American Horror Story Coven

Here we go again. I’ve discussed American Horror Story on these pages before. While the debut season amazed audiences with sensory overload and strong acting, the sophomore season was a discordant mismatch of genres, ideas, and convoluted and incomplete plot threads. Season 3 is the one that will determine if the overall series has legs and I’m please that it corrects all of the problems with the previous one.

Coven is a much tighter experience in comparison. While the original focused on ghosts and a haunted house, this one prefers witches and black magic. Something new is crammed into every episode, no doubt- American Horror Story is nothing if not a mishmash of horror tropes- but everything carries the same themes within.

Improvements abound. The characters in this season are stronger. There are many but they are individually more interesting than before. The music is exceptional, opting this go around for a poppy industrial blend. Even showing events in other eras, a familiar mechanic in the series, is used much more intelligently and doesn’t distract from the story. And by far, perhaps the shining architectural trait of Coven, is the pacing. Each episode pulls the audience along in a new twist, standing yet another hair on the back of our collective necks.

I don’t know how the season will end but if it finishes as strong as it started, it may just be the best American Horror Story yet.

Breaking Bad Finale

(This post inevitably contains spoilers about the last episode of Breaking Bad. For a recap of Seasons 1-4, go here.)

Is there a show on television that fakes you out more than Breaking Bad? The writers are so self aware, so smart. They know what the many possible outcomes are, what the audiences expects, and they make sure to juke one way and then go the other direction.

Just when you think Walt is the most evil motherfucker there is, he goes and does something genuinely benevolent. And then when you think he’s reformed and is a good guy, he turns it on you again and hits a new low.

The season finale of Breaking Bad hits all of the targets it needs to. The Skyler and Jesse storylines get sealed up. Yes, there are dangling questions, like what happens to Flynn or Marie? But these threads were never key to the series and can well be left to our imaginations. The finale trimmed the fat and cut to what we wanted to eat, and nothing more.

The final episode didn’t end as dark as I and some of my friends had expected. The mess Walt made gets wrapped up more nicely than deserved. But more importantly, everything feels complete and the final events, I think, will stand up to the test of time. The foreshadowing is well done, the build up isn’t forced, and the web of relationship issues is sorted out. While parts of the finale may not be overly shocking, it nevertheless chronicles a satisfying sequence of events.

Jesse is the moral compass of the series. He does bad things, for sure, but he’s the one telling Walt where the line is, and often ignored. Fans will mostly be rooting for him over the course of Season 5 so I’m honestly surprised that the finale lets him live, especially when he could’ve gotten away scot free, with millions of dollars, months before. But then, Jesse had a bit of first world problem guilt. He was upset by all the evil he’d been a part of and wanted to get caught and give up his blood money. After squandering his money and losing his freedom to the neo-nazis, this time, we know Jesse is getting out of dodge. It’s a release for him and the audience, who have been collectively holding their breaths the entire time.

Breaking Bad is undoubtedly a series that incites passionate discussion. I remember arguing with a colleague a couple of years back. He affirmed that the reason Walt did everything was out of love for his family. I called Bullshit. That’s the Hollywood ending. That’s the "USA! USA!" chanting of American programming that’s been ingrained in our brains. That is the happy message that this show doesn’t pander to, that is the point of this series. The show is called Breaking Bad, after all. Yet my friend is a professional writer and still thought this. So I’m glad that the final episode makes this clear. Of course Walt loves his family, but he did this, all of this, for himself.

Despite everything that happens, all the tragedy up to the end, we still get treated to a Walt and Jesse buddy moment at the end. The series has always been at its best when these two were a team so it’s a great way to close things out.

Like Ozymandias, Walt’s reign is over, but Breaking Bad has entrenched itself into lasting permanence.

Dexter

Dexter is over and this is a finale that wouldn’t have happened without the influence of Breaking Bad. Since I haven’t talked about the Showtime favorite before, let me recap a bit.

The idea of a serial killer as a protagonist is compelling. In a bid to make Dexter likeable, he does follow a code that ‘sort of makes him more of a good guy than the other serial killers.’ It’s something that the series has at least toyed with: Dexter has killed innocents or made mistakes causing harm to others and, at least in one occasion, killed just for the satisfaction of it.

Dexter, as a long-running series, has had its problems. The major hurdle for the brand has been the need for a new big bad serial killer every year. Good seasons were the ones that tried to do more than introduce a new diabolical evil in Miami but still, there are only so many variations to make that feel fresh. The protégé, the partner, the lover- at some point you can’t continue the series without jumping the shark.

