Wednesday, June 6, 2012

SPARTACUS: WAR OF THE DAMNED News is Upsetting, Also Badass

It's called the "beautiful corpse" theory of television – the idea that the best thing a show can do for its legacy is to burn bright and die young, never facing the fading glory of old age.

It's not a bullshit theory, either. I can tell you right now that I will never as long as I live utter the words "You need to watch the U.S. version of The Office from beginning to end," because absolutely no one needs Nellie Bertram or Robert California in their lives. And this is coming from someone who, as recently as 2007, considered that show to be among the five best on television.

The Office may be the most recent and harrowing example, but the list of shows that could have stamped a stronger mark into history by bowing out a bit sooner is one that goes on and on, from The Simpsons to 24 to Gilmore GirlsDexterHouseSupernaturalScrubs, lots of sitcoms. I'm not saying these shows all went full-on necrotic before the end as The Office has, but greatness eventually slipped beyond all their reaches, some of them very, very far beyond.

On the flip side, it's the easiest thing in the world to recommend Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks or Firefly or Sports Night or Party Down or Terriers to someone looking for good TV to watch, partially because all those series can be blown through in under twenty hours, but more importantly because they all maintained unbroken runs of very high quality from beginning to end.

I of course wailed and gnashed my teeth when Arrested Development was cut down in early 2006, but at the same time, here's a worthwhile thought experiment: If that show had continued on through, say, season eight, to declining comedic results each year, eventually becoming the equivalent of Mitch Hurwitz's 2010 followup series Running Wilde, would its legacy loom quite so deified over the sitcom medium?

Maybe, but, looking at how little I see people talk about The Simpsons these days, maybe not. (And here's where we cross our fingers and pray that Arrested Development's ludicrously-hyped ten-episode fourth season coming to Netflix in a couple years doesn't break our hearts.)

Now mind you, that The Simpsons eventually faded does not undo its peak years being among the very best television ever created, but it does mean that, as with The Office and all those other shows, a recommendation of the show to some bizarre person who's never seen it does need to come with a giant verbal asterisk attached.

I'm not advocating that shows with stuff left in the tank be snatched from showrunners and killed just to make sure that corpse looks as sexy as possible, but I am absolutely saying that sometimes fat-free is the way to go, which brings us to Steven S. DeKnight's Spartacus franchise, recently and rather suddenly announced to be going into its final season, ominously subtitled War of the Damned.

I'll be first to admit that I was 100% taken aback by this news – my best prediction had been that the show was going to go two or even three more years before the final clash between Spartacus and Crassus, but the show's architect not only felt that one season was best, but having that one season be just ten episodes instead of thirteen was the artistic ideal.

My first instincts at having TV's sweatiest, pulpiest, bloodiest pleasure snatched from us so soon of course ran through a slightly bastardized version of the five stages – a flash of anger, a touch of grief – and some of that still lingers. But the more I think on it, the more ballsy and badass it is, and the bigger kudos I give to Starz for letting go their one ratings success exactly when the author deems it right for the story.

The list of things that make Spartacus a magnificent entertainment goes on and on and deserves its own post, which I will indeed be providing before its return, but near the pinnacle of that list, in bright neon letters, is pacing. If you've ever in your life complained while watching a serialized drama that it's moving too slowly or, worse, the dreaded "nothing happens," and you're not watching Spartacus, you're a hypocrite. This sucker moves, forcefully and aggressively. Arcs climax quickly and satisfyingly, heroes and villains clash, characters die, battles are fought, new settings and status quos are established and then torn down in the blink of an eye. The historical event I figured might cap off season four turned out to cap off season two, and it was deliriously fucking awesome.

So it seems fitting that such a breathlessly-paced work should have but three "official" seasons – Blood and Sand, Vengeance, and War of the Damned – and the six-episode prequel season Gods of the Arena constituting the entirety of its bloody, satisfying whole. They have a shitload of history left to get through, and I imagine that the idea for War of the Damned is to one-up Vengeance's having every two or three episodes be a massive, climactic game-changer to having every episode be a massive, climactic game-changer. If I'm even close to right, the collective whole of Spartacus is going to be something I'll be recommending to pretty much everyone with a tolerance for gore who likes awesome and entertaining things, forever.

AMC claims that "Story Matters Here," but we've all seen the way they scrape what should be three-episode arcs on The Walking Dead across entire glacially-paced seasons. Hey, AMC? Starz just fucking schooled you.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Best TV Episodes, May 2012

Runners-Up (alphabetical by show): Bob's Burgers - "Bad Tina," Game of Thrones - "A Man Without Honor," Parks and Recreation - "Bus Tour," Revenge - "Reckoning," Veep - "Catherine"

10. The Legend of Korra, Season 1 Episode 6 – "And The Winner Is..."

There are some Avatar: The Last Airbender fans who miss that show's looser structure and occasional standalone episodes in sequel series The Legend of Korra. I sympathize, but I also love Korra's lean, mean storytelling, and I love that they wrapped up the pro-bending story that fueled the first half of this season quickly, unconventionally, and really goddamn excitingly. The final aerial showdown in this episode was some crazy next-level animation for a Saturday morning cartoon.

