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.
In the age of improv-driven dialogue, so many dramas and comedies strike a tone by being loose and casual. We have hundreds of shows that feel natural and comfortable, like sweatpants and an old, ratty T-shirt.
But Hannibal, by contrast, is a tailored three-piece suit with a double Windsor knot. Not a wrinkle in sight, not a thread out of place. Absolutely everything, from its perfectly played banquet scenes, to its bloody tableaus, to the crisp carefully-phrased dialogue of the cannibal antagonist, is coordinated, starched and pressed.
It’s a show that recalls Se7en, if uncouth manners and untucked shirts were among the seven deadly sins.
In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter was a caged monster. Here, he is too, but Lecter himself provides the cage. He’s cautious. It’s not like he’s driven by a fear of being caught — it’s just that getting caught would just be a so guache.
But all that cold precision can be wearying. To me, the show was icky but impressive — like a circus freak that can contort his limbs in disturbing ways — more than engaging or entertaining. I’m not alone, either. Time magazine critic James Poniewozik kicked off an interesting TV critic discussion recently by tweeting: “I keep trying to make myself like rather than just admire Hannibal, so at this point I think I just need you to tell me what's wrong with me.”
In that first season, I felt the same way. Credit that dislike, a little bit, to my natural repulsion to gore and horror. Not only do I not enjoy the notion of movies like Saw, I’m a little frightened and judgmental that there are people out there who do.
But more so, I think, it was that so little of the show’s escalating despair, grime and tension was cut by victory or relief: Evil was strong. It consumed, in every sense of the word.
Good, meanwhile, remained Oblivious or Weak.
That weakness was embodied by FBI special investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy.) He has an empathy disorder that manifests — as they tend to do on shows like this — as a superpower of sorts. He’s able to put himself in the blood-soaked shoes of the most twisted serial killers. He imagines — in a visceral, visual way — them killing their victims, with every eye-gougingly gory detail and feels the pleasure they feel in doing so. It takes a lot out of him. It takes everything out of him.
The story of Season 1 is the story of Graham’s march toward madness, with hallucination seeping into reality bleeding down toward nightmare. Dancy played Graham with the bleary haze of someone who hadn’t slept in five days and hasn’t eaten in twenty. You fear an errant autumn leaf will lazily drift down from the sky and knock him out cold.
And as the season progressed, he gets even worse. He begins losing track of time, in the most literal ways: His consciousness begins to skip forward, a la the protagonist from Jess Walter’s award-winning novel, The Zero. Even his drawings of clocks are skewed, with the numbers sloughed off to one side, out of frame.
And frankly, it was difficult to watch. The madness ate away at the show. Insanity, odd as it sounds, needs to be grounded in some sense of reality for the viewer to connect with it, and it increasingly wasn’t on Hannibal. Our hero looked like he could barely breathe — and, no wonder, the show’s atmosphere felt suffocating. It was intentional. It was well-done. But it wasn’t much fun.
But then the season finale hit: Graham begins to realize exactly what sort of monster Lecter is, right about the time Lecter frames him for murder.
So in Season 2, we open with a dramatically different status quo. Now, the tie has been loosened. The sleeves have been rolled up, and there’s a drop of blood splashed on the lapel. Hannibal’s deft fingers are curled into fists, and it’s ready to throw down.
That’s because Will Graham is in prison.
Shows that put their lead in prison often struggle with the new settings. Sons of Anarchy put anti-hero Clay Morrow behind bars, when he really should have been killed a season ago, wasting time in a long-expired plotline. Justified’s weakest plotline in this often-weak season has been Ava Crowder’s stint in prison.
By limiting where the character can go, the shows usually limit the character’s agency. But Hannibal defies the trend. Graham now has more agency than ever.
It’s a winking role reversal of the movie that has long since embedded itself into the American canon: For now, Lecter is the hero investigator. Graham is the caged dangerous animal. He’s the one pacing about his cell. He’s the one being experimented on by the skeevy Dr. Frederick Chilton. And he’s the one pulling strings, manipulating others into position with a few choice words.
For the first time, he’s clear-eyed, full-hearted. He’s through the worst of the mental illness. He’s been broken down, and rebuilt. Yes, he still has those creepy hallucinations, but they provide light instead of darkness. They help him understand what’s really going on. Now, it’s a battle between equals. You believe Graham stands a chance of taking down the cannibal psychologist.