But there are other faults in the overall episode library that have more to do with the writing. The characters are wildly inconsistent and service the themes and the season’s plot more than they act as believable people. Sergeant Batista is quitting one year, lieutenant the next. Quinn is a dirty cop, a noble love interest, then a depressed alcoholic dating a stripper. Deb, too, for being the most important single character besides Dexter himself, lacks any true motivations and is just used as a crutch for her brother’s schemes.

So it becomes obvious that the previous two seasons have been very weak. More blood and generated problems; more of the same. Yet, that didn’t stop some very big moments from happening. These key developments set the stage for the beginning of the end, which is where we are left now.

The pacing of the final season is refreshing. It feels like the season with the most new major characters introduced. The show’s creators knew they were working on a budget of limited episodes and made sure to fill them with twists and turns. I had many guesses of how things would turn out with each but I altered my predictions nearly every episode. Can’t complain much about that.

The ending itself is serviceable enough. I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hard for a series that has been so fast and loose with characters to achieve true enlightenment. Still, the right questions are answered. Does Dexter get punished and how? Does Deb pay for her actions? Can there be a such thing as a happy ending for a serial killer?

All of this manifests in an ending which is admittedly surprising but wildly incongruent with the rest of the story. The carrot that dangles in front of Dexter is the same story mechanic that any good heist movie proposes- the possibility to get away scot free. To get there, Dexter goes through a surprising metamorphosis. His imaginary dad stops visiting him. He has a revelation about his dark passenger. Unfortunately, for Dexter to actually go through these changes only to behave like he does in the last episode doesn’t feel honest. I see what the creators were going for but it didn’t really work onscreen.

With it all said and done, the final season of Dexter certainly raises the status of the program up again. It is a conclusion with an amount of finality that we don’t often get from television, and in a lot of ways, that’s good enough.

Hell On Wheels

I noticed what I thought was a new series premiering on AMC, Hell On Wheels, and watched the first episode before I realized it was the third season. What I watched was good enough, with a mysterious protagonist, well cast as a ruthless western frontiersman.

I like historical dramas like this (the BBC’s Copper is the same time period, placed just at the end of the Civil War). The window into the old wild world is very cool, and Hell On Wheels focuses on the building of the Union Pacific railroad westward.

The first two seasons are on Netflix so I caught up. While there are a couple slow moments, the greatest scenes are masterfully done. Bohannon plays a sympathetic killer and ex-slave owner. As a man of few words, he does most of it with his eyes and face. The supporting cast is mostly good although there are the usual tv moments where conflicts feel manufactured just to keep things exciting.

The first season stands alone well. The protagonist has an inner journey and events stay mostly believable. Subsequent seasons don’t hold up as much. There are incredible swings of fortune good and bad and the characters continue to endlessly scheme against each other without any apparent memory of past events or connections. Still, episodes are mostly entertaining and viewers will continually be rewarded with cool moments.

Twin Peaks

I didn’t pay a whole lot attention to this tv series when it originally aired in 1990 but I just went back and saw both seasons since they became available on Amazon Prime.

Twin Peaks, at its core, is about the weird goings on of the inhabitants of a small town and how initial appearances are usually not as they seem. Everybody has their own secrets and schemes and things tend to just get more complicated over time instead of getting neatly resolved. On the more immediate surface, the series revolves around the murder of the high school homecoming queen, Laura Palmer. This plot motivator kicks off the pilot and is vital to the series because it provides a mechanism to affect all the characters and bring them together. It also carries the theme of hidden secrets, as the well liked girl isn’t as innocent as everyone believes.

When Twin Peaks works, it beautifully creates a creepy atmosphere and features eclectic characters in interesting situations. What else would one expect from David Lynch? The protagonist, Agent Cooper, is a vastly likable combination of dysfunctional yet able. The small town and mystery exude a unique aura that really stood out among other tv offerings at the time. These differences and the water cooler effect really drove audiences to watch in the beginning but the luster started to wear off when people realized how weakly some of it was planned.

This is because Twin Peaks is a soap opera, but of course, that is the point. The first season goes as far as to feature scenes of characters watching a soap opera that often mimics the events they are experiencing. After time, it becomes difficult to separate the execution from parody. While the murder of Laura Palmer is the big event that kick starts everything, the series loses focus and characters begin to lack reasons for existing. It is hard to fault a show for so completely living up to its pulp premise but that truth shows how deeply flawed the idea of Twin Peaks really is.

