Television has become, for lack of a better word, overwhelming. I’ve spoken many times in the past about the pros and cons of the age of Peak TV, and how good (and, hell, even great) shows can get lost in the shuffle. But whenever the issue comes up, my mind often drifts to this line of thinking: in a world where literally hundreds of TV shows are vying for attention, how do showrunners make their’s stand out? What is the key to attracting an audience in such a crowded pop culture landscape?
Well, the obvious first factor is quality: the truly great shows are the ones that people tend to watch and talk about, for the most part at least (I can’t explain The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory, for what it’s worth.) But beyond that, there are a few factors that contribute to a show going from an ignored piece of decency to a critical sensation. And, in my mind, The Good Place utilized most of them — and became one of the best new shows of 2016 in the process.
By now, I hope you have at least a passing knowledge of The Good Place. It’s far from a ratings bonanza, and disappointingly didn’t get a lot of buzz going into its debut season. That’s a shame, and my only line of reasoning going into its first season was that shows of this nature (a.k.a. episodic, standalone sitcoms) simply can’t amass “buzz” anymore, at least not on the level of a Game of Thrones or Westworld. So many prestige shows depend upon a twisty story and strong, serialized storytelling to gets fans involved, and more importantly, to get them talking. Could a show like The Good Place, with the simple premise of “a bad person trying to do good,” ever compare?
Well, by the time I watched the first few episodes, I quickly realized I was very wrong about this series. The Good Place is not the show I thought it would, and likely isn’t the show you think it is either. No, The Good Place is far more special than that.
But to explain why, let’s go back to the show’s initial premise. A woman by the name of Eleanor Shellstrop dies and ends up in “The Good Place,” which is basically a non-direct way of saying “Heaven.” The twist? She was a pretty bad person in her time on Earth, and only ended up in The Good Place due to a rather complicated case of mistaken identity. But determined not to be kicked to the curb and sent to the rather grisly “Bad Place,” Eleanor teams up with her miss-assigned soul mate Chidi (a former ethics professor on Earth) to try to learn how to be good.
Is this a bit of a high concept? Sure — hell, the show was originally pitched as “a bad person tries to be good,” and the whole Heaven/Hell thing was only revealed after filming concluded. But still, even with such a “big” premise, the day-to-day of the show is still pretty easy to assume: it would basically be a slightly more fantastical take on My Name is Earl, with the lead character spending every episode going against her baser instincts in an effort to improve as a person.
And you know what? That would have been a-okay! Michael Schur is a brilliant TV creator, and with his shows like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, has very much proven himself capable of delivering great, fun “hangout” comedies. He didn’t need to have an overarching storyline, or deep serialization, or thematic depth. These things are necessary for a Mr. Robot or Stranger Things, but a network comedy on NBC? All it had to be was charming, funny, empty filler. And make no mistake: The Good Place IS funny, and charming. But yes, it also has a strong overarching storyline. It is deeply serialized to its core. And it has more thematic depth than any other network sitcom I can think of.
But all of that goes back to the serialization. Network sitcoms have always been weird with serialization, with most shows in the past desperately trying to avoid it. Sure, you would have the occasional three-part episode or hour long finale, but long-term, episode-to-episode serialization was never the intent of a network sitcom. After all, they were made primarily in the hope of syndication, and nothing kills syndication more than a story you literally have to watch every episode of to figure out. But as syndication has become less of a holy grail, and serialization has taken off in the age of Netflix binges, TV creators and outlets are quickly changing their tune. Shows like The Good Place started to realize that nothing attracts a dedicated audience more than a series telling one long, twisty story.
Of course none of that would matter if the story behind said TV series wasn’t very good. Thankfully, The Good Place has a wonderful story, full of twists, turns, and surprises aplenty. Pretty much every episode ends with some type of “twist,” but it never felt like the show was stringing us along — instead, the twists just added to the comedic escalation, putting the series into overdrive at least a half dozen times. Every time the series started to feel like it was getting comfortable, an out of nowhere plot development would send the ensemble scattering. This is a basic component of strong story telling, ESPECIALLY in a TV setting. You never want your characters to be comfortable, because the fun in that gets very boring very quickly. Where would Breaking Bad be if everything just sort of worked out for Walter White at the end of each episode? Who would care at all about Game of Thrones if it was just Eddard Stark solving episodic mysteries with Tyrion Lannister (actually…) “How are they going to get out of this one?” has been an essential element of longform filmmaking since the age of serials, and The Good Place was skilled enough to pull on that history with its many, many cliffhangers.
Making that process all the easier was the season’s short running length, another touch taken straight from the “Peak TV” playbook. Simply put, the “traditional” 22 episode season is dead. Well some would argue that its demise came from the demands of a more crowded marketplace, it’s clear to me that shows started producing less episodes because, almost always, it makes the show better. If Stranger Things ran for 22 episodes, it likely would have been bogged down in nothingness and filler. With a tight eight episode structure, the series was able to tell a constantly enthralling tale that never bored viewers and always left them waiting for more.
