DVR Hindsight #7 (10/13/14): The Bridge, Mulaney, Walking Dead premiere

Walking

I never really stop trying to get the word about this site out. I’ve put a whole lot of myself into its construction and maintenance these past ten months, and am rather pleased, if not proud, to have my little writing repository finally established and fairly thriving, exposed to and perusable by the world after so many years of tiresome, idle threats. I appreciate everyone who has visited and stopped long enough to click through and read, whether it was a sentence, or a post, or a dozen. Everything you’ll see here has my personal, occasionally grudging, seal of approval. Even as I still see the blemishes and dead ends with depressing clarity, I’m quite happy overall with the 100K+ words already archived here. But it’s tricky. Writing Post #50 – the “lead zeppelin” remembrance about Iron Maiden and how its music empowered me at a particularly fraught time in my early adolescence – almost stopped this site dead in its tracks. After taking some time off for my birthday, I pretty much spent the whole of my free time in August working on it, which then bled well into September and, over the course of four weeks, scoured my psyche not unlike steel wool through stubborn grease.

In retrospect, I’m glad I took the journey and also quite happy with the results – it was likely the longest, most personal (and cathartic) post I’ll ever write – but I see #50 as sort of a clear dividing line in the brief history of my public writing. Everything that’s come since has been a bit of a struggle to form and get out. Even when I’m having fun here, which, I assure you, is almost always, I feel the weight of writing much more than I do the buoyancy. I suspect that’ll always be an issue, given my style, but as a result, timely posts (i.e. new movies, recent concerts) that I would’ve completed next day or end of week before #50 have become timely posts that I inevitably complete next week or end of month instead. My (very) semi-regular features have also felt the pinch. I’ve played around with some ideas for new “Top 10 (+5)” posts, but nothing has stuck so far. My most recent “feature” was basically an extended but mild grammar nerd’s rant. We all know that’s clickable gold right there.

The diversion I’ve been the most disappointed about misplacing has been my periodic TV column, “DVR Hindsight”, though at least here much is attributable to not only how I write but how (and how much) I watch television. Netflix has truly been my undoing. It has taken the marathonic tendencies I first developed watching old seasons of The Sopranos, Lost, The Shield, and The Wire on DVD and subtly reinforced them over time into outright modus operandi. It’s not just that now I spend excess TV time away from my television entirely, binging on seasons of Orange is the New Black and the Doctor Who reboot. Stuff also tends to pile up on my DVR until I specifically feel like binging (which is why I finished FX’s challenging/rewarding The Bridge only last week, still haven’t started Fox’s Gotham yet, and have miles to go yet on Summer holdovers both terrific – Showtime’s Masters of Sex – and wildly inconsistent – FX’s The Strain). Knocking out three episodes at once does wonders for my brain’s newly hardwired pleasure receptors, but, surprisingly, not so much for enabling the timely production of TV recaps/criticism. I think another hearty college try is in order, nonetheless.

The Bridge – “Jubilex” Season 2, Ep. 13 (FX)

I actually started writing larger, standalone pieces on The Bridge twice before but ended up scrapping them when I couldn’t keep up with the episodes. There’s so much I would’ve liked to talk about in depth, even as the best parts of the show still live largely in the realm of potential. Now that it seems unlikely we’ll see season three, I can only count it as a missed opportunity, not unlike some the show itself squandered in hewing too tightly to its original serial killer conceit (the show is a transplanted remake of a Swedish procedural) instead of utilizing its dynamic lead actors (particularly Demian Bichir’s mesmerizing, world weary Mexican cop) and setting (the urban wastelands on both sides of the contentious El Paso/Juarez international border, with all their attendant stories of drug trafficking, desperate poverty and institutional corruption all levels) to spin a new version of The Wire for the mid-twenty-teens. There were indications that the show, under the stewardship of Elwood Reid (co-runner Meredith Stiehm returned to full-time duties on Showtime’s Homeland after season one), was inching in the direction of fully embracing the potential inherent in a setting that straddles the U.S./Mexico border, and though season two didn’t take the easy route of pretending the serial killer arc never happened, it also generally didn’t allow one aspect of the show overwhelm the others the way that one had – shining a light on not just the lead detectives but also on two flawed but crusading local reporters increasingly in over their heads, eccentric lawyers (viva Lyle Lovett and his bloody cowboy boots) on both sides of the border, the haunted but forthright El Paso police chief (a fantastic Ted Levine) and his corrupt Mexican counterpart, and granting a rare level of humanization to the show’s cornered ostensible villain (Ramon Franco) – enabling a much more finely shaded whole.

