Category Archives: TV shows

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

lastweektonightI want to plug a TV show. You should be watching Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. If you keep up with the news in any form or fashion, I implore you to seek out this show. It’s a show hosted by John Oliver that recaps the big news stories from the previous week with a humorous bent. I hate to compare it to The Daily Show With John Stewart or The Colbert Report, as such a comparison would immediately turn away half the country. The only real similarity is that it is a news show with jokes. Not a parody news show with fake journalists like The Daily Show or a satirical news show with an overblown, infallible conservative host like The Colbert Report, but just a straight news show with jokes.

What makes this show very different from those is that this show uses facts to discuss broken institutions and controversial issues that are rarely or never discussed in a popular forum. For example, since it began airing in April of this year, top stories featured in the show have included the Indian general election, capital punishment, the General Motors recall controversy, net neutrality, FIFA, LGBT rights in Uganda, Dr. Oz and the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, income equality, incarceration in the United States, payday loans in the United States, the militarization of police in the United States, Scottish independence, the Miss America pageant, sugar and the United States food industry, state legislatures in the United States, and state lotteries within the United States.

This is only a handful of the stories they’ve run. They are all incredibly thought-provoking and force me to wrestle with issues and concepts about which I know next to nothing. For example, I didn’t have a clue what civil forfeiture was before they ran a segment on it. Scary stuff. Scary enough pique my interest in researching it. Same with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the landmark Supreme Court case ruled upon earlier this year.

Oliver and his research and writing staff are not concerned with skewering one party; rather with shedding light on controversial issues and the people who are involved. For this reason alone, I would highly encourage you to watch the show if you can, or at least watch the segments you can find online. They post most of their segments on their YouTube channel.

I also want to make very clear: while this show is incredibly informative on a wide variety of global and domestic issues, it is also an absolutely hilarious show. Jokes on jokes on jokes, and Oliver has a very unique, slightly Americanized British delivery that helps these jokes lands. The great thing is that he can take a seemingly serious issue and pull out the rug from under it, exposing the often ridiculous nature of these institutions. It makes for very funny television. Please refer to the final video I post below for proof.

As a slight disclaimer for those with more sensitive tastes (basically my mom), the show does air on HBO. This has two major implications.

First, and far less important, the censorship normally associated with broadcast or cable television is nonexistent here. However, if you watch on YouTube, some (not all) of the segments have language bleeped and any incidental nudity (a bare butt or whatever from a third party news clip) blurred (at least I think so on the nudity, I’m not 100% sure).

Second, and far more important, Oliver and his team only have to answer to HBO in terms of content. The lack of censorship from the last point kind of comes into play here as well; since they don’t have corporate sponsors who buy ad time, they don’t have to filter their content to adhere to those companies’ demands. They really only have to answer to HBO, who certainly have seemed to give them free reign on whatever they want to air.

Another very interesting aspect of this show is that it has a much more global perspective than is common in news directed at 20-somethings. Like I previously listed, the main story on the premiere episode to air was about the general election in India. This is a story with an inherent click-away-ability in our culture of frighteningly short attention spans. If I saw Brian Williams start to report on this story, I’d almost immediately get bored and turn the channel. Yet, Oliver and his staff make stories like these compelling and educational.

Here is the segment on the India general election (warning: some strong language).

Here is my one beef with the show: I wish they sourced their research more. From what I gather, most research is done through consuming other media shows and news outlets. Most of the clips shown that provide information on a topic come from other news shows. The way the show is laid out inherently makes my brain ready to accept what I hear as fact, much more than Stewart’s or Colbert’s shows do. But John Oliver has made explicitly clear in this interview that he considers his show a comedy program, not a news program. His team does their due diligence and fact checking, but at the end of the day, don’t get your news from just this show.

However, if nothing else, watching the show might give you a new perspective on an issue you think you know backwards and forwards. The best thing about a new perspective is that it helps you understand your own perspective even better. So if you don’t know much about politics or find yourself fed up with our current system (and honestly, who is happy with the state of politics in this country), this show will discuss issues you probably don’t know much about but will challenge your critical thinking skills. And if you’re one of those hardline lefties or righties who will go to their grave before changing their political stance on an issue, wouldn’t it wise to try and understand that stance to the very best of your ability? This show will help you do that.

Here are the links to just a few of my favorite segments the show has done, along with an interesting NY Times piece on John Oliver himself and the show:

Dr. Oz and nutritional supplements:

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby:

Net Neutrality:

Supreme Court with animals:

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Reading Rainbow

This link will appear various times throughout this post so I hope you click it at least once.

The world we live in can be overwhelmingly disheartening. In our country, we are subjected to a broken political system where it seems like nothing can get accomplished and things continually get worse. We are a people so unwilling to do the littlest thing for our neighbor because it’s an inconvenience.

And then there are things like Reading Rainbow and its Kickstarter campaign.

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Just a quick bit of background, Reading Rainbow was a show on PBS that premiered in 1983. It was hosted by LeVar Burton (guy in the picture) and encouraged its viewers (aimed at kids in elementary school) to read. Each episode covered a topic found in a children’s book (the rain forest, optical illusions, lions, music, etc.), and explored it through several segments, while recommending several other books on the topic for viewers to seek out and read.

That video was my childhood. Reading Rainbow was in the lineup of PBS shows I watched religiously as a kid. I guarantee that this next statement is included in every piece written by a mid-’20s to mid-’30s writer about Reading Rainbow or this Kickstarter campaign, but I feel obligated to include it:

Reading Rainbow had an incalculable effect on my love of reading and learning. (If it’s any indication, I named my book review blog series I started at the beginning of the year “Butterfly In The Sky.”)

