Monday, April 29, 2013

Tim's TV Talk Podcast, Episode 2: Spartacus Finale Commentary

Here's the second episode of my podcast and the first recorded with a higher-quality mic, so hopefully this one will lead to more enjoyment and less bleeding from your earholes. It's a full hour-long audio commentary for the series finale of Spartacus, "Victory." I let the listener know at the beginning of the podcast when I'm hitting play and when the episode title appears, so syncing up the audio with the episode should be no problem. Full spoilers for the entire series of Spartacus should be assumed, of course, and may our cocks rage on!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Parenthood renewed for season 5!

It's not my intention to do news updates here on a regular basis, but there was no way I couldn't mention today's renewal of NBC's Parenthood for a fifth season of 22 episodes. The show is one of my favorite on television and it's arguably gotten better every season, so I'm happy. In fact, barring Dan Harmon being rehired on Community, a premiere date for Steven DeKnight's Incursion or a time traveler from the future telling me that George R.R. Martin finishes his books in time to end Game of Thrones properly, there's probably no piece of television news that could've made me happier right now.

It's no surprise, of course, with Parenthood rising to the surface amidst NBC's ratings apocalypse – it's actually capable of hitting a 2.0 in the 18-49 demo without a lead-in from The Voice, which on NBC in 2013 pretty much makes it a hit by default – but what is a pleasant surprise is it being given a full 22 episodes for the first time since season 2 (season 3 had 18 episodes, season 4 had 15). This makes business sense, seeing as NBC shortened this last season to allow the much higher-budgeted Smash to take its place, only for that show to come back to catastrophic ratings before getting shunted to Saturdays and unceremoniously canned. Someone at NBC seems to have finally woken up and said, hey, maybe we should stick with this thing that, by our standards, actually works!

But it also makes creative sense. I'm normally in favor of shorter TV seasons – especially for shows that rely on fast pacing and life-or-death stakes – but Parenthood boss (and former Friday Night Lights boss) Jason Katims is one of the few drama showrunners I trust to make any length work. Parenthood's relatively low stakes make it the perfect show to take things at a leisurely pace and explore various subplots and secondary characters (and there's a lot of characters, as you can see pictured above).

So, yeah. I'm deeply pleased. And if you're uninitiated, now's the perfect time for you to hop onto Netflix and watch all the Parenthood they have available (unless you still haven't seen Katims' last show Friday Night Lights, in which case you should watch that first, then Parenthood).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Late to the Party: Veronica Mars, Season 1 Disc 1

(I've never seen Veronica Mars. Though I watched a few episodes out of context during its initial 2004-2007 run, the vast majority of the series remains unseen by me and I have little to no knowledge of where any of the major mysteries or character arcs are going. With the film continuation coming next year, I figure now is the perfect time to watch the show, and I'm going to chronicle my journey with mini-reviews written immediately after watching each episode.)

Season 1 Episode 1 - "Pilot"

The thing that leaps most immediately out about Veronica Mars is how very, very Buffy it is. I mean, it's a UPN-aired teen drama about the genre adventures of a badass blonde teenaged girl at a California high school, its dialogue peppered with quips and wisecracks. Only difference is that in Buffy the genre in question involved vampires and magic, here it's noir-style mysteries.

But Buffy is one of the best shows ever, so it's not like I'm complaining. And this is a good pilot – I'd go so far as to say that had it aired in September 2012 I might have considered it the best network pilot of last fall (give or take a Last Resort, though that show almost immediately collapsed starting with episode 2). It certainly doesn't feel as cheap as Buffy's pilot did.

The case-of-the-week with Veronica swiping a convenience store surveillance tape is fun but nothing special – mostly just a way to introduce Wallace and Weevil, it seems – but I found the way the pilot introduced the backstory of Lilly Kane's murder and the Mars family's downfall in Neptune to be stylish and engaging. Kristen Bell is doing a fine job, as is Enrico Colantoni as her father. Weevil standing up for Veronica and Wallace at the end was a great scene. But that new sheriff guy, what a dick, right? Looking forward to more.

