That Championship Season — Veep, Season Five

veep tcs logo

In its overarching narrative, Veep was designed to stay locked into place. Created by Armando Iannucci, who was essentially striving for the U.S. equivalent on his scathing satire of British politics The Thick of It, the new comedy series looked to the office of the vice-presidency. The role in the executive branch is nearly as high as a politician can get and yet it is largely impotent, defining by lying in wait as the undesired tasks of the presidency are flicked downward. As a power-adjacent position, it holds great potential to absolutely madden a ruthless opportunist, such as Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

And then the creative team upended the scenario, elevating Selina to the office she coveted, while maintaining a healthy dose of indignity. She wasn’t elected, instead rising through the line of succession. Her time at the helm of the White House was shaded by a need to actually earn the position in the election cycle, an imperative Selina and her crew approached with trademark desperation and a set of ethics that worked, at best, on a sliding scale. Iannucci ended the fourth season, and his tenure on the show, by hitting Selina with an act of exquisite electoral cruelty.

veep season 5 1

The presidential election ends in an electoral college tie, leaving the question of who will occupy the highest post in the land up to a cumbersome and complicated system of fallback procedural determinations. Iannucci impishly left a tricky puzzle for the next producer to solve, and it may have been the best possible prompt. The fifth season of Veep is also its strongest.

David Mandel became the showrunner, and Louis-Dreyfus took a stronger hand in setting the direction of the show. The two had a rapport, established when Mandel worked on the last three seasons of Seinfeld, and it clearly carried through. As entertaining as Veep was in earlier seasons, it was took a fairly consistent buckshot blast approach. The demeaning situations lined up like boxcars, and the characters met each new challenge with cascade of profane insults, much of it ingenious. The plotting is solid as steel and twisty as a corkscrew, taking Selina on a slalom course between hope and mortification with black-diamond complexity. Having a stronger narrative through line fortified the jokes, making everything more memorable.

veep season 5 2

As with the case with the entirety of the show’s run, the performances are excellent across the board, but Veep will justly go into the entertainment record books because of the acting of Louis-Dreyfus, who nabbed the Emmy for lead actress in a comedy for each of the first six seasons with a seventh likely, an unprecedented feat. With a sharp canniness and level of fearlessness that’s almost unsettling, Louis-Dreyfus delivered every last one of her lines with a spin of dizzying invention. Already an irredeemable figure, Selina grow more vicious in the fifth season, her vanity and feverish need for power for its own sake driving her worst impulses. Evidently at Louis-Dreyfus’s urging, the character grew darker and darker, until the comedy was black as scorched forest.

For me, Veep faded a bit after the fifth season. The circumstances grew more antic, the comedy slightly repetitive, the characters hazier in focus and purpose. But in the ten episodes that circle around Selina’s fierce manipulations of a warped system to suit her hollow ends, claiming victory in an election that mostly exposed the weird folly moving in less-than-stealthy parallel with the U.S. version of democracy, Veep was worthy of the most full-throated hailing.

veep season 5 4

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The LeftoversSeason Three
TremeSeason One
How I Met Your MotherSeason Two
FireflySeason One
Raising HopeSeason Three
Jessica JonesSeason One
WKRP in Cincinnati, Season One

That Championship Season — WKRP in Cincinnati, Season One

wkrp

In the pilot episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) arrives for his first day of work as program director for a Midwestern AM radio station with a poster tube in hand. The station plays musty, middle of the road music recorded decades earlier, but that’s about to change. As he’s setting up his office, Andy unfurls a big glossy picture of the band Kiss, in full, resplendent makeup, tacking it up in his otherwise staid workplace. With a simple visual gag, the animating premise of the sitcom is solidly established. Like a lot of the comedy of the nineteen-seventies (WKRP in Cincinnati premiered in CBS in the fall of 1978) and -eighties, this show was going to be about a culture clash between the culturally stagnant ruling class and the brash, youthful upstarts, rattling windows and sensibilities with music that’s just so darn loud.

