Monday, December 22, 2014

Episodes You Should Have Seen in Twenty Fourteen

Reviewing TV pilots is, in some ways, a lot like evaluating a baby. It doesn't matter if he'll grow up to be Neil deGrasse Tyson, for now he's a drooling idiot who keeps trying to eat his own vomit. Pilots are often the worst episode of a show. On the other hand, sometimes a pilot is all a show has to offer and after the first episode the show just circles the drain. So I want to talk about episodes that were really damn good in 2014 that weren't pilots. Here's my list, in no particular order.

The Legend of Korra - "Ultimatum"

"As long as I'm breathing, it's not over."

Avatar: The Last Airbender was quite possibly one of the more important kids' shows of the last decade. It handled adult themes in a way that was kid friendly and yet in no way watered down. The Legend of Korra is an excellent companion piece to Avatar, but for a slightly older generation. And yet it has been shat upon by Nickelodeon, its third season getting released with no marketing, then pulled from air halfway through its run, available only via streaming on the Nick website. And it's a shame because the third season of The Legend of Korra is the best by far. The fourth and final season, airing currently, is not bad but pales in comparison. "Ultimatum" is a perfect specimen of what Korra does best. It's mostly fun and fast paced, and yet complex, highly political events underline every moment, every choice. On top of that, this episode has the best fight scenes I've seen on television ever, in my whole life. They are beautifully animated, amazingly choreographed and staged. The represent everything that animation can bring to the table with martial arts and they do so without ever forgetting about the stakes that underpin the action. I'm happy to be able to suggest many high caliber kids' shows (Adventure Time, Over the Garden Wall, Bravest Warriors) that parents can watch as well. But The Legend of Korra is the only kids' show this year that is constructing a cohesive lesson on how to view world politics. Also, girl power. So much girl power.

The Good Wife - "Last Call"

"What does it mean if there is no god? How is that any better?"
"It's not better. It's just truer." 

Speaking of girl power and politics... The Good Wife! There's nothing quite as shocking as killing a main character in a TV show. Since it is such an easy way to drum up emotion and pathos, it is frequently misused as a cheap trick to cover up poor character growth or to mine some drama out of an actor's contract dispute. Despite being a personal top ten drama for the last four years, this year, The Good Wife decided to kill off a main character for all the wrong reasons. And yet, from the ashes of this bad decision, the writers for The Good Wife created an hour of unwavering emotional free fall, the likes of which I have not seen since Buffy The Vampire Slayer ("The Body"). What is most fascinating about "The Last Call" is that there is a very serious discussion of atheism plopped down in the middle of what is otherwise a very focused story about discovering the meaning of a dead man's last voicemail. I find that atheism is often misrepresented in TV if represented at all. Atheists in media are always either acerbic intellectuals or nihilists. Rarely do you see a woman with a family, and a job that has nothing to do with science, who simply does not believe. There is no reason, no psychological framework, for her atheism. She just has no faith. And after decades of shows dealing with matters of faith, it's nice to see the other side represented with the same emotional care.

The Americans - "New Car"

"It's nicer here, yes. It's easier. It's not better."

And speaking of struggles with atheism... The Americans! I've started pitching The Americans as "Mad Men with a plot." I don't mean to disparage Mad Men. Sometimes finely crafted wandering is enjoyable. But every now and then, it's nice to see a little story between all that symbolism and critique. And story is where The Americans is king. Each season is a mile-a-minute spy thriller, loaded with heaping doses of critique and satire. What stands out about "New Car" is just how many themes it juggles. American commercialism, patriotism, the futility of vengeance, all culminating with the tearful breakdown of a child who was caught sneaking into the neighbor's house to play video games. And it's moment's like this, where the stakes are relatively low and the setting is intimate that the show strikes its hardest. Because no battle, no global event will ever hit as close to home as... well... home. 

Game of Thrones - "The Mountain and the Viper"

"People die at their dinner tables. They die in their beds. They die squatting over their chamber pots. Everybody dies sooner or later."

