There was a time when Sons of Anarchy, the gritty biker gang drama, flirted with greatness.
But today, with its 7th and final season premiering next Tuesday, that greatness is a distant memory. Instead, the most enjoyable thing lately about Sons of Anarchy is unpacking its succession of flaws: The dry exposition. The boring lead. The lackluster action scenes. The tendency to change the status quo far, far too late. Everything having to do with Ireland.
But lately, there’s been another problem, one once practically unheard of on television: Even at 42 minutes, Sons of Anarchy could be a slog. And yet, it often insisted on stretching that slog out even further. Nearly every single episode is supersized, running far beyond the typical TV drama running time.
Two of the 13 episodes in Season 5 were an hour long, and an additional three stretched 46 minutes or longer. In Season 6, the problem was even worse: The shortest episode was 52 minutes, and nine of them topped an hour. That meant more time for dreary musical montages, more check-ins with every tertiary character, more repetitive conversations where characters state their motivations and frustrations outright.
The supersized TV episode used to be a rare phenomenon, a gift for fans saved for series finales or holiday specials. But lately, networks like FX have given their show-runners far more free reign to experiment. And in the same way word counts no longer apply to the infinite expanses of the internet, Netflix has given writers opportunity to bust through length restrictions at their whims.
But just because an article can be 10,000 words doesn’t mean it should be. Remember the hour-long episodes of The Office, bloated and dull? Or the interminable early episodes of the Netflix-season of Arrested Development?
Or consider BBC’s Sherlock’s, where the extra-long episodes are just an excuse to meander down fitfully amusing rabbit trails or stage zany slapstick scenes with bouncy music.
Sherlock suffers two ways: It’s too short and it’s too long. Each season has a scant three episodes, but each of them last 90 minutes a piece. A typical procedural mystery shows often struggle to fill 42 minutes with interesting twists and character insights. And Sherlock Holmes basically invented the typical procedural mystery show.
Sherlock is not exactly CSI: Baker Street, but the extra length doesn't improve the show. Instead, it just contributes to lumpy, unevenly constructed episodes.
Sherlock frames one episode’s mystery nearly entirely through a boorish wedding toast given by Sherlock Holmes to dear Watson. The central conceit is that of course Sherlock would hijack a toast to make it about him. Then, in an attempt at sentimentality, Sherlock explains it is precisely the fact that Watson tolerates someone like Sherlock as a friend that makes Watson a wonderful human being.
Except, the sheer length of the episode drags the toast, and the story it frames, out to a length where Sherlock goes from lovably socially awkward to downright sociopathic at his best friend's wedding.
Granted, 90 minutes is positively sleek by movie standards. Yet television typically has different demands for its narrative structure than a movie. TV’s domain, particularly serialized TV like Sons of Anarchy, is the long, fat middle of stories.
TV writers have trained for the three-act half-hour sitcom and the five-or-four-act drama – give them more minutes and that structure may suddenly not apply. Supersizing an episode is like asking an 800-meter track star to take up the steeplechase: You expect them to occasionally stumble and get winded. It doesn’t mean they can’t do a fine job. But it’s not their specialty.
The secret, I think, to pulling off a longer episode, is not necessarily through a higher quantity of scenes or an increase in subplots, but through longer, more focused scenes. Many shows flit back and forth between characters, through two minute or three minute check-ins. But often the best moments are when the shows allow themselves to truly slow down, to savor the moment. Witness one of my favorite scenes of Game of Thrones this year, where Oberyn Martell, who hates the Lannister family like few others, promises to risk his life to defend Tyrion Lannister. It’s a moment that could easily have been shorter or faster-paced or told through flashbacks, but it resists that urge, focuses on the quiet and the character.
Supersized episodes, theoretically, could be used for more of these scenes. (Game of Thrones certainly benefits whenever it focuses.) Shows could use their extra running time to go deeper instead of broader or more redundant. In Treatment, the innovative HBO drama set almost entirely in therapy sessions, thrives with the slightly longer episode lengths. And that drama typically only consisted of one 30-minute scene per episode, with only two people talking.