9. 30 Rock, Season 6 Episode 20 – "Queen of Jordan 2: Mystery of the Phantom Pooper"

I'm frankly shocked to be putting the sequel to "Queen of Jordan," a season 5 Real Housewives parody I didn't enjoy much at all, on this list, but there's no denying that I bellowed with laughter through the whole thing. Airing the week after a vastly superior live show to last year's, this was just a killer season for direct sequel 30 Rock episodes. "Rude!"

8. Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 6 – "The Old Gods and the New"

It's all about Theon Greyjoy. I mean, I also enjoy Jon and Ygritte, Arya and Tywin, and crazy King's Landing riots where The Hound guts people (as for Robb and Talisa – well, that's more problematic), but, without going into spoilery specifics, I'm a big fan of how the Game of Thrones producers have handled Theon's arc this season, and I think Alfie Allen is kicking ass in the role. It's a fearless, fiery performance of one of TV's most aggressively pathetic characters that deserves real Emmy consideration.

7. Mad Men, Season 5 Episode 11 – "The Other Woman"

Anyone who talks TV with me is probably aware that I'm not part of the cultish, vaguely creepy masturbation circle TV critics have formed around Mad Men. But, at a certain point, damn good television is just damn good television. And what Matt Weiner and team pulled off with Peggy Olson and Joan Harris in this episode, sending them careening in entirely different directions from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's inner circle, is something that deserves respect indeed.

6. Community, Season 3 Episode 21 – "The First Chang Dynasty"

I love Community's more emotionally and thematically ambitious half-hours (more on that later down the list), but I'm also not averse to the show just kicking back and having some delirious, balls-to-the-wall fun. You know – since it does so better than all but two or three other sitcoms in the history of television, and all that. This Ocean's Eleven / general heist film parody was one of the funniest, most lightning-paced sitcom episodes I've seen in years, and a perfect capper to this season's Chang arc.

5. The Vampire Diaries, Season 3 Episode 22 – "The Departed"

Vampire Diaries showrunner Julie Plec just writes a damn good soap opera, and she knows how to deliver an explosive season finale that changes the game dramatically. I can't say much of anything about this episode without a diarrhea torrent of spoilers, but I'll just say that it was a great finale that did a lot to redeem an occasionally draggy season, replete with a final moment – like, literally the last two seconds of the episode – that goes down as one of the series' most haunting images.

4. Community, Season 3 Episode 19 – "Curriculum Unavailable"

Speaking of sitcoms making good with sequel episodes, hey, Community! Last season's paintball finale, while not quite "Modern Warfare," was the best sitcom finale of spring 2011 by a mile, and this season's blanket fort two-parter, particularly "Pillows and Blankets," against all odds and logic managed to one-up season 2's masterpiece "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design." So, it should come as little shock that the show's second fake clip show more or less equals the first, last season's "Paradigms of Human Memory." It's wackier and more scattershot, but god does it deliver the laughs. A fantasy sequence set in an insane asylum is probably the best TV moment of 2012 so far.

3. Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 9 – "Blackwater"


2. Community, Season 3 Episode 22 – "Introduction to Finality"

I'm about to make two consecutive controversial claims about Community, the first of which is that part of me wishes this had been the series finale. I mean, don't get me wrong – in a brightest timeline where Dan Harmon was continuing on the show, yes, I'd absolutely be salivating for more Community. But that timeline is not our timeline, and in our timeline I believe that if Community had wrapped up with its 71st episode, "Introduction to Finality," I would look back upon the series as the second greatest live-action sitcom of all time. This episode launched Troy, Shirley, and Pierce into promising new futures, yes, but beyond that, it completed Jeff Winger's character arc. Jeff is now thankful he was sent to Greendale, thankful for the family – the community – that he has become a part of. And that's beautiful.

1. Community, Season 3 Episode 20 – "Digital Estate Planning"

Here's controversial claim number two: I think that "Digital Estate Planning" might be one of my favorite TV episodes of all time, and my favorite episode of Community's third season. If you didn't notice when I advocated the living shit out of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I have a bit of a soft spot for films and television that pay tribute to classic video games. (Fittingly, "Burgerboss" is my favorite Bob's Burgers episode by a truly colossal margin.) And when I say "pay tribute to," I mean "pay tribute to," not "reference." There's a big, big difference, and it's a difference that almost none of the films or shows that have set scenes to guys playing first-person shooters have ever grasped.

That's what I figured Community's "video game episode" was going to be when I first heard about it, honestly. That's what Community even did once back in "Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy." Even when I heard it was going to involve traveling into a video game, I figured, sure, poor-man's-Pixar CGI people, first person shooter. Maybe a World of Warcraft parody, territory South Park already marked years ago.

So when I saw that it was going to be a tribute to 8/16-bit gaming, complete with visible pixels and NES-styled chiptunes, a tribute that could only be made by people who truly love and understand gaming, a wave of gratitude that a show like this could sneak on the air, and get the budget and the toys to do the amazing, ambitious things it wants to do, swept over me. That the episode was staggeringly fucking funny, a visual and musical nostalgic feast, and tied seamlessly into Pierce's long-running character arc raises the bar for what sitcoms can aspire to to an almost unfair level.

It says a lot about this episode's almost incalculable greatness that the presence of Breaking Bad's fourth season MVP Giancarlo Esposito was just gravy on top. Perfect television. Don't expect to see but one or two more sitcom episodes this ambitious this decade.