In the world of Breaking Bad and its prequel series Better Call Saul, bad things happen to bad people. They get blown up and poisoned and crushed by cars and choked and shot by machine guns.
But the thing about the Breaking Bad universe is that bad things happen to bad people even when they do good things.
Jimmy McGill knows this well. Jimmy, the future Saul Goodman, is not a good man. Not really. He has a long history as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” a small time con artist. He fakes his own heroism to draw clients. He ropes a kid into jumping in front of a car to try to cheat a woman out of her husband’s embezzled money. And takes money from the same woman to stay quiet.
But where Breaking Bad was a story of Walter White’s constant, nearly superhuman ability to self-justify his own increasingly evil actions, Jimmy recognizes his moral failings. He tries to fight against them in the manner of Rocky’s first bout with Apollo Creed – bloody, battered, but still rising to his feet. Having seen Breaking Bad, we know he doesn’t get a knockout victory over his worst self.
We’re just rooting for him to go the distance.
And so we come to the impossible sixth season of Community’s famous “Six Seasons and A Movie” promise to fans. The first two episodes launched yesterday on the stuttery, jittery Yahoo Screen, and the verdict is these episodes are: OK.
They are OK episodes of television.
Like Season 5, some of the individual moments, like Leonard’s Frisbee-triggered flashback to groovier times, or the Portuguese Gremlins ripoff “Knee-High Mischiefs,” rank among Community’s best. But the episodes as a whole have a lumpy, leadenness to them. The problem is not an issue of of characterization or tone, but of pacing. It was an issue in Season 5, but here, with longer episode lengths thanks to NBC no longer being at the reins, it’s even worse.
There are moments that are actually boring. Not Arrested Development Season 4 boring, but far from the no-moment-wasted tightness of the season two episode like “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” It’s enough to make me, a pretty die hard Community fan, think that it’s time for the show to graduate already.
Because that’s what college is all about: You grow, you experiment, you have late-nighters and paintball wars and blanket forts and love triangles, but it ends. You start a new sort of life, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but different.
To put another way, there’s a common business story: A local startup grows, flourishes, gets bought up by a behemoth of a company, which then shuts the startup down.
A tragedy, right? Not necessarily. Those creative people don’t start being creative. The end of a startup can often mean the beginning of a dozen others, and now they have the cash and connections to do something even grander. So it is with even great TV shows.
We’ve already seen this. Moment for moment, Dan Harmon’s animated Adult Swim show Rick and Morty is far funnier and more innovative than the last three episodes of Community. On Rick and Morty, a plot like, “Britta’s bitter about her parents” would have blasted through nine alternate dimensions, transmogrified her dad into a horrifying abomination and ended with either hugging or Britta twitching on the floor in incredible pain.
And here’s good news. The influence that shows like Community have on TV comedy is already everywhere. A show like the hilarious Man Seeking Woman gleefully dives into genre parody, like Community, but in a different format, for different ends. An episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt thinks nothing of ending an entire episode with a rendition of “Daddy’s Boy” a fictional 1938 musical that’s only referenced in a throwaway line. It’s why critic David Sims can convincingly make the case that perhaps, Community doesn’t really need to exist anymore.
It’s as if Community caused the rest of TV comedy to step up its game, and as a result, the comedic offerings on TV (and Netflix and Amazon) are better and more diverse than they’ve been for a long time. It’s not that Community in its sixth season is bad, or that it doesn’t have hilarity left to offer. To draw on early classic episode of Community, the problem is that so many others are serving up such delectable chicken fingers, that Community’s old reheated recipe doesn’t quite cut it any more.
So free up those brilliant chefs, and let them begin cooking up something different.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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