One might assume that because I am a career librarian, I have some entitled love of the show that transcends the “average” viewer’s love of the show. First of all, librarianship is not a field of book reading. Books are only a part of the field, and I could write a long post about this but others have done it far more eloquently than I could. I encourage you to go read some librarian-written blogs. They’re awesome.

Secondly, of course I’m grateful to the show for instilling a love of reading in me. But far more importantly than that, the show encouraged a love of learning. Learning was its cornerstone. It just happened to explore the joy of learning through the lens of literature, which I think I was predisposed to love due to my educational upbringing (shout out to homeschooling moms with el. ed. degrees) and the ironic fact that my staunchly conservative parents were overwhelmingly supportive of our family’s utilization of any and all resources at that most liberal of government institutions, the public library.

Here’s that link again.

But I’m digressing. Let’s fast-forward 30 years to 2013. By last year, Reading Rainbow had been off the air since 2006 (23 seasons, not too shabby for a publicly funded television program) but had regained some serious patronage numbers through the release of their iPad app in the summer of 2012. The app allows for unlimited reading of children’s literature and video field trips with LeVar. Within 36 hours of its release, it became the #1 most-downloaded educational app in the iTunes App Store. Well done, Reading Rainbow team.

Fast-forward one more year, to just about three weeks ago. Reading Rainbow launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to make their app available on the grand-daddy of all digital platforms, the web, along with 1500 free classroom subscriptions to lower income schools. The initial fundraising goal was $1 million.

And this is really where the heartwarming stuff comes in. The campaign hit its fundraising goal of $1 million in 11 hours.

ELEVEN hours. That’s insane. That means enough people cared about this project getting off the ground to contribute a 7 figure sum of money. That many people cared about getting literature in front of kids, to promote literacy, learning, and the pure imagination that comes from reading. It makes me emotional.
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After they hit that goal in almost no time flat, the team behind the campaign decided to raise the goal to $5 million. With this goal increase, the team will be able to offer the app through multiple digital platforms (Android, gaming consoles, OTT boxes, etc.) and offer free classroom subscriptions to 7500 classes.

This is huge. The amount of kids who will have access to this app has exploded with their goal increase. Right now, the campaign has raised $3.8 million, and approximately 82,500 backers. There are 12 days left in the campaign, and while they raised the second million within the next 24 hours, the funding has slowed considerably since then.

Here’s where you can help. Go to this link, and pledge some money. You can pledge as little as $1 and as much as you want above that. Plus, you get gifts based on how much you pledge. Honestly, there is not a downside.

It’s weird how strong of a visceral, emotional reaction to this campaign I had when I heard of it. It was an amalgam of nostalgia and pride and hope, mainly due to my month-old baby daughter. My hope is that she grows up in a world where learning is easily accessible for her. Where she is empowered by information, by the facts, by truth, rather than frightened by them. A world that puts value into her character and personality and mind rather than into the preconceived roles it thinks she needs to play.

I want Millie to have every opportunity she can to experience what a painfully beautiful world this can be. I truly believe the best way she can do that is through learning and the belief that her imagination and creativity and curiosity will take her wherever she wants to go. I think Reading Rainbow believes the same thing, and that’s what they want to bring to kids all over the country. I strongly support their mission, and I hope you do too. The campaign ends on July 2nd, so go pledge!

BA DA BAH!

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How I Met Your Mother

himym

This is why I am a proponent of binge watching TV.

How I Met Your Mother recently wrapped up its 9 year run, and I have to admit, had I watched this show over the course of 9 years, I’d be as put off as the general feeling of the Internet seemed to be after the finale.

However, a story is more than just its ending, and while that might not seem true with this gimmicky of a show, I actually think that it applies even more so to this show than most.

To get everybody up to speed, HIMYM is a show about Ted Mosby, telling his teen-aged kids the story of how he met their mother back in the late ’00s. Involved in this story are Marshall and Lily, college freshmen sweethearts, Barney, a womanizing Casanova, and Robin, a career-oriented woman not interested in marriage. These five people (and a wide array of supporting characters) weave in and out of Ted’s story of how he met The Mother.

This should be a no-brainer, but I am not spoiler-proofing the rest of what I write here, so if you haven’t seen the show and want to, I urge you to stop reading this and go watch it.

HIMYM was kind of an odd duck of a show to me. While fitting snugly within various sitcom tropes, it found ways to subvert those and tell its story in a really unique way. However, it took a little time for me to warm up to the show and these characters. It started as much more vanilla than subversive. Laugh track, cheesy lines, the whole 9. But it doesn’t take long before these elements are diluted down into something more satisfying and you begin to feel a bond with the characters, like you’re at the booth in McClaren’s drinking beer with them and laughing at Barney’s latest outrageous attempt to get a girls number or Marshall’s fascination with Bigfoot.

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And the funny stuff was really funny. This was due to both writing and near-perfect casting. The show built its mythology really fast, with things like the Slap Bet, The Playbook, the gang eating “sandwiches,” Robin Sparkles, etc. Despite my initial hesitance to really enjoy this show due to the multi-camera aspect, it quickly proved wrong many of my preconceived notions of sitcoms of this type.