Going back to classic sitcoms, it would be almost unheard of to have a successful show run less than 20 episodes. Hell, even the previous series that Michael Schur created, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine Nine, ran for at least 22 episodes a season. And for what they were trying to be, that was perfectly fine — going into an episodic sitcom, you kind of expect to have a bunch of incredible episodes mixed in with the forgettable ones. Just because only 75% of Parks and Rec was good doesn’t mean it’s not one of the best TV comedies ever made. But it was clear from the get-go that The Good Place, despite all its comedic similarities, was going for something entirely different in its ongoing story. And because the overarching plot was such a key part of what made the show great, they had the common sense to keep it brief and concise. Shorter isn’t always better but, if you want people’s constant attention, it’s probably a better gambit. I mean, if I made this article five paragraphs less than it turned out to be, you would have definitely finished the whole thing. But that’s why Michael Schur is a smarter writer than I am, right?
Which, overall, is why The Good Place succeeded. Earlier I wondered what made a show gain an audience in Peak TV-land, and sort of dismissed quality so I could move on to the other things. But in terms of why this show in particular works, it is the fact that Michael Schur and the rest of his writing team are damned good at their jobs. For all the things that The Good Place does that separates it from the rest of its sitcom brethren, the basic tenets of making a successful TV comedy are still followed.
The characters are all wonderfully written, brought to life brilliantly by its crazy good cast. This might be one of the best comedic ensembles working on TV right now, which is pretty stunning when you consider how much of it is made up of relative unknown. Ted Danson and Kristen Bell aside, everyone else has limited acting experience, especially in the comedy realm. But every damn one of them bring their A-game, and create a very lovable and fascinating group of people in the process. And paired with the great and extremely funny writing (which I certainly don’t want to downplay in this piece; the series has left me laughing out loud many times an episode), The Good Place would be a great sitcom even putting aside everything else it manages to accomplish.
But really you can’t put aside the other things, because they are crucial to understanding how special The Good Place is. By focusing so strongly on story and theme (the latter of which I can’t really get into without spoiling things), the show managed to rise above itself, and become far more than what its initial pitch might suggest. As much as I’ve claimed that Michael Schur DIDN’T need to make the show more than just a fun sitcom, I think a part of him knew that he kind of did.
The TV landscape is so overwhelming that viewers are more picky than ever. As silly as it might be to say, your show can no longer just be “good” in order to get attention — it has to be great. It has to spur on conversation, and theories, and fan enthusiasm over the CRAZY twists. Simply put, it has to be “must watch” TV. And if you ask me, The Good Place more than proved itself worthy of such an honor.
The Good Place was renewed just a few days ago for a second season, so there’s no time like the present to give the first 13 episodes a whirl. The season is currently available in its entirety on Hulu.
10 Other Members of The Americans Cast Who Should Be Put In A Star War (And The Roles That They Could Play)
Keri Russell should just be the start of alum from FX’s hit spy drama joining the Star Wars universe.
The talk of the fanboy town this weekend was Keri Russell, a frequent J.J. Abrams cohort, joining the cast of Star Wars: Episode IX (or whatever it might end up being titled.) The think pieces came fast and furious from nearly the moment the casting was first announced, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise: when any new detail drops about one of these Star Wars films, people will inevitably spend way too much time theorizing about what is to come, for better or (mostly) worse. But when it comes to my initial reaction to the casting, I only had two thoughts: 1) oh my god what is J.J. Abrams going to do to Keri Russell’s hair this time and 2) it’s so damn great to see The Americans cast get work.
Coming off of five years of being perhaps the best dramatic ensemble on television, I truly would be happy to see all of the cast members of The Americans land roles in huge films following the conclusion of the show. And not just huge films, mind you — I’m talking Star Wars huge films. Truly The Americans cast is versatile enough to land any role they could want in the galaxy far, far away, and with Russell’s casting, all I could think about (aside from how amazing she’s going to end up being in the movie, of course) was what her fellow cast members could also bring to the extended franchise.
And I’m a silly person who happens to have a blog so, sorry, you have to be present for my ramblings on such niche, unasked subjects! So here are 10 other members of The Americans cast who deserve a shot at a Star Wars gig and, for the hell of it, the character archetypes they would be great for in the universe. Thank me later, Kathleen Kennedy!
Matthew Rhys (Philip Jennings):
I’ll let my first post-Keri Russell casting tweet speak for itself here:
Since we've gotten this far, can we go the whole nine yards and have Matthew Rhys cast as a roguish "Han Solo" type in one of these? Welsh accent included, of course.
— Matthew Legarreta (@mattlegarreta) July 6, 2018
Holly Taylor (Paige Jennings):
Rey’s previously unmentioned bestie/roommate back home on Jakku. They stay up all night chowing down on dehydrated bread and talking about desert problems, as you do.
Noah Emmerich (Stan Beeman):
Maybe it’s recency bias, but I can’t help but imagine Emmerich playing a tough bounty hunter character. That being said, it will be pretty tragic when he realizes his co-pilot and best friend was his target the whole time. What a dramatic scene they will end up having in the Star Wars equivalent of a parking garage, though.
