American Horror Story Asylum

Sorry folks, this isn’t the same American Horror Story. Before I get into the sophomore season, let me back things up a bit.

I never reviewed the original season. It’s a shame because it had a lot of good qualities aside from the novelty of being a weekly horror drama. The cast was generally excellent, with special consideration going to Jessica Lange as a opinionated, southern, creepy-as-fuck, maternal nosey neighbor. There was a lot of cool imagery to tug at the hair on the back of your neck. And the music and opening credits were inspired.

However, the series had plenty of downsides as well. I usually appreciate tight storylines and in fact often criticize horror movies for not properly tying together and leading to a satisfactory conclusion. American Horror Story definitely tried to do a little bit of everything to the point that it was ridiculous. You had the haunted house with a gruesome history, the doctor who aborted babies and did experiments with flesh including his offspring before succumbing to a murder-suicide, the creepy nosey man who survived a fire, the old lady maid who looked young to seduce men, the Halloween ghost punks, the gimp suit homicidal maniac, the creepy thing living in the basement, Rosemary’s pregnancy, and the husband who fell victim to blackouts and did weird things while sleepwalking naked. This was an excess of horror tropes, but this is why it worked. It was campy and familiar enough to appreciate but well scripted and entertainingly paced. And for the sake of my point I won’t get into the awful season finale.

The series made a bold move for the second season. Use a mostly new cast (some notables return as different characters) in a completely different setting and story. With the above description, I could really see this change being a good thing as well. Clean the slate, come up with a new set of tropes and situations, and start over.

Except Asylum has a much different feel to it. The season so far almost takes itself too seriously. We still have the overlapping tropes (insane asylum, exorcism, UFOs?, experimenting evil doctor, bloody killer ghost, mysterious creatures in the wild, disappearing bodies, exorcism, Nazis, serial killers)- yet, for some reason, something is just off. The pacing is slow, the characters less interesting, and too much is going on at once. I’m inclined to say Asylum suffers from having weaker leads who are less likable but that wouldn’t be enough. Maybe the first season’s appeal was its parlance in the supernatural. This time around, except for UFOs, there are more tangible horrors unfolding.

But how could the writing not be at fault? The episodes seem more disjointed from each other, introducing and removing characters at odd times. It feels schizophrenic, as if the writers kept changing their minds about what themes to emphasize. The progression doesn’t feel consistently paced- why did it take most of the season before introducing the angel of death character?

But even with all that, something else feels off. Perhaps the first season had more of an air of mystery around it, a nagging question about why all these atrocities were happening. The new season isn’t so much a mystery as much as a few key characters being locked up by various evil villains. I mean, I’m sure there will be big reveals in the future, but I’m not asking any specific questions.

American Horror Story Asylum is just a ride that I’m going along for. It is a pleasant one, at least, but only because I’m not particularly paying attention to the road.

Breaking Bad

This show confuses me. It really does. On one hand you have some genuinely inspired dark humor and pathetic moments but on the other you can be stuck watching a gruelingly slow show with a plot that at times is a bit formulaic.

Bryan Cranston is great at his role. He straddles the line of caring about his family and finally feeling alive by saying ‘fuck it’ well. The side characters in the show are where the weaknesses lie. His drug dealer buddy Jesse starts out as just a foil for trouble and the back and forth banter between them is agonizing. Yelling at each other only stays interesting for so long. The wife suffers from the same problems. She’s sick of the lies and the constant berating wears thin. There are definitely some interesting moments between these characters but the status quo gets tired.

The second season is a low point of the series. With the writers seemingly not knowing exactly where to take things but having twice as many episodes, it is a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the finale lynchpin that is teased the entire season starting with the opening of the season premier is a complete letdown of a climax. The randomness and unimportance of the event completely tricks the audience and is simply lazy writing.

However, seasons 3 and 4 grow Breaking Bad into a must-watch series. Walt and his wife come to terms with their relationship in a couple different ways, Jesse (mostly) gets his shit together, and an interesting business arrangement propels the cast through a gripping 26 episode story arc that will leave you on the edge of your seat. It might be painful to sit through season 2 but what follows makes it easily worth it.

The final season is split up into 2 mini-seasons, ending next year, and I haven’t seen any of it yet. This is a series that lingers in your thoughts when you’re not watching and I find myself anxious that I can’t see the Breaking Bad finale for a while longer. Like the famous blue meth that is the subject of the show, I have to admit the hooks are in me and I’m now going through withdrawal.