Season 1 Episode 2 - "Credit Where Credit's Due"

Well, this episode guest starred Paris Hilton, so that's weird, right? I mean, I guess if I didn't know who Paris Hilton was it would have just seemed like a mediocre-to-poor actress with a small role as a generic mean girl, but still, in every scene featuring her character Catlin Ford all I could think was "ParisHiltonParisHiltonParisHiltonParisHilton!" It was... distracting, to say the least.

Other than that, I thought the episode was fine, but nothing special. I liked the case-of-the-week a smidge more than the pilot's (they buried the real culprit in the credit card theft – Weevil's cousin – deep enough that I didn't guess it until the reveal), but the character work definitely wasn't as strong.

Season 1 Episode 3 - "Meet John Smith"

And, one episode after our featured guest star was Paris Hilton, our featured guest star is Melissa fucking Leo. That's the acting equivalent of leaving Taco Bell and walking across the street into Chipotle right there. And she's playing a male-to-female transexual, to boot! That's some hardcore circa-2004 UPN edginess right there!

Truth be told, outside of the "Damn, that's Melissa Leo!" factor (which in its own way I suppose was as distracting as Paris Hilton, but this was a good kind of distracting, you know?), the case-of-the-week wasn't too impressive on the story or thrill level, though I did think it did a nice job building the theme of missing parental figures as it relates to Veronica. As I've said, I have no idea how this series is going to play out – for all I know, Veronica is never going to see her mother again or she'll see her in the next five episodes – but I was genuinely hopeful Veronica had found her mom and felt the pain when it turned out she hadn't.

In our B-plot, Duncan Kane gives a remarkably dull performance. Seriously, every time this kid steps on the screen, I spend a few seconds squinting, trying to figure out if that's Duncan Kane or just some random extra. What a block of wood!

Season 1 Episode 4 - "The Wrath of Con"

Oof. I'm definitely torn on this episode. It represents perhaps the best and worst of Veronica Mars so far. Let's start with the worst: The case-of-the-week this time out suu-uu-uuccked. I mean, really? These two college dorks are conning a few thousand bucks to make a game that, quote, "makes Quake look like Asteroids"? Is this shit for real? Watching an episode like this reminds of how incredibly stupid, backwards and ignorant the depiction of video games and gamer culture was onscreen less than a decade ago. It still often sucks today, of course, but "Digital Estate Planning" sure as hell couldn't have existed until the last year or two, that's for sure.

On the other hand, the character work here was great. Though I know little of Veronica Mars, one thing I have been exposed to simply by being a person who reads about TV on the internet is that Veronica Mars fans love them some Logan Echolls (and by extension the actor playing him, Jason Dohring). And after a few episodes of him being a generic jerkwad, "The Wrath of Con" made me finally start to understand why, as Logan struggles to make a video memorial of Lilly. He sure pops off the screen more than Teddy Dunn as Duncan Kane. (And, as a side note, Amanda Seyfried gives her best performance so far as Lilly here, though, with her long-dead, I dunno how much she'll even be seen from here on out.)

Everything with the flashbacks to Veronica and Lilly and Logan and Duncan at the beach was good stuff, and, as it did Weevil, I'll admit that Logan's video memorial got to me a little too. What's interesting is that Lilly's father seemed to be bona fide grieving for his dead daughter, so either he's innocent after all or that character is just a damn fine actor.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Awkward launches its third season with bizarre pro-life moralizing

Season 3 Episode 1 - "Cha-cha-cha-changes"

First off, because much of the rest of what I'm about to type might make it seem otherwise, I'll stress that I generally really enjoy MTV's high school sitcom Awkward. I'd go so far as to label it one of the ten best live-action comedies on television. It's funny and massively energetic, with stronger characterization and continuity than all but a handful of other sitcoms, and creator/showrunner Lauren Iungerich writes with TV's most charmingly and authentically youthful voice. It's a very good show.