Brandon J. Dirden (Dennis Aderholt):
Brandon J. Dirden holds himself up with such calm and levelheaded prestige as an actor…making him a perfect choice to play a hapless senator trying to do the right thing, but missing the fact that OOPS an electric wizard is in control now. Bummer!
Costa Ronin (Oleg Burov):
I can definitely see Costa Ronin playing the cool, confident gangster type. He’ll also have a robot arm, for some reason. And he should keep his Season 6 beard, because DAMN does he rock the hell out of it.
Alison Wright (Martha):
Padme in a set of prequel remakes. Because if anyone could sell the anguish of being betrayed by someone they deeply loved for years, only for them to end up being a completely different person than who they thought they were, it would be her. Poor Martha…
Margo Martindale (Claudia):
It’s Character Actress Margot Martindale! Let her be whatever she wants! A Jedi master, a Sith Lord, a crime boss, a droid, a wookie, a gungan — she can do it all, dang it!
Frank Langella (Gabriel):
Let him be the kindest Jedi master ever. OR the most evil Sith Lord to ever exist. Frank Langella is somehow capable of channeling both.
Mail Robot (Mail Robot):
The new official droid mascot of Star Wars, duh! NEXT.
Keidrich Sellati (Henry Jennings):
…He can also be present.
Also published on Medium.
With Its Make-It-Or-Break-It Season Finale, Westworld Season 2 Opted For The Latter
Even as a massive fan of HBO’s sci-fi drama, I can’t ignore what a convoluted, disappointing mess this finale turned out to be.
I’ve been a pretty big fan of HBO’s Westworld, pretty much from day one. It is a show, however, that isn’t without its fair share of criticisms, and I’m pretty sympathetic to most of them…even when I heavily disagree that the series is too complicated, or too mysterious, or not dramatic enough, or what have you. While the journey of the last nineteen episodes has been far from flawless, I’ve mostly found the ride to be incredibly compelling and, at its peak, some of the most superbly crafted television we’ve been lucky to get in the past decade. Warts and all, minor frustrations aside, I can’t say I ever found myself truly against what this show was, and what it was doing.
But in the heat of my post-finale pontification, and while absorbing all I can about just what happened in “The Passenger,” I think I can finally say it — Westworld Season 2 kind of lost me, not exactly in what is going on (that more or less makes sense to me), but why the show is even making the creative decisions it is making to begin with. And even as optimistic about the show as I am, I’m not sure what the show can do in the next few seasons to get me back up to the same level of enthusiasm and passion I had back at the start of the season. To put it bluntly: for the sake of the season and the series moving forward, the grand finale of Westworld Season 2 had to work. And, boy, I’m not really sure it did at all.
Which, fuck, is a really different place from where I was at the conclusion of the series’ debut season. That finale, “The Bicameral Mind,” was able to cap off all its big plot threads while also serving as a promising tease for what was to come, AND be an entertaining episode in its own right (when it comes to Pew-Pew Robot Action, Maeve’s posse escaping the Mesa is still one of the show’s finest set pieces.) We don’t get much of any of that with “The Passenger,” though.
While the finale technically paid off the bigger questions of the season, it was belted out in such a half-hazard, messy way that connecting the dots seems like such a fool’s errand. And it wasn’t like the plot of the season, at the barest level, was all that complicated: our main characters all want to get to a place, and when they get to that place, things will happen. Sure, you have the future timeline messing things up a bit but, even with that included, the drive of Season 2 was expressed clearly from the start: everyone (Bernard, Dolores, William, Maeve, etc.) wants to get to the Valley Beyond/The Door/The Forge/The Server Room of Requirement. They all had different motives and drives, but the destination was the same.
And when, in the penultimate episode, it became clear that the brunt of the finale’s story would take place in The Forge, it was hard not to be excited. What exciting possibilities could come from all our characters converging in this one location? And considering just how hyped it had been by everyone involved, how would the show manage to blow our minds and, essentially, make this entire season’s journey worthwhile?
Because, as I said before, a lot was riding on this season finale. Coming off of a saggy middle portion, and a storyline in danger of collapsing on itself, Westworld HAD to deliver the goods in “The Messenger.” And while the popular storytelling edict of “it’s the journey, not the destination” is mostly 100% the case for long-form narratives, I’m going to just say it: I don’t feel bad for placing so much pressure on this episode. Because Westworld forced these heightened expectations on itself — simply due to how the story is constructed and paced, there was no way to separate the endgame from the journey in this particular instance. When your season rests almost entirely on the revelations that will take place in the final destination, that final destination better deliver big time.
Which, like most parts of this article, is just a long rejoinder designed solely to set up the following declaration: it didn’t.
Instead of something show-changing and dramatically powerful being kept within the crypts of The Forge, it just contained…well, what it was said to contain from like halfway through the season: a bunch of data about the people who had visited Westworld in the past, and a “door” to another world, specifically developed for the hosts. What exactly is in that world (or, hell, what that world really even is) is painted rather obliquely, as is Dolores’ intentions for the guest’s data (to, umm, learn stuff about the leader of the Extraction Team preparing to land at the park? Not sure how she plans to utilize said knowledge, what with her ZERO allies and resources to pull from, but whatever, bigger fish to fry here.)