Good writing is crucial, but if you’ve got the wrong people bringing it to life, you’re dead on arrival. While I was at times annoyed by Lily or thought Ted was overly cheesy, the core actors inhabited their characters really well. And the guest stars were great. When Lily’s dad shows up at Thanksgiving and declares, “I brought Diseases!” it got a huge laugh from me. And the most obvious home run in guest casting is The Mother. From the second we see her interact with Lily on the train to Farhampton, it’s clear that Ted and Tracy will have the chemistry we’ve been waiting for for 9 seasons. Cristin Milioti is inspired in the role of Tracy, from her delivery of Ted-like lines and the stuff that keeps her grounded as a strong, individual character, like when Ted hears her sing “La Vie En Rose.”

 

Quick aside: for as much criticism as the Farhampton Inn gimmick of the final season took, it did give us this scene. For me, this scene has enough emotion and beauty to justify the entire existence of the final season. It is, without a doubt, one of my very favorite scenes of the whole series.

HIMYM had heart. This is due in large part to Ted. While I found Ted’s over-the-top optimism and nerdery annoying at times, he never gave up on his epic life’s goal to dream big. This makes the viewer really feel his break-ups with Victoria, or being left at the altar by Stella, or losing hope in Season 9 that he would meet the woman of his dreams. The show was also continually grounded by the excellent supporting cast. There are a lot of heartfelt supporting stories the show delved into, like the death of Marshall’s dad or Robin finding out she couldn’t have kids. It was stories like this, and seeing how the characters dealt with them, and how they supported each other, that fostered this very communal feeling between the cast and the audience.

And the show allows you to invest.  Hints and clues about The Mother are sprinkled pretty sparingly as the show goes on, and while some viewers might’ve been turned off by this (one could call this the Lost Effect, audience losing interest in questions that are left unanswered for seasons at at time), I found that the way the show consistently reminded us that this was a story of a guy who was going to meet the love of his life kept me ever on the hook. My interest was always massively piqued by a shot of the yellow umbrella, or Ted’s professorial classroom, or the fact that Robin was always referred to as “Aunt Robin” to the kids.

himymumbrella

But all stories end, and this show eventually had to wrap things up, as that was the original gimmick of the show. Here are my thoughts on the finale:

For the most part, I quickly came to terms with the ending of the characters’ arcs (except Robin & Barney); what fell flat for me was not as much what was told but more how it was told. I’ll start with Robin and Barney. First, it was overwhelmingly frustrating to have the whole final season be rendered moot when Robin and Barney get divorced a week (in audience time) after their 23-episode wedding weekend. Secondly, there was nothing clear about why they divorced. In real life, a relationship has to go through a lot more than “you travel too much” for it to end, especially a relationship that was as pomped/circumstanced as Robin and Barney’s. Barney’s character had grown far too much over the course of the show for me to actually buy that he would have a problem with the demands of his wife’s job. It wasn’t enough to go straight to divorce.

The breakdown of Robin and Barney seemed flawed to me because it felt like an easy way for the writers to get the chess pieces where they wanted for Ted and Robin. It just made no sense that we’d spend an entire season building up to this marriage that immediately fails. Barney’s character arc was interesting as he matured from Playbook Barney to Robin Barney. It was overwhelmingly pathetic to see his regression post-Robin, and while I was touched by his vow upon meeting his daughter, it just felt weirdly crammed, too many grand character revelations or changes being fit into too short a time frame.

Now going back to what this show was about, it made complete sense to me that Ted would want his kids to hear the story as a roundabout way to ask if they were OK with him asking Robin out. Ted is a romantic, a dreamer, an incredibly emotional guy that wouldn’t be able to just outright ask his kids if they’re alright with him dating someone besides their six-years-passed Mother.

But Robin? Come on, Ted. I disliked this last chapter because fundamentally, I never liked Robin and Ted together. But on top of that, I greatly disliked the way the final chapter was told. There was so much not explained or shown to the audience that would help me reconcile the decisions of the characters. Namely, Ted’s perfect dream woman wife dies and we don’t see him work through that, grieve and heal before ending up with Robin. It was a complete disservice to Ted’s character that that aspect of his love life’s story wasn’t shared. It rang hollow, as Ted is the grand romantic. The Mother was his dream, and to end the show by having him asking Robin out without seeing him process and heal after his wife’s death felt very off-balance.

For as much as the show seemed to hammer home the point that life changes and that it is foolish to try and reclaim past friendships or at least recreate the memories you’ve shared with those closest to you, none of these characters ever actually change. Lily and Marshall are always together and longing and faithful to each other, Barney relapses after his marriage to Robin fails and goes back to his womanizing ways, and Ted stays ever the grand romantic. And then Ted ends by petitioning Robin yet again? It flies in the face of the lessons Ted was teaching his kids and by proxy, the show was imparting to the audience.

So in my opinion, aside from the obvious audience betrayal with the happy/not-happy ending (happy for Ted, not happy for the audience), the biggest problem with the finale was too much told in too short a time. This has been touched upon in numerous other posts I’ve read (which I’ll link to at the end), but one thing the writers could have done would be eschew the Farhampton Inn gimmick of the finale season and instead, spread the stories told in the finale over the final season. I had severe temporal dissonance after spending an entire season’s worth of shows covering one weekend, and then to have the finale cover decades worth of the gang’s story.

So where do I land with HIMYM? It’s weird to feel betrayed by a TV show, and while I might not go as far as feeling betrayed, I can at least understand why so much of the backlash to the end of the show was due to that feeling. For me, while I wasn’t in love with the series finale, any negative feelings I might have toward it are eased by how great the show was for so long. Unlike other comedies I’ve watched (Parks & RecreationModern FamilyThe Office big time), there was no clear downward slope in terms of quality. I honestly didn’t ever think that one particular season was worse than another. The show felt very cohesive to me, and that’s rare for a sitcom that ran for 9 seasons.