But all that said, its (again, otherwise really funny, with an awesome guest starring turn from Anthony Michael Hall) third season premiere... got weird. You see, protagonist Jenna Hamilton has her a bit of a pregnancy scare. Which is a typical enough plot for television, that's not the weird part. But before the end of the episode when she and her mom get up the guts to look at the pregnancy test together – which is negative – the option of abortion (which is never mentioned by name, it being too ghastly to even say out loud, I guess?) is twice referred to as "choosing death," and when Jenna's mom tells Jenna that she'll support her decision, Jenna looks at her mother and says "There is no decision, mom," and that if she is pregnant she has to have the baby.

Perhaps the weirdest part is that nothing else about Awkward has ever struck me as being politically conservative in the least. It's completely sympathetic to its gay characters and totally apathetic about teen girls having and enjoying sex (hell, it may even be in favor of it), and the very next episode after this premiere had Jenna going on birth control, when all true Republicans know that birth control pills are but little pieces of Satan. But in this case, it, perhaps befitting the network of Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, leaned hard right.

It was jarring and pretty weird and it made me uncomfortable, and I'd be lying if I said that I don't now think about it at least for a second every time I think of the show. I still think Awkward is funny, plan to keep watching until it ends or is canceled, and I think almost every live-action sitcom could learn a thing or two from its insanely high energy and snappy pacing. But, on some small level, it may always be the show that suddenly started reciting a pro-life pamphlet at me.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spartacus delivers one of the greatest series finales of all time

Spartacus: War of the Damned, Episode 10 - "Victory"

From day one, Spartacus defied the rules.

We all know the rules of television, even if we don't know we know them. For example, we know that arcs move slowly, with maybe one major change of status quo per season (having two means people will call you "fast-paced"). Spartacus said "That's okay, we'd like our show to move with ferocity and purpose and cataclysmically shatter the status quo about every two or three episodes," and did just that.

We know an "epic" battle by TV standards means about twenty guys on each side (or maybe fifty in the case of Game of Thrones' $12 million extravaganza "Blackwater"). Spartacus decided that wasn't good enough and that they'd like battles that rival those in Lord of the Rings or Braveheart and that, defying finances, logic and maybe even simple physics, they'd like to do them on a shoestring budget with more than one a season, and so it was.

We all know there's supposed to be a couple major character deaths in a TV season at most. Spartacus decided it would like to slaughter over half the cast every season, and slaughter they did.

We all know that a successful show – much less the highest-rated on an entire network, which Spartacus was – is supposed to run on and on until it's squeezed bone-dry and the fire in its belly is but embers. Spartacus decided three main seasons was just right (plus the prequel miniseries Gods of the Arena), because they'd like every season to be completely different from the others and for each to tell a whole and satisfying story with a thunderous climax that leaves you wanting more.

Spartacus excelled above where it was expected and frankly where it was allowed to from day one. Stuck on a third-tier premium cable channel, it said "Fuck it, this is an opportunity!" and became that channel's highest-rated show and flagship property. It attempted and powerfully pulled off a grand, sweeping war epic on a small budget with little star power. It never got 1% the respect it demanded, its passion and energy and sheer, intense visceral pleasure baffling TV critics used to thinking of cable dramas as being something dry and grim and antiheroic.

Where other shows added to or, in the ballsiest cases, bent the unwritten but unmistakably felt and omnipresent TV Drama Rulebook, Spartacus took that damn rulebook and fed it into a shredder.

Where other shows were content to tell stories, Spartacus seared a legend across our TV screens.

So perhaps the only course left for a show that lived to break the rules – a show that lived to shatter expectations and deliver one crazy "HOLY SHIT!" twist after another after another – to break the rules one final time was by breaking its own rules and choosing to more or less align with history in its final hour. For a show that constantly went directions I couldn't have predicted, it's interesting that Spartacus pretty much ends how I figured it would since the beginning of War of the Damned, if not since the beginning of the series.

And this predictable – even predestined – hour was one of the most stirring, marvelous, thrilling, emotional, heart-pounding and heartrending episodes of television I've ever witnessed and easily one of the two or three best series finales in television history.

