Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How The Daily Show made the late-night talk show irrelevant

Posted By on Wed, Feb 11, 2015 at 2:51 PM

Oh, how the tables have turned.
  • Oh, how the tables have turned.

Hear all that wailing and gnashing of teeth? Yes, Jon Stewart, after 17 years, plans to leave The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

When I was kid, not having a TV, I used to log on to the computer in the mornings, and pull up a NotePad-simple page that listed the one-liners of late-night talk show hosts like Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. I chuckled lightly at them, but their insights didn’t get much more insightful than “George W. Bush is dumb” and “Bill Clinton sure does like young females.” 

This was what we had to subsist on for political TV comedy before Stewart showed up.

Late night talk shows were all about hanging out. The host basks in the laughs, lets the band play rim shots, he may repeat the punchline a few times to stretch out the laughs. The interviews are heavy on fluff and anecdotes and a few light jokes. That went for Leno, yes. But it also went for Ferguson and Conan and all the other beloved hosts.

But if late-night talk shows focused on leaning back — chillaxing, as it were – Stewart’s Daily Show focused on leaning forward. It was aggressive, ambitious, sometimes furious. It didn’t wait for laughter to subside before surging forward with the next joke. It delved into complicated issues that even Actual TV news programs didn’t dare to bore viewers with.

Stewart took over the Daily Show when I was a nervous, gawky 7th grader back in 1999. Now, as he leaves, I’ve grown into a nervous, gawky 28-year-old adult. My entire intellectual life, and that of my peers, has been colored by the Daily Show.

And so for us, the late-night talk show — the type Daily Show-alum Stephen Colbert will soon host — became obsolete. We don’t want lazy jokes and fall-asleep-with-the-TV-on rhythms. We want something quick, biting – even educational — and with the Daily Show, we knew it was possible.

Like any show, the cracks and seams of the Daily Show have shown after 15 years. With the occasional exception, the correspondent pieces rarely again reached the height of the Stephen Colbert years. Stewart’s outrage over Fox News frequently got repetitive, more fatigued than insightful or humorous.

But at its best, The Daily Show was newsier than newscasts and funnier than late-night talk shows. With Last Week Tonight, Stewart-protégée John Oliver took Stewart’s strength to its logical conclusion, diving deeper and wonkier and ditching the celebrity-talk portion.

Plenty will eulogize the still-alive Stewart for his Crossfire rant or his Rally to Restore Sanity, but neither, from my view, represented Stewart at his strongest. That would be Stewart, in 2013, repeatedly ripping into the bureaucratic backlog at the Veteran’s Affairs office. The bulk of the reporting wasn’t Stewarts, but his show shone the national spotlight on the issue it deserved. He could articulate the anger we should be feeling, without diluting it with News Magazine Gravitas. 

Before Stewart, it seemed like TV had to choose between the vegetables of hard wonky news and the cotton candy of late-night talk show comedy. But Stewart showed you could pan-char the vegetables in butter, toss in some diced shallots, sprinkle on some sea-salt and fresh tarragon, then squeeze a lime over it, and have something healthy, yet more delicious and addictive, than late-night talk-show fluff.

  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , ,

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Nightly Show really, really screwed up its vaccine episode

Posted By on Wed, Feb 4, 2015 at 2:38 PM

The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore’s replacement for The Colbert Report is off to an “eh, it’s good enough” start. The jokes are inconsistent, occasionally clever, occasionally predictable and creaky. But, for a show like Wilmore’s, jokes aren’t the most important thing. Truth is.

In one of his first shows, he received wild praise for bluntly tackling the spate of Bill Cosby rape accusations.

“People are innocent until proven guilty in the court of law, but this is the court of public opinion, and this is my show — that f-cker did it,” he said.

Good for him. As a comedian, he has the license to throw out the toxic “false-balance” philosophy of cable news. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for his show about vaccine fears last week. To his credit, his opening monologue was actually perfect.

“Parents are opting not to vaccinate their kids. And their kids are opting to get sick.” Wilmore joked.

“We ask the question, are vaccinations dangerous? Yes, if you don’t get them!” He dove into "how awful measles’' are, the silliness of trusting Jenny McCarthy’s opinion, and the absurdity of skipping shots.