And speaking of the futility of vengeance... Game of Thrones! Where everybody dies and nothing has any meaning. This episode is Game of Thrones at its finest. The fight has edge-of-your-seat tension, breathtaking choreography and nightmare-inducing special effects. The writing is crisp, the meanings, layered. And while it ends with a woman shrieking in horror, it also features one of the show's most triumphant moments. Sansa Stark, after seasons of nonstop torture, emerges from the castle, clad in black feathers, powerful, magnificent. It won't last, because nothing ever does. But for a moment, Game of Thrones has given us the kind of triumph you can't manufacture with all the special effects in the world. It is the triumph you earn. The victory you claim by passing through the flames.

Rick and Morty - "Rixty Minutes"

"Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody's going to die. Come watch TV."

And speaking of everybody dying and nothing having any meaning... Rick and Morty! This is the funniest half hour produced in 2014, without a doubt. No contest. It takes what is essentially a throwaway sitcom B plot and turns it into a mission statement. And it couldn't have come at a better time. 2014 was a decidedly unfunny year. Robin Williams passed away, Bill Cosby probably raped a lot of women. It was hard to find new things to laugh at without feeling bad about yourself. But not Rick and Morty. Rick and Morty laughed at all the bad stuff and said, "Not only is it OK to laugh, it is the only thing you can do." Not since Douglas Adams has a show mined this much humor out of destroying all life on earth. And I can't think of a time in the history of television when nihilism has kept a family together. Life sucks, I know. Wubalubadubdub! 

True Detective - "Who Goes There"

"Enough with the self-improvement-penance-hand-wringing shit. Let's go to work."

And speaking of nihilism... True Detective! I think I loved True Detective a lot less than everyone else. It's on my top ten list, so obviously I loved it, just not as much as the guy sitting next to me. The main complaint I have with the season is that it isn't as profound as it pretends to be. But not being profound is not a bad thing. If you aren't telling us a story about life, but instead just telling us a story about two guys and a case, it frees you up in a lot of ways. So, why do I love this episode so much? Rust says it all when he says, "Let's go to work." This is the finest hour of True Detective. There is no pontificating, no discussions of emotional turmoil. Instead, Rust and Marty go off book and get into some serious shit. And boy is it thrilling. Everyone and their mother knows about the six-minute continuous take, but what is more interesting to me is the six minutes of no scripted dialogue in what is otherwise such a talky show. It is just action, tension, spectacle, and dread. And in the end, what makes "Who Goes There" such a good episode of television is that all that talk of "touching evil" is just talk. Finally, here, we see the lengths Rust is willing to go to for the truth, for his obsession. It is hypnotizing and deeply troubling. 

Hannibal - "Tome-wan"

"Whenever feasible, one should always try to eat the rude."

And speaking of hypnotizing and deeply troubling... Hannibal! I honestly cannot get over how beautiful this show is. It is unthinkably pretty. And it has the greatest score on television - all sloshing water and bending pipes with the occasional brush of piano strings, haunting and murky. Season one of Hannibal was a descent into madness, while season two is a game of cat and mouse between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter. Of course, you're not ever sure who is the cat. Unfortunately, the season finale wraps up this battle of wills in a very stupid and clunky way, but right before the final episode came "Tome-wan," a moment of stillness and camaraderie between Will and Hannibal before it ends. Hannibal is very much like an epic poem of old, prone to hyperbole and meandering philosophical musings, filled with heroes, gods, and the Devil himself. But like all good epic poems, it makes a world of strange beauty that you cannot help but tumble into.

Fargo - "A Fox, A Cabbage, And a Cage"

"I'd call it animal except animals only kill for food."