The paradox — free a character by limiting him — makes sense when you look at it dramatically: Were Graham free and trusted, it would not be difficult for him to defeat Lecter. To keep Lecter a free man, Graham needed to remain ignorant about Lecter’s true nature (which would increasingly defy credibility for a genius like Graham) or he needed a serious handicap.
Imprisonment is that handicap.
In a sense it adds to the horror: You know who the monster is, and you know he’s still out there. But who’s going to believe you? You’re the guy in the jumpsuit, the guy in a jail cell, the guy accused of murder. He’s the respected psychologist with impeccable taste in music, art and fashion — and a damn good cook.
But where Graham was up to his neck in the slough of despondency last season, he seems mostly free of despair this season. (Dreams of death by electric chair aside.) He can breathe. He’s buoyed by the epiphany that, while he may be crazy, he’s also crazy right. He begins to understand how much of his mental breakdown was actively catalyzed by Lecter. He makes his skeptical colleagues into his allies. He turns one of his tormenters into an unwitting tool.
Naturally, his increased confidence and willingness to manipulate comes at a price: Set on Lecter’s trail by Graham, one of Graham’s allies stupidly stumbles into Lecter’s lair without backup, violating the most basic principles of Don’t Go In There 101, and paying for it with her life.
It’s a dynamic more fascinating, and frankly fun-to-watch, than all that brooding and angst of last season. And at the same time, Lecter’s become more interesting to watch as well. With his nemesis/patient/friend kept under lock and key, Lecter is willing to take more risks. His dark playful side is free to roam — he turns another serial killer into a part of the killer’s own morbid art installation. And, in last week’s episode, the series reaches its peak with a bold, philosophically fascinating moment where, instead of playing a cruel god by taking life, Lecter plays a cruel god by giving it.
In a few moments in the first season, Lecter lets a smirk — smug, knowing, wryly sinister — play across his lips. This season, the smirk is nearly constant.
But this time, Graham is smirking back. And Hannibal is better for it.
Parks and Rec is amazing. You know that already. And if you’re keeping up on the latest season, you’ve met a new character who’s making the show even better. Craig is a transplant from Eagleton who suffers from caring too much. The hilarious manic enthusiasm of that character is similar to the persona of the actor, Billy Eichner, on his Funny or Die show “Billy on the Street,” which means if you like Craig, you’ve got to try Billy on the Street. Part game show, part pure weirdness, the show follows Eichner has he rushes up to strangers on the streets of New York and asks them a question — like “Who’s hotter, Britney Spears or Meryl Streep?” — to win a dollar or asks if they recognize a celebrity he’s dragging alongside him. If they don’t (or if they answer incorrectly), he’ll call them a moron and charge away to find his next victim. But with his joy and excitement, the whole thing is good-natured and strangely addictive. Start with “It’s Spock! Do you care?” or Lightning Round with Rashida Jones.
— HEIDI GROOVER
Just marathoned all of Hannibal, the creepy, kooky, all-together-ooky horror show from Clarkston High School graduate Bryan Fuller. Everybody, of course, knows the story of Hannibal Lecter, the sophisticated cannibal from Silence of The Lambs. But this show, set long, long before Silence, features Mr. Cannibal free, and largely unsuspected of being a mass murder.
It takes a certain degree of guts to attempt to compete with Anthony Hopkins’ performance that won an Academy Award, but Mads Mikkelsen does it by flattening camp and flamboyance down into subtlety. His menace comes from the slightest of smirks or a raised eyebrow.
It’s a show I didn’t really enjoy watching — it’s too gross and disturbing — but I can’t deny its quality: The show treats the vilest of gore with the same care for presentation and plating as a 12-course feast at a Michelin star restaurant. The result is an experience constantly threading between surreal dream and waking nightmare.
— DANIEL WALTERS
In honor of the 86th Academy Awards from last month, Kate Arthur over at Buzzfeed ranked all 85 best picture winners from years past and I realized that even though I thought I’d seen movies, I really hadn’t seen any movies. Thus began my quest to watch as many best picture and best picture nominated films as possible because, well, I feel like that’s a thing I can’t go the rest of my life without doing.
My first priorities were this year’s nominated films, which I thought were all pretty good, but my favorite so far has been All About Eve, best picture winner from 1950 and the movie Arthur had ranked in the number one spot. The thing about all these movies is sometimes they just don’t age well. The movie that won in 1947 (The Gentleman’s Agreement, which was interesting and one of the movies I feel like journalists should see but still not amazing) just doesn’t hold up in 2014. It’s unrelated and at this point the plots seem to contrived and sometimes just boring.