“A trend! This your children’s health, not coulettes!” he roared. He pointed out how the false vaccine-autism link stemmed almost entirely from a fake study by Andrew Wakefield and how the skepticism over vaccination is a frustrating byproduct of their successes.  

Then everything went downhill, in a way that exposes a fundamental danger of Wilmore’s panel format.

Get it together, Larry!
  • Get it together, Larry!

His panel discussion consisted of two comedians; CBS News medical and health contributor Dr. Holly Phillips; and Zooey O’Toole a member of a group called Thinking Moms’ Revolution.
O’Toole has a purple sweater, gray hair, and looks exactly a wise and kindly grandma. Her age instantly makes her seem more authoritative than Phillips. And remember, for many viewers, a skeptical mom who deeply loves her son carries more weight than a thousand peer-reviewed studies.

Contrast that with how John Oliver illustrated the 97 percent scientific consensus about man-made global warming. Here, the consensus is even greater, the consequences are even grimmer, but Wilmore treats it as a 50/50 proposition.

Continue reading »

  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

An ode to Boyd Crowder, Justified's greatest creation

Posted By on Tue, Jan 20, 2015 at 4:01 PM

Justified was always a Western, right down to the cowboy hat perpetually perched atop the head of Raylan Givens’ head, the U.S. Marshal with a quick trigger finger.

Every great Western, of course, needs a man in a black hat to stand on the other end of Main Street, squinting at the high-noon sun, as our hero lunges for his six-shooter. Enter Boyd Crowder.

Balding, with the hair in his back sticking straight up, Crowder’s visage isn’t close to the Tumblr-fan-page worthy mug of Givens. He doesn’t need to be. 


After a mostly disappointing Season 5, one that strangely mistook deaths for stakes and blood for momentum, Justified hones in on the central conflict between Givens and Crowder. They grew up in the same shitty town, choking down the the same shitty coal-mine dust. One ended up an outlaw; the other ended up a lawman.

Boyd Crowder could be unarmed, surrounded by big men with big guns pointed directly at his face and still be the scariest man in the room. That isn’t because Crowder’s an especially impressive in combat.

It’s because he’ll start talking.

He’ll play the I’m-just-a-simple-country-fella card, even as his effortless loquacity betrays the mendacity of that particular conceit. He’ll swirl his monologue around like a tumbler of Kentucky whiskey, before drinking deep, savoring the sound of the words, swishing them in his mouth, letting their meaning hang for a moment. And then comes the burn.

Maybe's already paid off your cronies, and with a single word, the guns pointed at him turn to point at you. Maybe he’ll sweet talk you with a deal so persuasive you can’t help but lower your sights. Maybe he’s stalling you just long enough for Givens to burst in and force you to holster your weapon.

You got a sense that his swastika tattoo wasn’t a matter of racist ideology, but a sort of hood he could slip on to attract the right type of fools. Fools are plentiful in Harlan County. Givens has shot plenty of them. But only Crowder could make them dance.

Over the years Crowder's burned though a half-dozen possible personal motivations: Greed, envy, ego, control, the love of a good woman. None of those feel like the primary driver. There's something richer at play. 

Actor Walton Goggins previous defining character, Shane Vendrall on The Shield, ended in one of TV’s great tragedies. There, you got the sense he was more of a victim – a weak man corrupted by proximity to corruption.

By contrast, Crowder, even when backed into the tightest of corners, always had control. Yet, he seemed obsessed with destiny — driven by a desire to escape his inevitable, fatal end and helplessly drawn to it. It’s the same for Givens. Neither can escape Harlan. Neither can escape the other.

For six seasons, Crowder and Givens have been playing Harlan Roulette with each other. This six-shooter has six bullets, and this season one or the other will pull the trigger for a sixth time. 

(Justified airs on Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX)
  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , , ,

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What Empire gets about narrative stakes

Posted By on Thu, Jan 8, 2015 at 1:14 PM

Empire, a FOX melodrama about the behind the scenes hip-hop Empire Entertainment label, premiered last night to killer ratings. That’s good, because along with continuing this year's trend of broadcast TV kicking prestige cable’s lily-white ass in racial diversity, Empire is brimming with potential.

No boardwalk, this time.
  • No boardwalk, this time.

That’s because it understands how to establish stakes.

Stakes are the essential fuel of drama. You can have sparks from great acting and kindling from a killer premise – but without those ongoing stakes a show burns out quickly.