But I’ll get my fix soon. I just hope the last 16 episodes can fly as close to the sun as the best moments before them.


Futurama is before the time of Why I Hate Everything so I won’t give it a lengthy review aside from saying it was a great animated series in its heyday. When Cartoon Network renewed the series to release 4 episodic movies, it was obvious that some of the old quality was still around. However, the regular tv season that followed was hit or miss.

Realistically, any classic animation series like this is going to suffer a bit from nostalgia. That’s why it was so great that the first ten minutes of the new 2012 season had constant jokes that reminded me of the good old days. This is the same show, folks. Here’s hoping the season keeps to the same bar.


Here’s another high concept tv show, a format that seems to be all the rage since Lost aired. A mystery is introduced in episode one and the entire season (or series) is about unraveling the puzzle. Overall I think this is a good trend. It’s just that I have so little faith in network tv to deliver anything with any cohesive long-term fulfillment anymore. Even the mighty X-Files sputtered at the end.

The premise of Awake: Detective Britten was in a car accident with his wife and son and woke up to a world where one of them was dead, but when he went to sleep he woke up in another world where the other family member had died instead. So he’s now a man living two lives, both dealing with family tragedy. To keep things straight, Britten wears a red bracelet in the world that his wife is alive in and a green bracelet in the world that he lives with his son. Each reality has its own therapist that he sees who tries to convince him that theirs is the true world and the other is a dream. It’s a compelling personal story that provides a neat backdrop for weekly episodes.

I started watching the series for the novelty of it and was mildly amused. At the beginning it basically boiled down to two police procedurals in one episode, where clues from one world inform on the case in the other. But as the season progressed I became impressed at some of the interesting hooks that pulled between Britten’s alternate families. Awake is well constructed and many of the scenes are expertly driven by music and poignant emotional notes.

Early on it was evident that the show was being canceled and, as a fan of narrative, this was really the best thing that could happen to the plotline. A chance to tell an isolated story in a single series of episodes, without money or ratings dragging the plot one way or the other, or stretching any true climax across years. Instead, when the end starts rolling near the season’s final episodes the protagonist really rushes ahead to get things done. And again, I was impressed with some of the choices.

So then, what a letdown the finale is. Spoilers are necessarily ahead, so if the above sounds intriguing at all I would still recommend watching all the episodes. Just come back here for analysis after you finish the finale.

According to the series creator, Kyle Killen, this is the way he always intended the first season of Awake to end, whether or not the series would be renewed. He specifically references the debacle that was Lost, which had a meandering and blurry story, and said that tv execs these days "make sure that you have flagpoles that you’re heading toward" to ensure that audiences are given a satisfying payoff.

In the Awake season finale, one of the two worlds is starting to show signs that it is a dream and Detective Britten finally begins to accept this fact and says goodbye to a loved one. The whole season centered around this concept of ‘which world is real?’ and just flipping a coin and coming up with a result wasn’t going to be a satisfying enough conclusion. No, a savvy modern audience will need a grander twist, and it wasn’t hard to see that something was coming.

The worst thing you can ever do in a movie or tv show is have the main character wake up at the end and realize the whole thing was a dream. And that’s what the series creator says absolutely did not happen, and he doesn’t understand how anybody could take that interpretation away from the finale. Well, maybe it’s because THAT’S WHAT TOTALLY FUCKING HAPPENED ONSCREEN.

When you say things like, "I’ve seen some really interesting [theories] and I wouldn’t say that anyone is wrong" then you are admitting that the storyline doesn’t necessarily make sense. You are essentially saying that, ‘hey, if you enjoyed it, then whatever you think happened is what happened’. And that’s a giant cop out. Maybe that type of narrative has a place in poetry or even artsy films but getting cute with the script explanation in this case doesn’t fly. To me it’s a matter of function following form. If a movie is weird and dreamlike, like Lost Highway, then you can expect a fairly ambiguous ending. Awake is the opposite- it is literally about a police detective piecing together clues to solve a mystery, and audiences expect and demand something more substantial.

But the discussion gets deeper as the creator is interviewed after the final airing. Killen reveals that one of the worlds is indeed fake, and as the protagonist is just starting to accept the truth he regresses into realizing he could make up his own dream, and the ‘happy ending’ world is an even bigger and deeper lie that he chooses to immerse himself in. In other words, in a series which involves a heavy dose of psychosis and has two therapists telling the detective that he is crazy and can’t accept the truth, one of them is right. The ‘red’ world gets all crazy and is the obvious dream, Britten realizes ‘green’ is the reality, but then decides that he enjoyed his hallucinatory fabrications even more and creates a world where both his wife and son are alive. And I suppose overall I can accept this ending. It doesn’t fill in all the holes but it serves as an unexpected direction and completes a tragic arc. If Britten’s psyche is fractured even more in the end, well, we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.