WKRP in Cincinnati is the quintessential example of a workplace sitcom, developing its stories entirely from the interpersonal entanglements and quirky skirmishes between people who punch in at the same place every day. Unlike many of the examples of the form, where the work being done in largely incidental, WKRP in Cincinnati had an uncommon devotion to mining stories from the travails that naturally came with operating a scrappy broadcast outlet in a modestly sized media market. Within the first few episodes, the series built episodes around a punk band showing up for an in-studio interview, a live promotional remote gone awry, and the launch of a public affairs show that turns disastrous when the guest proves to be unhinged (he’s a child psychologist who maintains that children are, judged by adult standards, all clinically insane). While certain element and side stories were familiar, these largely weren’t plots that could be repurposed for other shows. A radio transmitter was required, even as an unseen prop.

wkrp johnny

Created by Hugh Wilson, the series displayed a clear devotion on the creative end with getting the details right. (Well, except for the persistent absence of headphones while character were on the air, but some concessions to the preferred visuals for television are forgivable.) That dedication manifested in showing — and exploiting — the broad range of professions contained within a radio station, from DJs to news readers, sales people to general office personnel. Wilson could rely on almost stereotypical archetypes to develop an easy versatility in the array of characters: burned out DJ Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), smooth-talking overnight jock Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), unctuous, loudly dressed salesman Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), nerdy, intense newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), and eager, sincere new hire Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), largely charged with handling station paperwork, but aspiring to put her journalism degree to use. The divergent personalities made complete sense given the positional roles the filled in the station, allowing suitable dramatic clashes without straining contrivances.

The strength of the ensemble was so formidable that when Wilson actively tried to write a bad episode, it boomeranged on him, becoming one of the funniest half-hours the show delivered. The network, perpetually underwhelmed with the simple verisimilitude Wilson preferred in constructing the show, badgered the producer to come up with wackier high jinks and insert more physical comedy in the show. Late in the first season, Wilson resentfully relented, writing a deliberately frantic episode he detested (and opting for a pseudonym in the credits to further signal to executives his disgruntlement over the whole affair). Entitled “Fish Story,” the episode includes characters deliberately acting in opposition to their usual personalities (in context to dupe a newspaper reporter, but partially for Wilson to mock network notes), a feud between foolishly costumed station mascots, and Johnny and Venus having very different reactions to an on-air demonstration of diminished capabilities when consuming alcohol. Wilson’s attempt to mock cheap sitcom conventions instead escalates to wondrous farce, mostly because the preceding twenty episodes had established such a firm foundation that spinning wildly away from the series norm held a giddy fun. The yo-yo’s plummet is satisfying because of the assurance that it will snap back to its proper place.

wprk fish

The episode most emblematic of the program’s strengths — and, by conventional wisdom, that all by itself designates the first season of WKRP as its strongest — hinges on a publicity stunt. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the station’s general manager, Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), decides he will take the lead on a promotional event meant to giveaway free turkeys to the citizens of Cincinnati. The gruesome turn of events that follows, all off-camera and reported with breathless horror by on-the-scene reporter Nessman (in a truly magnificent comic performance by Sanders), is truly inspired comedy, further underlined by the lovely understatement of Mr. Carlson’s shell-shocked confession “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

wkrp turkeys

On a more personal level, WKRP in Cincinnati taught this impressionable kid that a radio station was a cool place to hang out, full of infinite possibilities and people who were devilishly delightful to spend time around. I’m grateful that, many years later, I was able to prove that theory true (as long as the station sat on the noncommercial end of the dial, in my experience). WKRP in Cincinnati can’t be held wholly responsible for all the time I’ve spent in broadcast studios over the years, nor are its hands completely clean. And any time I and my shifting band of cohorts scrambled to solve a problem created by an on-air slip-up, I thought of Johnny, Venus, and Bailey editing together a set of cruelly brief music snippets in the episode “The Contest Nobody Could Win.” Through all my ins and outs in radio, WKRP in Cincinnati was always a touchstone.

The original entry for WKRP in Cincinnati in the fall preview issue of TV Guide listed off the characters and added “all of whom are on the flip side.” As any music fan knows, sometimes the flip side is where the real treasure lies.

