Yes, yes, it has been weeks since the conclusion of Game of Thrones’ sixth season, making this piece all but irrelevant in the grand scheme of things…on the surface, at least. But this is freaking Game of Thrones we are talking about, the pop culture phenomenon that all but demands constant recaps, thinkpieces, and (let’s face it) clickbait centered aroudn it. This show is keeping the lights on for the entire entertainment blogging realm, so it feels very appropriate for it to be the centerpiece of the first actual article on Freshly Popped Culture. And hey, it was very recently in the news for the truckload of Emmy nominations it received yesterday, so it’s not entirely out of the zeitgeist.
And why not make the first article on this website a list of all the things that bothered me about a show the internet (including I, for the record) loves? I hear that fans tend to like that sort of thing. In any case, a few weeks late and multiple dollars short, here’s the six biggest problems I had with Game of Thrones Season 6.
1) Coup de Dorne (and Everywhere Else, for That Matter)
Oh Dorne. Dorne, Dorne, Dorne — will you forever be the nadir of this series? Hot off the heels of its big Season 5 debut (which I called “probably the worst thing that Game of Thrones has ever done” at the time of its conclusion), it was a smart move for the show to basically cut ties with the storyline, throw their hands in the air, and ignore all of Dorne until a quick scene in the finale. That being sad, even if the intent was pure, that doesn’t forgive how AWFUL the coup scene was in the Season 6 premiere. My mouth was literally agape at how rushed, poorly thought out, and just plain stupid the assassination of pretty much everyone of importance was, and how silly the concept of the Sand Snakes and Ellaria taking over the entire region was presented. Yes it was smart for the series to wash its hands of the storyline, but boy did it still come off as awkward and jarring.
And while we’re on the subject of rushed storylines involving the major political upheaval of an entire region, let’s talk about…well, everywhere else this season, it seems. It’s okay for so many places to suffer giant political developments this season — that’s been the show’s raison d’etre since pretty much the beginning. But what would once be the brunt of an entire character’s storyline for a season was now constricted to a couple episodes, if even that. And there’s both pros and cons to this quick and streamlined approach — we don’t necessarily need to spend 10 hours with Theon and the Kingsmoot, and lord knows I didn’t want to see anymore of Dorne than what was absolutely necessary. But to get all the plots in place for the main event of the season (and arguably the series’ entire endgame), things started to feel very rushed and underthought. It also don’t help that the coup in Dorne, the coup in Winterfell, and the coup at the Iron Isles all occurred within a two episode spans— believe it or not there’s such a thing as too much coup, especially at he pace it was dished out here.
There’s certainly a time in place to argue brevity in a plot (and boy will I in some storylines ahead), but when so much of the fun of Game of Thrones is the political machinations, I just couldn’t help but be disappointed at how many situations were solved by “surprise backstab!” throughout the season. And speaking of surprise stabbings…
2) Jon Snow: Dead and Loving It
No one really knew what to expect when Jon Snow came back from the grave. Yes we all knew it was going to happen (the breadcrumbs for that one were pretty noticeable), but where the story would take our resurrected bastard was a different matter entirely. And when actor Kit Harrington spoke of what was to come for the character following his return to living form, I think we were all pretty excited to see what this new direction would mean for the (soon to be former) Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
But boy was that a wash, huh?
For what it’s worth, it didn’t start all bad. Jon’s whole monologue about seeing “nothing” after death was pretty dramatic (and the only freaking reason I can see for Harrington getting an Emmy nomination in a year stuffed with great lead performances), and his execution of the traitors (including Olly!) was indeed pretty hardened stuff. But even in that execution, it was easy to see that the show would not make due on its promises of a changed Jon Snow — despite the ruthlessness of the act, Jon still showed hesitation in hanging the traitors. Our noble good guy was still clearly present, and narrative wise, that wasn’t a thing to celebrate.
Because what happened with all those talks of a “changed” Jon? As the season progressed, it quickly became clear the show was just going to ignore it, to concerned with the machinations of the plot to actually devote time to what could have ended up being a fascinating piece of progression for the character. And if the show wasn’t fully committing to Jon Snow coming back “differently” (as Beric Dondarrion teased many seasons ago), then what was even the freaking point of killing him in the first place?
The answer unfortunately is now obvious: they had to find a way that Honorable Jon Snow could be shackled free from the Knight’s Watch and actually join the fray, and killing him (and thus technically fulfilling the vow) was the easiest way of doing so. Yes it’s a decent way to move the plot forward, but that’s sadly all it ended up being. At the end of the day, the death of Jon Snow is just a footnote, something we’re bound to forget ever happened by the time the series concludes…if not already.
3) Repetitive Dany
On the subject of characters frustratingly refusing to change (the segways are coming fast and loose today), let’s talk about the Daenyrs storyline…again. On paper, her activities this season were fine: she got herself a big old group of loyal men, dealt with those pesky slavers, and seems to finally be on path to make her way to Westeros. Yes, all this is great, but certainly loses its luster the, oh, let’s say fifth time we’ve seen it happen.