That doesn’t stop a good portion of the episode from focusing on the two concepts, starting with the weird use of Logan as The Forge’s, umm, receptionist I guess, and leading to a gigantic library containing the “code” for the guests, which the show claims is essentially a complete copy of a human consciousness, represented by a book. Or something. Nothing more is made of this after Dolores cracks open the “Karl Strand” novella, and gives it a quick speed read. She then exits The Forge (which you can just do with sheer willpower, I guess — look, nothing about The Forge/The Cradle makes much sense, but you’ll just have to roll with the show on that one), and declares that she plans to destroy all the guest data so she can, umm, pass. Before she has the chance to enact her (let’s say) “plan,” however, AI Secretary Logan reveals to Bernard that he has control of The Forge and its real purpose: serving as a door to a virtual world, built by Arnold, where the hosts can frolick forever, outside the control of those pesky humans.
All this is revealed in what seems like 75 seconds so, if you are at all confused by any of it well, BUCK THE FUCK UP PAL. There’s still a lot of shit to get through in the next half of the episode. I’m not going to go over all of it, but let’s just say that what transpires inside of The Forge is BONKERS, in a way that first kind of impressed me, if I’m being honest. By the time a magic portal literally opens in Westworld, and the hosts (led by Akecheta, whose done a swell job of gathering every bot in town for the big event) begin strolling into this random field that looks like a Windows screensaver, I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. It wasn’t even bad, per say — just strange, a mode “The Passenger” would stay in for a good portion of its remaining runtime.
Why is all of this Forge content so underwhelming? Because it fails to present us anything compelling that we didn’t already know. The theme of humans being the REAL robots has been in the show’s DNA for years now, so not much a revelation there. Furthermore, the show is kind of at odds with itself regarding all the talks of how humans=hosts. It’s a rather simple idea that the series keeps presenting as so deep man, leading to many, many monologues in which the characters just keep repeating the same goddamn thing they’ve already said one scene prior. It gets very tedious, very fast.
The concept also seems to completely turn its back on one of Season 1’s main points: how memories and our past experiences define us. That served as the entire distinction between host and human back then, and when Ford decided to place “reveries” inside of the hosts’ minds, allowing them to experience memory and the passage of time itself, their path to achieving true consciousness began. But in Season 2, the series is arguing rather cynically that we are simple, dumb creatures who can’t change, and can be rebuilt and replaced easily just by applying the right, rudimentary code. But Sizemore ends up proving the show’s cynical viewpoint of humanity wrong just moments previoiusly by literally going against his “code,” and doing a selfless act to save others. Which could have been sold as a counterpoint to what Ford and the rest are arguing…if the show cared to present a counterpoint at all to its philosophizing. Instead, it feels more comfortable going on long spiels about how HUMANS are the ones who lack free will, NOT hosts. GETIT??? REVERSAL!
And on the subject of things we already know that propels so much of this episode: yeah, we get that Arnold and Delores are on opposing sides of this robot uprising, so what exactly does their disagreement over what to do about The Door add to the proceedings? The existence of the virtual world built by Arnold could have been something show-altering, but the show doesn’t seem to care enough about it outside as a plot mechanic to make it worthwhile. Hell, it’s not even clear we’ll ever see this Robot Eden (get it, BIBLE) ever again, which maybe explain why the show put so little thought or care into setting up and presenting this new universe. It was barely a concept: it was just a means to an end.
An end that, first and foremost, tied loosely into Maeve’s series-long arc. Of all the stories this year, Maeve’s has probably been the most succinct (although when hasn’t that been the case, really?) Even still, the big payoff that comes from Maeve “rescuing” her daughter and “sacrificing” herself just landed with a thud to me. Not only has a LOT of Maeve’s relationship to her daughter gone unaddressed and unexplored (she’s a walking motive device, not an actual character), but there’s still a lot of weird plot and thematic issues that the show refuses to dive into on that end (The girl’s new mother might actually have an opinion on this whole situation, and Maeve should at least consider the ethics of what she is doing by controlling her and the girl in the way she does.) But all of that is pushed aside just so we can see Maeve make an (admittedly cool looking) heroic sacrifice, dying so her daughter can make it to the shimmering Robot Eden.
Except, yeah, no, that’s not what’s going to happen. Which is another big issue “The Passenger” runs into many times in this episode: in its quest to make everything feel EVENTFUL and BIG, it delivers a lot of seemingly major character deaths. Sizemore, Elsie, Hector, Armistice, Maeve, Hale, Dolores, AND Arnold all seem to be disposed of at some point but, really, I never bought that Westworld was killing off its extended cast in such a major way. To put it bluntly, Westworld done Infinity War-d itself — by stacking up the deaths so impossibly high, I immediately pulled back from any emotional response to it, knowing that the show was going to find some silly way to bring them all back. For Dolores, Arnold, and (kind of) Hale, that has already happened. For Maeve and her crew, it’s heavily hinted (Felix and Sylvester are on the case!) That makes humans the only real casualties coming out of this episode , an expected if not disappointing outcome.