But then Killen plays noncommittal and says the reverse is also possible.

"In “red,” he’s in a place where he’s in prison and the person that ultimately destroyed his family is going to get away with it, so if anything were to cause your psyche to fracture and imagine a world where you do win, where you do catch the person…. I think it would be the horrible pressure of realizing you might be stuck in prison. That’s in some ways a just as compelling argument for “red.”"

Indeed, all the craziness in the red world that apparently reveals it as a dream world only happens right as Britten is about to fall asleep. It *could* have been a dream (except, of course, that Britten has never dreamed in this fashion over the entire series). But here’s the thing. Am I the only one here who is calling bullshit on the whole ‘one real, one fake’ scenario? If clues in each world helped him solve cases in the other, then either both or neither are dreams, right? This is classically where tv series, as opposed to films, fail to deliver on their mysteries. Over the course of a season it is exceedingly easy to throw in a twist that can’t be explained- call it a smoke monster (after Lost’s famous flub). Movies, on the other hand, are edited much more tightly *in general*, although I feel compelled to say that most horror movies still fail to deliver satisfying resolutions to all the creepy events they present us with.

In the end, Killen emphasizes that one world was real and the other was a dream and this series was about a man who couldn’t cope with reality. And I respect that straight-forward decision, but the creator goes on to say something disturbing. He admits that he left the door open for either one to be the reality, meaning he was content to let a few seasons drag on before finally choosing which direction to go. And here is where the lazy writing angle comes in, because without a defined world, any clues dropped during the episodes along the way become meaningless. Without a true reality, nothing needs to make sense, and years later when the show would wrap up, the audience is sure to be left with dangling questions.

Anyway, it always boggles my mind that creators of fiction never work these things out more than this. Maybe artsy folk don’t like being tied down by constraints but I’m a programmer by trade. I like making sense of things, breaking them down into logical parts and seeing how they really tie together. I like working a story backwards from its core elements and agreeing that it could plausibly play out as the writers present. To me that’s believability, and that’s more gripping than any number of inane plot twists you can throw at me.


This UK show became a minor hit in the US when it debuted on Hulu. Misfits is about a small group of maladjusted young people brought together (and stuck in) community service. Oh yeah, and they all have super powers. This kind of great high concept paves the way for hilarious moments that never take themselves too seriously- the show often self referentially makes fun of itself. The short seasons are well thought out, tightly written, and endlessly amusing. Viewers are kept guessing simply because the events are too zany to predict. And that’s why this show is so great- it’s truly fun to watch and remains lighthearted but doesn’t use that as an excuse to cheap out on the plot.

As good as the production of Misfits is, it wouldn’t be anywhere without the stellar performances of its young actors. Each character, with their own (not so) proper English dialect, has their own attitude and quirks. No matter what outside forces conspire to give the gang a bad day, the series is really about their interactions with each other. You see, they are usually not so nice, outright ribbing one another, giving you a sense that their attitudes to each other range anywhere from annoyed to calm distaste. But of course they all find ways to work together and overcome the week’s danger.

Another important factor contributing to the show’s mystique is the excellent music. Right from the title track to the plot sequences, this show is edited and cut to showcase a fast paced attitude. Modern background tracks add to the edginess and set the proper tone one should expect from a show about troubled youth.

The first Season of Misfits did a great job introducing the superpowers and explaining the inevitable fallout. Season 2 decided to have more fun with things and gets a little crazier although it does march towards a unified theme. Unfortunately, it looks like the short run of these 12 episodes will be the best of the bunch. In the classic UK format ‘Christmas Episode’ that followed, the show’s writer basically admitted that he ran out of ideas for the characters and led in to the next season being very different by changing everyone’s super power. And one of the show’s defining members has become a bit of a star and won’t be around for the third season. Even the writer of the series is giving up the reins to others. It seems like too many things are changing for Misfits to remain as impeccable as its been. A lot of the fun was that these heroes are coming to their probation duties every day, powerful but resigned to cleaning graffiti off city walls. Now that community service is over, it seems like the end of an era.

[For what it’s worth, Season 3 has started and isn’t bad from what I’ve seen so far, but I still think it’s fair to say that the series will never be the same.]

