(Welp. That was really not what I meant when I asked Elementary to give Joan something to do.)

Elementary and the Case of the Disappearing Characters

I don’t care all that much about Mycroft Holmes on Elementary. That is, I don’t care about him as a main character. He’s a good supporting character, with the potential to be great – he’s interesting for the reactions he elicits from the protagonists, and for what those reactions tell us about them. I like Rhys Ifans and his believably prickly-fond sibling chemistry with Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock. And if he’d been around a little more this season, I might even care about him more as a main character.

But he hasn’t been around all that much, and a decent portion of his appearances has been involved in this “slept with Watson off-screen” silliness. (Elementary, please give Joan Watson something to do. Please. I beg you. That’s a separate, but related, issue.) So, while I trust that there are more plotcakes to come this week as Elementary ramps up to its second season finale, the big reveal last week about Mycroft? Ok, whatever. I guess I admire the technical misdirection, but I found it hard to care. I wasn’t shocked – or, frankly, interested – nearly as much as the episode seemed to think I should be, only because I don’t think he’s been shown to be that important a character. He’s certainly no Irene/Moriarty.

It’s a weirdly common situation for Elementary, which has had some problems sustaining plotlines and recurring supporting characters this season. There was a promising middle stretch, when it seemed like the police department’s widespread resentment of our heroes, along with Holmes’ culpability in getting Detective Bell shot, were building to a larger, game-changing crisis situation. And then … that all sort of fizzled. And sure, I guess the writers could have been laying the groundwork for some sort of shocking dramatic showdowns in the next couple of episodes, but even if that happens at this point, I’m just not sure how much I’ll care.

The main problem is that the show seems to be getting wrong what it did mostly right last season. (West Wing comparison coming up ahead.)

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Veronica Mars: Music, many Logans and fan service

This week I’ve been listening nonstop to Typhoon, an Oregon indie rock band I first heard in the Veronica Mars movie. I have mixed feelings about the movie, much like I do about the series, but there are two no-holds-barred recommendations I’ll make about all things VM:

1) The music is unfailingly fantastic. I’m really enjoying Typhoon’s “White Lighter” album, including the “Prosthetic Love” song featured in a pivotal movie scene. But I also spent a good half-hour last Saturday rebuilding an iTunes playlist of all the music featured during the series, above and beyond what’s on the official soundtrack. It’s everyone from Tegan and Sara to Mike Doughty to Neko Case, and in the past decade most of it has infiltrated my regular playlists. Like Life, another truncated TV show with fantastic musical selection and coordination, the pre-movie Veronica Mars sticks in my memory in part because I regularly listen to songs that it first introduced me to.

2) The first season remains an excellent television series, which holds up even ten years later on a rewatch. I unearthed my first-season DVDs in the weeks leading up to the movie’s release, and quickly went from “watching them in the background as I do household chores” to “must pay full attention to each episode.” I have an ambivalent-to-negative reaction to the rest of the series – I especially hated that the end of the second season reached back and retconned part of the first, and I stopped watching sometime in the third season. But the first season was and is engrossing.

Which isn’t to say that it’s flawless, especially when it comes to Logan Echolls, the “obligatory psychotic jackass/suspected rapist” turned “sympathetic abuse victim” turned “bad boy fixer-upper romantic lead.” I enjoy watching Logan as a character(s), the acting of Jason Dohring, and every separate incarnation of his relationship(s) with Veronica – I just don’t buy that the same character could transform so quickly, so many times.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with the movie, as embodied by yet another Logan Echolls: it tries to simultaneously please and critique its diehard fans, and it doesn’t entirely succeed at doing either. Back when the series was airing, Rob Thomas told me that fans sometimes influenced how he wrote the show, so the fact that he wrote the series sequel to the same audience wasn’t a surprise. Nor do I really object to that — even when you take out the fan funding that launched the movie, who else is really going to care about these characters ten years later, besides the people who had very strong opinions about Veronica, Logan, Piz et al? (Assuming that anyone can have strong opinions about Piz.) 

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Arrow: The Surprisingly Feminist Anti-Batman

I’m beyond sick of superheroes, and Batman generally bores me to tears, so I can’t quite explain how I came to start enjoying Arrow, the CW’s TV version of the Batman-esque Green Arrow character. (Broody billionaire with a playboy persona? Check. Parentally-inflected vigilante quest for Vengeance and/or Justice, circle all that apply? Check. Humorless-lawyer childhood sweetheart who sees the world in black and white, and who’s played by a willowy, brunette Katie? Yep, that too.) Then you add the CW’s Abercrombie-model definitions of attractiveness and required teen angst (the main character’s sister is in high school but somehow runs a bar, at which she employs her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend? Whatever you say, show!), and Arrow should be a forgettable mess.