Yeah that’s being a bit hyperbolic, but still — Dany’s plot seems to have been on the same rails for seasons now, and Season 6 did very little to change that. Yes we got a couple cool scenes (her leading the dragons to burn the ships at Slaver’s Bay was good spectacle), but it was hard not to feel like the “big” moments of her story were dulled substantially be a severe case of daja vu, the biggest example of course being the ill thought out burning of the Dothraki khals in “Book of the Stranger.” Once again, in theory, it should be awesome, and for many, it was. But I just couldn’t get into the scene, primarily because it highlights the show’s biggest problem with the Dany character: she always wins, is always confident (and arguably smug) that she will win, and faces little difficulty in conquering the problems around her. A couple seasons of that is fine, but after seeing it over and over again for six years, it can just get a bit grating. Like everyone else I absolutely loved that time she “dropped the whip” and burned the hell out of that asshole slaver back in Season 3, but constantly giving me that scene at least once a season just dilutes the brand a bit, does it not?
Thankfully the final scene of the series seems to illustrate that Dany’s circular plot motions in Essos will soon be coming to an end, and thank god for that. I don’t think I can take another scene of her shouting dramatically in a fake language to a crowd of brown people (often bowing to her) as a dragon roar blares in the background, her satisfied smirk closing out the episode. There’s a supercut of like half a dozen scenes of that EXACT SAME SCENARIO to be had, and for a show as varied as Game of Thrones can be, that’s not a good thing.
4) The Uselessness of the Riverlands
I don’t have a segway for this one, so this point is just going to be awkwardly introduced with little build up, and likely given much less time or reflectiion than the other points. Hey, wait, I guess I had a segway for the Riverlands plot after all!
Yes, it was nice to return to a region of Westeros we haven’t been too in a while, and taking Jamie out of King’s Landing was a necessary aspect of the plot…but ultimately, was that all the Riverlands story ended up doing? Simply move the characters of Jamie and Brienne to a place where they couldn’t be a part of the other storylines that no longer needed them? That’s fine as an overall narrative choice, but that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t have to have a little fun with it. What they introduced (the Blackfish forming his own little coup against the Frey’s) wasn’t a bad setup at all for an extended storyline, but it was resolved so soon and ultimately did so little that I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the whole thing.
And that resolution really struck in my craw too — it didn’t really show a different side of Jamie like in Season 3, and keeps him on the same disappointing trajectory he has been on since, what, Season 4? And look, I get it: his big developments are likely to come next season when he (probably) starts to have some massive doubts about his loyalty to his crazy sister, and the show felt it necessary to further build up that thread so it can (likely) knock it down come next season. But rather than that, couldn’t you have simply began to plant the seeds of doubt already, showing us how his experience in the Riverlands ultimately leads to his (not-confirmed-but-come-on-its-happening) betrayal of his sister? And that could have easily been accomplished by what the show was already doing: Jamie could have simply forced Edmure to command the Frey soldiers to ACTUALLY FOLLOW THEIR HOUSE MOTTO, retreat from the castle, and head to Winterfell. Everyone would have “won,” and you could have further showed how Jamie is playing both sides, torn between what he has to do for King’s Landing, his loyalty (and friendship) with Brienne, and a natural sense of honor and goodness (he’s still trying to keep the Stark girls safe and fulfill his vow to Catelyn, after all.) Instead we get this silly scene, which would have had a much greater impact if the character’s reunion had any dramatic payoff whatsoever:
Yes, I know I sound like I’m “backseat writing” for the show right now, but I was just really confused when this storyline came to an end, and seemingly nothing of note actually ended up happening there. Ah well, at least we got a Bronn appearance out of it. I guess there’s worst reasons for a storyline to be around.
5) Assassin Arya
Never would I think that perhaps my favorite character in Game of Thrones would be at the center of one of its worst storylines but, well, here we are. Arya is still a great character, and Masie Williams still does a great job of playing her, but oof. What a stinker of a season for her.
Now obviously there’s a lot of problems with Arya’s Assassin Adventure in the Magical Land of Braavos, to the point that it could be easy to become overwhelmed with all the little minutia of problems (such as parkouring like a crazy person the day after getting fucking shived in the stomach 2,000 times) But for the sake of brevity, I’m just going to talk about the biggest issue: functionally, nothing that happened here really made a lot of sense, and often times was flat out boring.
I’m not against the idea of seeing Arya train to become a badass assassin — arguably it should’t take two entire seasons to do it but, whatever, there was certainly a way for Weiss and Benioff to advance this storyline in an entertaining fashion even with its slightly bloated runtime. And as we could see from Arya’s final moments in Season 6, her training with the Faceless Men will influence her character going forward, so you can’t just argue the show would have been better skipping out on the whole thing. But why oh why did it happen to end up so flat out bad?