Freaks and Geeks

This is admittedly a very old tv show but why not touch on what some consider a cult classic? After all, it is one of Judd Apatow’s notable babies after early work on The Ben Stiller Show and The Larry Sanders Show. It features probably James Franco’s best known appearance before Spiderman as Hobgoblin and perhaps more impressively is the acting debut of comedy giant Seth Rogen. I never really watched the series when it aired, probably in part due to my aversion to self deprecating geek titles, but I recently got to watch all of the first and only season.

The title sequence starts with Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation, a punk theme song about people not caring about their reputation. Then the entire show (sans one episode) has nothing to do with punk culture and follows a couple groups of teenagers who care about nothing more than their reputations. It does well to ground the 1980 period but has little relation with the bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin that the main characters listen to. To be fair, the angst of the song certainly carries into the show and matches with the famous pilot episode line, “Man, I hate high school.”

The series follows two groups of kids a few years apart: the ‘freaks’ who are the bad kids who don’t care about school and smoke pot and the ‘geeks’ who are the kids who are so nerdy that they don’t know how to be normal and talk to girls and get beat up a lot. One thing Freaks and Geeks should be commended on is the semi realistic portrayal of these archetypes. Sure the stereotypes are cheesy and overdone, but at least these aren’t your normal Hollywood movie geeks who are dudes that work out but wear glasses. No, these kids are truly *asking* to get beat up, and the older kids who skip school are real losers most normal people wouldn’t want to hang out with.

Still, the things the series does right isn’t enough to overcome the faults. The 1980’s setting is a cool touch and I get the sense that Apatow is likely drawing from his experiences as a kid but I think there’s a reason this show got cancelled. The storylines were obvious, the characters were unlikable fuckups and posers, and the entire premise was a lie. I found it extremely hard to relate to these characters and it’s very possible mainstream audiences felt the same way.

Sons of Anarchy

As far as action dramas go on tv these days, you’d be hard pressed to find much better than Sons of Anarchy. The premise is simple: a motorcycle gang deals with conflicts within and without as they trade in firearms and otherwise try to eke out a living in the small California town they control. The backstory that fleshes out the series has been well thought out from the start. All the characters are believable and there are real consequences to their actions. Most tv shows try to string out plot elements across a season to get the most entertainment value out of them, and while Sons is not completely innocent of this artifact of the episodic format, it does well to move important events along. Each season has a clear theme and they all tie together.

The story of Sons of Anarchy is so strong because it doesn’t treat the audience as if they were dumb. Previous history is introduced as if it’s always been there and all the characters already know about it, leaving the viewer to catch up. The downtime and family problems are nowhere near as boring as The Sopranos (and every show that has copied them since). Even the gunfights are not excessive and are well placed over the episodes. This isn’t your average tough guy action story- it takes heavy inspiration from Hamlet. Sons of Anarchy is a compelling action crime drama with a great cast of characters- you’ll even like watching the ones you hate. It’s no wonder because the creator, Kurt Sutter, played a large part in the other great FX series The Shield.

One of the shining things that stands out about this series is the sheer style. This is a tv show about bikers and attitude and that permeates every facet of production. Entire sequences of scenes are often accompanied by rock tracks giving off a music video vibe. There are simply not very many series with a comparable feeling. And these days, if you can stand out, you’re doing something right.

So now here we are at the end of season 4, carrying a plotline that could have ended the entire series. Still the creators found a great way to cap the season and leave a lot of room for interesting developments in the episodes to come. Do yourself a favor and catch up on the past 4 years. Besides Game of Thrones, nothing else on tv respects its timeline as much, and you shouldn’t miss out.

The Office

I used to enjoy watching this series a lot. I always felt like the American version of The Office copied all the right things from the UK program- the uncomfortable awkwardness when the boss tells a joke, the sideways glances at the camera, the pop culture references. All too often remakes don’t treat the original source material properly but this was a conversion that was done right, thanks in no small part to the lead role played by Steve Carell.

Over time the show did start to wear thin, however. The same jokes were retold a few times too much. The sitcom wasn’t immune to falling back to the usual relationship tropes and gimmicks, even adding new characters for a love interest after the previous ones got married.

And that leads to one of the biggest problems of the show- after years on the air, most of the characters are still nothing more than caricatures without personal affectations. Great, Jim and Pam are a kind of cute, dorky, bland couple. Dwight does stupid things sometimes that can be funny. Outside of that most of the other characters on the show aren’t all that fleshed out.