For me, the premise offered to us in the pilot created this tension that I desperately wanted fulfilled, but couldn’t ever be, by sheer design of the show. The story of Ted and The Mother didn’t end when they met, but for the audience, for who we really got to be invested in and know, their story basically did. Sure, we get to see that Ted and Tracy have two kids and a fair amount of years together, but we don’t honestly get any time seeing them grow. It was like the 9 year TV version of Sleepless In Seattle. We get to know one half perfectly, the other half indirectly, and then see them interact for an aggregate half hour over the course of the final season. Where is the true payoff for the viewer?

But I ultimately think that is a complaint due to both the nature of the show and how the story was closed, not about the actual story told. I enjoyed spending 9 seasons worth with these characters, and there will be a gang-sized hole in my media-consuming heart for a while.

Other great reads on the finale:

My last stray observation: the scene where Ted and Tracy actually met was perfect. Exactly as cheesy as it needed to be, perfectly romantic in every way, and wonderfully heart-warming chemistry between the two characters. And the yellow umbrella having the initials T.M. was beautiful. Ted Mosby, Tracy McConnell aka…The Mother. Inspired.

himymtedtracy

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Breaking Bad

DISCLAIMER: I have tried to reduce the number of spoilers. However, I do discuss events that happen in the shows later seasons. If there is even a remote chance you might watch this show someday in the future, do yourself a favor and don’t keep reading. Actually, even if you haven’t seen the show and know you’ll never see it, there’s no point in reading on because this is meant for those who have watched the show. I don’t want to discourage readership, but I wrote this specifically to make viewers of the show reflect on their own opinions of how it ended and the overall arc and so forth. Thanks, disclaimer over.

Breaking Bad ended about two months ago, but I only just recently caught up with most of cable-subscribing/watching America and finished the show.  Breaking Bad is a show that follows in the footsteps of shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men; a critical darling backed by commercial success. Multiple award wins in writing and acting. A story line that forces the viewer to face their perspective on morality and admit that black and white is very rarely the end of the story.

At the core of this show is Walter White. In many pieces I’ve read, he’s been labeled the anti-hero. He’s the bad guy the audience roots for, a la Tony Soprano, Hannibal Lector, etc. What makes this show compelling in a different way than The Sopranos or Mad Men is that the anti-hero isn’t really the right way to describe Walter White. Walter White is a character that, from the outset, seems to the audience to be a normal man, beaten down by the common American hardships of life. Low-paying career going nowhere, partially-handicapped child, an unexpected baby on the way, bills/mortgage to take care of, seeing more success in the lives of those around him, and then he is diagnosed with cancer. His way out of this, at least the way to provide for his family after he’s gone, is to cook high quality meth and make money from it. Thinking back on the show, and especially the early glimpses we get of Walt’s character, I do think that the motivation for his cooking comes mostly from his diagnosis and the desire to keep his family above water after he’s gone. That’s not completely it though. He starts cooking to provide for his family but I also think there is a little germ of an idea in his mind that he wants to do it. It’s a response to seeing his colleagues from college taking a company co-founded by Walt himself and turning it into a massive success. It’s a response to seeing his brother-in-law Hank find popularity, respect, and self-validation in his job with the DEA. He longs to be recognized by those around him, and he’s not. It’s this tiny little seed of pride that grows into something purely evil and heinous, and that is what this show is about.

Other anti-heroes have different arcs: Tony Soprano started bad and ended bad, with glimmers of good intentions or (somewhat) pure motivations throughout his story arc. Don Draper has a perfectly polished surface, and the antihero stuff is all underneath, where he cheats on his wife and abuses alcohol and convincingly lies to everyone about his entire upbringing. And we know about it from the show’s pilot. But the last time we saw Don, he was finally coming to terms with his history, enough so to share it in a moment of vulnerability during a pitch meeting, and even more momentous, bringing his three children to his childhood home, where so much pain and misery and backwards views about love and women were deeply rooted in the core of Don’s psyche. Tony’s line stays basically straight, Don’s has moved up and down but is trending upward, but Walter White is different. Walt’s arc goes, from beginning to end, straight downward. He starts the perpetual justification of his lifestyle by thinking of his family, and that quickly becomes overtaken by the sheer weight of his pride and his resentment towards nearly everyone around him.

It’s not an easy trajectory to watch either. The last 8 episodes of the show were some of the hardest television I’ve ever watched, and were emotionally jarring enough to make me think twice about automatically recommending this show to people who haven’t seen it. With someone like Tony or Don, you kind of know what you’re getting from the get-go. But with Walt, he’s set up in a way that you immediately identify and relate to him, and then watch him crumble. It’s terrifying because, like any worthwhile artistic endeavor, it forces you to reconcile his decisions with your own brain. Would I make that choice? Would I manipulate that person? Would I go to those lengths? And the entire time, for the entire show’s run, you seem him justify every action he makes, until the very, very end. The scene between Walt and Skyler was fraught with history, regret, betrayal, fear, resentment and bitterness. Yet it’s the one time the Walt finally admits to his utter selfishness. He did what he did for himself, not for his family. It made him feel alive. He chased something he thought would bring him satisfaction and it led him to ruin. And it automatically makes you wonder, is that what I would become if faced with the same situation? It’s a terrifying mental debate.

But that’s what makes this show such a fantastic dramatic affair. It unravels the true nature of humankind. While it often doesn’t manifest to a Walter White degree, the potential is there in every single one of us. The best media is that which makes us question what we know about reality and society and forces new self-realizations about ourselves, and this show does that better than 95% of the shows I’ve ever seen.