Because, despite what “The Passenger” argues, didn’t Westworld just make a major step forward in the defining the mortality of its robotic characters? Wasn’t the ENTIRE POINT of blowing up The Cradle (as stated in the show itself) making it so that the hosts were now mortal? How exactly are all these dead hosts, from both “The Passenger” and earlier episodes, being brought back to life? Were there more backups of their consciousnesses in The Forge? If so, why does The Cradle matter at all? Fuck, why do ANY of these server farms matter at all? Death doesn’t have to be the end all be all of stakes (it wasn’t even a concern I had for the show back in the first season), but when you’re going to present the concept of mortality being placed on immortal beings, I expect it to be at least ADDRESSED when immortality is randoly back on the table.
Case in point: the brief re-appearance of Teddy, whose death in the last episode seemed to be as close to a send-off as a host character could possibly get on this show. But, nope! In a great example of delirious editing and leaps of logic, we see Teddy for one brief moment all up in Robot Eden, chilling alone. Is this real? Is this just Delores imagining things? Maybe, but that certainly doesn’t explain how the hell Teddy ended up in the flooded Valley Beyond at the beginning of the season — from those clues, we are led to believe that Teddy made it to Robot Eden, which doesn’t make any goddamn sense.
On that note: can you BELIEVE we haven’t even got to the future part of this finale yet? Because, boy, is all that a dozy. Not only do we learn that Charlotte Hale is actually Dolores INSIDE a clone version of Charlotte (despite seemingly being murdered by Bernard back in the past story), but we also get to see the full extent of her plan — murdering Strand by shooting him in the goddamn face (glad that book of Strand cheat codes came in handy!) She then decides to reverse her position on Robot Eden, for reasons unclear, and launches the brain egg containing Robot Eden (JUST ROLL WITH IT) into an unknown location where it will “never be found.” Unless the show starts to run out of plot, in which case, it will possibly be found! Who cares though, as the finale zips to another scene of convoluted reveals and increasingly fraught storytelling, this time centering on the reveal that…Stubbs is a host?
Fuck this man, I’ve already written like 2000 words here! I don’t have time for “Ashley Stubbs is a fucking robot too, ha ha!” I don’t know why this matters long-term, or why any of us should give a shit about this development, but it definitely leans into the direction the show should not be going in, in which every major character is revealed to be a host, just for the shock of it. It’s generic robot sci-fi storytelling, and Westworld already made its mark on the concept to great effect with Bernard in Season 1. No, no, none of that reveal is earned at all, from any perspective. So let’s just move on to the final moments of “The Passenger” itself: Delores going off island with a bunch of pods containing the character sheets of whomever the fuck the show wants. Let’s say…Moe.
All this leads to the final moments of the episode, in which we learn that Delores REBUILT Bernard, who she murdered before leaving the park to cover her new Charlotte Hale sized tracks. This comes only a few moments after the initial reveal that Bernard REBUILT Delores, who he murdered before leaving the Forge because she was, well, kind of crazy. As crazy as reading all the events of “The Passenger” when presented together, you could say. In any case, the one-two punch of death/revival and death/revival gave me hardcore whiplash, and frankly is exactly what I’m talking about when it comes to pissing away all the stakes. It seems that these hosts can just be rebuilt from the bottom up so damn easily, despite the show’s MANY arguments to the contrary in the last few seasons, and the idea that death for the hosts were now permanent after the destruction of The Cradle. No backups, no problems, I guess.
As the 90 minutes of a lot drew to a close, we’re simply left with yet another reversal of the Arnold/Dolores sit down, this time with Dolores, now back in her own body (she remade it, but kept the Hale body around and put someone else in it…y’know, for Season 3 plotlines) monologuing about how she’s the Magneto to Bernard’s Professor X. Or something. Bernard then leaves the home they are in (the same one Arnold showed Dolores in a previous flashback), opening the door to a new chapter for Westworld. Where exactly is he? How long as it been? What the fuck is this story even about now? Wait for next year (or, more likely, a couple years), folks!
Leaving on such an unabashed cliffhanger wouldn’t be so bad, if any of the plot developments in this episode had me excited whatsoever for what is to come. Well there’s an argument to be made that going into unexplored, unpredictable territory for a series is good, I tend to believe that a strong finale should serve as the conclusion to the season’s major plotlines, while also serving as a teaser for what is to come. As I said before, “The Passenger” did a piss-poor job of doing either, and the fact that the finale left me feeling ambivalent about seeing more of this show is a massive, massive bummer.
AH, BUT THERE’S MORE!!! Because if 90 minutes of plot development wasn’t enough for you, “The Passenger” has a post credit scene too. And though I have some massive frustrations with the Season 2 finale overall, NOTHING is at the same scale as the anger I have towards the Man in Black scene that punctuates the entire season. To be quite blunt, it’s dogshit. The fact that every recap and review had a wildly different interpretation of what the fuck was happening in it is extremely telling, as is the fact that the people involved basically had to lay out it all out, because the text of the show itself gave us so little to work with. I shouldn’t have to do homework in order to figure what the fuck is happening, Westworld. And that homework shouldn’t be so damn impossible that I have to cheat on it by being told all the answers, either.