But — and this is what, say, most Marvel superhero movies don’t understand —  stakes aren’t about the possibility the universe might be destroyed. They aren’t about nuclear bombs or magic cubes or presidential campaigns. Stakes don’t necessarily come out the barrel of a gun or at the end of a fist.

They’re about desires and fears. What does a character really, really want really really badly? How much ambition does she have to achieve it? What does she fear will happen if she doesn’t get it?

It’s why the tension in Coach Taylor’s marriage on Friday Night Lights matters so much more than the out-of-nowhere murder in Season 2. It’s why in Parenthood, Max’s obsessive campaign to bring Skittles to the middle school vending machine feels so much higher-stakes than his mother’s half-assed mayoral campaign. It’s not that the candy selection at Cedar Knoll Middle School is objectively more important than the leadership of the entire city of Berkeley. It’s that Skittles matter so much more to Max.

Stakes come from characters, not facts.

Empire implicitly gets that. Drenched in egotism, the lighting, cinematography, constant music and every melodramatic line of dialogue drives home how much each character cares about their goals.

Halfway through the pilot, Empire Entertainment CEO Lucious Lyon, announces to his family and executive that he’s dying of ALS (despite the Ice Bucket challenge) and one of them will have to take over after his death. And so, like the princes of yore, there’s a dynastic struggle for the throne. Business and family and prestige are the same sort of stakes that powered a soap opera like Dallas. And they work just as well here.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has made the argument several times that, because of the lack of consequence for breaking social mores these days, modern realistic fiction struggles to capture the drama of, say, Anna Karenina. But Empire gets around that with its setting: In the music industry, image is still everything, and everything speaks to your image.

And the industry is dying. The empire of Lucious is in its twilight years. As the family fights for control, they’re fighting over dwindling scraps. To that add deep veins of anger running through their relationships. And to that add the context of racism, greed, violence, desire, and homophobia.

Empire’s not perfect. The final scene ends with a murder of a barely established character, exactly the duller sort of stakes the show’s avoided elsewhere. The flashbacks are didactic, sometimes painfully cheesy.

But as flawed as the flashbacks are, they pound home character ambition – and not just for corporate power, but for love, acceptance, revenge, and all those classic dramatic elements. Empire’s success will depend on whether it can stoke the fire of those ambitions, and keep tossing fresh stakes on the flames.

  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , ,

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bold predictions for silly awards: Today's Golden Globe nominees considered

Posted By on Thu, Dec 11, 2014 at 12:41 PM


In case you missed it, the nominees for the 2015 Golden Globes awards were announced today, and we're not going to let the opportunity go by to comment on the generally meaningless, highly questionable "honors." The only guarantee for people tuning in to the awards on Jan. 11 is that co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will be awesome once again. That, and that the voters of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will serve up enough booze to make for some memorable award speeches.

Some film fans consider the Golden Globes a decent predictor of the Oscars, but the same film has won Best Picture honors only four of the past 10 years. Granted, the past three years have aligned nicely, but this year's race seems wide open. While some with weaker constitutions will wait to make their Golden Globe predictions in the days leading up to the telecast, we here at the Inlander are made of sterner stuff. We're not only going to make predications based on our first look at the nominees — we're going to make them having seen few of the films. We're working without a net here, people!

We'll check back in January to see how we did — feel free to play along. Let's do it. 

The nominees: Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything
Prediction: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association loves to remind Americans of our racist history, so Selma is the pick over Steve Carell's fake nose, Stephen Hawking's love story, Boyhood's near-three-hour running time, and the man I'll simply refer to as Cumberbatch! 

The nominees: Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Jennifer Aniston (Cake)
Prediction: The Globes love glamorous stars who get a little grungy for a role. I don't know how much they liked Friends. Let's go with Witherspoon for her makeup-free job in Wild

The nominees: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Cumberbatch! (The Imitation Game), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), David Oyelowo (Selma), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
Prediction: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association loves to remind Americans of our homophobic past, so it could be Cumberbatch! But the members also love stories of people overcoming addiction and/or physical challenges. Hello, Stephen Hawking! I'm going with Redmayne. 
Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking
  • Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

The nominees: Birdman, Into the Woods, The Grand Budapest Hotel, St. Vincent, Pride
Prediction: Globe voters might recognize Wes Anderson's Budapest since they know the Oscars never will, but Birdman seems like the sound choice. 