But worse still, the entire cast is just in place to riff off Michael Scott, the quirky boss. Pam is too nice to talk back to him. Jim constantly shrugs at the camera as if he were in on the joke with the audience. Dwight desperately seeks his approval. Andy awkwardly attempts to gain respectability. The key here is that all of these characterizations work as interactions with the boss.

As soon as Steve Carell leaves the show and the supporting characters need to take center stage and stand on their own, the entire thing falls flat. Nothing Kevin does alone is funny. Oscar never had a purpose other than being the target of politically incorrect jokes and remarks made by Michael Scott. Even Jim and Dwight start to seem forgettable.

It’s an easy call to make. It doesn’t take a fortune teller. This one’s about as obvious as when Valerie left her 80s sitcom Valerie and the producers had to change the name to Valerie’s Family. I regret to say it but The Office has officially jumped the shark.

Ghost Hunting Shows

What is wrong with audiences today? Why are there so many ghost hunting shows on tv now? It seems like every cable channel has one. SyFy Channel started with Ghost Hunters, A&E got Paranormal State, Discovery Channel created Ghost Lab, even the Travel Channel for some reason started Ghost Adventures.

These shows are like the specials you see on tv with some crazy person who devoted half their life looking for Bigfoot. I got news for you- if the cooky old sailor you’re watching actually found the Lochness Monster then you would have heard about it in the news WELL BEFORE the episode aired. These ghost shows are no different. But hey, if you want to hear sounds of buildings settling, someone dropping a spoon, or a scratchy static recording then by all means.

Ghost Evidence

And what’s with the night vision? Can anyone tell me why the explorers refuse to turn any lights on? Even in the few cases that they are in buildings without electricity, doesn’t everybody realize that film crews don’t need to use small flashlights to capture night footage? Ok, sure, some of these teams may not have full crews, but ask yourself why not? Do the big scary cameramen spook the ghosts? Or is it likely that the producers are more interested in creating a program that looks spooky rather than has any shred of plausibility or respect for itself?

My cellphone can take better night shots than this

Even if you believed in ghosts and thought that *maybe* some of these encounters out of all these episodes were genuine brushes with reality, what you actually get to see on video is not very compelling. There is no science, there is no proof, there is nothing interesting captured on camera. Instead viewers are asked to be satisfied with the same bullshit con jobs. A bunch of “experts” are standing in a room and get startled and say, “Did you hear that?” and they all run to another room remarking about how they feel an old and evil presence close by. Then they start talking out loud- “Hello. Can you hear me?” I actually heard one guy from Ghost Adventures saying, “I call to thee!” like he was in the middle of his weekly larping game. Then the spooked hunters listen to static that they turn up really loud and make crazy claims about it, satisfied at a job well done. How is this entertainment?

The Wire

After 5 successful seasons I am definitely late to the dance on this one but a recent romp with HBO Go introduced me to this gritty drama. The Wire actively attempts to showcase the less glamorous (and thus less interesting) parts of being a cop or criminal. You see the tireless and sometimes futile work the cops put in and watch them wasting the hours drinking alone in a dive bar, and you see the drug dealers just sitting around and not doing a whole lot that looks fun – they definitely don’t ball out. This realism is at the heart of the series – it is its appeal. But by design it is also what keeps The Wire from sinking its hooks into an audience immediately. It is certainly more entertaining than, say, the Sopranos because that show is just like watching a dysfunctional family have the same argument over and over again. I get it, the mom’s a bitch. To me, that’s not fun- I don’t want to worry about fictional family problems. Instead The Wire exposes viewers to the harsh grind of crime. But it admittedly drudges along at times.

It took a while to get into the show because of this. Contrary to the American tradition of melodramatic action and mythic characters, not much happens. When it does, however, the excitement feels like it might in real life and is easy to identify with. This isn’t a show about the bad guys getting what’s coming to them or watching happy endings, it is about getting deeper into the lives of the players on both sides of the law and seeing how they operate. When it comes down to it, The Wire is about the characters. None of them are so evil to not be likable, so good to be admired, or so bad ass to be in awe of. They are all just people doing their thing and it is this breadth of detail that rubs off on you. It’s hard to explain, but once I got that sense of what The Wire was about, it became almost addicting. This may explain why it was a critical hit because of its unconventional screenwriting but never attracted an overly impressive audience, but also why the series is suited to (and selling well on) dvd. To be honest, it might be maddening trying to watch the series once a week, but armed with HBO Go and watching it on demand is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.