And even putting aside how badly told it is…ugh. The fact that we have another timeline to deal with, and that William’s story shows no sign of slowing down (even if Season 2 should have served as the proper note to end it on, IMHO) pisses me off. Just ending the Man in Black’s story for the season with him making it to his endpoint, only for us NOT TO SEE WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENS TO HIM THERE, and just showing up alive on the beach later, only to be back in the elevator MUCH LATER, makes me want to throw something at the damn screen. Considering all the complaints that the split-timeline got this season, I can’t imagine how adding another FAR, FAR FUTURE time into the mix will make things any better.
But just to make things clear, my issues with Westworld Season 2 as a whole (and this finale especially) are a lot more complicated than “two timelines are confusing.” The framing device has problems, but I would argue that too much attention has been put on the split timeline scenario, as though that is the end-all-be-all problem with the season as a whole. To be quite frank, I disagree entirely. I think the conceit could have worked, if the payoff for the decision was something far grander. Hell, at times, it did — I still maintain the initial “seed” of the idea rests in Bernard himself confusing the time he is in, creating an echo of chaos and confusion that the show very clearly wants us to sympathize with. It’s a neat idea that was also toyed with last season, but with a far greater sense of purpose: Dolores coming to terms with her past is what ultimately led to her becoming awake, after all. But here? It seems to mostly serve the twist of Dolores being inside a host version of Charlotte, an underwhelming and mostly just perfunctory way of getting Dolores out of the theme park. At the end of the day, even if the season was presented in chronological order, though, I see no reason why that would make things any better. No, the problems with Westworld Season 2 stem far closer to the series’ creative direction as a whole.
And, look, I get it: sophomore seasons are incredibly hard to make work, especially following something that grew into a pop culture sensation. But when a show manages to pull one off, there’s almost nothing better. As a viewer, my trust in the series and its creator’s skyrockets, and I can feel comfortable moving forward in my belief that what I am watching is truly of value. But when the opposite happens, it can throw the entire support system of the show crashing to the ground. And with the big ol’ narrative and dramatic flop that was “The Passenger,” I can’t help but now view this season — even with its moments of true, objective greatness — completely flawed as a whole.
But even saying all of that (and the whole “make-it-or-break-it” part of the headline), I don’t think the failures of Westworld Season 2 represent the end-all-be-all for Westworld. I believe the show can climb out of this hole and, with a bit of course correction, find its footing again. There’s still too much greatness in Westworld for me to throw it out completely, and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are both immensely talented people up to the challenge of presenting an evolved, but refined version of Wesworld. BUT if the series manages to never right its way again, and its remaining days just present us with diminishing returns after diminishing returns…well? I’ll know exactly which episode to pinpoint the beginning of the end. And if that’s not a heck of a dull note to end a season on, I don’t know what is.
…At least Ramin Djawadi’s score still kicks ass, right?
Also published on Medium.
They Didn’t Make A Huge Mistake: In Defense of Arrested Development Season 4
It was overstuffed, scattershot, and occasionally quite tedious — but also kinda brilliant? It’s Arrested Development Season 4.
What forms a popular consensus? In the modern age of social media, internet comment boards, and Rotten Tomatoes, I honestly don’t know. It seems like one moment, popular consensus could ascribe a verdict of high quality to something (like, say, La La Land), but then come to a completely opposite conclusion just a few weeks later (didn’t you hear? La La Land is bad now.) This probably points to the inherent fool’s errand that derives from the concept of a “consensus,” but still — even with differing opinions being a thing, it’s pretty easy to see that the internet is quick to place a lasting judgment on pieces of pop culture. Not everyone loves Mad Max: Fury Road…but it is beloved. Not everyone hates Suicide Squad…but it is universally hated. Contradictory statements, maybe, but that’s how the consensus goes. And once it sets in, the general sentiment is hard to escape. Which is exactly what happened with Arrested Development Season 4, Netflix’s much-hyped revival of the cult comedy classic.
Expectations were of course high for the show’s return back in May of 2013 (exactly five years ago, for those of you keeping track at home), which has never once led to crushing disappointment. Nope, not a once! [Narrator: They had. More than once, in fact.] It didn’t take long after the show’s initial release for the excitement to change into apprehension: at first, people weren’t quite sure what to make of the thing. Netflix’s “binge-release” model was still quite new for most people, and the concept of a TV revival was still rare. It was odd all around to see the Bluth’s come back seven years after we last saw them, and it didn’t help matters that their return season was very different from what came before it.
In any case, it didn’t take long before this apprehension turned into full-on disappointment for a majority of viewers. I was reviewing the show when it happened, so I have some strong memories of just how it went down: first things seemed positive, then mixed, then outright negative. Soon the most disappointed started speaking above the rest (as is often the case on these here interwebs), and the entire conversation around the show turned away from “how good is it? to “huh...is this good?”
