Monthly Archives: March 2016

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Unsatisfying Farewell in “Parting Shot”

If you want to sell the audience on the kind of “sacrifice” that “Parting Shot” puts forward, you need to do two simple things that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. absolutely failed to do.


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Better Call Saul: The Three Trapped Animals in “Bali Ha’i”

From the moment he received it, the “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” mug has been a symbol of the way that Jimmy doesn’t really fit with his new surroundings. “Bali Ha’i” doubles down on that symbolism throughout the episode, showing the several ways that the nascent Saul Goodman is a square peg who does not quite belong in the round hole that he now finds himself in.

That’s the major takeaway from the episode’s funny and creative cold open, which features Jimmy fighting insomnia in his generic corporate apartment. He takes the odd wicker balls that seem to be the default decoration in any upper-middle class setting, and turns those bland accent pieces into pure fun and games, whether it be an impromptu bit of hallway soccer or a spate of trick shot basketball. In a moment of resignation, Jimmy turns to late night television to soothe him to sleep, only to find that Davis & Main has adopted his idea to use commercials in order to reach potential Sandpiper clients, but they went with the standard bland production in lieu of his attention-grabbing spot. Eventually, Jimmy is left with no choice but to return to his hovel at the old salon. He clears out enough room for his fold out couch, and is finally at home, at peace, and able to get some sleep.

The broader implications are clear. Try as he might, a man as colorful as Jimmy doesn’t fit into the antiseptic world he’s stumbled into, with the generic living space, the anodyne commercial, and the slick corporate car that doesn’t quite accommodate his oversized novelty coffee mug. So when, at the end of the episode, he pulls out a tire iron and bashes in the cup holder until there’s enough space to hold his beverage container of choice, it’s not just a scene of day-to-day frustration; it’s a quiet act of rebellion that speaks to the ways in which Jimmy is growing ever-weary of the space he inhabits.


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The Walking Dead Gets Half as Much after Going “Twice as Far” in a Weaker Episode

How can an episode where so much happens seem so dull? “Twice as Far” features a firefight, a significant casualty, a big decision from a major character, and a reckoning between two people who’ve had unfinished business for a long time now. This is all major stuff. So why did the episode feel so thoroughly lifeless?

In fairness, “Twice as Far” aimed for a certain feeling of routine in the proceedings. It opens with a repeated sequence of supply inventory, guard shifts, and the daily rhythms of Alexandria in order to establish the semi-normalcy that the town has settled into after the most recent bit of excitement. The Walking Dead has thrived on this type of “calm after the storm” vibe in episodes like “The Next World”, but here it felt ponderous and contrived.


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Better Call Saul: “Rebecca” – A Dissenting View of Jimmy McGill

Jimmy doesn’t have a bad heart. He never really means to hurt anyone. It’s just how he is. It’s in his nature. He takes advantage of people. Time and again, he leaves the folks that he claims to care about holding the bag. It may come in dribs and drabs, and it may be infused with that old McGill charm, but it’s what he does.

That’s how Chuck sees his brother, and maybe it’s how Kim is starting to see him too.


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The Simpsons is Anti-Institutions but Pro-Comedy in “Sideshow Bob Roberts”

The political leanings of The Simpsons are surprisingly hard to pin down. As I discussed with Matt and Robbie on The Simpsons Show Podcast, the natural impulse is to take the series as a left-leaning show. In creator Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip (the primogenitor of The Simpsons) Groening wears his liberal bent on his sleeve. Springfield’s most prominent moment in the “culture wars” of the early 90s culminated in a real life kerfuffle with President George H.W. Bush, which was immortalized in “Two Bad Neighbors”. And the show in general has a propensity to take the stuffing out of anything revered or traditional.

On the other hand, Springfield has a corrupt, sleazy, largely ineffectual mayor who’s a page ripped out of the Kennedy family tome. The show has featured Bill Clinton hitting on Marge and describing himself as “a pretty lousy President.” And The Simpsons is still one of the few shows on television to depict its main characters regularly going to church and emphasizing family values, however fractured the show’s take on those values may be.

The easy answer then, and the one offered by the show’s ambassadors when questioned, is that The Simpsons is an equal opportunity source of satire, plenty willing to get its licks in on both sides of the aisle. While that’s true in a general sense, I believe the show still represents a particular political worldview, at least to the extent that a series which has had so many cooks walk through the doors of its kitchen can be said to have a single perspective.


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The Walking Dead: “The Same Boat” — Carol Peletier, This Is Your Life!

