First of all, yes, I know: it’s almost the end of February 2017. We’re already two months into 2017, so it’s pretty damn late to do an “end-of-the-year wrap-up” list. And, to that, I say…you are completely right, reader. But look, I’ll be entirely honest: I don’t do these lists for you. I do them for myself, so that years from now, I have a “record” of sorts about what the year in pop culture really was for me. So yeah, maybe this isn’t exactly timely. But I feel obliged to do it anyway and, if you’re reading this, I hope you get some type of value out of this very untimely list. And, c’mon, cut me some slack here — I still beat the Oscars to the punch, so doesn’t that count for something?
And it wasn’t like I spent the last few months just twiddling my thumbs — the reason I didn’t write out my Top 10’s of the year sooner was because I had so much stuff I had to catch up on first. The way I do Top 10’s isn’t “the best things I saw in the last 365 days” — if it was, most of the best things in 2016 would make my 2017 list. Every year I spend my January going through the quality things I missed out on in the year, all in an effort to make it as through a list as I can.
Which of course is still an impossibility: I’m sure I’ll end up seeing something months from now that I think was good enough to retroactively make my list. But hey, two months into the new year is already late enough: I couldn’t wait until June now, could I? In any case, here it finally is: my Top 10’s of 2016, beginning with my favorite TV shows of 2016. Kicking off the list at number 10 is…
Though he’s gained international fame from his breakout role in The Hangover, Zack Galifanakis never seemed destined to become a “mainstream” comedy star. His sensibilities in his early years was always little oft-kilter, and it quickly became clear that he couldn’t completely shed off that persona while still making worthwhile entertainment (see: Due Date. Except, no, you shouldn’t.) But, thankfully, Galifanakis didn’t have to with Baskets, his FX tragicomedy created by him, Louis C.K., and Jonathan Krisel.
No, Baskets is Galifanakis at his best, a mismatch of awkward comedy and head-scratching surrealism, with a healthy dose of slapstick thrown on top. But what truly made Baskets one of the most delightful shows of 2016 was how much Galifanakis (and I imagine Louis C.K.) committed to the tragedy of the whole thing — to put it bluntly, Baskets is sad. REALLY fucking sad. It’s a depressing ode to the futility of dreaming, and the utter disappointment of a life unfulfilled. The fact that it’s also REALLY damn funny (and through the lens of primary director Krisel, fucking beautiful) is what makes Baskets unlike anything else on television. It truly lets Galifankis’ freak flag fly, and thank god for that. We don’t need more Keeping Up With The Jones’ from him.
9. Orange is the New Black
I’ll be honest: when a show starts to make a down-slide mid-way through its run, I’m quick to kind of shrug it off. I’ll keep watching, sure, but my expectations become substantially lower, and the series goes from “must-watch” territory to “catch it whenever you have nothing else to do.” And that’s what happened with Orange is the New Black Season 3, a still solid season of TV, but lacking the momentum and power that made the first two seasons so great. When that season came to a close, I figured the shows “glory days” were done.
But then Season 4 came, and I take it all back — Orange is the New Black is truly better than ever. Replacing the aimlessness of Season 3, Season 4 kicked the show into high gear, focusing heavily on the privatization and corruption of the prison system that puts all over our beloved characters in such dire straights. Season 4 of Orange is the New Black is fucking ANGRY, enraged at the system and the monsters that it ends up creating. The penultimate episode in particular, “The Animals,” is a masterwork of TV drama, both emotionally stirring and completely devastating, with one of the most heartbreaking and tragic endings of a TV episode ever (props go to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner here, who delivered a real tour de force of direction.)
To touch upon what made the season so stellar would require a lot of spoilers, but rest assured: the way that Orange is the New Black explores some of the most troubling aspects of modern society is completely captivating, absolutely relevant, and emotionally stirring. Enraged Orange is the New Black seems to be the best Orange is the New Black, which makes it such a shame that there’s nothing in 2017 that the show could possibly be angry about to fuel future storylines.
…That was sarcasm. Season 5 is going to be interesting, all right.
In the interest of time, I’m going to keep my thoughts on Westworld pretty brief. After all, I’ve spent a good enough amount of time talking about the show in the past so, if you want more details, you can simply read one of these pieces:
But suffice to say, I am completely on team Westworld. Flaws and all, I found it to be completely captivating as both smart, thoughtful sci-fi and a fun, addicting puzzle box. Season 2 can’t come fast enough and, unfortunately, it won’t — it’s going to be a long wait until the next season arrives in 2018 but, if Season 1 is any indication, it will very much be worth the wait.
7. Better Call Saul
Poor Better Call Saul — the show is consistently one of the best things on television, but airs so early in the year that it’s really easy to forget about how good it is come list-making time. Thankfully the revving up to the next season is already in full effect (this list is REALLY late you guys), so my memory of how freaking great Season 2 was is starting to come back in full force.
Somehow the show managed to improve itself over its already great first season, and continues to cement itself as a very different show than Breaking Bad. Plots in Better Call Saul lack the same sense of danger that they did in the latter show, but somehow still feel just as pressing and important. But more than anything, Better Call Saul is a testament to the wonder of great writing, mixed with captivating performances. It’s not the type of show that will generate a bunch of fan theories or a lot of online engagement, but that in no way means its anything less than drama at its finest. Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and everyone else involved deserve a massive pat on the back for another fine accomplishment in the world of television.