The trick is having the interesting characters, motivations, and stories to fill those longer scenes. The fact that Sons of Anarchy often doesn’t have those – well, that’s a bigger problem entirely.
For four years, Doctor Who has been pure fan fiction.
That’s not a pejorative, it’s simply an accurate description: The show’s current showrunner, Steven Moffat, was once a little chubby curly-haired kid watching the old Doctor Who series and reading Doctor Who paperbacks.
And, in a fairy-tale happy ending, that little boy grew up and took reins of the show he loved so much.
Doctor Who, if you haven’t heard, is a show about a zany British-accented Time Lord, who takes his “companions” (usually an attractive female) on all sorts of adventures. Moffat, a writer on the show (and writer of the Emmy Award-winning Sherlock) replaced Russell T. Davies as Doctor Who’s head showrunner in 2010. Most people were excited. After all, Moffat had written some of the show’s best episodes.
But in the last few years, Moffat’s come under fire for what they see as a decline of Doctor Who. Critics say he’s sexist, that he’s too obsessed with puzzle-box plotting, that he hits his themes too often, that he’s made the show too big and too messy.
Taken individually, many of the points they make are good ones, but in trying to say that Moffat has hurt the show as a whole, they seem to forget how many awful moments there were during the Davies era. The worst, worst, worst of Doctor Who came under Davies: The two-parter with the farting aliens? Written by Davies. The terrible episode that ends with the implication of a character getting oral sex from a paving stone? Written by Davies. And while he didn’t write it, he pushed the main plot-points for “Fear Her,” the cringe-worthy episode with drawings that come alive.
Moffat’s seasons have been uneven, sure: But never so bad as Davies’ worst moments.
By contrast, nearly every great episode from the Davies era was written by Moffat. He was the one coming up with all the best ideas: Carnivorous shadows. Stone angels that murder by touch, but only move when you blink. A medical nanobot swarm that re-forms human faces into the visages of gas masks. In fact, sometimes Moffat’s weakness is too many good ideas. He tries to shove a dozen sci-fi concepts into single episodes and crowds out the impact of any of them. Even when Moffat became showrunner, he delivered, by far, the best Christmas serial of the modern era, using time-travel as an elegant way to deconstruct and reimagine Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Even the weakest episodes of his tenure have had great moments.
Look at this beautiful monologue, where The Doctor tells off a God the size of a sun, or this one, where he sums up the whole show by unreeling the scope and danger of the universe to a beleaguered dad. Both are from mediocre episodes (written by other writers during Moffat’s run) but they contain some of my favorite scenes.
Frankly, Moffat is just more creative. Davies relied on pure unimaginative scale to create stakes in his season finales, flooding Earth with a thousand Daleks or a million Cybermen, or a million Toclafane. Davies created impossible situations then easily resolved them with a magical button press, a flurry of techno-babble, or the gauzy power of love.
Moffat, for the most part, went a far more complicated route: He plants the seeds of the villains’ defeats in his finales far before he even faces them. The success of this tactic has been uneven, but it’s far more ambitious and fascinating than anything his predecessor attempted. Even the chaos and frantic nature of the show feel like they reflect the character of the show’s central figure.
Doctor Who is a show about the wonder and terror of time as well the wonder and terror of space. Moffat understands that, using time travel as a tool to explore the horror of old age and loneliness, to examine the redemptive power, not of love, but of memory. That’s a rabbit hole worthy of exploring.
One accusation does seem valid: His major female characters — River Song, Amy Pond, Clara Oswald — all feel cut from the same cloth. Remove the actresses performances from the equation and the writing for them often feels identical.
But Moffat’s writing of his companions, flirtatious and prone to sexually-charged banter, seem far less sexist than Davies’ writing of Rose Tyler, the companion who spent much of her time desperately mooning over the doctor. Some critics have accused Moffat’s female characters of too often playing damsels in distress. But Pond is much more assertive and foregrounded than her husband. Both Pond and her husband are damsels in distress at times, yet both get to be the shiny-armored knights riding to the other’s rescue.