Despite its numerous eye-catching elements, The Bridge is the type of show that marinates thoroughly before cooking. The resulting flavor can be off-putting or utterly intoxicating, but it is rarely boring. Diane Kruger did nicely modulated work throughout season two as a less overtly compromised yet deeper version of lead detective Sonia Cross. Franka Potente’s fearsome, damaged Mennonite cartel fixer ended as a much different kind of enigma than she began. Local police investigation of stray connections to Fausto Galvan’s drug cartel escalated by the end into a bizarre and bloody turf war between the drug lord, the fixer, the DEA and the CIA. Characters on both sides of the law and the border were left scrambling in the aftermath of the massacre at the Red Ridge housing development, and this week the worm finally turned for almost all of them, with the El Paso P.D. and Federal Investigator Adam Arkin becoming unlikely partners after intercepting a massive drug shipment, and Marco finally getting the upper hand on kingpin Galvan, his childhood friend turned enemy, in the Northeast Mexican badlands. In keeping with the spirit of the series as a whole, which always had more rich subject matter at its disposal than it could properly handle (and was aware of the fact), “Jubilex” inelegantly ties up a number of loose ends before simply, abruptly ending, functioning as a makeshift series finale, if that’s what it should come to. I know why Kurt Sutter has carte blanche to graft entire half hours onto whatever episode of Sons of Anarchy he cares to, but I’m disappointed that FX can only afford that levity to its choicest cash cows. The overarching story matters too, and this season Reid strove to nail the details, right up to the moment he literally ran out of airtime. More than at any point in The Bridge’s uneven run, I want to know what happens next. These are fascinating characters, foundering in a truly forbidding landscape. I hope I get the chance.

Mulaney – “The Doula” Season 1, Ep. 2 (FOX)

Of the current crop of alternative/indie stand-up comedians, it seems that most everyone who might’ve been inclined to take it has by now gotten his or her chance at doing TV. Louis C.K. continues to stockpile critical acclaim and Emmy awards while Daniel Tosh does pretty much the polar opposite in his role as an anthropomorphic Youtube comment section, except less racist (it’s true) and occasionally funny. Amy Schumer, Nick Kroll and Anthony Jeselnik all parlayed distinct stage personas and/or obsessions into eponymous Comedy Central shows. Big, friendly puppy dog Pete Holmes got a hopeful second series renewal before his TBS talk show finally succumbed to the natural allergic reaction stuffy businessmen tend to have to warm, inclusive goofballs. Wry New York comic and former SNL writer John Mulaney seemed another success story in the making when he shopped around his namesake sitcom last year, only to be rejected by NBC, a network that by rights would seem an overly welcoming landing spot for anything the least bit funny or original. Given a reprieve in early 2014 by FOX, Mulaney reportedly overhauled the series pilot, bringing in high profile (for the 1970s and ‘80s, respectively) regulars Elliott Gould and Martin Short but leaving intact its conceptual bones: a neurotic young comedian lives and loves in NYC, sharing an orbit with his wacky employer and roommates. Even if you disregard the numerous shared notes with Seinfeld – the opening stand up riff, the toxic, annoying neighbor, the laser focus on miscellany as plot point – very little about Mulaney seems fresh, inspired, or even particularly novel. The retooled pilot, premiering last week, was, it must be said, a minor disaster, full of simultaneous overemoting and underselling (Mulaney, his roommates), rank awkwardness for little more than its own sake (Short’s blazingly self-possessed game show host and Gould’s hippie-Jew crossover both seem like central characters from justly rejected SNL sketches), and precious few genuine laughs. It was a “hangout” comedy populated exclusively by people you wouldn’t hang out with on a bet.

I imagine the pilot was sufficient to make most prospective passengers abandon ship. Even now I feel like I’m watching mainly out of a sense of duty, because I’m a fan of Mulaney’s stand up. The good news, not that it probably much matters (or was a high bar to clear), is that “The Doula” is a marked improvement on its predecessor. The plot, again, is a trifle, as Mulaney’s offhand remark to his new girlfriend (a “doula”, the show helpfully informs us, is a sort of modern day midwife, responsible for ensuring a tranquil birthing experience for mother and baby) gets her excited about showing and sharing with him a live birth, triggering barely-seeded anxieties around childbirth, icky bodily mysteries, etc. This is remarkably thin gruel, I realize while describing it, for a sitcom trying to find its early legs, and the B-plot, as the female staffers of Short’s game show stage a strike to protest his casual sexism, doesn’t go anywhere in particular either. There are welcome signs of life elsewhere. The awful neighbor Andre is handled much better this week, and the banter among the roommates is far less strained than it was in the pilot, particularly when they flip from chiding Mulaney for his discomfort to sharing it wholeheartedly. As the everyman at the heart of this theoretical nest of loons, much hinges on Mulaney himself to hold the show together, because the margins just aren’t at all interesting yet. John Mulaney is smart, witty, and attractive, but so far he is barely there in terms of any physical presence, plus he has an oddly theatrical manner of speaking, like a stereotypical 1940s private eye, that may be off-putting to the casual observer. I know it was an adjustment for me when I first got into his stand up. I have faith his comedic mind can patch this leaky enterprise, and I’m glad I didn’t render a snap decision after last week’s worst case scenario. “The Doula” wasn’t much, though its quality level was enough to make me content to hang with Mulaney for as long as FOX does.