Aside from the overarching, philosophical debate about human nature and evil and all of that, the show is just put together so damn well. The acting is superb. From the minute he gets his cancer diagnosis, the Walter White from before is gone, and it happens in such a nuanced way. Bryan Cranston created something amazing with his portrayal of Walt, so much so that even after a very short time of getting to know him before his diagnosis, when he hears it, the audience already feels like the Walt we knew has changed and this is someone new. And that’s in the first episode. The transformation that Walt undergoes via Cranston is truly some of the best acting ever. As much as it annoyed me to see the same person winning Emmys every year, I now completely understand how merited those awards were. And it’s not just Cranston. Anna Gunn adds such refinement to the character of Skylar. As the spouse of the main pro/antagonist, Skylar has to go through so many shocking revelations, betrayals, decisions of bitterness and violence and anger and Gunn does this with so much grace.

And Aaron Paul…I haven’t honestly don’t know if I’ve ever empathized with a character as strongly as I did with Jesse Pinkman. To be sure, Jesse has many moments of selfishness, rage, regret, violence, etc. But at the end of the day, he spends the majority of his time trying to reconcile his guilt either directly or indirectly caused by Walt’s actions. Jesse’s story is sadder to me than Walt’s was. Walt increasingly acted with more conviction all the time. He was so sure of himself, sure that whatever he decided was the best course of action to take. Conversely, Jesse had no conviction. He had no reason to continue exposing himself to Walt’s lifestyle. But he had no reason not to either. And this led to him being forced to do unspeakable things that he couldn’t get over. Jesse was not without fault, but he also a victim caught up by forces beyond his control. And all he wanted was love. Jesse wanted to be loved by Walt, he wanted to be loved by Jane, and by his parents, and by Mike. And Walt just keeps using him, manipulating Jesse’s desire for legitimate human connection. The relationship between Walt and Jesse is at the core of this show, and it’s this relationship that best demonstrates how twisted Walt becomes. The character arc of Walt is so contingent on Jesse, and Aaron Paul’s raw vulnerability really breaks your heart. For as well as these two play off of each other, this also contributes to the one large problem I have with the show. More on that soon.

And obviously, huge props to Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, and the rest of the supporting cast. Each of these actors brought something out of their characters that at one point or another, made me shed tears. Truly sublime acting by the entire cast.

Let’s talk about plot. From the very outset, one of the elements of this show that kept me so entertained was the concept of immediacy. This show forced characters to deal with the consequences of their actions in the here and now. There was never a major problem that got resolved off-camera after an episode because the timeline jumped a month by the next episode. In the very first few episodes, Walt and Jesse had to continually deal with Krazy-8 and his partner. From one episode to the next, the show forced them to deal with the immediate ramifications of every decision. The show didn’t let itself off the hook ever.

Along with that, insane things happened all the time. Starting with Season 2, each season culminates in a shocking event. Please note, this is different than a twist. This show sets itself apart by creating an atmosphere of sheer intensity, so much so that by the end of any given season, you either know explicitly what’s going to happen or have a very good idea but that doesn’t take away from the shocking element of any given finale. I’d say the most obvious finale (in that you can see the end events coming) is Season 4, and even so, I paced around my house for a good five minutes after it ended. Each season grows and blossoms this intensity in a very subtle way so that by the end, it doesn’t matter that you can predict what’s going to happen. When the inevitable occurs, you freak out. It is extraordinarily well-built television.

And yet I keep coming back to the end of the show. I am not a “boo the finale sucked” type of watcher; a TV show’s finale will suck if the last season or previous seasons aren’t well written, so those who call out a show’s finale and nothing else aren’t thinking holistically. What I mean by the end of the show is specifically the last 3 episodes. What fell flat to me was the relationship between Walt and Jesse. I feel like the focal point fell directly on Walt and Jesse got lost in the mix, and I needed more of his character. I feel like the writers put Jesse through the most horrendous trials, one after another, and it wasn’t necessary for his emotional arc. Jesse has always been a broken young man but from Ozymandias on, he gets run over again and again. Why in the world would Walt tell him about Jane, after all that time? I get that he was trying to inflict maximum pain but it felt like a cheap writing device to kick off this 3 episode “Jesse gets shat on” arc. It is also this arc that sets up Jesse’s final scene, which rang slightly hollow for me. WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE BIGGEST SPOILER I’LL GIVE AWAY. 

 

 

 

 

He just drives off. I get that he’s regained his freedom, but his life before being captured by Todd and Jack was nothing to write home about. He was still going through emotional turmoil and that doesn’t magically get fixed by escaping imprisonment. He excitedly drives off towards…more depression and a sense of worthlessness? Great. This was the one complaint I’ll keep for myself, I just didn’t get these last few episodes with Jesse.

No show is perfect, but this one is an absolute stand out. I will try and watch through it again, maybe in 10-20 years, but for now I’m going to let it be and say thank you to Vince Gilligan for creating a world that I dreaded becoming a part of yet couldn’t help but enjoy.

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The Voice, Season 3, Semi-Finals

Unless I am enraged by the outcome of this season of The Voice, this will most likely be the only thing I write about this season, which has been a lot of fun to watch. This has definitely been the season with the most talent. Not saying they are the best, but there are more quality singers than there have been in past seasons. And not lots of coach drama this season, which has been a welcome change from Season 2.

But we’re at the semi-finals, so it’s time for a contestant breakdown.