And the first season kind of was. But I started watching the second season, after a whole bunch of TV critics and bloggers gave Arrow a Most Improved Series trophy, and I have to say – it’s a blast. Here’s why:

-Its pacing is insane. Arrow hurtles towards all kinds of reveals and showdowns that I’d expect other shows to spend a full season carefully, lovingly arranging. (Cf. this week’s episode - spoilers, obviously.) I think this is most of why Arrow overcomes my superhero fatigue - yeah, it has all those tiresomely quirky, poorly-motivated villains of the week, but it regularly spends as little time as necessary on them in favor of setting up its season-long arc and having its main characters interact.

-It’s surprisingly, if spottily, feminist. Arrow hasn’t been kind to all of its female characters; there’s a lady in the refrigerator of this season’s supervillain, and you have to pity poor childhood sweetheart Laurel, who’s gotten to bounce between self-righteousness, bitterness, depression and now (sigh) pill addiction and alcoholism. (The writers apparently attended a Pills: Instant!Characterization workshop with the Nashville writers.) But Arrow has also created some super-compelling women, from the wonderfully smart yet well-adjusted Felicity Smoak, who gets to be the show’s conscience as well as its main voice of sanity and humor, to Laurel’s sister Sara, who survived the island with main character Oliver and gets to be a vigilante in her own right.

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Favorites (and parentheticals) of 2013: Books, TV, movies, travel

Most lingering book read: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I admired more than I loved — but I admired it a lot, especially Jennifer Egan’s ability to write a September 11 in New York novel by deliberately not writing a September 11 in New York novel. That day wasn’t an obvious plot device for Egan; it wasn’t recreated directly on the page, it wasn’t something the characters overtly spent pages and pages responding to. It was an aside, a memory of a breakfast meeting a few days before the restaurant fell from the sky, or the reality of a regular commute home now distorted by the hole in lower Manhattan. Egan let the aftermath, rather than the cinematic trauma of an event all of her readers lived through themselves, shape the stories elegantly, subtly, ordinarily, in a way that reflected life after September 11 much more than any other work of fiction I’ve read or seen trying to depict that day or its fallout. (Ahem, Emperor’s Children. Let alone Extremely Loud and Incredibly Manipulative.)

Best TV discovery: Orphan Black. Runner-up props to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which got me binge-watching YouTube in a way few regular TV or Netflix series have done recently, and Sleepy Hollow, which I expected to take the Revolution/Flashforward/generic-Lost-clone route to boredom and banality, but which became something much stranger and sparkier than I expected. (I still don’t pay much attention during the monster scenes, but the Abbie-and-Ichabod Show is worth infinite fake-history flashbacks and rejected X-Files monster-of-the-week masks.)

Best TV stride-hitting: The Good Wife, ad infinitum. Conversely, I’m still waiting for Elementary to live up to its potential this season. Bringing Moriarty back (yay!) just to make her more vulnerable — and vulnerable due to her feminine roles as mother and Sherlock’s girlfriend (sigh) — emphatically doesn’t count. Nor does having Watson sleep with Sherlock’s semi-estranged brother, though Sherlock’s reaction to that development (and the general notes they’ve been repeatedly hitting about trust and emotional intimacy and need for soulmates and other relationshippy words between the characters) seems like a strange choice for a show whose creators keep on vowing that their leads will never hook up.  I’m mostly indifferent as to whether that happens, though it seems hard to write a sustained drama about two intelligent, attractive people becoming professional, intellectual and emotional partners without turning it into a romance (or having your audience do that for you. Speaking of characters named Sherlock.)

Most memorable movie: Probably Frances Ha, which I saw late and after reading much of the hype, but which still surprised and delighted me in a way that Girls has never managed (and yes, do I feel guilty for preferring a movie that’s directed and co-written by a man to the series directed and written by a woman. Then again, I only had to tolerate Frances for 85 minutes. I gave Lena Dunham that time several times over before giving up on her characters.) I think The Pretty One also deserved more attention for doing a similar coming-of-age, girl-to-womanhood story with more whimsy and a wider view of its characters’ worlds.

Favorite travel experience: Out of a year that included trips to LA, DC, Miami, Chicago and western Illinois, South Carolina, Italy and San Francisco, I probably most enjoyed the pure vacation of my two weeks in Italy. But the immediate turnaround to San Francisco was my third and best experience in that city, which felt dream-like in the picture-perfect early October sunshine (and under the influence of nine hours of accumulated jet lag). I was a better explorer this time, spending more time outside of the tourist-trap hotel areas and the work meetings of the financial district (though I learned that not changing clothes between the work meetings and the exploring can lead to lots of questions about why exactly you’re thrifting in the Mission “so dressed up,” in what I thought was business casual). And I’m still not nearly as “elite” a traveler as I would like to be, but 2013 was also the year that I had fun scratching at the door of how to become one.