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The LeftoversSeason Three
TremeSeason One
How I Met Your MotherSeason Two
FireflySeason One
Raising HopeSeason Three
Jessica Jones, Season One

That Championship Season — Jessica Jones, Season One

jessica jones title

As certainly as Marvel has become an unstoppable force wherever people recline luxuriously in gigantic palaces, the wide-reaching House of Ideas hasn’t quite cracked other media (including some significant slippage in realm of the colorful periodicals of sequential storytelling that are the source of the nearly ubiquitous super-powered characters). The ambitious lineup poised to sprawl across the forthcoming Disney+ streaming platform might very well improve Marvel’s record, but one of the most surprising shortcomings has been in the area of television programming, especially since the studio had a major broadcast network right there at their disposal. Sure, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is about to embark of a sixth season, but it is the closest a long-running series can come to being a cultural afterthought.

I’d argue that the primary instances of success in Marvel Studios’ forays into television are attributable to choices that lean away from the model that works elsewhere. Although the string of episodes that are inherent to the structure of a television series would seem ideal for replicating the procession of storytelling-without-end found in a string of comic book issues, and crossovers are equally easy to mount, the expansiveness that has served Marvel well on the page and in theaters has often been a road anvil blocking the path of smart, effective storytelling when the screen is smaller. One of the rare triumphs points to the potential value of focusing on the intimate when it comes to television projects.

jessica jones purple

Jessica Jones was primarily drawn from the comic book series Alias, created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos. The comic was an intriguing novelty when it launched, in 2001. Set within the Marvel Universe proper, it nonetheless stood apart somewhat, offering a cunning commentary of the natural repercussions of a society partially populated by demigodlike vigilantes. Jessice herself was a former costumed do-gooder, known as Jewel, who had retreated from brawls across the metropolitan skies in favor of hardscrabble work as a private investigator. In Bendis’s rendering, which was often dark without resorting to corrosive cynicism, Jessica was both a casualty and a survivor, grappling with a wholly understandable lingering trauma. Usually elided in superhero storytelling founded on perpetual reset, Jessica’s fraught emotional state and perseverance asserted a stronger sense of reality to the Marvel Universe, just as Stan Lee imbuing vulnerability, uncertainty, and other bits of psychological nuance into his characters four decades earlier had started a revolution in comics.

Wisely, Melissa Rosenberg, the credited creator of the Netflix series Jessica Jones, kept the fundamentals of the character and figured out how to craft her story for a different medium. In the show, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is still a bedraggled P.I. with a set of heightened abilities that she largely keeps in check. There are allusions here and there to other bolstered beings engaged in avenging across the globe, but mostly Jessica Jones keeps its attention on street-level concerns. The now familiar Marvel logo is affixed to the series, but it largely stands alone. It is a character study with periodic feats of strength.

jessica jones pix

And the first season of Jessica Jones has a deeper thematic purpose that also sets it apart. Drawing from a story thread in the original comic book series, Jessica has a troubling history with a villain with mind control powers. Known primarily as the Purple Man in the comics, the television creators opt instead to concentrate on alter ego moniker, the still pretty on-the-nose Kilgrave (played by David Tennant). Usually, the results of Kilgrave’s mental manipulations were brushed off in comic stories as the equivalent of bruises, merely the cost of doing superheroic business. The insightful innovation of Bendis was that having one’s will wrested away by other leads to significant psychological pain. The creative team behind Jessica Jones heightened and intensified that theme in season one, making Jessica’s helplessness before Kilgrave — and his obsession with controlling her — a powerful stand-in for any number of toxic relationships that exist in the real world, where there’s a sad lack of caped crusaders ready to swoop in and save the day.

jessica jones kilgrave

With thirteen episodes to play with, there’s more to the first season of Jessica Jones than the cruelty of Kilgrave and Jessica’s strained effort to best him, mostly by breaking free. There’s a tentative romance between Jessica and fellow titan-in-hiding Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and a scattering of fellow misfits under Jessica’s reluctant care. A great deal of time is given over to simply establishing Jessica’s weary, sarcastic worldview, which plays to Ritter’s greatest strength as a performer. And there are parallels to the chief adversarial relationship throughout, notably in the baggage carried by Jessica’s friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) because of the way her controlling, abusive mother (Rebecca De Mornay) pushed her into a career as a child star. A caution is underlined: Super-human abilities aren’t a requirement for harming people.