Nicholas David:

Without a single doubt in my mind, Nicholas has the most unique tone of this season. Until SPOILER Amanda was eliminated last week (other than Jemaine winning over Juliet last season, Amanda’s elimination over Nicholas was by far the most shocking turn of events of any season), Nicholas and Amanda were tied for my favorite contestant. Now Nicholas is all I’ve got. He has an insanely unique voice, something that is so rarely heard in popular music today, and something that it sorely needs. Hate to quote Rob Thomas from earlier in the season but he definitely sounds like Bill Withers. If you’ve never heard Bill Withers, YouTube “Hope She’ll Be Happier” and get the tissues ready. Nicholas evokes those same emotions with his voice. It’s powerful, it’s surprisingly versatile, and he just sings from his soul. It will be a crime when he doesn’t win.

Cassadee Pope:

I’m torn on Cassadee. Colleen and I have been having discussions on which scenario is worse, Cassadee winning it all or Trevin winning it all. Here are the reasons I dislike Cassadee. She offers nothing original. Just because she cries during a song because she’s thinking of her absent father doesn’t mean she’s bringing anything new to it. Sorry Cassadee, but 2002 called and it wants it’s pop-punk back. Avril Lavigne is so culturally unimportant that she’s resorted to marrying the Nickel Back singer. Do you really want to end like that, Cassadee? Now, here’s why I would rather her win over Trevin. She isn’t actually bad. She has the rare pitchy moment, but really she’s just fine. Just forgettable. There are Cassadee’s that are on the radio so really, it’d be fine if she won. And it’s very likely that it’ll happen.

Trevin Hunte:

OK. How the hell has he made it to the Final 4? I get that the guy has a good voice, but wow is he inconsistent with anything outside of his soulful ballads. And even then, is he faaaaar pitchier than anyone left. Or anyone in the Top 6. Or the Top 8. His performance in the semi-finals of “Wind Beneath My Wings” was really bad. He was landing notes just so flat, and his final note, the showstopper, the note that should be saying “I deserve to keep going America!” was flat. I mean, really flat. I get that he emotes well, but that is all he can do. He is a one-trick pony, and not even that great at that one trick. Cassadee is a bore, but at least she can hit notes she needs to. Trevin is a loose cannon. The best example of this was his performance of Usher’s Scream. Up to this point, he had done only ballads, and done them in his normal, over-the-top way. Scream was different though, because it was fast. He had to dance around the stage. He couldn’t keep his breath. There hasn’t been a performance this entire season that was as out of control as this one. Pitchy and out of control. I wrote him off after that one. And from there on out, he’s been going downhill. He can only do ballads, and for some reason the coaches will not give him a single critical note. So frustrating to watch. On top of that, if he wins, it will be three black men in a row. This is American Idol’s problem. For like a billion seasons in a row, the winners have been white men doing acoustic Dave Matthews type music. BLAH. They’ve all been forgettable. If Trevin wins, he will be forgotten in a week’s time and go nowhere.

Terry McDermott:

With the Final 4, Terry’s easily my second favorite. Is he a one-trick pony like Trevin? I’m a little bummed to say yes. But holy hell is he outstanding. The dude cannot sing a wrong note. And he takes on insanely difficult songs to sing, and hits them all out of the park. Where Trevin is a fluke, Terry is the real deal. I’d be very happy if he won because he truly does have a powerful voice. I wish he’d saved his performance of McCartney/Wings’ Maybe I’m Amazed until later on in the season because he did it early and it was easily one of my Top 3 Favorite Performances of the entire season. Terry is my dark horse. I don’t think Nicholas can take it all the way, and I really hope that Terry will take it when Nicholas inevitably gets eliminated.

So there are my semi-final thoughts on Season 3. Great season, fun additions with the steals and the elimination process. They should find some other name for the steal aspect or actually make it a steal thing, where one coach can take another contestant from another coach. It’s not a steal if Adam takes Amanda when Cee Lo has already said “I want Trevin over Amanda.” And the elimination process, where contestants are saved strictly on the basis of vote numbers, is the perfect way to showcase how bad of a coach Christina is and how dumb America is in their voting. Christina had the worst team after blind auditions and battle rounds by far, and she wasn’t able to hide behind a faulty elimination system. Conversely, it makes me angry to see how poorly America votes when Amanda gets dumped while Trevin and Cassadee both stay. But them’s the rules I guess. We’ll see how Usher and Shakira do in place of Cee Lo and Christina next season. Anybody is an improvement over Christina, but Usher in place of Cee Lo? Downgrade central. I desperately hope to see Cee Lo go out with a win with Nicholas.

-Jon

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The Sopranos

*DISCLAIMER* This show has gratuitous language, violence, and nudity are all very prevalent. Also a graphic depiction of a rape. Not for the faint of heart.

We’ve reached another bittersweet milestone: we reached the conclusion of the seminal HBO television show The Sopranos. This is the third HBO show we’ve watched all the way through, following Sex And The City and The Wire. SATC was a fascinating insight into the mind of the modern New York woman and The Wire completely broke down commonly held beliefs and notions about how the modern American City operates as a social institution. The Sopranos is an intensely deep look at a smaller social institution: the modern American Family. It is weighty, dramatic, and at times intensely violent and sexual, but the themes of family, respect, and loyalty are compelling and moving. Incredibly interesting and engaging television program.

The show follows Tony Soprano’s rule as the head of the New Jersey mafia. Tony is married to Carmela and they have two teenage children, Meadow and AJ. The show starts with Tony, a captain in the DiMeo crime family, suffering from crippling panic attacks. He decides to try therapy, an unheard-of decision within the Italian mafioso culture. Tony comes a generation that respects stalwart, dedicated men who can handle problems on their own without needing help. The Gary Cooper, “strong, silent type” man is referenced multiple times throughout the series. From here, the story follows Tony’s dealings as captain and eventually boss of the family.