The Good Wife’s ambitious drama of the ordinary

Last night, The Good Wife put my heart in my throat with a file download. A file download! Somehow, watching one character watch her computer screen became anything but mundane, and set off one of the most tense half hours I’ve recently watched on television. And that was just the prologue to next week’s episode, which cast members have compared to Game of Thrones' bloody Red Wedding.

Watching that prologue unfurl has been ridiculously satisfying this season. You can hear The Good Wife's writers smacking their lips over their careful setup of several chained implosions, from Diane’s professional betrayal of Will and their once-solid partnership to Alicia’s poorly-concealed plan to follow suit. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the show's slow build to destruction after last season's game-changing final scene; I vaguely expected the first new episode to quickly raze everything and reset the groundwork for the new season's status quo. But there’s been nothing so quick or careless from Robert and Michelle King – they are taking loving, deliberate, unholy glee in how very screwed all of their characters are, and how very much conflict will spring from the choices those characters have made.

One reason I’m enjoying this setup so much, and why I’m looking forward to the next episode’s bloodbath, is that there likely won’t be any literal blood spilled. The Good Wife is one of the only current television dramas that relies on ordinary personal and professional conflicts to drive its story, without spies or zombies or meth dealers or fantasy warriors. Its characters’ stakes are ordinary — professional success and relationships of all types — and so is the fallout of their conflicts. I’m expecting that fallout to be devastating; I’m also expecting it to be one of The Good Wife's most quietly ambitious accomplishments. 

In a way, most current Prestige Dramas have it easy. Shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and Walking Dead and Homeland are dramas of the extreme; they place their characters in worlds where success or failure does mean life or death. I enjoy some of those shows, and it can be horrifically entertaining to watch their conflicts spill out into blood and death and bombings and torture. But that also seems like a cop-out compared to The Good Wife's elegant drama of the ordinary.

Yes, The Good Wife isn’t entirely realistic, with its high-profile law office and ripped-from-the-headlines cases and the spouse of a prominent politician at the center of the show. But it reflects an ordinary, present-day reality more than any other show I can think of — and it makes that reality compelling. I’m not worried about Alicia or Will or Cary or Diane being put in mortal danger next week. Nobody’s going to get beheaded or eaten by zombies or subjected to electroshock therapy; nobody’s likely to be in any kind of physical danger, not even the run-of-the-mill cop show variety. And yet I’m biting my fingernails over what happens to them all.

Catching up on The Newsroom: Two solutions to the Jerry Dantana problem

It took me practically all season, but I am now caught up on The Newsroom. And I’ll reserve judgment on the two-part season finale until part two airs (except to say that I am really quite tired of Sorkin’s humorless, righteous heroes protesting how “good” they are to the women who Done Them Wrong), but let’s talk a little bit about Genoa and the season-long clusterfuck of a framing device. Because it was doomed from the beginning, but it was only in the last two episodes that I pinpointed why, exactly, I had more problems with it than just the usual objections to flashforwards and how they undercut dramatic tension.

The season-long Genoa flashforward was a particularly unfortunate choice for The Newsroom, which already struggles to make us care about the stakes of its near-past setting. We already know the outcome of pretty much every story that Will McAvoy & Co. cover, because the real press already got there – but with Genoa Sorkin had the (good) idea to let us see how his fictitious journalists cover a fictitious story, freeing them (in theory) from the boundaries of a pre-determined outcome and giving them an opportunity to be real characters, instead of Real Doll versions of TV journalists. So of course he had to undercut them, and himself, right from the start, by telegraphing the outcome to the viewers and creating the same curious lack of dramatic tension that the show has when it handles Benghazi or the 2012 elections.  

And then there’s Jerry Dantana, the newcomer who was created out of whole cloth to come into our cozy nest of bumbling heroes, to lead them astray out of righteousness before actively doing bad things to them, and then to disappear at the end of this season. I was willing to give him, and Sorkin, the benefit of the doubt – right up until the scene where Sorkin shows him manipulating the tape of the interview. That doesn’t work. There are two other ways it could have, though:

1) Remove that scene and the flashforward framing device, and it works. Dantana as the outside villain is still clumsy but more effective – he shows up, he’s smart, he’s intense, and he’s not less righteous than the characters we know and love to loathe. Maybe he even gets in on the office romantic polygon for kicks and authenticity! We the viewers don’t realize until Mac does that the tape was manipulated, and we the viewers share the heroes’ growing unease after the story airs, and then their eventual horror at having been played into airing a false report of military war crimes. Dantana otherwise isn’t a cackling, sneering villain – he’s an abrasive, savvy newcomer who fits in with the News Night clan.  And when Mac wonders to Don whether or not she should trust his instincts, it’s a genuine dramatic moment and a genuine character moment, instead of an obvious case of the Writer Knowing All and dumping buckets of dramatic irony onto his characters’ heads.