Describing what makes Donald Glover’s new show work is a surprisingly complex task, but here goes it: Atlanta is yet another surreal comedy-drama on FX, one that could easily share some of the same DNA with Baskets on paper. But one look at this series, and it’s easy to see that the two show’s respective approach to comedy/drama couldn’t be any different, with Atlanta setting out on a path that is entirely its own. It’s funny, yes, and well written, yes. But it’s also completely unique in the drama/comedy field, with no other show out there even vaguely similar to it. I know I’ve already said it once (and will say it at least one more time before this list is through,) but Atlanta truly is unlike anything else on the TV spectrum, and for more than any other reason, that’s why I love it so much.
Also: Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius is one of the best comedy characters of the year, and absurdly funny every time he is utilized. That is all.
5. Bojack Horseman
How is the show about the talking horse featuring about 2,000 cheesy animal puns one of the five best shows of 2016? I ask myself this constantly, because I will never not be in awe at what Raphael Bob Waksberg managed to accomplish with this crazy, crazy show. Bojack Horseman is hilarious, and as a comedy alone, I would have probably found a spot for it on this list. But it didn’t take long for this show to prove itself to be more than just a silly comedy.
Which, yes, is a weird thorough-line with a lot of the entries on this list: we are in a golden age of TV dramedies, and Bojack Horseman fits in quite well with Atlanta and Baskets in this regard. But while those two shows are still in their first season and “working things out” (so to speak), Bojack Horseman was in its third season in 2016, and has pretty much mastered its own unique blend of gut busting humor and heartbreaking drama. It’s themes have never been more clear, nor has its confidence been more strong. Season 3 of Bojack Horseman is a show at the top of its game, and what it manages to achieve emotionally is insane. When it comes to Netflix’s best original show, the answer is pretty damn clear: Bojack Horseman all the way.
4 & 3. American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and O.J.:Made in America
Look, if you told me that two of my ten favorite TV shows of 2016 would be centered around the public figure that was (is?) O.J. Simpson, I would have called you absolutely crazy. Though I was somewhat aware of the huge scope that the O.J. trial had, I am a bit of a young-un, and thus did not live through the era itself. So, trust me, seeing it laid out in almost 20 hours of real and fictionalized footage is quite the eye opening experience.
But the subject matter of both The People vs. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America is one thing — it’s the execution that makes both shows so overwhelmingly excellent. O.J.:Made in America in particular is a documentary masterpiece, managing to perfectly tell the entire story of not just O.J.’s rise and fall, but Los Angeles in the post Civil Rights era. I have never seen a documentary so perfectly explore its subject matter, and there were literally dozens of times watching Made in America in which I felt absolutely floored at what I was witnessing. And yes, there’s a whole debate about if Made in America really even is a TV show, but I could honestly care less…because it’s totally a TV show. And you’re wrong if you think otherwise.
But though O.J.: Made in America is a masterpiece, that is no insult to The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which is just as excellent in a very, very different way. In fact, it’s a crazy bit of serendipity that the two launched so close together, because they complement each other very well. Though both focus on the same topic, I never felt like I was learning the same information twice, or felt like the feeling of watching either quite encapsulated me in the same way. But, rest assured, both O.J. Simpson projects in 2016 were some of the very best television around. Because 2016 was just weird like that, I guess.
2. The Americans
I’m starting to feel pretty bad for The Americans at this point: for the third year in a row, it just missed out on being my favorite show of the year. That is its fate for me, I guess — always the Best of TV bridesmaid, never the Best of TV bride.
But just because The Americans once again missed out on the top spot, doesn’t mean the show is anything less than stupendous. It doesn’t even mean the show is getting worse over the years — hell, I would argue it’s getting better, which is kind of insane when you consider the crazy good quality the series has always maintained. But what can I say? There’s no show on television right now that is as constantly engaging, as consistently nail biting, and as overall just as well executed as The Americans. The acting is near-perfect, the writing is near-perfect, the production design is near-perfect: everything about this damn show is just off-the-walls fantastic.
And yet…it always ends up getting kicked out of first place by something not just incredible, but all-time great. A masterpiece of the television form, if you would. And my number one pick this year is no different.
1. Horace and Pete
Because, I’m going to say it again, and this time I really do mean it: Horace and Pete is unlike anything else released in 2016. Hell, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever watched IN MY LIFETIME. A strange amalgamation of comedy and a top-tier melodrama play, Horace and Pete fits no category. It’s really funny, it’s really insightful, it’s really emotionally devastating — it’s really everything, in a way that only the best pieces of pop culture can be.
And make no mistake, Horace and Pete truly fits that category. Not an episode went by where I wasn’t completely awe-struck about what was unfolding in front of me, or stunned at what Louis C.K. managed to create almost entirely on his own. Both directing AND writing something of this magnitude is something only a creative genius could accomplish, and Louis C.K. completely proves himself to indeed be one of those with Horace and Pete.
Which is of course not to say he didn’t have a ton of help by a whole heap of gifted people working on this project. How C.K. was able to get Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, and Laurie Metcalf in a room together to create this thing defies belief, because their collective actor powers should have enough force to shatter the entire universe. Instead it just creates some of the most powerful pieces of film I have ever said, wrapped up in a package that is far more emotionally complex and thematically rich than you would expect from the guy who wrote Pootie Tang.
But even more so than with Louie, what Louis C.K. was able to create with Horace and Pete is truly a revelation. I sincerely believe that the man is now one of our most talented storytellers, and has a knack for filmmaking that puts most others to shame. Because Horace and Pete isn’t just the best TV comedy I saw in 2016. Nor was it the best TV drama or, hell, the best TV show. No, Horace and Pete is hands down the best piece of pop culture I had the pleasure to bare witness to in a very, very long time.
So there you have it, my Top 10 TV Shows of 2016. Once again, sorry for the lateness but, hey, better late than never…right? Yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself. Anyways, also check out my list of the Top 10 Films of 2016, while you’re still here.
Also published on Medium.
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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