The nominees: Amy Adams (Big Eyes), Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars), Emily Blunt (Into the Woods), Helen Mirren (The Hundred Foot Journey), Quvenzhane Wallis (Annie)
Prediction: Helen Mirren is English and gives a great awards speech. Emily Blunt is English and is in a movie with Meryl Streep. Tough call. Going with Mirren. 

The nominees: Michael Keaton (Birdman), Bill Murray (St. Vincent), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice), Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes)
Prediction: Whoa, talk about a powerhouse slate of nominees, damn! It could be a lifetime achievement award thing for Keaton, but I'm betting the Golden Globes would love to have Bill Murray give a speech on live TV. 
Bill Murray in St. Vincent
  • Bill Murray in St. Vincent

The nominees: The Lego Movie, Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls, The Book of Life
Prediction: Do Legos transcend the global toy market? I have no idea, but I'm predicting The Lego Movie will win. 

The nominees: Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Alejandro Inarritu (Birdman), Ava DuVernay (Selma), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), David Fincher (Gone Girl)
Prediction: An African-American woman making a movie about America's racist history? Make way for Ava DuVernay's walk to the podium! Especially because it would take Linklater hours to get there if he wins. 
Selma director Ava DuVernay - INDIEWIRE
  • Indiewire
  • Selma director Ava DuVernay

The nominees: Birdman, Boyhood, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game
Prediction: The Globes will find some way to reward Linklater for the remarkable task of filming a flick over a dozen years. He'll take this one.  

Let us know what you think of today's nominations. Who got the shaft? Who got an undeserved nod? Why should we have predicted the TV Golden Globes nominations? Stay tuned for either our victory lap or crow-eating session come Jan. 12. 
  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , , ,

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

As finale approaches, follow Z Nation's blood trail through Spokane

Posted By on Wed, Dec 3, 2014 at 2:40 PM

Survivors roll through Spokane, one of many local sites featured in Z Nation, as characters cross the country during a zombie apocalypse. - SYFY
  • SyFy
  • Survivors roll through Spokane, one of many local sites featured in Z Nation, as characters cross the country during a zombie apocalypse.

Zombie apocalypse roadtrip Z Nation, the first TV series based out of Spokane, finishes up its first 13-episode season this Friday with probably more of the horror, gore and cheesy dialogue it has served up all fall. Throughout the show, the Inland Northwest has stood in for the entire country as a colorful group of survivors has traveled from New York across the midwest toward a laboratory in California.

While the show has secured a second season already, it seemed like a good time to take a look at how the Spokane area has been used to represent the U.S. Most of us at the Inlander got together to watch the pilot episode back in September, but few have followed along with the series.

But I have. Born and raised in Spokane, my favorite part has been keeping a sharp eye for local landmarks and chuckling at the absurdity of some of the settings. So for those who missed out, here’s a selection of Northwest sightings in Season One.

Nothing obvious pops up in Episode 1, so fleeing quickly to …

Survivors cross the blue bridge in Riverfront Park. - SYFY
  • SyFy
  • Survivors cross the blue bridge in Riverfront Park.

EPISODE 2: Fracking Zombies

As the crew of zombie survivors flees New York, a wide establishing shot depicts the massive Tappan Zee Bridge in Tarrytown, but quickly shifts to up-close footage of survivors smashing through a group of zombies on the blue Riverfront Park bridge. The group eventually stops after jamming the truck’s wheel wells with body parts.

Hauling the Liberty Bell down First Avenue. - SYFY
  • SyFy
  • Hauling the Liberty Bell down First Avenue.

EPISODE 3: Philly Feast

Spokane really gets to shine in the third episode, in which the city stands in for Philadelphia and even includes multiple deaths by Liberty Bell. The survivors spend most of the show cruising back and forth down First Avenue, passing the Otis Hotel, KHQ and ducking into nearby Railroad Alley.

See photos from the filming, which shutdown traffic several days and repeatedly trapped one of our writers in her apartment. Characters also patrol down Riverside Avenue and encounter a hungry horde of zombies in what seems to be the alley behind Scratch.

Interrupting a zombie feast behind Scratch. - SYFY
  • SyFy
  • Interrupting a zombie feast behind Scratch.