This is the most succinct way to describe the show. At its root, the show is about a family and the deconstruction of the American Dream. The generation of Italian Americans that are under the lens of this show are not the original family immigrants. Most are twice removed; it was their grandparents that originally came from the Old Country. Their ancestors immigrated to work towards the American Dream: work hard in America, land of opportunity and prosperity, and you’ll achieve success. I’m not sure when this culture stopped believing in this dream, but somewhere along the generational timeline, a group of young people decided to take the easy way towards getting what they wanted. In their minds though, crime is not the easy way to success, it is just another route fraught with perils, hardships, stresses, and occasional joys just like any other. That’s what is so interesting about this show. Obviously the viewer sees this crime family operating and the despicable things they do, but as you watch, you begin to empathize with these characters. Not necessarily justifying the morality of their actions, but at least the motivation behind them. It doesn’t matter how hard you work as the owner of your community’s local pork shop, you will not, most likely, achieve grand financial success. And that’s where the viewer’s empathy is born. If Tony has found an alternative route to success, why wouldn’t he take it?

This raises another important question. Is the American Dream actually the American Myth? We see Artie Bucco, childhood friend of Tony’s, work hard at his family restaurant, trying not to buy into the mob lifestyle, and yet where is his realization of the American Dream? He continually hits obstacle after obstacle. One can argue that many of these come from being associated, however crime-free, with Tony. But really, Artie is just a man who is trying to make an honest buck and can’t seem to make it happen for himself or his family. So what is it that these characters are fighting so hard to achieve? At one point, Tony is attempting to solve a serious contention between the New Jersey and New York families, and pleads with the New York boss to put the matter to bed. He tells his rival boss that they have a job to do, and this beef is keeping them from doing their job. It’s keeping them from putting food on the table for their families, which is the ultimate goal at the end of the day for these men. Looking back at Artie, he managed to achieve that goal, yet still wasn’t happy.

Ultimately, this is a sad show. We saw broken people wandering through a crime-filled existence, without really knowing what they’re trying to attain. We see a traditional nuclear family, husband/wife/daughter/son, completely break down due to infidelity, selfishness, deception, anger, no communication. We also see this family from a more generational vantage point, and see how sinfulness can permeate relationships and how it can be transmitted genetically from parent to child. We see cycles of anger, self-pity, and depression link generations and we just want to yell at these characters to break out from the mold set by their parents. This aspect of the show especially has led to many long conversations trying to decipher the generational mysteries about our own families.

I do want to address the controversial last episode. I was reeling from it. I couldn’t seem to get it out of my head, just mulling over what happened and how to interpret it. What’s weird is that I actually knew how the episode ended many years ago when I foolishly read an online review of it after it premiered. *mild spoiler?* What I was not aware of is how abruptly it occurs. Really, not much of a spoiler, but what does happen definitely resonates with the viewer. It takes awhile to shake off that last episode. Which proves, if nothing else, it was well made. It’s odd though, that these characters don’t achieve redemption. This show ended differently than a show like The Wire; that wrapped everything up nicely, even if it wasn’t a happy ending for most characters. It at least had a sense of finality to it. The Sopranos ends in the opposite way. Things aren’t tied up, there isn’t some grand redemption moment for Tony, or for anyone for that matter, and there isn’t a sense of resolution. Only a sense of repetition. Things will continue to go on as they always have with different faces, only slightly morphing as the Italian Americans continue to climb further from the roots their family tree.

It’s a powerful show. Tony is a man who does deplorable things, yet we empathize. You don’t think you will, but you do. At least I did. And I never would’ve thought the show could do that to me. In my review for The Wire, I stated it was the best television show I’d ever seen. Still true? The Sopranos is certainly punching in the same weight category. The Sopranos has depth, and something that resonates with the viewer. I think, in the end, the show makes us ultimately compare ourselves with Tony. “What an awful guy. I’d never do such things.” Yet as we slowly begin to justify his deeds, it shows us how much of our own sin we sweep under the rug, just as Tony does. And this is where the real power of this show comes from. By turning the floodlights onto our own problems, we realize how much we need redemption and how dangerous an unredeemed life can be. Tony and his family certainly are an entertaining example.

-Jon

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The Voice, Season 2. Pre-finale.

Needless to say: MASSIVE SPOILERS.

We are literally minutes away from the finale of Season 2 of The Voice, hands down the best reality show on TV. We find out who wins tonight. Here are the finalists:

  • Jermaine Paul (Team Blake)
  • Chris Mann (Team Christina)
  • Juliet Simms (Team Cee Lo)
  • Tony Lucca (Team Adam)
This has been a really interesting, if far more cheesy, season than Season 1. The initial thing I liked about this show is that it felt pretty new, like the judges, the contestants, even Carson, everyone was just flying by the seat of their pants and figuring out how to do this new show as they went along. It added a weird charm to the show. This season feels  far more “put together.” Cheesier. More life situations have been played out for more drama and emotion. Jamar is the best example of this. His entire run of the show was The HIV+ Contestant. Sure, the guy had a good voice, but holy cow the show, the coaches (especially his coach Cee Lo) and himself just kept dwelling on his backstory. This show is about finding the best voice from the contestants, NOT finding who has the most inspirational story. It was awful.