The answer in large part goes to pacing, and resolution. It felt like the show was inferring more about Arya’s training than actually showing it, taking more than a season to get to the point where she started to learn some skills and, even worse, showing very little of those skills in actual practice. If the show was going to stretch this out to occupy two years of time, couldn’t they have used that time to show her going on some Faceless Men assignments, and actually being somewhat skilled at the job until her identity finally kicked in and she (inevitably) betrayed them? Instead we got multiple episodes where Arya’s sole purpose is to get the shit beat out of her, which does little to advance both the plot and the character. And when Arya finally did get her eyesight back and began training again, what did we get? A couple of montages where she fights with a stick. And that’s all it took to be a competent assassin, I guess. It’s a rare example of a storyline both taking way too long to progress, but also feeling incredibly rushed.
And the resolution — oh boy, the resolution. Sure all the play stuff was great, and worked well as a way to “awaken” Arya Stark. But the show never really took the time to build up her identity of being “no one” in the first place, thus making it feel like Arya didn’t really change at all through any of the two season’s material. She trained a little, broke the rules, got in trouble, made up for it, and IMMEDIATELY AFTER fucked up again. Seeing Arya legitimately renounce her identity, become an assassin, and actually excel as a contract killer (at least for a while) could have been an interesting way for the show to present just how much the events in her life changed Arya, while also giving her the kickass powers she would need to make further events in the show possible. But just like with Jon Snow above, it seemed like the show refused to really do anything dramatic and risky with its characters — right when they were on the precipice of doing so, the writers would instantly pull back, all the better to preserve the “fan favorites” we all know and love. It’s a problem that many popular shows run into later in their lifespans, but with a series as willing to be as ballsy as Game of Thrones, it’s a shame to see it happening here.
And yes, I still DO love Jon Snow and Arya Stark — flat characterization isn’t going to change that. But for the sake of the story, you can’t pull punches here, and I can’t help but feel like George R.R. Martin isn’t going to when (if?) he ever gets around to finishing those books. If you’re going to change these characters, CHANGE THE CHARACTERS — don’t just go through the motions of doing so and call it a day.
Also, don’t have a parkour scene the day after a character nearly dies. And don’t have her triumphant moment of victory happen off screen. And don’t have her return to the people she betrayed, having her boss say she passed the test (???) just as she walks out…still fucking bleeding. Ugh, this storyline.
6) The Battle of the Brainless
I’m going to try and keep this one short and sweet, because if you made it this far into the piece, you’ve already suffered enough. But “The Battle of the Bastards” is one of the most iconic episodes of television ever, so it feels like I have to talk about it in some degree and, funny enough, will spend time discussing about it in both this list AND the “best of” list forthcoming. Which is apt, because boy have I never been more mixed on an episode of television than with this one.
Because though the spectacle was incredibly, I was one of those people who just couldn’t forgive what the writer’s had to do to get there — namely making every character a gigantic idiot. I’m not going to complain about the fact that Jon Snow (or Sansa for that matter) wasn’t going to die during the battle: at this point in the series I’m okay having a few “safe” characters, and I think killing off Jon just for the sake of a shock would have been a bad move overall. But just because Jon (and seemingly every other character in the battle) has plot armor, it doesn’t mean you have to make him a bumbling fool.
At this point, we’re supposed to buy that Jon is a pretty capable leader of men, and a strong warrior: the two battle episodes he was in before this, “Watchers on the Wall” and “Hardhome,” very much proved this. And both episodes did that by showing Jon survive against insurmountable odds, just as “The Battle of the Bastards” seemed to set up as well. Jon was going into a battle where he was clearly outmatched, against a foe who (until that point) proved to be unbeatable. Showing Jon thrive and win the battle through his own skills would have been a pivotal point of development for his character, but that didn’t happen. At all. And I really can’t wrap my head around why.
Swinging back to the pure technical aspects of the battle, let me say this: what Miguel Sapochnik and his crew were able to pull off here (on a $20 million budget no less) is incredible, and nothing I say can take away from that fact. But even taken as simply spectacle, I feel like there was something missing, a moment that I would always remember from the series. In “Blackwater,” there was of course the lighting of the bay with the wild fire, or Tyrion’s badass speech to the troops before “fucking them in the ass.” In “Watchers on the Wall,” there was the oath under the tunnels, or the giant freaking scythe taking out a bunch of dudes, or that 360 degree shot of Jon fighting Styr, or like every other moment from that episode because it’s just the coolest. Likewise for “Hardhome,” which had the wights destroying the gate to assault the beach, Jon shattering a White Walker with his sword, and of course the Night King chillingly giving Jon the stink eye in the episode’s final moments. All these things were incredible, defining moments of Game of Thrones for me, and I’m honestly not sure there’s a moment that comes close to matching ANY of them within “The Battle of the Bastards.”