In many ways, audiences weren’t really ready for this series. What begins as a mundane murder mystery strays into the occult with opaque clues, unsettling dream sequences, and evil spirits. Still, a lot of this subversion is what makes Twin Peaks so groundbreaking. Some of the most memorable images from the series are rooted in mysticism (a simple Google Images search will prove that much). This doesn’t mean that the show is perfect in retrospect. Indeed, it’s pretty easy to create a list of grievances.

For one, mysteries often fail to deliver on their promises. It’s easy to make a bunch of weird shit happen to create a spooky atmosphere but when it comes time to explain all that stuff, well, the writers just shrug and hope no one notices. It’s like the sea monster in Lost. So while Twin Peaks *does* ultimately deliver on revealing the murderer of Laura Palmer, and while I actually thought they did a good job with those episodes, so much else in the show seems invented immediately before filming just to give the actors on set something to do. This is especially true in the second season where characters sometimes have motivations inconsistent with prior events. The creators have admitted that they were just winging it with plot points and David Lynch never even intended to solve the Laura Palmer case- he just wanted that to be a lynchpin that starts the series off and then have the show devolve into the soap opera of the lives of the small town inhabitants.

Also, while resolving the mystery of Laura Palmer worked for me, the writers of the show had no idea what to do afterward. As mentioned, the seemingly random plots that occur were always the direction the show was intended to go, but it really didn’t work. While the creators have said that solving the murder let some wind out of their sails and audiences were no longer interested, the truth is that audiences needed more coherent major story arcs to hold things together. The campy soap opera worked while there was an underlying drive to force character interactions – the death of Laura Palmer was the single lynchpin that connected everyone. In the second season, when Twin Peaks starts conjuring random unrelated situations for people to deal with, the reasons for characters to get together feels plainly contrived. And with motivations and situations changing every episode, there was no reason to maintain interest.

It’s hard to recommend this series unless you are a big fan of camp. Past that, if you can appreciate the meandering nature of the wandering plot, then perhaps there is a cult classic waiting for you. Twin Peaks certainly leaves a strong impression and has had a lasting influence on television drama- that alone should be enough reason to check it out. Personally, I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, but the flaws keep the series from achieving true greatness.

The Ultimate Fighter: Jones vs. Sonnen

The Ultimate Fighter was a great idea for a contest reality show and it really propelled the UFC into mass market success but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the last few seasons were degrading the brand. After trying to push hype for Kimbo Slice and seeing that repeatedly fall flat in their face, follow-up seasons have generally failed to impress.

There were interesting characters a couple years back (the Alaskan with the unorthodox guillotine choke comes to mind) but in general the show had fallen into a paint-by-numbers routine. Coach A hates Coach B and talks smack. Coach B overreacts. Team A plays practical joke on Team B. Team B overreacts. Rinse, repeat, another season in the books.

Rock bottom really hit when even the main billing of the two coaches fighting each other didn’t even happen for two seasons in a row. At that point it seemed like everyone was phoning it in. The coaches were just there to be on tv but didn’t want to put work in. The players just wanted to advance as safely as possible and got in overly boring drawn out fights, each one calling for a judges decision. No one won the best knockout award last season because there wasn’t a single knock out! On top of that, the judges have been blind for several seasons, causing me to yell out loud from my couch and even drawing complaints from the head of the UFC, Dana White.

Well, Season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter fixes ALL of these problems. The premiere started differently by showing the families of the contestants as they fought to win their way onto the show. The direction and interviews felt like they were out of a Nike commercial and the opening credits removed the names of the fighters, choosing for a minimalist yet inspiring approach instead of the in-your-face rock attitude. The two coaches, Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen, amazingly, don’t waste my time insulting each other every episode, and by all accounts are surprised that they like each other. And the fighters… wow. Knock out after knock out this season. The fights are usually unpredictable- aside from a couple of favorites there have been surprises (case in point is the semi-finals consisting of the two top seeds and the two bottom seeds). But the fighters generally aren’t waiting to hear the judges scores and there are some exciting moments involving come-backs, quick rounds, and amazing forces of will.

This season is the penultimate fight show and the finale is yet to air, so take note.