Survivors flee "Philadelphia" (with digitally added buildings). - SYFY
  • SyFy
  • Survivors flee "Philadelphia" (with digitally added buildings).

Spokane seems to fall off the radar for several episodes, but maybe I just missed a few. Skip to ...


EPISODE 8: Zunami

As the characters cross country, a “zunami” or zombie tsunami, traps them in a small Nebraska town. They spend much of the day holed up in a mortuary, but as they emerge dozens of the dead can be seen walking downtown Sprague, a rural grain town about 45 minutes west of Spokane. It's a tiny town I know well because my grandparents lived there and I used to buy penny candy at Kathy’s Family Foods, long before the zombies took over the place.

Water treatment plant goes radioactive. - SYFY
  • SyFy
  • Water treatment plant goes radioactive.

EPISODE 10: Going Nuclear

For one of my favorite replacements, the Spokane Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility gets recast as a nuclear reactor site that has turned zombies radioactive. The bulbous treatment domes tower over characters in hazmat suits and the river even gets to make an appearance.

Downtown Medical Lake also makes a brief appearance during a walk-and-talk about the dangers of nuclear undead.

  • SyFy

A walk through Medical Lake. - SYFY
  • SyFy
  • A walk through Medical Lake.

Surely, I have missed a few recognizable locations. Several unique historic buildings pop up and a few scenes feature some of the region's distinctive basalt rock. You can catch up with full episodes here. Feel free to let us know about other Spokane locations if you’ve been able to pick them out.

Here’s a quick preview of Friday’s finale, titled “Doctor of the Dead,” which apparently takes us back to the Otis Hotel. It alludes to an explanation for the outbreak, but who knows what’s in store? Either way, I’ll be looking for more familiar places in Season Two.

And here's some of those places mapped.

  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , , ,

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why The CW gets comic book shows right

Posted By on Tue, Oct 21, 2014 at 5:00 PM


The CW is an easy network to make fun of. It’s often light-hearted soap-operatic fare, full of OMG and the occasional WTF. This, after all, was the network that gave us Gossip Girl, a show that ended with the reveal that Gossip Girl was actually Gossip Boy.

And yet, their superhero shows, Arrow and The Flash, are so much better than those on other networks, like Gotham and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Some of this is because both come mostly free of baggage for the average viewer. Most people vaguely aware of comic books are familiar with The Flash (he’s that speedy dude, right?), but he hasn’t been a pervasive part of the pop cultural world the way Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men have been pounded into our psyche. Green Arrow is even more obscure, though he’s had roles on Smallville and animated shows like Batman: The Brave and the Bold. 

This alleviates the terrible burden of expectations. Arrow (Wednesdays, 8 pm) takes place in Starling City and The Flash (Tuesdays, 8 pm) in Central City, not in Gotham or Metropolis. We don’t have to constantly question why Superman and Batman aren’t constantly part of plot lines, or why Iron Man and Thor aren’t constantly showing up to save them. Viewers don’t have to compare Grant Gustin’s performance as Barry Allen to, say, the performance of Val Kilmer, Adam West and Christian Bale.

In fact, The Flash had the freedom to somewhat reinvent the Flash origin story. (Particle Accelerators were hard to come by back in 1956. A lightning bolt and chemical spill had to suffice.)

But there’s a deeper lesson in these two shows, that very much can be credited to the CW. At its core, they’re CW shows, with all their beautiful people, love triangles, fancy clothes, nice cars and plot twists. The DNA of shows like Gossip Girl, in other words, has been spliced with the superhero's ethos.

CW has taken genres it already does well and dressed it up in superhero tights. A superhero show can’t just be about superpowers, just like Friday Night Lights would have failed if it were only about football. Superhero fights can barely sustain a three-hour movie, much less a TV season with a lower budget.

So on Arrow, Oliver Queen disguises himself as a rich, entitled douche to better keep his heroism secret. But this, of course, allows Arrow to spin out rich, entitled subplots that are interesting enough on their own. Arrow draws a lot on Count of Monte Cristo, essentially the original Batman story.

The Flash is show that, ironically, captures the light-hearted Marvel movie tone far better than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It has a Peter Parker sense of "Gee whiz!" and fun that Gotham never tries for and S.H.I.E.L.D struggles to balance with genuine stakes. Allen is young and gung-ho: The CW knows all about writing young and gung-ho.