And once again, I don’t even think it was Sapochnik’s fault — he did absolutely the best he could do with what was given, and managed to elevate the entire battle beyond its simple descriptions. But despite the massive declarations of love and support for “The Battle of the Bastards,” I couldn’t help but come away from its final moments feeling like something — or more likely many things — were missing in its conception. And that of course just left me feeling disappointment, rather than excitement. Oh well, at least Ramsay got the brutal death he deserved. We’ll always have that, at least:
Whew, that’s that: the six biggest problems I had with this season of Game of Thrones. Remember: I actually love Game of Thrones. I really do.
Disney Is Rebooting The Muppets (Yes, Again) And A Whole Bunch of Other Dormant Properties For Their New Streaming Service
Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Father of the Bride, The Parent Trap, the concept of time itself. You know, the usual.
Disney has conquered mainstream Hollywood. That is an undeniable fact, if you ask me — between their Marvel and Star Wars output (not to mention their live action remakes, animated films, and projects from Pixar), Disney seems to be the only big studio thriving in the modern age. But as much as that seems like a compliment to Disney, it’s also something of a dour note for the industry overall — things are rough for theatrical film, for a variety of reasons. But perhaps the most substantial one is competition from the world of cable, Broadcast, and (especially) streaming outlets. When you are routinely getting things of the same (if not better) quality out of TV and streaming, why even go to the theater? The question is baffling to me (because it’s a movie theater, that’s why!), but not for the majority of Americans — ticket sales are the worst they have been in decades, as people would rather get their entertainment fix by staying at home and watching Netflix.
And Disney knows this. They are content with having conquered the ashes of traditional Hollywood, but they aren’t idiots — the media landscape is changing, and they want to be just as viable in the new one as a Netflix or HBO. So they are creating their own streaming service, and taking the battle for entertainment supremacy to Netflix in a big way.
But in building their new streaming outlet, I was rather curious how Disney planned to convince people to subscribe to their service when there were dozens more out there competing for the same eyeballs (and monthly set of dollar bills.) Well, today we got a pretty big hint in how Disney plans to build out their streaming portfolio and, no surprise, it’s taking advantage of their biggest asset: all the well-liked shit they have made and/or acquired over the last century. Brands are king for Disney, and they very much seem to be putting those at the forefront as they dive into this new frontier. Call it a safety blanket if you want (I will: it’s a safety blanket), but it has served Disney well in the last decade, so
…reboot time it is!
Of course, many of Disney’s bigger properties have already been rebooted or remade on the big screen, leading the selections for their streaming stuff to be a bit lower tier. The biggest property announced today for the potential reboot treatment is The Muppets, who Disney acquired from The Jim Henson Company back in 2004, and have since been left scratching their heads at what exactly to do with it. Things seemed great at first when the Jason Segal-led reboot film managed to enliven the love for the franchise, and perform pretty great at the box office to boot. But then Muppets Most Wanted came out and, despite being a whole lotta fun, underwhelmed at the box office. It seemed The Muppets would not be the blockbuster franchise Disney was hoping for.
So they transferred the property back to TV, relaunching a new series simply entitled The Muppets. This series had a promising hook (basically The Muppets meets 30 Rock, through the mockumentary lens of The Office) but it failed to get an audience on ABC and, quite frankly, wasn’t even all that good to begin with. Then a whole controversy broke out when longtime puppeteer/Kermit the Frog voice actor Steve Whitmire was fired from working on the property. He argued that Disney’s plans for the character was against what Henson would have stood for. They argued he was a shitty worker who didn’t play well with others, and everyone else was glad to be rid of him. The truth probably rests somewhere in between the two stances, but that didn’t make the controversy anymore crippling for The Muppet brand. They laid low for a year or so, only popping up to make wacky promotional videos and the like for the franchises’ various social media pages.
But apparently, Disney still thinks they can make this thing work in a big way, as The Hollywood Reporter confirms the Mouse House intends to bring the property to their new streaming service. Which, by the way, could use a name pronto. I’m tiring of just calling it “their new streaming service.” Judging by what they seem to want to put on it, maybe simply “Reboot” will do?
Kidding aside, The Muppets isn’t the only reboot Disney plans to anchor the service with. Also in the mix according to THR is film properties like Honey I Shrunk the Kids (you, know the Rick Moranis movie about shrinking kids), Father of the Bride (you know, the Steve Martin movie about being the father of the bride), and The Parent Trap (you know, the Lindsay Lohan movie about trapping parents.) This is in addition to previously announced reboot fodder like High School Musical and The Mighty Ducks which, yeah, were all certainly things at one point in time. They have name value, and that’s all that matters to the house that Micky Mouse built! At least there will be some top shelve franchise extinctions from brands like Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar’s Monster’s Inc. And, who knows, maybe an original property might sneak its way in there!
…But no promises.
Also published on Medium.
Matt’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2017
Right at the edge of being at all relevant, here are my top 10 TV shows of 2017.