OR – and I think this would have been even more interesting —

2) Jim did it. No Dantana necessary. Give the storyline to an existing and (supposedly) sympathetic character, someone we’re already invested in. Someone Sorkin has portrayed as a hero, as the goodest of good guys. Then the speeches about chemical weapons on civilians and military torture have the ring of conviction, coming from someone we know and are inclined to think of as being on the side of righteousness. Slowly build over the season to show his conviction overtaking his judgment, to the point where, when we see him falsify the interview, it’s inevitable and horrifying and earned, dramatic character development, instead of mechanical plot development. I think Jim would have been an especially good candidate for this storyline given his role as the scolding schoolmarm to Maggie – since their failed flirtation has apparently sent her down the rabbit hole to alcoholism and one-night stands and professional screw-ups and Africa-inspired haircuts (all of which Jim has noted and scolded her for), wouldn’t it have been an interesting parallel to watch him try to recover from the almost-affair by throwing himself into his work (without the Romney bus), and then screwing up to a much greater degree?

Anyway. I have liked some of the set pieces more this season. When Sorkin gets a good round robin of signature fast-paced workplace dialogue going, he’s hard to ignore. The women, though. Did we really need to see not one but two ladies, two episodes in a row, getting so emotional they had to punch the men who wronged them? You can just see Sorkin shaking his head: “Bitches be crazy, amirite? And bad drivers, Mac!” And poor Hope Davis, whose character has gone through about four different personalities in the span of just about that many episodes, got to go from Mary Jane Watson to a painfully on-the-nose “Lady Macbeth” in her last two incarnations. Did Will even break up with her? Because Jeff Daniels delivered that line with all the mild sarcasm of someone joking with his wife that he’d divorce her for finishing the milk and not picking any more up.

The Newsroom, Season 2 Episodes 3-4

Getting caught up on The Newsroom and … ye gods, Will McAvoy is The Worst. So is the Occupy Wall Street straw-woman who needs to be schooled by him. As a financial journalist, I’ve seen a lot of arguments on the presentation and messaging and leadership of OWS, and how they did and didn’t sabotage themselves, and how they were and weren’t covered by the media. I’d like to see those issues covered deftly, subtly, smartly by a sophisticated show about the news media. And Sorkin tried - you could see him straining to be even-handed and to have every character who interacted with OWSSW raise another part of the debate for and against the legacy of Occupy, but he shot himself in the foot with his persistent need to have Will Know Best, even if Will admits to being an ass while Knowing Best. Is this really what people were talking about when they said that Sorkin was getting better at having other characters call Will & Co. on their bullshit this season?

Also the worst: Jim, always. In so many condescending ways. And Grace Gummer’s blogger and her ridiculous regular Vassar mentions and her falling for his condescending ways.  And Maggie and her “Africa” trauma and her symbolic PTSD Cutting of Hair. And I generally like Constance Zimmer, but between this and Grey’s Anatomy last season she’s kind of specializing in playing the clear-eyed-yet-humorless bitch administrator character. (Though in the spot-casting department, it was great to see Julia Cho getting work - hi, Charlotte Lu!)

Credit where it’s due, though: Mac is 50% less incompetent this season, despite the awful recurrence of The Least Interesting Voicemail of All Time. And Olivia Munn continues to make Sloan delightfully watchable, despite some truly atrocious ongoing romantic pratfalls. Can’t wait for the sex tape episode.

popculturebrain:

notnadia:

Not cool, not cool, not cool.

Sad news, but if you’re looking for a solid, short series to watch I can’t say it wasn’t satisfying.

Disappointing, but I’m glad it went out on this season rather than on the first.

Why haven’t any bankers been criminally prosecuted for the financial crisis? Every time that question is asked, it seems to become more and more unanswerable.

I reviewed Frontline’s “The Untouchables,” airing on PBS tonight. It tries very hard to answer the recurring question of why, four years after Wall Street helped the financial world explode, there are no Wall Street executives in jail today. It doesn’t entirely succeed, but then no one ever has.

It’s worth watching; it doesn’t break much new ground if you’re like me and have paid professional attention to the financial crisis fallout over the past four years, but it’s a devastating story well-told.

“‘Frontline’ Learns Firsthand Why Wall Street Is ‘Untouchable’” (American Banker)