The messages embedded in the first season of Jessica Jones might not be exactly what audiences are expected from a story about superheroes, even if its those pumped-up beings that operate on the fringes of a colorful world. It’s precisely that unexpected quality that gives the program its intense impact and resonant meaning.

 

(Due credit on the screencaps: I got them from elsewhere.)

 

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The LeftoversSeason Three
TremeSeason One
How I Met Your MotherSeason Two
FireflySeason One
Raising Hope, Season Three

That Championship Season — Raising Hope, Season Three

raising-hope

Before Raising Hope, Greg Garcia was the credited creator or co-creator on two series that had multi-season runs. Yes, Dear was a CBS family sitcom that was painfully conventional. Accordingly, it was a clear commercial success, running six seasons and logging over one hundred and twenty episodes. Garcia followed that with a sole creator credit on My Name is Earl, a high concept comedy on NBC that happily careened into bright outlandishness. That show ended after its fourth season, to Garcia’s irritation, at least in part because, he claims, the network gave him assurances a renewal was pending when he expressed reservations about finishing the last episode of the production year with a cliffhanger.

As a follow-up to Earl, Garcia delivered the Fox comedy Raising Hope, which, intentionally or not, combined the spirits of its two immediate predecessors. It’s a family sitcom, but with an anarchic spirit. It pushed toward moments of sentiment and emphasized the loving bonds in relationships that presented as dysfunctional, but it did so with a cartoon boisterousness and penchant for cleverly bawdy jokes.

The founding premise centered on Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff), an earnest, lower middle class fellow in his early twenties who has a one night stand with an assertive, wild woman (Bijou Phillips) who turns out to be a serial killer. When the tryst results in a offspring named Hope (played by interchanging twins Baylie and Rylie Cregut), Jimmy commits to fatherhood as the other parent is carted off to death row. With little money and not much better prospects, he moves in with his own parents, Virginia and Burt Chance (Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt, respectively) in a tiny house that much also make room for Virginia’s grandmother, known as Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman, in her eighties during the run of the series). Jimmy gets a job at a local grocery store, where he quickly becomes smitten with his coworker Sabrina Collins (Shannon Woodward).

In the beginning, the comedic balance on Raising Hope was imperfect. Then as now, there weren’t very many families on broadcast network TV that resides in the same under-rewarded economic strata at the Chases, and Garcia and his cohorts occasionally let strains of mockery infect their depiction of the family and their wobbly social circles. As the series progressed and creative voices became clearer and more assured, the sympathy for the characters solidified. Burt’s sweet dimness and Virginia’s propensity for malaprops remained fodder for jokes — often very funny jokes, it must be noted — but the characters were also afforded a consistent dignity. They were aware of their depressed lot in life, acknowledging their foibles, but with a sharp awareness of how the system was rigged against them. They understood the challenges of their own context.

hope delorean

As the tone of the show’s internal commentary grew more clear, the creative team took greater liberties with the storytelling. Perhaps emboldened by a sense that Fox executives’ rampant fickleness was starting to turn against Raising Hope, a freewheeling sense of play came to the forefront on the third season. The plots grew a little loopier, as with an early-season two-parter that found the clan trying to retrieve Maw Maw after a social worker (Jenny Slate) disturbed with the quality of care removed the elderly woman from the home. While remaining true to the fundamentals of the characters, fanciful and elaborate schemes were mounted, and it all somehow accentuated the eventual acknowledgement of the value of their togetherness.

Better yet, the show evolved rather than prolonged one of its most familiar elements, the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between Jimmy and Sabrina that has been a sitcom staple since Diane Chambers first crossed the threshold of Cheers. The two became a couple in the middle of the second season, and the episodes that soon followed trafficked in orchestrated conflict to stir uncertainty. That approach was largely jettisoned in the third season, and the writers and performers instead examined how the couple grew together, edging to a wedding that was refreshingly treated as a normal outcome rather than a momentous dramatic event.