You know what? I’m rather impressed with myself, and I don’t particularly care if anyone else is. Usually I can’t release my Top 10 TV and Film lists until weeks and weeks into the new year — I am a completionist, after all, and live in an area in which many of the big Oscar films don’t even come out until months after they first hit limited release (if at all.) And as for my delay with TV, I’m lazy, and have a lot of things I end up catching up on based entirely on the fact that other people had them in their 10 Tops for the year. So most years (like last, for instance), I don’t release either lists until WAY past the point in which anyone even cares.
But this year? I was able to do my catch up far faster than normal, mostly because I am unemployed and have absolutely nothing better to do with all this time (SO MUCH TIME, you guys.) So rather than deliver my lists extremely late, they are just normal late. Believe it or not, it’s an improvement, and I’m not going to let anyone else take that away from me. Maybe a few years from now, I can actually be on time with them!
But, eh, probably not.
Anyways, I’ll be releasing both my Top 10 TV shows and Top 10 movies list for the year that was 2017, starting out today with television. As has been the case with the format for the past few years, there are WAY TOO MANY GOOD TV SHOWS, so the amount of stuff I had to regretfully push off the list was numerous. So numerous, in fact, I plan on publishing a separate list recounting those in the coming days too. But, for now, here’s what I settled on for the 10 best TV shows I saw in the past twelve months, starting with…
10. Samurai Jack
There’s a part of me that thinks I’m only putting Samurai Jack on this list because I remain in awe that we even got it in the first place. An actual conclusion to the long thought dead Cartoon Network series just seemed like a fanboy pipe dream, and that, eventually, one we would all just forget about (until the property got rebooted in twenty years, of course.) But, no, a final season of Samurai Jack is indeed something we got in 2017. And though I had a few quibbles here and there (namely that the romance felt a bit contrived, and the ending a tad rushed), I came away from the ten-episode run as enamored with the series as I ever was. The first three episodes, in particular, are just masterful television, combining astonishing animation with amazing action and, most exciting of all, brilliant character work. The show got darker with its return but, more importantly, it got more reflective and bold with the story it was trying to tell. Even if it wasn’t 100% perfect, Samurai Jack was unlike anything else on television, and a strong case that Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the most brilliant people currently working in the medium. Please let him do more of it, world, rather than continued Hotel Transylvania films. Samurai Jack proves he can do far, far, far, far better.
9. The Handmaid’s Tale
By far the most buzzed about new TV series of the year, it would have been easy for The Handmaid’s Tale to coast on the timeliness of its themes, trading in actual craftsmanship and skill for the mere fact that, yeah, what it’s saying is “important.” But what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so great is that it manages to do both in a way that is seamless and never preachy — the themes that the show approaches are powerful and important and sadly relevant, but that never takes away from how concise and skillful the show is on its own. There’s a fantastic dystopian tale at the center of The Handmaid’s Tale, and even if we lived in a utopia of equal rights (which we of course don’t), the story in and of itself would be enough to make The Handmaid’s Tale worth watching. Plus the incredible performances of the cast (especially Elisabeth Moss in the lead), and the absolutely awe-inspiring visuals. The Handmaid’s Tale might be the show of the current zeitgeist…but it’s also a pretty good one, so I can’t complain much about the love it has received.
8. Nathan for You
Every year that Nathan Fielder chooses to create more episodes of this brilliant show, I will almost certainly find a place for it on my end-of-the-year list. It’s just that good, and this season especially gave us a number of glorious episodes. Nathan’s amazing attempt to create a Late Night appropriate story in “The Anecdote.” His absolutely nutty plan to create a band that heavily used the sound of a smoke detector, which somehow got him wrapped up in the world of Big Oil, because it’s Nathan for You and the world is insane. And, of course, “Finding Frances,” the format breaker that ended the season with a surprisingly touching, thought-provoking story of lost love and regret, so good that even documentarian Errol Morris had to rave about it, calling it his “new favorite love story.” Also, the episode in question involved filming a Mud sequel entitled Mud 2: Never Clean. God I love this insane show.
7. The Americans
You know how good The Americans is? Even an off season of the show manages to find its way into my Top 10 at the end of the year. Because even if Season 5 is probably the weakest season since Season 1…god, it’s just so incredibly good. The Americans is probably the most consistently strong long-running show on all of television, and even a season that isn’t quite as masterful as Season 2 or 3 or 4 still has high points that other shows dream they could touch. The acting remains as powerful as ever, the writing as concise, and the direction as meticulous. Really the only thing setting this season back is the fact that it’s the penultimate one, meaning that a lot of the time was spent seeding the endgame and setting up the final plots — even by The Americans standards, it was a slower season than usual. But the final couple of episodes were absolutely brilliant, and proof that we need not worry about this show as it approaches its final 10 episode season. More than any other series on television, I have faith these people know what they are doing — they haven’t steered us wrong so far, right?
