only problem is that 10 episodes are just too damn short. Season Grade: B+

Hannibal: Season 1
I binged on all 13 episodes in two days. I would never have guessed that this tale of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter's (Mads Mikkelsen) friendship would be so engrossing, visually stunning, and intricately plotted. Hell, I wouldn't have guessed that it would be one of the more impressive shows of the year. Yet there it is. A full season arc so beautifully paced, with so many zig-zagy turns and a malevolent man  disguised as a friend in need, Hannibal is more like a series of forty-three minute movies than a television series. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the blood and gore on display here seems more extreme than even Dexter (albeit less than Walking Dead, marginally). This is clever storytelling at its height. And thanks to some absolutely stunning performances, this has become one of my Must See television shows, and I'm ancy as all hell for season 2 to start up again.

The less said about the series, the better for you to sit and experience, but it's interesting in its depiction of this rather odd friendship between Will and Hannibal, and also immensely interesting in the mental toll Will's gifts are having on his psyche. This gift, which makes him an invaluable member of the FBI, is simultaneously destroying him, and to watch that mental erosion is thrilling and enormously tense. But none of this tightly-written story beats would be even remotely worthwhile if it wasn't for the nuanced work by Hugh Dancy, a man who I admittedly failed to see as Will Graham [Edward Norton is my ideal Will Graham], but within the span of a handful of episodes, Dancy owns this role so completely, making it entirely his own, and all the better for it. As Hannibal Lecter, Mads Mikkelsen had the impossible task of following in the footsteps of Anthony Hopkins, but he, likewise, chose to reimagine the role as something far different, creating a new, methodical, nearly robotic monster waiting patiently for the moment to reveal its ugliness. Hannibal defied my (admittedly low) expectations, delivering episode after episode of riveting drama, brutal murders, and intense psychological warfare in the mind of Will Graham. If you had the slightest interest in this series, watch it at your earliest convenience. Season Grade: A -

Orphan Black: Season 1
I can tell you this right now, there isn't a single show that premiered in 2013 that has as much originality as Orphan Black or possesses as fine of actress as Tatiana Maslany. From the very first episode, the series locks you in with intrigue. Why are there women who are identical to this woman, Sarah Manning? Who are they, and how are they connected? The writing is spectacular, a blend of Joss Whedon's witticisms and Howard Gordon's relentless pace (24, Homeland), this series never allows a viewer to even entertain the notion of being bored. A strong, highly intelligent and resourceful female protagonist, so beautifully full of complexity not seen since Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller), Maslany effortlessly embodies not only the main character, Sarah, but no less than five other versions of herself - all with their own distinct personality and traits. There is no way to stress enough how impressive Tatiana Maslany is in this role. And the mythology is a wide web of possibilities full of seedy organizations and deceptive friends.

Ingenious, really, is a great way to describe the series. How many times are we thrown stories with cloning involved? A frak ton, and I wasn't entirely sold on the notion of watching another clone show that recycled the same old questions and the same old stories for some feign sense of deeper meaning. And holy miscalculation, I was wrong. For at least this first season, this series isn't interested in those deep questions just yet, it instead wants to throw you straight into the action, straight into the seedy organizations and double crossings and family drama - and it's amazing for it. I'm not going to get into too many specifics for the show, since I want you all to watch it (whoever is reading this), but I can guarantee that if you do decide to watch it, you won't be disappointed. You'll be intrigued. And maybe, just maybe, like me, you'll binge through all ten episodes in one day. Frankly, season two can't come soon enough . . . Season Grade: A

Onto our Regularly Scheduled Program . . .

It's going to be a sad summer, honestly. Right now, we're in the midst of the final run of Dexter, enjoying its eighth and final season. Sure, it's creatively for the best that the show bows out while it still (arguably) has stories worth telling and the show maintains a ratings hit for Showtime, but Dexter has fit comfortably into a routine, that one series I can always count on coming back and being enjoyable (one way or another). And now it's coming to an end. Yikes. And at the halfway point of Dexter's final days comes the last eight episodes of AMC's Breaking Bad, like, ever. Likewise, I'm glad the series is still on top creatively, and it continues to receive seemingly endless accolades, but I don't want it to end. More than that, I don't have a freaking clue how it will end, and that's both petrifying and electrifying. But before that, I can still enjoy Dexter, so that brings me to . . .

Dexter: Season 8, Episodes 1-5
Last year, Dexter was enjoying a creative resurgence. Finally, the formula had been tweaked. Finally, Jennifer Carpenter and Michael C. Hall were given material worthy of the kind of caliber of actors they are. And finally, the series was ready and willing to take chances again. Well, now season 8 is here to show us the repercussions of those chances on the characters, and although it hasn't been firing at the breakneck speed of last season, there's still enough juggling plot-threads to keep one interested.

First order of business is the presence of Dr. Evelyn Vogel, who was instrumental in shaping Dexter Morgan from a young age, assisting Harry in creating The Code. It's not uncommon for a series reaching its endpoint to bring in some mechanism from the characters past, either as a way of reminding the audience, bringing the character full circle, or, in this instance (although there's undoubtedly more) shed new light on something we thought we already knew all the details on. Vogel has been better used as a device to heal the rift between Deb and Dexter, which I'll get to more in a moment, but her actual function on the show remains a bit sketchy. She's quite smitten with what she's accomplished with Dexter, crafting the Perfect Monster, but what effect does it have on Dex? And, more to the point, what's her purpose? So at this juncture, I care for Vogel neither here nor there, but am merely interested to see where this character ends up.