Moffat is an uneven writer, sure. But Doctor Who has always been a wonderfully uneven show, all the way back in the days of black-and-white monsters with visible zippers.
It’s maddening that, with an American city ablaze with protests and police brutality, our national leaders think it’s OK to just take a vacation.
I’m speaking, of course, of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who took these past two weeks off when America has needed their outrage and comedy the most.
And so our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, John Oliver. Thankfully, on Sunday, Oliver delivered:
Oliver only has a handful of episodes of his new HBO show, Last Week Tonight, under his belt. But in at least one way – the 15-or-so minute rant – the former Daily Show correspondent has bested his former boss.
Nearly every Monday, HBO releases Oliver’s 15-minute exploration of an outrage on YouTube. And nearly every Monday, it’s dutifully shared and hyperbolically celebrated by numerous news outlets.
Here’s why Oliver’s rants work so well:
During HBO shows, there are no commercials. But few HBO shows (In Treatment comes to mind) regularly take advantage of the freedom that provides. Oliver does.
He has eight extra minutes to work with, isn’t saddled with the need to bring on a celebrity to talk about her latest movie and doesn’t have to stop every 10 minutes to let the network sell blenders or promote Tosh.0
In practice, the Daily Show and Colbert Report work more like daily papers: Shorter stories and more of them. But Last Week Tonight looks more like an alt-weekly — finding big stories few people are talking about and really exploring their ramifications. The deep dives are made possible, not just by the additional screen time, but by the fact that Oliver only has to do one show a week.
While his Ferguson comments have been widely praised, I believe Oliver's even better when he tackles more underreported subjects – like the scumminess of the soccer organization FIFA, the impact of Net Neutrality legislation, the collapse of the wall between news and advertising, the shady ethics of Doctor Oz, and the predatory tactics of payday loan organizations.
The Daily Show has its moments of unpacking undercovered and complex topics, exposing financial scandals or huge problems with the veteran’s administration bureaucracy. But because of the sheer quantity of material the Daily Show has to produce, they fall too easily back on montages of Fox News idiocy or political hypocrisy.
Obviously, Colbert, Stewart and Oliver focus on similar themes. But it’s Oliver’s tone that makes the difference. He’s not spittle-flecked furious like occasional Daily Show contributor Lewis Black and he’s not screw-it-all cynical like Stewart, and not satirically self-confident like Colbert.
Instead, his rants seem almost happy. And, that, oddly enough, makes them more effective. He’s pointing and says, “Check this out! This is so absolutely, mind-blowingly horrible, you’ve just got to let out a little chuckle. Ha ha! Everything’s terrible!”
Maybe his best moment is this one, where to soaring music, he summons the legion of the internet’s worst denizens, the sort who unleash vile rants without any of the irony or sophistication of Oliver’s rants, to flood the FCC with their complaints about net neutrality.
For once in your life, we need you channel that anger, that badly spelled bile, that you normally reserve for unforgivable attacks on actresses you disagree with, or politicians you disagree with, or photos of your ex-girlfriend getting on with her life, or non-white actors being cast as fictional characters. And I’m talking to you, RonPaulFan2016. And you OneDirection4Ever, and I’m talking to you, OneDirectionSuxBalls. We need you get out there, and once in your life, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction, seize your moment my lovely trolls! Turn on caps lock and fly my pretties! Fly!”
With a different tone, one less gleeful, you could see the comedy falling flat. Instead, it comes off as nearly inspirational. And it worked: Those trolls broke the FCC’s website. Jon Oliver, clearly, has just as much power as Colbert or Stewart to inspire the masses to do his bidding.
Take a moment, and you can find a lot in common between the Game of Thrones’ mythical Westeros and the TV series Fargo's equally mythical Minnesota. Both are lands of wide open vistas, where the specter of approaching winter is everywhere.