6. Better Call Saul
From one slow burn to another, it’s kind of fascinating how Better Call Saul has managed to grow in the face of its more popular, more explosive parent show. While Breaking Bad focused on big moments and huge plot movements (to genius effect, of course), Better Call Saul’s approach is entirely different. It’s even more character focused, a lot less action heavy, and as much as I hate to use the word to describe anything as exciting and brilliant as this show…yeah, a little bit slower. But that approach has actually benefited the show, especially going into its third season. The fact we got to know these characters so well is really helping this series excel as the plot takes off in kind, with Season 3 in particular delivering some rather huge moments for the character of Jimmy McGill and the people around him. It’s not a big action crime show like Breaking Bad, but it’s almost equally as good in every other regard. Season 3 especially was the show really finding its creative genius, delivering week after week of constant greatness. The series is off to the dramatic races now, and as long as the performances, writing, and visuals remain as strong as they do now, the show will very much remain a worthy predecessor to Vince Gilligan’s last masterwork. And, to be honest, that’s a far better position to be in than pretty much any other TV spin-off I can think of.
5. American Vandal
Ah: American Vandal — the little show that could of 2017. When Netflix dropped the thing in mid-September of this year, I don’t think very man people had it on their radar. The plot seemed a tad obnoxious, and pretty much no one of note was involved in its creation both behind and in front of the camera. But like any good surprise hit, word-of-mouth propelled this one to be one of Netflix’s most talked about shows of the year. And boy was all that conversation well deserved. American Vandal is a real treat from start to finish, a pitch-perfect parody that only gets better the more it unfolds. The series is really some amazing satire, managing to wrangle both blistering laughs and surprising pathos from the story of a bunch of dicks drawn on some cars in a parking lot. American Vandal works on pretty much every level, but what puts it over the moon is how stunningly authentic it ultimately feels. In addition to being a note-for-note true crime parody, American Vandal also makes for a great teen comedy, assembling a bunch of different teenaged personalities and delivering a concise message about how they behave and interact in the cyber age. Liberally featuring things like Youtube, Twitch, Instagram, and the like, American Vandal ended up feeling like one of the most authentic pictures of modern youth that I’ve yet seen. And with authenticity being the key to comedy…well, American Vandal ended up being an absolute knockout in pretty much every regard.
4. Master of None
It sucks that talking about Aziz Anzari has become something of a touchy subject, because it absolutely overshadows the accomplishments of the man a few months prior. But even if Ansari himself is something of a damaged good, I won’t let that stop me from appreciating the greatness that was Master of None Season 2. While I really enjoyed the first season of Anzari’s Netflix dramedy, the second season was a vast improvement, and on a whole different level altogether. With a renewed interest in making the most creative show possible, Aziz Anzari took inspiration from the first season’s best episode (“Mornings”) and molded most of the installments in Season 2 based on that episode’s unique approach to the structure of a TV episode. And what an end result — I legitimately think every episode of Master of None Season 2 is outstanding, from the big idea episodes like “Thankgiving” or “I Love New York,” to the smaller installments like the closing two-parter focusing on Dev’s relationship with his Italian crush. Extremely confident, extremely unique, and altogether impactful — I loved the hell out of Master of None this year. And I’m not going to let some groan-inducing behavior from its main voice detract from that.
3. Better Things
Remember everything I said about Master of None above? The same, but for Louis C.K., and with Better Things. On the one hand it’s a little easier to handle this one because C.K.’s role is strictly behind the scenes…but then again, what C.K. did was far more monstrous than Ansari. So fuck him and fuck the situation entirely. BUT don’t fuck Better Things, because man oh man did I love the show’s sophomore season. Pamela Adlon’s voice remains as unique and entertaining as ever, and Better Things represented a far more reflective, deeper reading of its subject matter than we got in the show’s freshman debut. It was heartwarming, and thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining, and I hope Adlon gets to do whatever the hell she wants with these things now that it’s separated completely from C.K.’s influence. All that being said, the comedian DID write or co-write every episode this season, and his prints were all over the brilliant writing for this. Because he is a brilliant writer, and creative voice. But, also, a fucking asshole. UGH, this whole situation. Anyways, Better Things is wonderful, and I hope it will remain wonderful for however long Adlon wants to keep things going.
2. The Good Place
Whew, finally, a comedy I can talk about without having to mention abhorrent, horrifying behavior! I’ve already spoken at length about how much I loved the second half of The Good Place’s first season (which started in January, lest you forget), but I haven’t really spoken about how the show followed up its amazing home stretch in its second season. Well, suffice to say, this show remains absolutely incredible, and is quickly climbing up the ranks of my all-time favorite TV comedies. That’s a bold thing to say for a show only two seasons in, but what can I say? The Good Place is one of the funniest, most exciting TV series I’ve seen in a while. It’s a show that not only has a strong and unique comic voice, but the storytelling and creativity to match it.