The Walking Dead – “No Sanctuary” Season 5, Ep. 1 (AMC) SPOILERS AHOY!!!!!!

As a relatively longtime viewer of AMC’s The Walking Dead – I caught up with the first three seasons via Netflix marathon, then watched season four on a week to week basis with all the other suckers – I was somewhat surprised to see the Terminus settlement, a sort of Shangri-la destination for the corpse-weary that the show spent the entire back half of season four teasing, revealed almost immediately as something of a tease itself in the finale. Normally, hosts must at least play at being warm and hospitable before the curtain is pulled back and the latest answer to everyone’s prayers is revealed as either (season 1) a ticking time bomb, (season 2) a Southern Gothic soap opera set, (season 3) a sinister cult of personality/stealth reeducation camp, or, in the case of season 4, a full-on, highly interactive slaughterhouse. But AMC’s The Walking Dead is also a show that, like True Blood at its height (so, what, four seasons ago?), understands the power of an especially potent cliffhanger. Why else did the stupid Governor have to come back, almost for the express reason of shockingly killing Hershel just before the mid-season break?

Season four ended with Rick and his ever-so-briefly reunited comrades baking inside a locked freight car, sharpening grudges and girding themselves for all-out war as soon as those doors opened. Instead of blinding daylight, however, season five begins with the surprise introduction of a teargas canister, and suddenly a suspiciously hand-picked quartet of our heroes are shown lined up, bound, gagged and supplicant, with four other folks we’ve never before glimpsed. From behind them emerge two apron-wearing, baseball bat and knife-wielding good ol’ boys. Without ceremony, one knocks out Extra #1 and the other slits his throat, leaving him to bleed out as the suddenly dwindling others watch in terror. These opening moments are brutal, and deliciously tense. They introduce very high, easily identifiable stakes and make the window in which to settle them a vanishingly slim one. AMC’s The Walking Dead, despite being a survival horror tale set during the zombie apocalypse, has historically had trouble with setting the scene thusly, falling back instead on incessant talk, perpetual travel (by foot, through forests) or, if the fur was predestined to fly, galling stall tactics. Tension, however, is not quite the same thing as suspense. Sure enough, just as the four expendables (Star Trek fans would immediately identify them as “redshirts”) are expended and lead-off hero Glenn is finally up to bat, the villain of the piece arrives, clipboard in hand, to casually delay the execution.

After a few more false starts, including needless conversations with two folks, ungagged specifically for the occasion, that reveal our resident bean counter might once have had designs on being a Bond villain (“Do you expect me to talk?” etc., etc.), an explosion from off camera disorients the captors long enough for Rick to saw through his restraints and go full Road House on them. Quick show of hands: who thought Glenn was going to die here, in a season premiere rather than in a mid or end season finale (or even randomly out in the forest with Maggie poignantly just out of sight and/or reach)? It is the very nature of this universe that people die, randomly and horrifically and by the dozen, but rarely important people, and thus AMC’s The Walking Dead is revealed anew, for all its grim and relentless fatalism, as a television show. This isn’t even a criticism, just an observation. In a land of brute survival, death has so little meaning that additional pathos must be massaged or manufactured. Not only was there vanishingly little chance Glenn would die here, there was also absolutely no reason for him to. The scene was set way too effectively. Our heroes were not only incapacitated but split up, making each group even more vulnerable to the whims of a stockyard populated equally by psychotic, gun-toting cannibals and the encroaching, ravenous dead.

As the struggle inside Terminus unfolds and escalates, Carol and Tyreese (though I’ll always instinctively think of Chad Coleman as Cutty from The Wire), the two members of the core group who weren’t captured, are given effective stories that play off, in wholly different directions, the unsubtle ways in which navigating the zombie horde has changed them. Tyreese was shattered to his core by the horrific events of season four standout episode “The Grove”, and is loath to kill anyone he doesn’t have to, even trapped in a cabin with a babbling enemy jerk that isn’t above overtly threatening an infant to save his own skin. Carol, who started the series a meek housewife and possible domestic abuse victim, has fortified herself (though some would call it deadening) to an astonishing degree in her quest to survive, such that seeing her essentially turn into Rambo in an effort to spring her friends not only does not strain (in world) credibility, it almost seems a perfectly natural progression. “No Sanctuary” is a superior episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead, sustained and fairly thrilling in its action and blunt in its violent impact, containing interesting individual character moments and long-delayed reunions that elicit genuine emotion instead of shrugged shoulders. It is like a best possible version of the show that fans could want, instead of delivering the tedium and fleeting thrills they’ve been conditioned to expect, and it bodes well for the rest of the season, though I imagine the light will quickly fade once we have established some distance from the fires of Terminus. The episode works wonderfully well because of its stakes, which, once established, never dwindle, and its pacing, which, once set in motion, never really flags, despite the odd detour. This is a spectacular look for AMC’s The Walking Dead. The show should try it on a little more often.

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