In this sense it reminds me of Friday Night Lights' "Always," the best series finale ever (and perhaps the only one I've seen that trumps "Victory"), which put an abrupt halt to the plot-heavy nature of the episodes leading into it and let pure, stirring emotion carry it home. Twists are awesome, and Spartacus had dozens, but "Victory" cements the idea that a truly great series finale doesn't need a mind-bending twist and perhaps even actively shouldn't have one. When you reach the end of a terrific story, what counts isn't exploding expectations, but taking it home. And Spartacus took it home masterfully, bloodily and beautifully.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Community season 4 produces its first bona fide great episode

Season 4 Episode 8 - "Herstory of Dance"

Watching the sweet, simple and almost shockingly enjoyable eighth episode of nuCommunity – not only easily the best of Guarascio and Port's Community but one I'd rank over a solid dozen or so episodes of Dan Harmon's Community – it occurred to me that the best thing Community's new guard can do (or rather should have done, since this whole season's been in the can for months) is stick to the sitcom basics. Be funny, be nice, draw story from character. It's simple, and, as "Herstory of Dance" shows, it works.

Now, don't get me wrong – I'm in no way advocating that Community morph itself into According to Jim. Or, to be less hyperbolic, even into Scrubs or Ben and Kate. Community should absolutely and always maintain its pop culture-infused tone and vibe, something that's been with it since Abed launched into a Breakfast Club monologue fifteen minutes into the pilot, and "Herstory of Dance" absolutely does. Abed's story, where he's not aggrieved but delighted to find himself reenacting a classic trope when he finds himself on two dates at once, is pure sitcom self-commentary, and Britta's whole Sophie B. Hawkins story is basically one long music reference.

But what made it work in a way that surpassed the Doctor Who/Inspector Spacetime jokes from "Conventions of Space and Time" or the Shawshank jokes from "Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations" or the Changnesia documentary from "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" is just how strongly every inch of it was rooted in character. Abed's internal fight between maturing and falling back on his love of sitcom tropes really let both the character work and pop culture references roll, and Britta's stubborn refusal to acknowledge that she'd accidentally said "Sophie B. Hawkins" rather than "Susan B. Anthony" even as things began to get out of hand was such a great distillation of Britta down to her sweet, clumsy and well-meaning if overly out-to-prove-something best.

Props should also go to Brie Larson's guest spot as Abed's new love interest Rachel. She was great in Scott Pilgrim and 21 Jump Street and I've heard good things about her in the upcoming dramas The Spectacular Now and Short Term 12, and in this episode she demonstrated within seconds the immediate, can't-take-your-eyes-off-her charisma of a rapidly rising movie star. In her hands, Rachel was a real character as opposed to walking romcom trope.

Also, can I just say that this episode's deeply warm, humane ending was just a couple minutes of great, great television? Community has of course always been a show of happy endings. In sharp contrast to, say, Arrested Development or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one of its signature elements is that it pretty much always brings episodes to some form of sweet, victorious resolution for our heroes, and in the few cases where it doesn't ("For a Few Paintballs More," "Digital Exploration of Interior Design") it's pretty much always part of the plot and continued on into the next episode, which then resolves last's episode's downer ending sweetly.

But even in that context, the final minutes of "Herstory of Dance," where Abed reconnects with Rachel and especially where Jeff sends his text redefining what it means to "Britta" it, evoked shades of some of the show's all-time best episode endings and were up there with bits of Bunheads and Parenthood as being among the most sincere, heartfelt and genuine TV of 2013. They weren't really "funny," per se, but when TV makes you feel so unreservedly good, that's ok. Tears damn near came to my eyes.

But there were some solid laughs, too, from the Dean's black and white costume to Troy's fake mustache and longing for wacky ice to YouTube celebrity Wendy McColm as Abed's manic pixie dream girl date. Granted, it wasn't as nearly funny as Community as its Dungeons-&-Dragoning, guard-chloroforming, insane-asylum-cutawaying very best, but not many things ever committed to screen are, so that's a ludicrous standard to hold it to. It was a damn funny episode that made me laugh a lot, and, even more importantly, made me feel content and happy, and I'd say that gets the job done.