The years went on, and the season’s stock just plummeted further and further. Consensus went from the season being a mixed bag, to it being an outright failure. It joined the modern-day pantheon of disappointing sequels to beloved things, up there with Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises, etc. Hell, creator Mitch Hurwitz even felt the drive to re-edit the entire season as a sort of mea culpa, and released it earlier this month in the form of Arrested Development Season 4 Remix: Fateful Consequences (you, title, are a mouth full!)
The release of said remix really made people’s venom for the season spill out: pretty much all I read about it was that it still didn’t “fix” the season, insinuating that something had to be fixed to begin with. You know: the consensus. Arrested Development Season 4 was a failure, a disappointment, a disaster, etc. And here’s the thing: not long ago, I would have agreed with the assessment! I too was disappointed with what the show did in its fourth season: how it split up the cast, how it paced its runtimes, how it told its stories. I found laughs, sure, but I found an equal number of things to complain about. I finished my initial watch of the season more perplexed than anything, unsure how the people behind the series could delivery such a bloated, awkward affair. But it’s been five years since then, and I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and review the season since then. And you know what? I’m starting to think I was wrong. We all were.
Arrested Development Season 4 is actually pretty damn great. And taken as its own thing, one of the most unique and rewarding pieces of comedy television ever crafted.
But even with that glowing, somewhat hyperbolic statement being said: I get it. I understand why fans were so upset with how the season turned out, and why it didn’t gel with many who watched it: Arrested Development Season 4 is a weird season of television, even by AD’s quirky standards. While the character-centric format of the season was originally conceived to handle the busy schedule of its main cast, it seemed to take a life of its own in the writer’s room, leading to a narrative jam-packed with time-skips, mysteries, delayed pay-offs, etc. Often times, the show resembled more of a puzzle-box genre piece like Lost or Westworld than a family-based, wacky sitcom. Hell, just putting together what the hell was happening and when it was happening could be a frustrating experience, as it proved to be for many people.
And in no way am I am trying to put myself above those who felt this way: I will once again re-iterate my initial impression of the sixteen-episode story was similar. It just seemed like too many things taking away from the comedic experience, smothering the entire show with layers upon layers of confusion and, frankly, tediousness. But remember above when I explained what ultimately changed my opinion on the season: review and reflection? Well, I truly believe the former is key here. Because, believe it or not, I have now watched Season 4 in its entirety four times. And each time, it more and more dawned on me just what creator Mitch Hurwitz and co. were doing here, and how ultimately successful they were at doing it.
And I just want to point out that my rewatches of the series weren’t a purposeful act to try and like the season more: in fact, it was entirely coincidental. I have shared this show with many different family and friend groups over the years, and thus ended up going through Season 4 with all of them at different points in the last half-decade. And the first few times, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to do so, if we’re being honest: I remembered my initial viewing, and slightly dreaded going through the sixteen episode slog once more. But, hey, I”m a good friend/family member, and have nothing better to do than watch TV show’s multiple times, so here we are.
Anyways, at first I was wondering if my slow appreciation for the show through the various rewatches was just my brain trying to make me enjoy something that I felt obligated to do: a form of television Stockholm Syndrome, if you would. But by the time I was through my third rewatch, I realized that was not the answer — no, I was generally starting to enjoy and love more about what the season was doing and, most importantly, how it was doing it. Watching the season multiple times cracked open new layers of the experience for me: new plot points and references and jokes that I missed the first few times going through it. Honestly, I started to become slightly in-awe at just how much the season contained: how Mitch Hurwitz and the writers stuffed the thing to the seams with things people would NEVER understand unless they watched the thing multiple times (or watched it edited in chronological order, I guess, which is probably a far easier option now.) The season is densely packed and plot-heavy, but my initial disdain for that grew into appreciation, once I got more used to its new, different structure. It’s really quite a marvel to behold when you lay it all out, and I simply can’t fathom how the writers could keep track of all the madness. I can’t think of any other piece of television put together quite like Arrested Development Season 4, and once you really connect to its wave-length, it becomes much easier to appreciate such a different, complex form…especially when you realize such a form was essential to the overall story that the season was trying to tell.
Because, make no mistake: this is indeed one of those Netflix shows that probably works better as a whole, and is telling one of those gigantic overarching narratives rather than a bunch of episodic mini-arcs. Back in 2013, that was new and weird. Now, this “like a [blank] hour movie!” form of television writing is predominant in the industry, for better or for worse. What’s great about the initial format of Arrested Development Season 4, though (before the remix came and presented an alternate, more conventional take) was how the season served as a bridge between the concept of a season-long, serialized narrative and episodic, more “focused” stories. They did that by focusing every episode on a different member of the Bluth clan, showing what transpired in their lives in the six-year gap since we last saw them. These installments tell individual stories about the characters that just so happen to criss-cross with the other members of the cast…sometimes in ways that aren’t even obvious until further down the season (or even until the end of it.)
This character focus helped ground the narrative a little, sure, and were certainly helpful when it came to production (the aforementioned difficulty of getting the cast certainly played a hand in the decision, yes), but it also established upfront just what the new, revived season of Arrested Development would be: a character study. And a dark as hell one at that.