And I’ve got beef with the coaches. Mainly Christina. She loves this show. Especially the fact that she is on it. I honestly don’t watch any television that features a more self-centered celebrity. Sure, she became famous because she’s got some pretty spectacular pipes, but wow is she in love with herself. Any chance she gets, she gets on stage, she starts singing, she is constantly relating contestants’ experiences or performances back to her own experience and talks about herself. It gets redundant so quickly. She also talks longer than any other coach and wastes precious live minutes during the show. It’s pretty awful.

Now to the finalists. I have a clear favorite and a clear worst, but here’s a quick run down on all four.

Jermaine Paul:

  • This cat can sing. But he can’t win. The dude has got an amazing voice, has powerfully covered some tough songs (and made some awful songs listenable, Exhibit A: “I Believe I Can Fly”), and seems to have a connection with fans enough to carry some voting weight. But definitely not enough. He just doesn’t seem to be that much of a personality. Nobody has lost their minds over any of his performances, they’ve all just been steady and consistent. Which is not the sign of the winner of this show. As much as consistency is a really great characteristic to have, it won’t win you The Voice.
Chris Mann:
  • Maybe the best finalist voice when looked at technically. None of the other three finalists can hit notes or vibrato like he can. Nobody can sound like Josh Groban like he can. But at the end of the day, that’s about it. His covers of non-operatic tunes were pretty lame. I’m thinking specifically of the Coldplay performance. I remember thinking, “I would never choose to listen to this over the actual song.” Not a good sign. So the dude has got chops, but he needs to go flex them on Broadway. Pop music doesn’t need another Josh Groban.
Juliet Simms:
  • If Juliet does not win, I will lose what little faith in the Millennial Generation I have left. There is not one finalist who has the voice she’s got. She has it. Her performances have not all been perfect (“Stay With Me,” “Cryin'”), but when she is on, holy crap. She is on. “Roxanne” and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” were absolute show stoppers. I wasn’t totally sold on her until “Roxanne” and it was all over from there. She made me a complete believer. Her James Brown cover just solidified it more. What’s funny is that she would’ve been here regardless of which coach she had chosen. She is just that good. Go Juliet.
Tony Lucca:
  • Tony Lucca hit his peak during the battle rounds. Since then, he has consistently stayed forgettable, if not worse. And his cover of Britney was annoying as hell. I hate that that performance kept being referred to as daring and wild and crazy and risky. It was a doucher singing a crappy pop song in an “edgy” way. America ate it up and it’s regrettable. Equally as frustrating was his bluegrass cover of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” Tony, stop doing covers in an unconventional way that other artists have done first and coming off like you came up with it. People have been covering the Britney tune for years, and the Jay-Z performance was a cover of a cover. Covers of covers shouldn’t be done. Ultimately, what I dislike about Tony is that even more than Chris, he’s a one-dimensional singer. I hate to agree with Christina, but after the Peter Gabriel cover, her comments were dead on. Forgettable, one-note, not impressive. He has one vocal ad lib that he does in every. single. performance. It’s awful, it’s just him curving his voice up from a lower note to a higher note in a way that America hears and says “Wow look how much power he’s got!” It’s awful. If he was a better voice, I wouldn’t be so adamant against him, but there is no reason he should’ve gotten to the finals over Katrina. It makes me frustrated just thinking about it.

So I want Juliet to win. Duh. Now onto the coaches…

Blake:

  • I like him. Sure, he’s a big time country guy, but he’s pretty funny. He also seems to have the most insightful things to say about the performers. In terms of technique and real advice and criticism, I think he offers the most to his teammates. They seem to benefit greatly from his coaching. Is he the best coach in terms of strategy? No way. He picked RaeLynn during the battle rounds for Pete’s sake. Terrible choice. But I still like him.

Christina:

  • I’ve already expressed my contempt with Christina. She might have some pipes, but she clearly views every episode as an opportunity to talk longer and louder and with more vacuity. Oh, you’re sick tonight Christina? I had no idea, even though this is only the seventh time you’ve mentioned it in this one episode. I completely agree with Karlie Cooper’s assessment of Christina: Miss Piggy. Just unfunny.

Cee Lo:

  • Gooooosh I love Cee Lo. But I think he’s an awful coach. The reason he (fingers crossed) will win this season is not because of his coaching prowess but because his two semi finalists were the best vocalists out of all of them. It didn’t matter if Jamar or Juliet got to the finals, it’s a Season 2 win for Team Cee Lo. That being said, I almost always enjoy what Cee Lo says, and more specifically, wears. And his white cat…just so great. Hilarious to see him stroking that cat like a black Ernst Blofeld. And his performance of “Dancing in the Street” was hands down the best performance by a coach in this entire season. Nobody tops Cee Lo.

Adam:

  • I’m torn on this one. Adam is definitely the most strategic coach. He took a team that had no real stars and produced Katrina (she wins the Most Improved award for the entire season and absolutely should’ve been Adam’s finalist) and Tony Lucca. Tony’s persona was created strictly by song choice alone, and that is evidence of a damn strategic coach. Adam’s got that in the bag. But if Tony wins, I’ll be sad about the integrity of a show that allows a performer to win based solely on doing covers of covers. Tony does not deserve to win The Voice. He has most likely spent his career playing covers of covers in small bars with no fans. That’s where he belongs.

So who wins? I would be stunned if Jermaine or Chris won, even though they both have excellent voices. It will be a real shame if Tony wins, because he is absolutely least deserving of the award. All of my hopes and dreams are pinned on Juliet, and this finale is a lot more nerve-wracking than last year, considering that I want someone specific to win, whereas last year I just wanted Dia Frampton to lose. So three cheers for Juliet. Go Team Cee Lo.

Carson said “tharts.”

-Jon

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