Both are lands of murder and mayhem. Both are places where notions of honor and masculinity drive people to do horrible things, where once meek chaps become twisted into devils. Both deal with violence against women — and basically everyone else. Minnesota's has its apple pie. Westeros has its lemoncakes.
In Fargo, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton, You know Him from Movies) wanders the wastes like a Midwest Mephistopheles, leaving devastation with a few choice words. He’s a tempter, a trickster god who gets his kicks from spotting a person’s weaknesses — their insecurity, their jealousy, their greed, their cowardice, their guilt — and pokes at those points like a bullying big brother until he just won’t stop hitting himself.
In other words, swap shotgun for a broadsword, and he slips right into the role of Hand of the King of Westeros, whispering poisonous words toward whatever poor soul is warming the Iron Throne. So too, you could see a parallel between the beaten-down, insecure Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, Bilbo of Bag End) and poor Theon Greyjoy. Both disrespected by their families, both lashing out in, stupid, stupid ways, both in way over their head.
In both series, injustice marches forward: Just as the noble head of Ned Stark is sliced from his noble body in the first season on Game of Thrones, the smart, decent-hearted sheriff in Fargo who might as well be Andy Griffith is cut down by double barrels in its first episode. Violence falls upon on the just and the unjust.
But the differences in the two show, well, that, as they say, makes all the difference.
For starters, Fargo has genuine heroes. Sure there are heroes that talk in ya betchas and doncha knows and uff dahs. Up against a bearded, smirking Lucifer, these heroes may seem way wildly outmatched. They're underdogs. All the best heroes are.
You have a competent policewoman, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman, Pretty Much Just this TV Show) struggling to solve a case under the nose of her lazy, unqualified supervisor, who just doesn’t want to make waves. Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks’ Kid) hardly starts as a hero. The officer is a bit fumbling, he’s scared away when Malvo decides to bare his fangs. But as the season progresses you can see him slowly finding his courage, slowly gathering the will to confront evil.
TV is already drenched in violence, nihilism, and anti-heroism. That’s what makes genuine heroism — good versus evil, instead of just evil versus evil — so refreshing.
You could make an argument that there are heroes, too, in Game of Thrones. But Game of Thrones takes pleasure in undercutting heroism wherever it can. The Starks are seen more as naive than noble. Ned Stark doesn't even get to go out with his sense of honor intact. He chooses dishonor over death and gets death thrown in for no extra charge.
Sansa Stark risks her life to show kindness and maybe you get a drunk thank-you and a kitschy heirloom as your reward. But that doesn't exactly take Daddy's head off the pike. Even the gift is corrupted. Sansa is just another pawn in yet another scheme, obliviously smuggling a murder weapon around her neck into a wedding.
Then we have Arya, a cute little girl who has decided now to serve the god of death. The little girl shoves a blade slowly, intentionally, through a thug’s throat. And we cheer, because it’s that kind of show.
Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf, manages to be mostly decent, despite indecent heritage. But here’s where the odd karma of Westeros comes into play. Every good act Tyrion does is followed by swift punishment. He saves the city, and gets a scar across his face, and a demotion in return. And now he’s tossed in a dungeon, seemingly entirely by coincidence, for a murder he obviously didn’t commit.
I suppose you could find good in mother of dragons Daenerys*, but her campaign of abolition comes in the form of fire and blood. And her actual leadership ability — to rule, instead of just rolling across the eastern continent of Essos like the Golden Horde — is untested. That’s our best hope, really, for Westeros. A world that ends in fire instead of ice.
For a while you could even point to Jaime Lannister, the anti-hero with a heart of gold. Turns out, we were wrong. It’s his hand that’s gold. His heart is a heart of a rapist.
Villains do far better in this world. A disgusting old monster like Frey manages to become old and decrepit despite a penchant for betrayal and lechery. Justice, after three seasons, comes to Joffrey, boy king of junior high sadism. But it comes, in part, through poison from a slithering snake, Littlefinger, another sadistic schemer whose wild Pinky and the Brain style plans never** seem to backfire.