Dexter is in a kind of holding pattern. He wants his sister back, she can't stand him. He's recruited by Vogel to find a former patient who is harassing her. And he continues to just do what he does. I was expecting this final year to more or less have a noose tightening around Dexter Morgan, in much the same way Vic Mackey was getting closer and closer to shit hitting the fan in The Shield. Instead, five episodes in, Dex seems to have quite the easy ride, almost like a side character instead of the main attraction.

Who the real star of season 8 is none other than Jennifer Carpenter as Debra Morgan, a woman so fractured, broken, and traumatized by the events of the season 7 finale that she has completely lost herself. In the last seventeen episodes since she found out Dexter's secret, Jennifer Carpenter has been the Girl on Fire with her work, absolutely nothing less than stellar. The fact the writers are giving her such meaty story to work on is fantastic, and she's doing wonders with it. Now, it appears that the bridge between brother and sister is starting to slowly mend, and I'm excited to see where Dex and Deb go from here. This is the final year, after all, so the writers need to pull out something rather amazing and clever, don't they?

Season 8 thus far, overall, have been just so-so, but I guess that's expected when most of the story has to deal with the fallout from the finale. Quinn and Jamie are put together in a relationship to give them something to do, Batista still has nothing to do, and Masuka now had a daughter, just to give him something to do. I want to have faith that everything is going to unravel in majestic fashion, thanks to the stellar season 7, but these five episodes haven't given me much to be excited over. And since I see a lot of people making predictions about how the series will end, I'll offer my vague two cents: whatever goes down, it's going to be Dexter making a sacrifice of some sort for Debra. A sacrifice of his own life, or his own freedom, but the finale needs to be Deb and Dexter, it has to be about that relationship. Until then, these episodes have a Grade: B-

True Blood: Season 6, Episodes 1-7
Honestly, so much of True Blood right now rests at the "meh"-o-meter. Despite popular opinion, seasons four and five had some good ideas to them, they were worthwhile and were actually engaging here and there. Essentially, they had the least problems. And now we're back to the status quo with season six, which thus far has more wandering storylines than ever before, and is veering off in so many bizarre directions that what the series once was is nearly unrecognizable. There are some pluses, to be sure - for one thing, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) is very much her own woman, very independent, strong minded, and willful, and that's nice to see. But then there are also the negatives - like Lafayete and Tara having barely ten minutes of screentime over these seven episodes, or the endless, mindless, directionless subplot with the wolf pack. So often these subplots don't seem like they're going anywhere, and the writers are writing for characters that they don't know what to do with, so everything keeps going in circles.

That's my automatic anger at True Blood, this sense that has lingered for years that no one in the writers room has any notion what to do with this massive cast of characters, and this year hasn't dramatically done anything to quench that notion. But, and there is a but in all this, I will give props where props is due. Some of the side characters are getting some interesting stuff to do: Andy's newfound parenthood of the four faerie girls was excellent, allowing both the character and the actor to display skills the show doesn't normally allow him. [Note: Ultimately, this also leads into the sense of storytelling aimlessness; back a season or two ago, Andy shags a faerie, she gives him these four faerie children, and tells him to protect them, (and why? is there a bigger purpose to them? And why did faerie lady pick Andy?) and he fails at that, so what will the consequences be?] Terry's big story last year of the demon-spirit thingy that wanted to kill him and Felicity's old boyfriend ended on an anticlimatic thud, but the events of that arc led to a tragic note for Terry's sendoff that was surprisingly emotional and well done for True Blood standards. What this show seriously lacked for years and years is that they forgot there were actual characters on this show. It was so interested in the Big Bad Villain of the Season, and Nudity, Nudity, Nudity!, and Surprise Twist! that very often they failed to remember that shows are first and foremost character dramas. And season six, under new direction with Alan Ball having vacated the showrunner seat, seems to point to at least a conscious recognition of this rather large storytelling error.

And as far as the story being told in season six, it's both interesting and also batshitcrazy 'We've-Jumped-the-Shark' material. Episode one and two were absolutely cringe-worthy in their awfulness, thanks to this ridiculous leftover of this Authority/Lilith plot that was big last season [or the last week, according to True Blood timeline]. Having something like Lilith being resurrected and walking the earth would have been cool, but instead, Bill gets exploded, then receives his own kinda nifty resurrection to become Super Bill thanks to consuming Lilith's blood. He can control objects in mid-air, fly, and receive visions! What the hell? And then there's this Warlow plot that has been a year in the making, and the big reveal of that what kind of a big, WEIRD letdown. Things are getting crazier and crazier, and making less and less sense. Very 'everything but the kitchen sink' in its idea tossing. And so now it's Billith using Warlow to fight the government, which has issued a full-on assault on vampires everywhere - kinda cool, right?

At least the execution hasn't been terribly terrible. There has been some good stuff milked out of this, like the whole Eric/Willa thing, which has been a fun addition, and Jessica's descent into darkness, guilt, and desire for redemption, and the exciting and hilarious return of Sarah Newlin was an inspired choice. I feel like I'm ragging on the show much too harshly. Like I hope I made clear, there's some good to be mined from this season, but, honestly, there's still too much excess bullshit, unnecessary subplots, lack of focus, lack of sense, and general craziness for this show to be anything near a success right now. With only three episodes left of True Blood season 6, I am genuinely curious how it's all gonna get wrapped up with Billith, and Warlow, and Sookie, and . . . Andy and the faerie. But really, let's just cut all this junk down and concentrate on character again, can we? Grade: C -

How about the rest of you? Watching these shows? Care to chime in with your two cents?


Maurice Mitchell said...

Yeah, series 7 was definitely a weak season, but I think next year will get revitalized for a better year.

Charlie said...