On a week to week basis, I literally have no idea where The Good Place is going, with its story pivoting wildly and it constantly burning through plot that a standard show would probably ruminate in for numerous episodes. And while that might seem like a flaw for some, it only increases my love of this nutty and brave show. Every week they jump into the abyss, with twist after twist after twist changing the nature of the show on an episode-to-episode basis. But after they have managed to reap the benefits of such transitions literally dozens of time, I stopped worrying about where the show might go. At this point, I’m just enjoying the absolutely delightful ride. And I highly recommend for you to do so as well. This is the beginning of a landmark comedy and, as always, I can’t wait to see where The Good Place goes next.
1. The Leftovers
Back when Season 2 of The Leftovers premiered, I was gobsmacked by how brilliant it was. While I loved the first season a lot more than some people, even I could never imagine how absolutely magnificent the show could get in its second set of 10 episodes. It was my favorite series of 2015 and, at the time, I had no idea how in the world a season of television could possibly get better.
The Leftovers Season 3 is a masterpiece. It is brilliant from top-to-bottom, with every episode fantastic on their own, and wonderous altogether. It served as the perfect capper to the series, more perfect than any other final season of a drama that I can think of. It’s pure, uncut brilliant, powered by the incredible acting, beautiful writing, and always outstanding production values. It’s the kind of show that’s so good that I can’t even think of more superlatives to use to express its greatness — already I’ve thrown like a dozen out, and none of them can match how I truly feel about this amazing little stretch of eight episodes. From the storytelling boldness of “The Most Powerful Man in the World” to the emotional wallop that is “The Book of Nora” (the show’s series finale), there was not a single misstep in this collection of episodes. Not a single damn flaw.
There’s a lot more I want to say about The Leftovers Season 3 that I didn’t get the chance to express when it first came out. How amazing Justin Thereoux and Carrie Coon were in their performances, and how much they absolutely grew into their characters over the show’s three-year lifespan. How the series turned out to be a pretty powerful romance, while simultaneously tackling a dozen other themes and plotlines. How the show ended up being the perfect one for 2017, with its constant theme of how we approach the end of the world feeling more and more relevant as we delved into the real life shitshow that was 2017. Hell, how it gave us an episode of television that referenced 80’s sitcom Perfect Stranger dozens of times, and was also as heartbreaking as any other installment of the show. So many, many thoughts. But, ultimately, I’m left with one thought that is more important than them all.
I’ve loved a lot of TV shows, especially in the modern era. And, for the last five years, I’ve had a clear favorite of all time — Breaking Bad, of course. But in three short seasons, The Leftovers has topped it for me. It is now my favorite TV series of all time, and I am 100% unwavering in that stance. No show has hit me harder emotionally, or impressed me more fundamentally, or wowed me in ways so absorbing. For me at least, The Leftovers is the new king of the TV mountain. Long live the king.
Whew. That was my love letter to The Leftovers or, umm, my Top 10 TV Shows of 2017. Sorry, got kind of carried away at the end there. Anyways, tune in on Wednesday for my list of the ten best movies of the year. I promise I’ll try my best to not turn it into a soliloquy about how much I love The Leftovers.
You now…”my best.”
Also published on Medium.
New Sci-Fi Series Counterpart Doesn’t Just Give J.K. Simmons A Much Deserved Lead Role — It Gives Him Two of Them
Character actor J.K. Simmons finally gets the chance to lead his own series with Starz’s Counterpart, and it’s already off to a pretty encouraging start.
Ah, the tried and true character actor — really, the Hollywood equivalent of the “never a bride, always a bridesmaid” idiom. Character actors are more often than not the best thing in whatever they are featured in, with their ability to take the simplest of roles and turn them into pure gold giving them the much-valued status of “Hey, it’s THAT guy!” I can write you entire lists of great characters actors and actresses, but I have to imagine that one of the men at the very top woud have to be J.K. Simmons.
The dude has been in over 180 movies and (mostly) TV shows, and acts the crap out of pretty much every single one of them. From supporting roles in procedurals like Law and Order or The Closer, to comedic bit characters in films like I Love You, Man or Extract, to even voice-over work in Portal 2 and (ESPECIALLY) The Legend of Korra, there has never been a time in a movie or TV show where I was like “Wow, there is way too much J.K. Simmons in this.” In fact, the sentiment is almost entirely the opposite.
Of course, his career got a huge bump up in status with the release of 2015’s Whiplash, in which Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his phenomenal work as teacher/monster Fletcher. And, like all Oscar winners, it was only a matter of time until such an award would result in bigger roles for Simmons to dive into. Of course, unlike other actors like Eddie Redmayne or Jennifer Lawrence or Benedict Cumberbatch, love from the Oscars couldn’t result in leading roles in huge superhero franchises. Not only because he already made his mark on that particular genre by giving the best performance in a superhero movie ever with J.J. Jonah Jameson in the original Spider-Man trilogy (that’s only slightly hyperbolic), but just because of who Simmons was. He’s a sixty-two-year-old man, after all — despite how surprisingly swole he is, there simply isn’t a lot of leading franchise roles in the movie business for a man of his age. Sure, he would still be given stuff like Commissioner Gordon in Justice League and the like, but he could never realistically be the choice to play the new Batman (although, wow, he would probably be really awesome as old Bruce in a Batman Beyond movie…wait, what was I talking about again?) No, despite how amazing an actor he is and his new Oscar-winning profile, it seemed like SImmons just aged out of the opportunity to be a big leading man in Hollywood films.