In an especially satisfying choice, the wedding episode employed a conceit that allowed it to be presented in the rough style of an episode of Modern Family, then in its fourth season and making its sharp exit into the pure tedium of characters behaving abominably to each other in advance of delivering a curdled antidote of episode-closing sentiment. Raising Hope trailed Modern Family significantly in the ratings, but the wedding episode — perhaps meant to be nothing more than a friendly homage — served as a compelling rebuttal to the ostentatious wealth and manufactured tender feelings. Far humbler in every respect, Raising Hope came by its affection and warmth honestly.

raising hope wedding

The wedding episode was also emblematic of a winning meta mischievousness that enlivened Raising Hope in the third season. Generally, this quality manifested around the edges. One-time Goonie Plimpton’s Virginia comments on the sad downward trajectory child performers often experience from Spielberg-backed theatrical blockbusters to “the nutty mom on some sitcom.” Burt responds to the presence of cameras filming pre-wedding activities by speculating they’ve been existing in their own version of The Truman Show, which would explain the procession of “crazy things” they experience. The self-referential storytelling reaches its dizzy pinnacle in an episode built around Hope’s birthday party that’s a thinly disguised excuse for Garcia to stage a reunion of the entire principal cast of My Name is Earl. The showrunner, enjoyably, was doing whatever the hell he wanted.

hope earl

Although Raising Hope spent the third season shooting off narrative fireworks like it was in a state of perpetual grand finale. Fox unexpectedly renewed the show, but Garcia moved on, as if the madcap sprint of the season meant he romped through every idea worth having and expressing. In the fourth and final season, Raising Hope was a muddled echo, maintaining a certain antic quality without any of the inner being that made it special. Season three had already proved Raising Hope could be more than a headlong joke machine. It could be crafty and complex, and a sharp winner in the process.

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The Leftovers, Season Three
Treme, Season One
How I Met Your Mother, Season Two
Firefly, Season One

That Championship Season — Firefly, Season One

firefly

It was considered a major coup when the Fox television network signed up Joss Whedon to create a new ongoing science fiction series. Whedon sat in an exalted place among genre fandom, thanks to his efforts with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (still ongoing, but moving toward its end) and, to a lesser degree, the spinoff Angel. Neither was an enormous hit, but they launched a thousand magazine covers and generally stirred confident theories that if Whedon were operating on a more prominent platform (his Buffyverse offerings aired on upstart broadcast networks with sporadic national presence) he could create a true smash. Fox was still something of an upstart itself, but it had managed to push The X-Files into the Nielsen Top 20. Surely, the same feat could happen with a Whedon creation.

In reality, Whedon’s new show didn’t have a chance.

It’s hard to fathom what Fox executives were expecting from Whedon, but it certainly wasn’t Firefly. Inspired by the novel The Killer Angels, set during the U.S. Civil War, Whedon cooked up a bizarre hybrid of a cinematic Western and a space saga. The heroes careened across the galaxy in a hulking starship, but they also wielded six shooters and — nearly two decades before Solo used the same trick — made like Butch and Sundance with a charging locomotive.

firefly-train-job

By most accounts, the network hated what Whedon delivered to them. In the most generous consideration of events, they didn’t really understand it. They refused to air the pilot as the debut episode and ran subsequent installments in a jumbled order, a further reflection of the hostility that led the network to program Firefly on Friday night, which was increasingly perceived as an audience dead zone. A showrunner with an old school sensibility, Whedon still believed in the idea of fairly self-contained episodes, but he also spread themes and mysteries across full seasons, making the shift of episodes from the planned chronological sequencing a particular problem. A series that was already unorthodox further alienated viewers because the connective tissue was Frankensteined into malfunction.

Watching Firefly unfold in its original airings, it was extremely difficult to parse how much of the mild but consistent sense of discombobulation was due to the Fox’s blundering deployment or the normal evolutionary development that most series — especially Whedon’s — endure on their way to being solidly satisfying. Whedon had assembled a talented cast (with Nathan Fillion, Gia Torres, Alan Tudyk, and Ron Glass as the standouts) and quickly determined how to merge his distinctive voice into the amalgamation of genres, honoring the justly familiar rhythms of both while giving the dialogue an extra snap. If some of the more worn and raggedy narrative threads were less satisfying (the will-they-or-won’t-they between perpetually feuding characters was already painfully overdone by then), Whedon and his collaborators facilitated an endearing sense of ease of camaraderie among everyone onscreen. Firefly was a fine place to hang out.