A good test for any superhero show: Would this be an interesting show without any superpowers or action scenes? Is there anything of substance behind the mask? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is barely interesting with superpower action scenes. But you could take the Flashiness out of The Flash and have a decent twenty-something drama, or extract the Green Arrow from Arrow and have a decent one-percenter soap opera. Lengthy side plots in Arrow have nothing to do with the Green Arrow, but plenty to do with the drama between Oliver Queen and his friends. 

In a way, it’s no surprise the CW manages this challenge. After all, the CW is the heir to the WB, the network that launched Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Joss Whedon show that deftly grafted high school drama and angst onto supernatural battles. Buffy’s worried about slaying vampires, yes, but she’s also worried about prom and graduation. (Partly, to be fair, because prom is besieged by demon dogs and the graduation speaker turns into a giant snake.)

Smallville ran a full 10 seasons, partly by withholding a lot of the superhero mythos (flight, for example) for a very long time. But it also strapped it all on a backbone of teen drama, which surely helped. Soapy plot twists are far cheaper than flashy special effects.

That doesn’t mean that every superhero show needs to be a teen drama. If Gotham was truly able to turn into a more subtle corrupt-cop show, in the style of The Chicago Code, it could be sustainable. For now, however, it has cops standing around essentially saying “Man, we are so crazy corrupt, ain’t we?” Corruption is subtle and pervasive. It’s about culture, and Gotham struggles to do anything subtle.

ABC’s No Ordinary Family tried to turn family drama into its superhero show, but its family dynamics were so dull and pedestrian it didn’t matter. Give the folks on Parenthood superpowers (Max already has superhuman tenacity on Skittles-related matters) on the other hand, and that would be interesting.  And is there any doubt that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be better if it were run by Shonda Rhimes? (Rhimes is maybe the one show-runner who could write a version of Wonder Woman I’d watch.)

All of this, of course, is to say the secret to having a good superhero TV show is to have a good TV show, then just add superheroes. Even Batman can’t save leaden dialogue or dull characters. 

  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , , , , , ,

Friday, October 3, 2014

Why flash-forwards don't work on "How to Get Away with Murder"—or any other show

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2014 at 2:21 PM

"We have to go back to the story happening in the present, Kate!"
  • "We have to go back to the story happening in the present, Kate!"

How To Get Away With Murder, despite nearly every character acting the sneering villains the college comedy slackers would humble with a crazy prank, is shaping up to be one of the most enjoyable new shows. It’s got that shamelessly dramatic dialogue, monologues and plot-twists of the best guilty pleasures.

But almost immediately, it has a big flaw stuck into the very structure of the show: It gives us brief “flash-forwards” into a scene where the characters appear to be hurriedly covering up a murder. 

The flash-forward gimmick is hardly a new one.

How To Get Away With Murder’s device is an almost exact ripoff of one of the worst parts of another legal thriller, Damages. That show parceled out the narrative in the present with brief glimpses of the future — horrible things happening to an ambitious legal mind due to her involvement with a take-no-prisoners female mentor. (How To Get Away With Murder distinguishes itself by giving us glimpses of horrible things happening to multiple ambitious legal minds due to their involvement with a take-no-prisoners female mentor.)

It’s a device that’s been used in shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, and How I Met Your Mother. And it hurt every one of them.

Heck, there was even a television show called FlashForward that made this the entire premise – that everyone on earth sees a vision of themselves from the future — and it buckled and collapsed under the strain almost instantly.

The temptation for a writer to put a flash-forward in a pilot is understandable. It’s a promise: This is how crazy things will get. It’s supposed to be like your friend saying, "Hey, stick with it, the show gets really good around episode 22."

But flash-forwards ultimately are more like skeevy payday loan operations: They borrow interesting narrative from the future to spend in the present. And the interest rates are downright predatory.

To expand on that: One of the most enjoyable parts of watching TV is asking two fundamental questions: 1) What is happening now? 2) What will happen next? Yet a flashforward spoils the answer to #2 and makes the answer to #1 feel irrelevant. Both questions are replaced with “How does the story get from A to B?” (Or A to Z.) That’s not a mystery or an adventure. That’s a MapQuest printout.