…But, thankfully, television exists! With the brunt of new programming assaulting our eyeballs, and the wide variety of different things finding success in the realm, surely a man of Simmons talent and pedigree can earn himself a much deserved leading role, right? That’s where Starz new sci-fi series Counterpart comes in. Finally, it’s a chance for Simmons to truly stretch his leading man status, outside of a larger ensemble (Oz) or simply being the laughing stock in a forgettable family sitcom (let’s try to pretend Growing Up Fisher never existed, shall we?) Counterpart is a big, ambitious, creative science fiction series, and offers Simmons his first real chance at a dramatic, centerpiece role. And, from the looks of the show’s first episode, Simmons is very much making the best of it.
It certainly helps that the series around him, though, is off to a pretty great start. I knew almost nothing about Counterpart going in — I only knew that Simmons was the lead, that he was playing a dual-role in it, and that it was a spy thriller with sci-fi elements. And, to be honest, even after watching the first episode, I feel like I only know a tad bit more than that.
But though that might feel like a con for some pilots, I actually think the flow of information benefits Counterpart. Right off the bat you understand this is a big world with some heady science fiction going on — but the episode wisely doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Like the best science fiction, it slowly introduces you to the universe, letting you know only the basics of what is going on, primarily through action and world building rather than scene after scene of boring exposition. What exposition is given is delivered rather matter-of-factly, and treats its subject material as a much more banal thing than it actually is. I’m trying to stay rather vague here, because I think one of the joys of the show’s first episode is trying to piece together the universe, and where the series seems to be heading. But, just to offer a little tease, let’s just say I felt a lot of similarities between it and the first season of Orphan Black, crossed with later seasons of Fringe. Which, if you know anything about my taste, is fine company to be in indeed.
But though the premiere is good, the real big ticket item here is indeed Simmons, who already is doing stellar work in both performances he is given. While watching the premiere (simply entitled “The Crossing”), I was struck with how absolutely perfect a role (roles?) it was for J.K. Simmons. It gives the actor the chance to utilize both the nice guy, sympathetic side of his acting range (seen in things like Juno and the aforementioned The Legend of Korra), AND his firecracker, intense side featured in…well, pretty much everything else. Simmons was certainly typecast as the intense, angry guy after Oz, and though you can’t blame people for giving him roles like that (he’s VERY GOOD in them), it’s nice to see him get the chance to flex his range in a literal line-to-line span.
And you know what else is nice, and in fact, rather refreshing? To just see someone of J.K. Simmons’ type lead a genre show like this in the first place. Even in television, it’s extremely rare for a sixty-two-year-old man to get the chance to lead a sci-fi series. No, the part would likely go to someone in their thirties or (at the very “extreme” range) forties. But as good as someone like Michael Fassbender or Jake Gyllenhaal would do with a part like this, Simmons brings something lived-in and experienced to the proceedings. And considering the main theme of the show (essentially, how the decisions and actions we make in life affect us as people), casting an older actor certainly has its benefits…especially when said actor is J.K. Simmons. After all, Counterpart so far is, more than anything, a starring vehicle for Simmons. And he owns the role in the way that only a character actor with three decades of acting experience can.
As a series, it’s fair to say Counterpart still very much has room to grow. I’m not really sold on any of its supporting characters quite yet and, by design, I feel like we’ve barely touched the surface on what the series will even really be about (although what is teased does have me quite excited for what it could accomplish.) And though its bureaucratic, rather plain tone fits the universe thus far, I do hope the series acquires a more interesting aesthetic and visual palette in the episodes ahead. In a world where we get as visually interesting and unique science fiction as Mr. Robot or Westworld, something as workman-like and sparse as Counterpart can’t help but feel a tad bit blase.
But, still — this is barely the first episode, and I’m already super intrigued to see where the series will go from here. And for a pilot, that’s pretty much the entire battle. There’s a lot of cool sci-fi concepts and intriguing thematic questions already at play in Counterpart, and I can only hope the story will unfold in a way that drives those themes and concepts to new heights. And even if Counterpart doesn’t turn out to be my cup of tea, just to see J.K. Simmons finally get those juicy leading man parts in his mouth makes the creation of the series entirely worth it.
Counterpart airs Sundays at 8 PM EST on Starz. Already it’s not getting nearly the attention it deserves, so I encourage you all to give it a try. If you’re into detail-sparse, theme-driven science fiction, you’ll probably dig it. And if you’re into J.K. Simmons (a.k.a are a human being with two ears and a heart), even more so.
Also published on Medium.
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