And speaking of the Devil... Fargo! Fargo could have easily wound up the ugly stepchild of one of the greatest movies ever made, but instead it treated its pedigree as a challenge and rose to the occasion, becoming one of the greatest miniseries of all time and my favorite show of 2014. How it does this is honestly beyond me. The twists and turns, the humor and horror, all make a little clockwork universe too complex and tightly wound for me to ever really wrap my head around. At first I thought it was impressive that Noah Hawley wrote every episode, but after watching the whole season, I can say that no committee could have ever made that show. It is a singular creative vision, and it is a bold one. Though I can't ignore the fact that Noah Hawley had help from some of the year's most brilliant performances. Allison Tolman is a gem, Joey King is possibly the best child actor out there right now, and Martin Freeman deconstructs everything that has made him lovable in a long career of being lovable. Eventually, Martin becomes a villain so malevolent he dwarfs even Billy Bob, who is the actual Devil.

The reason I chose Fargo's penultimate episode is, like the show's very inception, it takes what seems like a bad idea on paper, and makes it brilliant in actualization. Shows rarely come back from inserting a "one year later" in the middle of a season. Hell, most shows rarely come back from inserting anything more than a summer break. But Fargo does exactly that. It skips ahead a year. Lots of things change, cases close, people move on, and more importantly, the Devil is now a dentist. Turning your biblically evil bad guy into a dentist may be the single greatest story decisions I've ever seen in television. And the Billy Bob really commits to his character reassignment, constructing a new look, a new demeanor, and a new catchphrase. Aces!

The Honourable Woman - "The Paring Knife"

"Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that in a room full of pussies, I'm the only one with a vagina."

Speaking of a miniseries with a single bold creative vision... The Honourable Woman! Hugo Blick's strange, dreamy, chronologically-impaired spy thriller. This show, despite having star power from Maggie Gyllenhaal, managed to slip right under the pop culture radar, which surprises me since it is very similar to True Detective. One mysterious (spy thriller instead of serial murder), two complicated leads (women instead of men), lots of philosophical musing (about politics instead of nihilism), and the same writer and director for every episode (except in this case Hugo Blick is both the writer and the director). Just take a moment to appreciate this accomplishment: a single man directed and wrote what is basically a six-hour film. The show is about an investigation into the very strange life of Nessa Stien (Gyllenhaal) as she tries, in her own way, to bring peace to Israel and Palestine. It's an unwavering parable, and over time Nessa becomes less and less a character and more and more the embodiment of naivety and goodness. So, predictably, she is quite thoroughly punished. The show manages to discuss politics without ever becoming condescending or preachy. It makes some rather bold assertions, not all of which I agree with, but all well thought out. The reason I chose "The Paring Knife" is because it is the final episode, so to see it, you must have watched every episode preceding it. Unlike Fargo or True Detective, the show does not have peaks and valleys, higher and lower quality episodes. The Honourable Woman is a straight shot, a rocket to the finish line. It's a new and fascinating way to make a show.

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver - "Episode 18"

"Currently, the biggest scholarship program exclusively for women in America requires you to be unmarried with a mint condition uterus and also rewards working knowledge of buttock adhesive technology."

Speaking of bold political assertions... Last Week Tonight! This show seemed, at first to be a knock-off Daily Show but missing the daily aspect. Of course, what seemed at first a disadvantage wound up being far from it. Giving John Oliver and his team a week to fully investigate every story meant that Last Week Tonight could do some honest investigative journalism into subjects not usually considered newsworthy - but very much lampoon-worthy. I respect what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are doing, but they are mostly just sitting on the sidelines making fun of bad journalists. Meanwhile, John Oliver is actually in the game, reporting on real issues that no one seems to care about but everyone should. Interestingly enough, the episode I picked criticizes the US embargo of Cuba which wound up being rather prescient as Obama is now discussing lifting that embargo.


So there you have it people - my favorite episodes in a banner year for good episodes. Strangely, while writing this I discovered an interesting theme that connects all these shows. It seems 2014 was the year for finding solace in hopelessness. And now that I understand this, it's not so strange that Rustin Cohle took over the internet with his cool disaffected nihilism. This was the year in which the end was nigh and everyone just shrugged and made another beer can sculpture.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...