That wasn’t the case at all with All About Eve because I feel like we all can relate to wanting to do whatever it takes to make something of ourselves and accomplish our goals. Of course, Eve took it overboard at times but that only added to the film’s greatness. Also the movie is insightful in ways you couldn’t even imagine considering it’s more than half-a-century old. Just-out-of-her-prime actress Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis) says: “Funny business, a woman's career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster — you forget you need them again when you go back to being a woman.” Which is definitely still a thing these days. I don’t know why it took me 21+ years to watch it, but I don’t suggest you make the same mistake because it’s really that good.
— CLARKE HUMPHREY
Recently, I have watched and waited patiently for the original Starz pirate politics drama, Black Sails, to find its sea-legs. Envisioned as a prequel to the famous story of Treasure Island, the show follows a sprawling collection of scurvy scoundrels and cutthroat prostitutes throughout their various schemes and conflicts at the pirate trading hub of New Providence Island.
An oft-scowling Capt. Flint heads an interchangeable cast of appropriately dirty ruffians and low-lifes. But while the production and acting seem solid, the story often wallows in soap-opera motives. They don’t skimp on gore when crews finally get around to pirating, but the show usually seems more interested in getting in its weekly dose of nudity.
But, it may finally have some new wind in the sails. This Saturday marks the finale of the first season and the hunt is on for a treasure beyond imagination. Let's get on with it.
Also, the NY Times’ David Carr on the modern problem of too much good TV.
— JACOB JONES
It seems like everyone’s been talking about Twin Peaks lately. It came up with rumors of a revival, and then it’s come up more recently with comparisons to True Detective. (Even James Franco wrote about it.) And though the comparisons may be less compelling now than early in the season when it looked like True Detective might veer farther into the unworldly, the shows do have one element in common: atmosphere. So much of Twin Peaks is just weird, especially with the subtlety we now expect from TV dramas, but the sense of suspicion and dread in the northwoods is pervasive and effective. The residents of Twin Peaks say there’s something dark in the woods, but we’re already feeling it.
Twin Peaks is bizarre, creepy, uneven and ultimately unfinished or overfinished, depending on your perspective, but I can’t even fathom what it would have been like watching it back in the ’90s when TV shows just happened without a full response, investigation and dissection on Internet. (And, to be honest, my household got interested pre-True Detective through online discussion of the excellent animated show Gravity Falls.) The point is: If you haven’t seen it, or you haven’t seen it for a long time, you can watch the whole thing — all two, weird seasons of it — right now for free on Hulu.
— LISA WAANANEN
One great thing about HBO: It has the power to let main titles languish, unfold at luxurious length. No hurry. Stay awhile. Bask in our storytelling.
And sometimes, those main titles, those opening credits, tell you absolutely everything you need to know about the type of show that follows them.
Before you read further, I want you to watch this intro video, even if you’ve seen it before. Watch it several times. Listen to the music. Concentrate on the images.
If you haven’t seen True Detective, know that the plot is nothing special: Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are two mismatched detectives investigating a grisly crime. One detective — curmudgeonly, hypocritical Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) — is a type you’ve seen a thousand times before, though perhaps never played with so vividly and unsympathetically. And the other detective is a type we haven’t really seen before — a wiry, observant philosopher-king, prone to unspooling arcane and trippy monologues on the nature of life, the universe, everything.
Together, they investigate a grisly series of murders, as the show flashes back and forth from 1995 to 2012. Some on the internet have gone all Carrie Mathison searching for clues to solve the case.
But the case is beside the point. In fact, when the show starts concerning itself with plot — whodunnit? — that’s when it gets the weakest, ambition sagging into just another run-of-the-mill episode of CSI: Humid Trailer Park.
When its lens is satisfied to just explore the cracks and crags of these two leads, to navigate their environment — their physical, moral, existential environments — that’s when it becomes one of the best shows on television.
Watch those opening credits again. You don’t see much gore or violence or detective work, because the show isn’t about any of those things. Instead you see atmosphere.
True Detective is so soaked in atmosphere it drips with it like a sweat-sopped Sunday dress shirt.
You see decay and loneliness and dread. You can see it in the shot of Marty’s eyes, looking worried, even terrified, into the distance. You can hear that dread in the low voice and creeping music and dark lyrics in the opening credits’ song, Far from Any Road by The Handsome Family.