A flashback is problematic because it kills narrative momentum by taking us out of the present. Why would I care about what happened six months ago? I want to know what’s happening now. But flash-forwards turn almost the entire show into one giant flashback. It cheapens what’s happening in the present by showing us the consequences.

Sometimes those flash-forwards are lies: They use unreliable narration, deceptive editing or trick camera angles to pretend something will happen when it won’t. But that breaks the trust between viewer and show, which greatly harms future seasons.

How I Met Your Mother had to bend over backwards to try to fulfill the many promises the show had made about the future and still surprise the audience. The result had the fans angry and revolting.

Other times, the flash-forwards are the exact truth, creating expectations difficult to fulfill: The reveal of Lost’s flash-forwards made for an iconic moment, for example, but the story struggled to fill in the gaps in a logical, satisfying way.  

Mind you: A flash-forward can work brilliantly in long-form non-fiction journalism.  Even novels, to a certain extent, can benefit from this sort of structure.

But a serialized TV drama is not a novel or long-form non-fiction. It is a serialized TV drama – and one of its biggest strengths should be its agility. The story is a living, breathing thing that can veer off in wonderfully surprising directions. A plotline that’s not working can be excised, a character can be killed off, a more interesting thread can be pulled. Most of the time, it’s not the vision of one mind, it’s a room of writers. Epiphany can strike and transform a show at any time.

Actors quit. Actors die. Ratings fall. Writers change their minds.

In some cases, a flash-forward can work within a single episode. A Breaking Bad episode opens with the serial image of bullet shells on the hood of a car, bouncing as hydraulics send the car up-and-down. It’s a tease more than a spoiler. It’s a poetic image that hooks and intrigues.

But Breaking Bad stumbled when it tried to create season-long flash-forwards. It famously began its 5th season with a bearded Walter White opening up his trunk to reveal a massive machine gun. At the time the writers had no idea what it would be used for.

The result was the worst of both worlds: The constraints of a perfectly planned show and the lack of foresight of an improvised one. Partly as a consequence, the finale to one of TV’s best shows of all time was, ultimately, disappointing.

How To Get Away With Murder doesn’t aspire to Breaking Bad’s greatness. But it wants to be surprising, fun and fast-paced – and flash-forwards make every one of those goals more difficult.

  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , , ,

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

NxNW's "Washington Grown" season premiere party tonight at the Magic Lantern

Posted By on Wed, Oct 1, 2014 at 11:01 AM

Stowell rib eye and gratin, a Washington Grown recipe.
  • Stowell rib eye and gratin, a Washington Grown recipe.

Washington Grown, a 13-episode television series highlighting local farms, premieres its second season with a preview party tonight at 5:30 pm at the Magic Lantern

The show was created by Spokane film studio North by Northwest, in partnership with the Washington Farmers and Ranchers. The latter is an organization that helps promote the locally owned farmers in our state.

A new "food journey" is chronicled in each episode, beginning at a Washington farm where an ingredient or product is grown, and following the goods as they travel to a local restaurant to be prepared. Spokane restaurants Sante, Luna and the Steam Plant are among those to be featured in season two. 

During the preview, the Magic Lantern is serving light hors d'oeuvres and drinks, because what's the point of watching a food show without snacks? 

Northwest Cable News airs Washington Grown on Sundays at noon and 8:30 pm beginning this week. Episodes can also be streamed online the following Monday after its original airing at Also on the site, find recipes for many of the featured ingredients and restaurants on the show. Several caught our eye — including Dick's fries and Sweet Frostings' cupcakes.

  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , , , , , ,

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes' shows are so interesting (no, it's not because she's black)

Posted By on Thu, Sep 25, 2014 at 4:56 PM


Tonight, How To Get Away With Murder launches, along with new seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. The same woman, arguably one of the most powerful showrunners on television, has her hands in all three: Shonda Rhimes.

Last week, that Rhimes got a lot of unanticipated press when New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley began her column on Rhimes with a line, “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.'” She continued to talk about how, in her show, Rhimes rises above that stereotype, reinvents and reclaims it.

Numerous critics, viewers and even Rhimes herself cried foul, concentrating on how the column was racially insensitive.

But it wasn’t bad TV criticism just because it was racially insensitive. It was racially insensitive because it was bad TV criticism. (New York Times TV critics do not have the strongest record.) 