One of the best parts of Carol’s arc on The Walking Dead is that it’s largely been underplayed. Melissa McBride is such a talented actress that the show can dispense with its often lumpy dialogue and simply let her performance convey the meaning in the moment, whether it’s a sullen look after the events of “JSS” or a harsh tone in her voice when she tells Rick that Maggie shouldn’t be out on the raid in “Not Tomorrow Yet”. This season in particular, The Walking Dead has done well to let the idea that Carol is feeling the weight of her actions and gradually pivoting away from her more ruthless persona, bubble under the surface. That’s made the scenes where those ideas are brought to the fore or dramatized in a more prominent fashion, stand out as effective and earned.

But “The Same Boat” basically turns that subtlety on its ear. It’s a bleak bottle episode that spends most of its time keeping Carol locked in a single room while trotting out an odd version of This Is Your Life!


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Better Call Saul: “Gloves Off” — Tension, Motivation, Moral Codes, and Batman

It’s difficult to build tension and create real stakes in a prequel, and that problem is magnified the closer a film or television show gets to the familiar part of the timeline. If the audience already knows who lives and who dies, and who has to reach a certain point of the story unscathed for that matter, it can mute some of the excitement and intrigue of a particular plotline.

On the other hand, it can also heighten the tension in an episode by spotlighting the mystery between the known beginning and the known ending. As Better Call Saul shows Nacho planning a hit on Tuco, we know that Tuco lives; we know that Mike lives, and thanks to the opening scene in “Gloves Off”, we know that the crafty Mr. Ehrmantraut ends up bruised and battered, presumably in the attempt. All of this raises the question of how we get from Point A to Point B.

Does the hit go wrong? Does Mike beg off from Nacho and catch a beating for his troubles? In true Breaking Bad fashion does some unexpected intervening factor come into play and throw the whole situation out of whack? We don’t know, but we want to know, and that’s just part of the masterful job that BCS does in using its prequel status as a boon and not an obstacle when it comes to holding the audience’s attention.


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The Walking Dead: the Pain of a Righteous Kill in “Not Tomorrow Yet”

There has been a great deal of death on The Walking Dead over the years. We’ve seen characters take out hordes of zombies, roving marauders, and even their own as a necessary if-bloody kindness when circumstances require it. But very very rarely has the series shown our heroes as the aggressors in a life-or-death situation.

That’s what made “Not Tomorrow Yet” so interesting and so novel, especially for a series already in its sixth season. Many episodes of the show have examined the morality of killing — when it’s justified, when it’s morally dubious, and how those standards change in the ashes of the world. But it’s never shown “the good guys” engaging in what amounts to a preemptive strike before.

It is, in a word, troubling, even when on paper it makes sense. It’s uncomfortable, even when the audience, by dint of affection and perspective, is on the side of the people doing the killing. It’s meant to be. The Walking Dead has paid lip service to the moral gray areas that emerge when having to decide whether to take a life in something approaching a state of nature, but rarely has it confronted these ideas as directly as it does here.


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The Forgotten Rape in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In its first season, Marvel’s Jessica Jones thoroughly and thoughtfully explored the concept of abuse. It delved into the feelings of guilt, isolation, and the unavoidable sense of violation that weigh on victims of rape and others traumas. And it used Kilgrave, the show’s mind-controlling central villain who manipulates and dehumanizes his victims, along with Jessica’s road to recovery after suffering under his control, as a lens to explore the messy, disquieting aftermath of abuse of all kinds. Jessica Jones was hailed, quite deservedly, for the way it addressed these topics–including both metaphorical and literal rape–and their effects.

And yet another Marvel property, albeit one much lighter in tone, told a surprisingly similar story years before Jessica Jones did. But rather than taking the issues involved seriously, or using it as a chance for commentary or catharsis, that show simply threw in the incident as a single-episode plot point without ever genuinely addressing the implications of the story.


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The Walking Dead: a Glimpse of the New World in “Knots Untie”

In the ancient past that is the year 2008, an ambitious (and ultimately disappointing) game, entitled Spore, was released. Nicknamed “SimEverything,” the game was meant to depict the progress of life and civilization across millennia, beginning with single-celled organisms and ending with spacefaring intergalactic communities. Part of Spore’s premise involved splitting the game up into stages based on that progression, starting with ones that let your characters evolve individually and then eventually advancing to others where they would form collectives that traded and went to war with neighboring tribes.

As The Walking Dead moves toward a new stage of world building in “Knots Untie”, I like the idea of the series taking a similar path. For several seasons, we’ve seen the core group of survivors grow and change with their needs changing accordingly. In the beginning, TWD was about Rick surviving on his own and finding his family. Eventually, with the number of survivors swelling after the events of Herschel’s farm and beyond, it became about that group and finding safety and security for more people. This idea was reinforced at the prison, a setting that continued the theme of trying to find a place that offered at least temporary safety, and then struggling to protect it from both the dead and the living.


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