Hidden in the branches, of a poisoned creosote. Boiling sun. Fingers ran with blood. Looming shadows. Silver moon. Rattlesnakes unfold. Mountain cats will come to drag away your bones.
It’s ostensibly about a murder, like the central plot of True Detective. But it’s not about the actual act of the killing described: It’s the abandoned corpse, left to rot.
This is a song about a murder, yes. But it’s not about the act. It’s about the corpse. It’s about the passing of time, undiscovered as the body recedes into sand, and the bones are torn apart by wild creatures.
In this song, this is a desert of sand and heat and cacti and hissing snakes. It’s not exactly the marshy muck or oil-stained factories or the backwater backwoods of True Detective. Instead, the main titles give us what the show’s creator calls the “exhausted frontier.”
The oil-stained refinery. The church with peeling paint . The late night truck stop. The childless swing-set.
But the result is the same: These are empty, decaying places. They are, as the song is titled, “Far From Any Road.“
Most shows could illustrate loneliness with an abandoned landscape containing a solitary man. But here, in these credits, solitary men contain the abandoned landscapes. It’s internal devastation, wrought by a man’s mind instead of his circumstances.
A lot has been written about True Detective’s lack of developed female characters. It’s underscored by the main titles, where the woman are all largely reduced to bare flesh or unobtainable fantasy objects.
It’s a fair criticism, but the flat-secondary characters heighten the feeling of isolation the two leads feel. That’s especially true toward the end. Marty and Rust have nearly nothing but contempt left for each other. The eye rolls and muttered insults were just the beginning.
The credits set you up to be in the lonely shoes of Rust and Marty: He busted his lip, busted your taillight with your skull. You screwed his wife, but he’s only thing in your miserable husk of a life you have left. This isn’t an alliance of choice — it’s an alliance of what feel like the last two true detectives on the face of the earth.
There’s a tone of True Detective, painted all over the opening credits, that many critics have dubbed “existential dread.”
It’s a feeling almost captured by True Detective’s stylistic brothers: In the movie Se7en, the dread comes from the sense of pervasive evil — the world is a sick and sinful place, with a monster at the bottom of every box.
On NBC’s Hannibal, dread comes from the monsters, yes. But it also comes from the dread that, by fighting these monsters, by grappling with who they really are, they risk infecting you with their disease. It’s an expansion on Se7en’s final gut-punch punchline. On Hannibal, evil eats you up from the inside — if it doesn’t eat you up from the outside first.
True Detective has both: There are monsters so twisted that it sends a hardened cop like Marty retching. And there are hints of darkness growing, like, well, a poison creosote, in both Rust and Marty.
But the greatest source of dread on True Detective, I think, isn’t about evil it all. It’s the dread that comes with beholding one’s own wasted life, seeing all your hopes and ambitions withered, dried-up like a sun-bleached tobacco plant. Dried up like the bones in “Far From Any Road.”
Whether because of some damn fool accident or just because you’re a damn fool, you’ve blown apart everything that was good and beautiful and hopeful in your life.
It’s despair from regret, despair form self-immolation. Fire plays prominently in the main titles, licking across Marty’s face and Rust’s bare chest.
There’s some debate about whether Rust Cohle’s musings are profound, or a little like the sort of babble a philosophy major prattles on about at 3 am while sprawled across a beanbag chair. Like poetry, the difference between great philosophy and sophomore dreck is a thin one.
But I think it doesn’t matter. It matters because of what it tells you about Cohle. Rust’s flat-circular monologues and Marty’s drunk-on-masculinity fists do the same thing: Two ways of lashing out at despair. Nihilism and pugilism.
It’s why both have trouble resisting that fifth glass of whiskey. It’s why one repeatedly cheats on his beautiful wife; it’s why the other throws himself recklessly into biker-gang chaos on a hunch.
The main title sequence doesn’t “solve” True Detective. It’s not full of little clues that eagle-eyed Internet detectives can plug into their theory matrices. But it goes a phenomenal way to immediately proclaim and complement the show’s tone.
Here are a few other shows with great title sequences:
True Blood has a great title sequence, but one that promises a different sort of show, one centered around the intersection of sex and heat and religion fervor more than the pulpy vampire show actually delivers. Here, like Dexter, the greatness of the title is quickly undercut by the content of the show.