Kudos to Gillian Jacobs and Danny Pudi and Brie Larson, kudos to episode writer Jack Kukoda (a former scribe for The Onion's videos, new to Community season 4) and kudos to the new guard for producing what is, ignoring Bob's Burgers and the ending stretch of 30 Rock, 2013's best half-hour of TV comedy to date.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Best TV Episodes, March 2013

10. Community, Season 4 Episode 6 – "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking"

While neither me or anyone else (certainly not anyone else, since according to most of the rest of the TV blogosphere we're now supposed to hate Community unreservedly) would argue Community's fourth documentary episode measures up to "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking," "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux," or "Pillows and Blankets," it was a fun, energetic little episode with Donald Glover delivering comedic gold once again via Troy's quest to disagree with Annie on everything. I especially loved the show bringing back Chang's wife, last seen in "Environmental Science" two and a half years and 67 episodes ago. They may lack Harmon, but someone on Community's writing staff clearly knows their Greendale history.

9. Game of Thrones, Season 3 Episode 1 – "Valar Dohaeris"

No one will mistake Game of Thrones' setup-centric third season premiere as being among the show's finest hours, but I just love this world and these characters and, frankly, having a fantasy series on television operating at this level so much that I richly enjoyed it all the same. The final reveal of Barristan Selmy just oozed cool.

8. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 7 – "Mors Indecepta"

Spartacus: War of the Damned's second-weakest episode (after episode 3, "Men of Honor," the season's only hour I would describe as merely good instead of explosively fantastic) was still a huge, action-packed spectacle with an ending that had me literally cheering out loud on my couch like a fucking crazy person. That War of the Damned's relative low points make almost all of the rest of TV look so fucking boring in comparison speaks to the searing power of what this season is in the midst of accomplishing.

7. Bob's Burgers, Season 3 Episode 17 – "Two for Tina"

I've reiterated multiple times that (despite H. Jon Benjamin's vocal greatness) Bob's Burgers' title character and his wife Linda are but supplementary to the show's true comedic superstars: Tina, Gene and Louise Belcher. And even amongst that trio – currently, if anyone's keeping track, the greatest sitcom characters on television – Tina stands alone, with "Bad Tina" and "Tina-Rannosaurus Wrecks" being two of my favorite sitcom episodes last year, and now "Two for Tina," which contains a dance contest that may just put Silver Linings Playbook to shame. I also love that this episode continued Tina's character arc from last month's also-hysterical "Lindapendent Woman," again establishing Bob's Burgers as having a continuity leg up on almost all other animated sitcoms.

6. Justified, Season 4 Episode 11 – "Decoy"

Justified is so much sheer goddamned fun that I'm honestly kind of shocked that it's accepted as a "great" show by the "serious TV drama must be grim and bleak and relentlessly unpleasant"-pushing voices of the TV blogosphere. But it's somehow slipped through the cracks, and a show capable of putting out an episode this insanely high-energy, complete with shootouts, standoffs, torture, a blood-pumping fight where I really wasn't sure who was gonna live, a psychotic evil henchman named "YOLO" and a literal goddamned exploding car can not only exist but also be critically lauded. Justified is just cool as hell, baby.

5. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 5 – "Blood Brothers"

A mere three episodes after launching his plan to sack and take over a Roman city (itself an epic set piece 99% of other TV dramas would have saved for their season finale, which Spartacus casually tossed out as episode 2 like it weren't no thang), Spartacus' dominion of Sinuessa en Valle goes up in literal, spectacular flames in yet another insane midseason hour that, again, virtually any other show would have considered season finale material. Have I mentioned lately how Spartacus makes basically every other action show ever made look like dogshit?