In other words, a show like Key and Peele channels and subverts racial stereotypes every week, and there would be nothing wrong about pointing that out (including the stereotype of the Angry Black Man.)

But here, Stanley got Rhimes completely wrong. Anger and race isn’t what makes her interesting. No, she’s interesting for the way she deals with the entire range of emotions with characters of all races, genders and sexual orientations.

That Stanley honed in on single stereotype that did not represent the the thrust of her work – that’s what was racially offensive.

Yes, Rhimes' shows sometimes thrive on anger. But that’s just one color in her palette that she uses to paint bright, vivid, sometimes absurd and surreal TV shows.

I often refer to them as "Strong Woman Crying" shows, but that isn't meant to be an insult. In many shows, Strong Woman is a synonym for Dull Woman. She understands that men and women can be strong and competent, but also weak, brittle, ill-tempered and foolish. And that is where drama often comes from. At times it drags the show down, makes it repetitive and exhausting. Other times, it invigorates the show, injects it with an unhinged kind of energy. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched Grey’s Anatomy (appropriately timed trivia fact: Katherine Heigl’s Izzie Stevens character was a graduate of the University of Washington school of medicine.) But from what I remember of Grey’s, it was infused with the same sort of wonderful over-the-top style as Scandal

Yes, they all have lots of plot twists and life-or-death moments, but that’s not what invigorates them. It’s this overpowering sense of momentum and emotion and desire that sends characters hurtling in wild directions.

It’s melodrama, yes. It’s soap opera, yes. But neither of those things are bad things when they’re executed skillfully. And if nothing else, Rhimes knows what she’s doing.

Stylistically, she’s maybe the closest match to West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, with her tendency to have characters deliver hyper-articulate barnburner speeches at the drop of a hat. But where the passion in Sorkin’s comes through wonkery – a Great Man standing before a podium and firing off rat-a-tat-tat statistics and studies to decimate his doofus of an opponent – Rhimes' monologues are almost entirely about emotional desire. They’re the equivalent of an “I Want” song from a musical: One character stands before the other, and the words just come spilling out with rhythms and beats and crescendos. 

These are the sorts of monologues that we fantasize about delivering to the people we care about most, telling them why we love them or telling them why we hate them. It’s a pep talk, telling them that the whole world is counting on them. It’s the tell-off speech, telling them they screwed up royally and it will cost them every single thing they’ve ever wanted. It's ultimatum as music. These are the climactic epic monologues that most movies get one of. Rhimes throws them out in nearly every single episode.

(Life lesson: In my experience, Rhimes-style Choose Me monologues are sadly not nearly as effective in romantic relationships as in real life.)

And it’s here that actors like Jeff Perry get a chance to show us some of TV’s best acting. It’s here where politically infused shows like 24 and House of Cards could take a lesson. Political drama isn’t about talking points. It’s about the motivations and desire behind it all.

A show like The Good Wife does a much better job at portraying actual adult relationships, where things like duty and family actually matter, where the right choice often means repressing all those emotions. But, like musicals, like poetry, the unrealism in Scandal is there to speak to a deeper reality, to how feelings really feel, stripped away from all that sense and rationality.

So, no, her characters don’t act like adults. But neither do our hearts and minds and guts. She captures that uncivilized adolescent id inside us all. We humans are whiny. We humans are angry. We’re overcome with desire and depression and anxiety and burning passion and self-destruction, though we manage to make the right choices in the end. Most of us. Usually.

Rhimes’ characters mostly don’t. Even a character like Olivia Pope, a paragon of intellect and competence, can’t stop her desires from sabotaging her life in every way.

That isn’t exclusively a female thing, by the way. Practically every character in Scandal follows his or her heart, and other body parts, into stupid, stupid places. But that’s the beauty of it. That’s the fun, and insight, of visiting that what-if world of unrealistic plot twists and unrealistic speeches.

It has nothing to do with being angry. It has nothing to do with being black. It has everything to do with knowing what it’s like, in our most heightened, insane moments, to be human.

  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , , ,

Today | Tue | Wed | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun
Northwest Bach Festival

Northwest Bach Festival @ Spokane

Through March 8

All of today's events | Staff Picks

Recent Comments

Top Topics in Bloglander

News (136)

What's Up? (62)

Music (45)

Culture (30)

Sports (28)

© 2015 Inlander
Website powered by Foundation