I’m a huge fan of the Mad Men title sequence — especially after learning that you can sing “Mad Men, Mad Men, Mad Men, Mad Men” along with the music — but in latter seasons the show diverted into subtler, more complicated meanings than a man’s precarious position and his relationship in the advertising industry. And we still have yet to truly see the fall of Don Draper the sequence seems to predict.
A short-lived, pretty-good-in-its-first-season action show features a heroic theme from Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary that recalls old action serials and movies like Indiana Jones, both references that set up the series nicely. It’s hummable, a rare feat for a TV score. The globe-trotting action-hero images have a hand-drawn, splotched ink feel, and work as a homage for a series inspired by a comic book.
Chuck’s a show about a nerds and spies — but they’re cool nerds and dorky spies. Drawing from Cake’s “Short Skirt and Long Jacket,” and sending the Buy More Nerd Herd silhouette through light-hearted feats of derring-do, told viewers Chuck was going to be fun, action-packed, and a little silly at times.
This is a controversial one.
A jazzy haze of black and white images, Homeland includes speeches from world leaders like Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and George H.W. Bush, words in a foreign language, inverted black-and-white images, and iconic audio clips from the show itself: A plane crashed into the World Trade Center… you’re the smartest and the dumbest f—-in’ person I’ve ever known…
But it works because Homeland at its very best is about dual sources of haze: The haze of mental illness of CIA officer Carrie Mathison and the haze inherent to spycraft.
And in perhaps the best moment of the series, the trumpets of the title sequence begin to actually invade the show’s score itself toward the end of the first season. Carrie shrieks out warning, yelling about the truth, because but nobody believes her. Because she’s crazy and all that jazz is drowning out her words.
The Wire begins with an almost impossibly narrow lens — essentially one case bathed in just-shy-of-impenetrable cops and gang jargon — but then pulls back on the zoom with each successive season. The unions. The politicians. The schools. The media.
Using a different cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In the Hole” for each season, The Wire shifts the focus.
The default of Community is a fairly bland sitcom credit intro. But for especially unusual episodes the credits themselves change with the theme: Halloweeny for Halloween episode, a Christmasy stop motion musical twist for a Christmas episode, Sergio Leone style for a paintball western episode, and Lord of the Ringsy for a Dungeons and Dragons episode.
Appropriate for the most ambitious, ever-changing sitcom on television.
GAME OF THRONES
In possibly the best title sequence on television, the camera flies over the map of Westeros, zooming in on individual cities that seem to be constructed with a series of whirring gears. Fitting, because on Game of Thrones geography determines fortunes, and the cogs of power are always turning, lifting one city above another and grinding up any who get in the way.
It’s also a show where a few mournful strings can set off a massacre — as the driving music in the background hints at.
The best part: the credits actually change as new cities are introduced and old ones are destroyed.
Last night, millions of people turned on NBC to watch The Sound of Music Live! on NBC. In Spokane, people were watching in particular to see local star Sophia Caruso as one of the von Trapp children.
If you missed it on TV, you can now watch the whole thing online at whatever time fits your schedule. Here’s a clip:
The show starred pop singer Carrie Underwood as Maria, and was considered a gamble for NBC since live Broadway-style musicals on TV are expensive and kind of old-fashioned. But viewers were eager to watch, with NBC’s highest rating since the 2009 series finale of ER.
Critics, though, were not all that impressed. The general consensus was that Underwood, while plucky and perfectly capable of carrying the tunes, didn’t really do so well with the acting. And didn’t have any chemistry with Stephen Moyer, who played Captain von Trapp. And looked not much older than the children, except for the frumpy dresses she constantly had to wear. (The actual Von Trapp family revealed they would have preferred Anne Hathaway.) In contrast, reviewers pointed to the amazing Audra McDonald singing “Climb Every Mountain,” and the skillful acting and stylish outfits of Laura Benanti as Baroness Elsa Schraeder. (The kids didn't get much mention from critics.)
This smart analysis about the science of anticipation helps explain why the show had such an uphill battle — people really just wanted to watch Julie Andrews in beloved Sound of Music movie they’ve watched over and over:
“On the plus side, you could tell Carrie Underwood and her costars were giving it their all; on the negative, the furniture on the grand veranda of Captain Von Trapp’s villa looked like a cheap patio set from Walmart, which was a major advertiser during the broadcast.
Perhaps intentionally, perhaps by clever accident, the producers dodged the biggest calamity, which would have been to somehow ruin the original by coming too close and yet not close enough. After all, it would have taken more effort than the Von Trapps climbing over the Alps to outdo the Julie Andrews classic.”
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