Part of the appeal of Game of Thrones, of course is that cynicism. It feels gritty and grimy and in your face. It sneers at classic narrative. Yet I find the pathetic scrambling of Lester Nygaard far more interesting than all the cackling and finger-steepling going on at King’s Landing.
The best TV reflects on the human soul, and for most of us, pure cruelty or lust for power isn’t our prime motivator. Sometimes we’re good. Sometimes we’re evil. But far more often, we’re weak. That, people often forget, was the truly interesting revelation of iconic anti-hero show Breaking Bad, and it’s a revelation that Fargo is doing a much better job of exploring.
In Westeros, however, the sheer number of pure sadists, for whom torture isn’t just a job, it’s a calling, is problematic. Westeros has its revelry, of course, its wine, women and song. But the wine is poisoned, the women are beaten, raped and brutalized, and the song the wedding band plays is just the musical cue for the massacre to begin. Westeros is black set against black: Dark cruel people set against a dark cruel world.
But in Fargo’s Minnesota the evil dropped into a world of niceness. In fact, as this AV Club Crosstalk explains, that “Minnesota Nice” becomes a sort of barrier for the heroes to overcome. Unlike Game of Thrones, no one walks into the local diner in Bemidji and sees, oh, geez, there sure is a lot of raping going on right now. Instead, people mostly just order coffee. As gross as the violence can be in Fargo, it’s the exception.
The famous ending of the gruesome serial killer flick Se7en has Morgan Freeman saying, “Ernest Hemingway once wrote 'The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for'...I agree with the second part."
Yet Fargo seems to argue for both parts: Yes, the world is full of greed and murder and cruelty, but it has a lot of other things too. It has small towns with warm coffee and kind people that smile at you. Game of Thrones argues against both parts. The world is not a fine place. And increasingly, it’s not worth fighting for.
Maybe that’s true. But if TV has to communicate one message, I’d prefer it be the former.
*Helpful mnemonic for spelling Daenerys: “Dragons Always Eat Near Eagle Roosts, You Said”
**(So far, goes the perpetual disclaimer)
As always, I’m late to the party. I just discovered Veep this weekend. Back in 2012, I did take a peek at the pilot, but maybe I was just in a bad mood or incapable of laughing that day, whatever, I didn’t think it was funny. BUT it is funny — very darkly and satirically funny. Push through to the second episode and you’ll want more spitfire fictional vice president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and more jokes about how unimportant the vice presidency really is. For fans of The West Wing, this is the anti-Aaron Sorkin. Watch now.
— LAURA JOHNSON
The best Sci-fi (as opposed to Syfy), both comedic and dramatic, takes a basic high-concept premise — What if we could jump inside of dreams? What if dogs could be made smarter? — and follows it through to surprising, unexpected conclusions.
So in the Adult Swim animated comedy I’m rewatching, Rick and Morty, the idea of a love potion of course goes terribly wrong, and of course, leads the entire world to go lust-crazed after teenager Morty. But Rick and Morty takes that idea three, four, seven steps further until nearly the entire world has been transformed into praying mantis creatures, then worse, and then the entire universe has to be scrapped. That seems to happen surprisingly often in Rick and Morty.
From Community creator Dan Harmon and from another guy who’s somehow crazier than Dan Harmon, Rick and Morty offers a sort of darker, more booze-soaked twist on the Doc and Marty relationship from Back to the Future. They happened to put together one of the best first seasons of any animated show — or any comedy, period. It’s been a surprise hit, thanks to — in spite of? — Adult Swim-type stunts like putting an entire episode (split up into 15-second segments) on Instagram before it airs.