4. Bob's Burgers, Season 3 Episode 16 – "Topsy"

3. Switched at Birth, Season 2 Episode 9 – "Uprising"

I mostly just think of ABC Family's Switched at Birth as a teen drama – a well above-average one, but just a teen drama regardless – so it was a pleasant shock to see them produce this formally and emotionally ambitious hour. The students of Carlton School for the Deaf rise up in an occupation protest when the city moves to shut their school down, which is, except for a few spoken lines at the episode's beginning and one more at its end, depicted entirely in silence with nothing but subtitled sign language to better reflect the viewpoint of the deaf characters. It was unique and ballsy, but more importantly than having a great gimmick, it had a great gimmick rooted entirely in character, thematically relevant and tied to a strong emotional throughline.

2. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 8 – "Separate Paths"

Though I doubt anyone would describe Spartacus: War of the Damned episodes 4 through 7 as slow-paced, they nevertheless kicked it up another notch with this sweeping, tragic and epic antepenultimate episode, whose show-shattering climactic events made it clear that we're now locked firmly into endgame mode. It wasn't even technically a "final battle" (which will presumably be coming in the actual series finale airing April 12th), but it nonetheless delivered a massive and spectacular final battle set piece that effortlessly kicks the ass of most other TV battles I've seen. It was certainly, without hyperbole, hundreds of times bigger and more exciting than The Walking Dead's finale. And though I know I sound a broken record at this point, it was yet another midseason episode any other drama on television would have saved for season finale time.

1. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 6 – "Spoils of War"

I've already done a full review for Spartacus: War of the Damned's endlessly clever, simultaneously thoughtful and thunderously exciting sixth episode, so I won't go too in depth here. But it's my favorite episode of what is my favorite TV season of the year so far, which may just make it my favorite TV episode of 2013 (give or take a Fringe series finale, perhaps). It was smaller in scope and more intimate than other episodes, but, as a hardcore Spartacus fan going way back, I found its self-reflective nature thrilling and even moving. A fun tour back through four years of an amazing series.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Top Thirty TV Shows of Q1 2013

As a means to publicly organize my thoughts, here are, ranked mostly without commentary, my thirty favorite shows of the year so far based solely on episodes aired between January 1st and March 31st, 2013. I don't even like the first few shows on the list that much, so if anything didn't make the cut you can safely assume that either, one, I haven't seen it (Enlightened falls in this category), two, it hasn't premiered yet (Breaking Bad, etc.), or three, I don't like it. I've seen at least a little of pretty much everything, so most missing shows fall into category three (fuck you, The Following!).

30. The Americans (new)
29. Glee
28. The Office
27. Revolution
26. Archer
25. The Walking Dead
24. Nashville
23. Vikings (new)
22. Gravity Falls
21. Revenge
20. Hart of Dixie
19. Parks and Recreation
18. Happy Endings
17. Arrow
16. American Dad!
15. Game of Thrones *
14. Scandal
13. Switched at Birth
12. 30 Rock
11. Supernatural
10. The Vampire Diaries
9. New Girl
8. Community
7. Banshee (new)
6. Justified
5. Fringe
4. Parenthood
3. Bunheads
2. Bob's Burgers
1. Spartacus: War of the Damned

* I love Game of Thrones and give it a 99% chance of being higher than this on my eventual best of 2013 list. But its ranking here is predicated on a single episode consisting mostly of setup, which, considering, I think actually makes being at #15 pretty impressive.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Walking Dead wimps out spectacularly in its wet fart of a finale

Season 3 Episode 16 - "Welcome to the Tombs"

At one point, very early on before they got their second season's budget hiked by HBO, the producers of Game of Thrones discussed having the Battle of the Blackwater take place offscreen, seen briefly through Sansa's viewpoint out a window far away. But budget issues were sorted, money was allocated, and we got the outstanding episode "Blackwater," replete with wildfire explosion, ships on fire, clashing armies, a battering ram and fighting on the battlements. And good thing, too – can you imagine how frustrating it would be to have an epic battle foreshadowed, discussed, planned, built up to and generally hyped all season long only to see but a few seconds of actual battling?

Well imagine no more, my friend. Just watch The Walking Dead season 3.