The Oscar nods came out this morning just before I went to press (always wanted to say that, though online it doesn’t really apply), and they seem to be in line with expectations. Lots of Gravity, lots of Slave, lots of Hustle, lots of Wolf. I hope to spend a bit of the next month and a half familiarizing myself with the competitors, but for the moment, let’s reflect on a busy start to the TV week, as two Fall seasons pass their midway points, one new season finds its footing and another pulls the rug out from beneath both its characters and its audience.
How I Met Your Mother – “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment at Slapmarra” Season 9, Ep. 13 (CBS)
This episode would seem to be a textbook mid-season water-treader if not for the radically compressed timeframe of HIMYM’s final season. Even though there are less than 10 episodes of HIMYM left, and the mother is still to be met, it’s reasonable, given the show’s track record, to expect almost every time-tested trope of the several thousand attempted over the course of the show’s nine seasons to be trotted out over this long wedding weekend for one final victory lap. “Slapsgiving 3” resurrects the famous “Slap Bet” storyline, wherein Marshall can slap Barney as hard as possible without provocation (except for the obvious fun factor of slapping Barney) a finite number of times. As the episode begins, Marshall is down to two slaps remaining, and Barney, who had been periodically terrorized in anticipation of the previous slaps, now professes his immunity to the whole concept. This spurs Marshall to tell tales of the year he spent in Shanghai, China preparing himself mentally and physically to maximize this latest slap’s impact. Little by little, Barney’s façade cracks, even as he recognizes and objects to the absurdity of Marshall’s story, which is couched in terms of a grueling year’s training with three legendary slap masters (played in flashback by Robin, Lily and Ted) straight out of a Shaw Brothers kung-fu movie or Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The idea, while amusing, lost steam for me pretty quickly, and the slap itself was anticlimactic. I did enjoy the running gag of the other three members of the group agreeing over Barney’s protestations with every looney word that came out of Marshall’s mouth though.
Archer – “White Elephant” Season 5, Ep. 1 (FX) minor SPOILER ALERT!!!
Archer has never been a series the least bit tentative to “go there”, no matter where “there” might be at a given moment. Outer space? An undersea military compound? An honest-to-God pirate island? Check x3. Do we prevent assassinations? Perform assassinations? Survive attacks by both Mexican coyotes and Canadian mounties? Battle a frigging cyborg? Have a relationship with one? Check x6. In the fifth season premiere, however, creator Adam Reed does the one thing nobody might really have expected: he blows up the ISIS spy headquarters, and, with it, the established premise of the show. Equal parts disorientation and hysterical fun, “White Elephant” tracks the dysfunctional work family as the FBI, who has arrested the entire drunken lot for a laundry list of crimes high and petty, interrogates and attempts to get them to turn on one another, which the former ISIS team does gleefully. The writing and editing in this sequence – as well as in a closing sort of group-think fever dream that runs through an escalating series of absurd future adventures as the team imagines its life after spying – work in perfect tandem. The two sequences are totally unhinged and utterly delightful. ISIS, may it rest in peace, was always a third-rate spy operation, populated by venal, apathetic, self-obsessed agents who were simultaneously excellent and shockingly incompetent at their jobs. That group survived the blast not only intact but also apparently content to set up a new kind of shop together, starting next week. After all they’ve been and put each other through, this says all you need to know about the group’s collective intelligence, but the decision overall speaks volumes about Adam Reed’s. Nobody tuned in to Archer because it was a spy show to begin with, and now it’s not anymore. The possibilities, as reflected in that dizzying final montage of future paths, pitfalls and outcomes, seem endless, and on a show as unafraid to “go there” as this one, that’s legitimately exciting.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “The Bet” Season 1, Ep. 13 (FOX) minor SPOILER ALERT!!!
Rival detectives Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago were set up as probable romantic foils way back in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s pilot, the only clunky element in an introduction that was immediately engaging and silky smooth otherwise. In the intervening episodes, the show has dialed back their romantic tension to sub-audible levels and introduced much more of a bickering brother/sister dynamic. Also introduced in the pilot was the concept of their running bet, where the detective with the most felony arrests in a year would win something precious from the other (for Santiago, Peralta’s awful car, which she ostensibly intended to destroy, and for Peralta, the chance to take Santiago on a truly awful date, just because). No opposite sex tandem on TV spars with each other as much as these two do without it leading somewhere extracurricular, however, so the idea that there might be more between them is in no way a surprise. As rushed as the reintroduction of this romantic angle might seem, though, the way it’s handled, with the two increasingly comfortable and talking alone on a rooftop as they stake out the probable tiebreaker arrest for their bet, is very sweet and well done, as are various other touches (Holt’s offer to relieve them, Peralta’s response and Santiago’s later reaction to discovering it, the two leveling with each other over the stakes of the bet). I’m hopeful that the development of this sudden romantic tangent doesn’t steal undue focus from the rest of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, because its supporting cast is so varied, well-defined and awesome, often overshadowing freshly minted Golden Globe winner Andy Samberg (who, it bears stating, has a star credit but an ensemble mindset), but just because this sort of thing has been the creaky backbone of countless other shows, that doesn’t mean that thoughtful writing can’t make it sing anew. With their Parks & Recreation pedigree, I think I’ll trust this crew to do things the right way.
Justified – “The Kids Aren’t All Right” Season 5, Ep. 2 (FX)
I counted ten murders in last Tuesday’s season premiere of Justified, which seemed a bit excessive to me, even for this show. I found myself worrying that either the creative minds behind the series or just the characters themselves were starting to get seriously sloppy. It was table-setting, sure, and in Harlan, KY even family dinners have the potential for carnage, but I still thought it smacked of lazy writing. This week’s episode 2 largely rights the ship by focusing more on the show’s two principals – laconic quick-draw Marshall Raylan Givens and backwoods master criminal Boyd Crowder – than on the various nefarious around them, while still somehow swelling their numbers. That’ll just be more folks to kill later. It’s interesting to see Boyd having to think himself out of a procession of tight corners, dealing with disgruntled employees, heel-dragging drug suppliers, and the fallout from his continued efforts to help his imprisoned wife by any means necessary, not to mention the ticking clock of her impending trial. To that end, it turns out that last week’s body count was, in fact, nine dead, one in a coma, and the witness to the attempted murder recants then comes calling, seeking to cut a deal with whoever offers the sweeter package. It appears Boyd now also has a definitely disgruntled, borderline psychotic, likely crooked, cop to deal with, a fairly fresh villain of a type the show hasn’t really offered before. On the white hat front, Raylan gets dragged back into the life of his teenaged former charge Loretta, whose dalliances with a stupid high school dope dealer have put them both at risk from serious criminals when a cache of their drug money goes missing. Raylan has a well-written, minor classic exchange with the outfit’s head where he recounts his unconventional upbringing as the son of a notorious local criminal and how that, even more than the law enforcement training that turned him into a dead shot, taught him to be ready for any threat. The badge, you see, just legalizes whatever damage he inflicts. Raylan essentially talks a hardened hood out of opening fire on him and the two kids, then has a frustratingly incomplete heart-to-heart with Loretta as he lets her go back to her life, and later romances her case worker, winningly played by Amy Smart. Justified’s many pleasures, distilled into three good final scenes. All in a night’s work.