Many shows undercut their sweetness by dipping into sardonic, but Rick and Morty is almost entirely sardonic, until it undercuts that with unexpected sweetness. To get a sense of that tone, see this clip where Morty’s suffering horrible paralysis and seizures, a consequence of his latest terrifying misadventure with Rick. But Rick is so excited and self-absorbed, that all he can see is the prospect of all kinds of wonderful things, in the future, Morty. And so click right now, Morty! Watch the entire series, 100 times, Morty, at rickandmortyadventures.com, Morty!— DANIEL WALTERS
Mostly I’ve been making everyone else watch these songs/videos from Expo ’74, because they’re amazing and stuck in my head.
OK, moving on. I stumbled across this via Twitter earlier today, and it’s mesmerizing: deep-sea video from the Okeanos Explorer, livestreamed by the NOAA. Remotely operated cameras rove the sea bed in the Gulf of Mexico on a three-week expedition, and you can follow along in real time as they inspect coral and various creatures. The audio narration helps explain what you’re seeing at any given time, but it’s not essential. So you should probably just keep this on all day at work for the moments when you could use a little more wonder in your afternoon.
— LISA WAANANEN
Corrections officials have long used solitary confinement, as a "prison within a prison," to isolate and punish problem inmates. Intended to keep prisoners from hurting fellow inmates or corrections staff, the practice has come under renewed scrutiny recently as research has suggested long-term isolation can cause permanent psychological harm and new behavioral problems. In Frontline's April 22 documentary, Solitary Nation, viewers take a graphic tour through a single solitary unit, watching as inmates flood their toilets, pass contraband between cells and slash open veins in violent acts of desperate self-mutilation. It's a disturbing window into prison power dynamics and the thin line between punishment and torture. Prison State, part two of the show’s exploration of mass incarceration, airs tomorrow night.
— JACOB JONES
There are a lot of people who take videogame participation and creation, and thus critique, very seriously. And these people have some incredibly insightful perspectives on this medium of entertainment and creativity that’s exponentially growing each year. In the past year as I’ve exposed myself to the world of gaming more and more (I’m very much still an amateur) these deeper looks into the psychology and technology of video games have become a fascinating subject.
Specifically, I’ve been drawn to watching the PBS Game/Show YouTube channel. It’s hosted and created by former Wall Street Journal culture reporter Jamin Warren, who’s also the founder of KillScreen, a video game site and magazine that covers the “intersection between games, play and other seats of culture from art to music to design.”
In each weekly episode, Warren seeks to answer an open-ended question about gaming, often referring back to some pretty complex scientific and/or sociological theories. Sometimes Warren delves deep into the psychology of games — the future of storytelling, the lack of gay characters in games, racism and videogame stereotypes — while other times the topic strays toward opinions, with episodes like “What are the Worst Video Games Ever?!?”
The show is smart and thoughtful, and can be entertaining and educational for the curious, casual players and super gamers alike.
— CHEY SCOTT
Remember when The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama about a cable news network, mentioned the Inlander? Or at least sorta mentioned us? Well, that show is still slogging along and is still full of the sort of fast-talking, deep-meaning dialogue that makes some love it and others explicitly not love it.
And the awesomely hilarious Amy Schumer gives us this gem on last night's episode of her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer.
If you've seen even five minutes of The Newsroom, you should enjoy this.
This week SyFy announced it ordered a new zombie TV show called Z Nation — and it’s going to be filmed here in Spokane. Big Fish NW Talent is looking for hundreds of Spokane-area extras for the 13 episodes, and they’re casting for a “variety of sizes, shapes & colors.” Those who are interested should register with them here.
Z Nation is from the same production company that introduced the world to Sharknado, so expect a different tone than, say, The Walking Dead. SyFy describes it as a “unique new journey into the long-established zombie genre” that offers hope instead of “existential despair.”
“Z Nation will take viewers where no zombie has gone before,” showrunner Karl Schaefer said in the show announcement.
The show begins three years after a zombie virus swept the nation, with a team of heroes attempting to transport the only known virus survivor across the country to develop a vaccine from his blood. They’re traveling from New York to California, with Spokane presumably standing in for the “three thousand miles of rusted-out post-apocalyptic America” they must traverse.
Z Nation is expected to debut this fall.
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