Hannibal

The Hannibal television series premiere was a mixed bag. An exploration of the days before Hannibal the Cannibal was captured is an interesting concept that is only visited in flashbacks in Manhunter/ Red Dragon. This is a compelling draw but it’s hard to expect much from the Networks. Viewers might imagine a multicultural cast filling out a pilot one part Sherlock, one part CSI, one part Law and Order: Criminal Intent – and they wouldn’t be far off the mark.

Still, the subject matter is intriguing and the ‘Will Graham’ character pulls his weight alongside a couple of well established thespians. People often don’t realize that he was the superstar before ‘Clarise’ came along. Looking into the investigator’s famed career and biggest case has appeal and there is certainly room for drama and the dark imagery provides an ample platform. Perhaps the series just needs more time to grow.

My biggest hesitation with taking Hannibal seriously and making a time commitment to watch it is that there is a big flaw in the premise. The entire story has a shelf life. This whole affair ends when Graham catches Hannibal, and the longer the duration and the higher the adventure count in between takes us, the more ridiculous everything is.

"Let’s see how long I can act super creepy before anybody notices."

This needs a good BBC treatment of being a single or double season one-off. Instead we’ll get the American TV business model where if something is successful it will go on forever and if it isn’t it will be cancelled without even getting to end properly. Seems hard to invest in, doesn’t it?

People outraged at Media Coverage

I keep seeing posts from people who are outraged at the news coverage of the Connecticut school shooting. People complain that the topic is being spammed everywhere, missing the irony that their last 6 Facebook posts were about the incident. Even worse, Morgan Freeman is freely quoted as being a genius who claims the news is making heroes out of the killers and shouldn’t be plastering their names everywhere, which only serves to convince others to do the same and become infamous. For one, attributing Freeman to that quote was a hoax and the whole thing never happened. Even if it did, that wasn’t the actor being a genius- whoever wrote the quote is just a person echoing what every serial killer expert and crime behavior analyst has said over the past 50 years.

So is there some truth to it? Is the media behaving irresponsibly? Yes, and perhaps. I’m surely not defending them. But what the majority of the people don’t understand is that traditional news is a platform for old people to be outraged. Kids aren’t tuned in to Fox News watching this story unfold. You know who is? Parents who grew up without the internet who can’t believe how different the world is today. You know why you are saturated by this coverage? Because you choose to be. Who in their right mind bitches about a tv show and keeps watching it? You are part of the problem. If you don’t want to be inundated with sensationalist media, don’t give it views or clicks.

Homeland

By all accounts I didn’t think I would like Homeland. A POW returning home is deemed a war hero by everyone except one crazy CIA agent who suspects he’s a terrorist. Shows entirely set around such a delicate premise usually cannot sustain a drama like this, especially on American television where this thing will be into season 5 before you know it. As is too often in television story arcs, success breeds failure and the inevitable jumping of the shark as the producer’s try to squeeze every last penny out of the IP that they can.

But Homeland is a bit of an oddity. A friend of mine is catching up on the first season and reminded me how slow it was. Indeed, I remember not really being into the story and I may have even quit watching the show if my now-fiancé didn’t like it so much. Thinking about it, there are many things to be annoyed at by that season: the plot developments that prolong the mystery, the fact that the entire CIA is inept except for the heroine, even the pretentious jazzy episode intro sequence.

But somewhere along the way the hooks sunk in. Carrie with her mania, Brody with his stalwart sense of duty, Saul with his fatherly guidance- these were strong characters that were easy to invest in. And even though the season finale didn’t come to a fully satisfying conclusion, and even though I didn’t believe season 2 could do anything remotely believable, I was left wanting more.

Queue one year and several television awards later and season 2 was set up for spectacular failure. But I was surprised. A few episodes in, a bombshell drops that I thought the writers would’ve waited for the season finale for. A couple more episodes, another bomb. For Homeland, success made the writers really dig deep and make sure that the plot wasn’t just a series of events to prolong the inevitable conclusion. The story was winding and twisting and still mostly believable. I’d even go so far as to say, despite being a high concept show that plays out most of its mystery in year 1, that the second was the much better season.

By the recent season 2 finale, the writers found a great way to essentially reset the series. Next season can be anything the producers want while most of the storylines thus far have been tied up to satisfaction. It is something rare in American television- actual closure, tangible progress. Instead of lazily continuing within the comfortable confines established 2 years ago, Homeland is forcing itself to evolve into something exciting and different. Can’t wait for the next go.