Because, as I realized by the end of my third rewatch, Arrested Development Season 4 had a very specific goal in mind. As put pretty bluntly by my friend after the (fantastic) final shot of the season “wow, things really went bad for everyone, didn’t they?” Yes, unnamed friend: they really, truly did. Which was entirely the point. The original three seasons set up the Bluths as the world’s most dysfunctional family, the kind that brought each other down by just being in the same orbit. At the center of this orbit was one Michael Bluth, who at every turned tried to escape the company of his relatives (which in and of itself became something of a running gag), only to be pulled back into their bullshit once more. By the time Season 4 picks up, all of them are rather tired of each other and, for various reasons (scheduling or otherwise), they all go their separate ways. Maybe not under the same prism, the Bluths could be better?
Nope. As the story unfolded, it became quite clear that, even as bad as they are, they are far worst apart than separate. Without each other in their lives, the Bluths become the absolute worst versions of themselves.
- Michael became the one thing he dreaded the most: a full-on Bluth. He became just as conniving and deceitful as the rest of them, in a move that, well frustrating to some fans, I would argue was the inevitable place for the character to end up (and Jason Bateman makes such a meal out of it, doesn’t he?)
- Lindsay becomes a literal and figurative whore, selling herself out to a conservative candidate she should, in theory, hate.
- GOB becomes a confused mess of a man, drugging himself out in an endless circle of roofies just to forget the constant shame he endures on a daily basis.
- Buster, separated from his mother and on his own, becomes a literal monster under Army’s trickery (and a likely murder suspect too, if the final sequence is any indication.)
- George Sr. loses his confidence and swagger, becoming a weak shell of his former self (and the spitting image of his pathetic brother to boot!)
- Lucille loses the power structure and influence she always craved, the family matriarch without a family to lord over.
- Maeby suffers the worst Arrested Development (hey, that’s the name of the show!) of them all, going from the girl who always acted above her age to the one literally still living as a child, stuck in place and unsure how to grow…oh and also accidentally committing statutory rape, which is pretty fucking dark.
- Tobias is a registered sex offender, which is pretty dark but also quite funny, let’s be real here.
- And George Michael, the “good one,” fully commits to his families influence, staging a multi-million dollar lie just to impress his cousin, having sex with the same woman as his father, and ending the season punching him in the face, pretty much shattering the relationship.
Yeah, this all seems pretty bad, and truly takes the Bluth to their lowest level…which is kind of great, if the show is trying to form something of a series-long narrative here. In a way, Arrested Development Season 4 is the Empire Strikes Back of this wacky comedy series. And, like Empire Strikes Back (or, for all you young-uns out there, The Last Jedi), the story required its main set of characters to go their own separate ways in order to grow and change. That’s exactly what happened over the course of season 4, and I really appreciate how far Hurwitz and his writers were willing to take things to get to the next stage of their character’s evolution.
Which, of course, is an interesting thing for a show like Arrested Development. Being a sitcom, it has no reason to change, or develop. It could have just kept doing the same thing, and crafted a Season 4 that simply tried to ape the success of its past with funny, extremely well-written episodes about the wacky Bluth family. But, instead, the writers tried something new, and unique, and rather bold. It was bound to not work for some people, and the growing pains in the new approach were evident. But at the end of the day, I truly feel like Arrested Development Season 4 accomplished what it set out to do, and did it in a way that was extremely well-written, impressive in scope, and not lacking in ambition. It also led to some big mistakes here and there, ones that stood out more astutely the first couple of times through.
But though other’s opinions of the season might have dimmed in the years since, I’ve only become more and more fond of the Bluth’s families senior year of episodes. It really does grow on you the more familiar you get with it, and I highly recommend those who were initially disappointed with the stretch of episodes to give it another look, because there’s a lot to love in this crazy, messy, delightful story.
…Such as the fact that it’s often times REALLY funny. I went thousands of words without really giving the show’s humor (you know, the reason you ostensibly watch a comedy TV series) the time of day, but I also believe the season is A LOT funnier than history gives it credit for. The season is jam-packed with amazing gags and lines that can go toe-to-toe with any of the jokes from the first three seasons, if you ask me. Hot mess, “Sounds of Silence,” the conversation about tipping black people, George Sr.’s amazing hat monologue, the pre-Trump wall gags, the amazing Fake-Block storyline, all the Hollywood in-jokes, “Have you ever even been on a plane you piece of shit,” “Daddy needs to get his rocks off!,ANUS TART, The Cute Test, The Pack First, No Talking After Scenario, all the Ann jokes…I’m going to stop now, but I think I’ve made my point. Arrested Development Season 4 is damn funny.
But the fact it also has a lot more going for it too really makes it something special. Maybe not as special as the first three season (although, hot take, I actually think I like it better than the third season), but special nonetheless. Although I’m in the minority, I would be very happy if Arrested Develoment Season 5 manages to match it in quality, and serve as something of a narrative follow-up to just what transpired here. That’s what seemed to be the narrative intent of Season 4 (showing the family slowly coming apart, before being put back together again), but who knows how Hurwitz plans to present the next chapter of this story. We shall find out when the new season hits Netflix tomorrow. Until then…
Also published on Medium.
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