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Somewhere around the midpoint of its fourteen-episode run, Firefly started to cohere into a remarkably strong series. “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” “Jaynestown,” and “Out of Gas” took markedly different tacks, but all were successful, with the latter episode drawing notable power from presenting a flashback history of the crew’s assembly cut against Captain Malcolm Reynolds’s (Fillion) harrowing experience as the ship’s systems shut down. The foundational premise of the episode underscored one of Whedon’s key points, that space is a dangerous place. When spacecraft experience technical failures, it’s not merely a hurdle for heroes to clear on their way to completing the main quest. It’s an enormous, deadly problem all its own. Space might be the final frontier, but on the American range — which Firefly evokes — travelers can still breathe if the canvas top of the Conestoga wagon rips.

Firefly was canceled midseason, and its handful of unaired episodes were dumped carelessly onto Fox’s summer schedule, over six months after the last preceded installment had aired. But Firefly was also an early beneficiary of the obstinance of a fan base that feels like their favorites must persist forever and ever. Implausibly, a little more than two years after its final episode was first shown, the series officially wrapped up as a feature film, officially Whedon’s movie directing debut and his only outing in that capacity before getting the call to assemble the Avengers.

The film was a fine capper, but the more distance I get from it, the more I’d prefer it wasn’t part of the canon. Flawed and frustrating as its rollout was, Firefly represented the giddy possibilities of freewheeling creativity, and the shortcomings are part of the charm. No matter how much of his sucker punch character mortality Whedon stuffed into the film, its very existence represents a happy ending that rings false against his tale of rebels whose cause went down to defeat. It might have been more appropriate had it petered out in the original inglorious fashion, our big damn heroes adrift in the cosmos with no end in sight.

firefly first serenity

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The Leftovers, Season Three
Treme, Season One
How I Met Your Mother, Season Two

That Championship Season — How I Met Your Mother, Season Two

himym

Plenty of television series have hung on longer than they should have, the dictates of commerce outweighing storytelling considerations at nearly every turn in the business of doing a show. But I don’t know if any long-running program so thoroughly demolished the goodwill it had built up as How I Met Your Mother did. The creation of former Late Show with David Letterman writers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the sitcom was built on a novel, hooky premise. In the future, a father (voiced by Bob Saget) relays to his two children (Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie, couch-bound and staring placidly with marginal interest for nine seasons) the story of his first encounter with his wife, the woman who birthed them. Conveniently, the long story unfolded in hijinks-filled, episodic adventures with the father’s cluster of distinctive friends in New York City in the early two-thousands.

In the present day, the father, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), was a struggling architect, living in a modest apartment with his old college roommate, aspiring lawyer Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel) and his fiancée, kindergarten teacher Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan). Their nights at the neighborhood bar are often commandeered by besuited Lothario Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris, in a crucial part of the professional journey that freed him from having to good-naturedly smile as people called him “Doogie”). Into the mix comes Robin Scherbatsky, a fledgling broadcast journalist with whom Ted falls for, but who, the viewer is informed early on, is not “the mother.”

HIMYM bar

Remarkably, for a show that lasted nearly a decade, How I Met Your Mother was never much of a hit, and accordingly it spent much of its run in a constant state of uncertainty. Most years, the announcement of its renewal came with a whisper of relief and surprise. And the size of its viewership never really changed over the years, until the final season when interest in closure put it into the Nielsen Top 40 for the first time. Instead, the business landscape for television changed all around it, and the show’s devoted viewers looked more and more appealing in a rapidly stratifying culture.

The bank accounts of the show creators and stars undoubtedly benefitted from the lengthy run of How I Met Your Mother, but the story it told was stretched unbearably thin as seasons mounted. The ingenuity of the program was the presence of a series-long through line built upon an internal mystery, increasingly a mandate for hour-long dramas at the point of the show’s premiere, in 2005, but still a rarity for sitcoms, which were supposed to be endlessly renewable to better suit syndication, then holding as the true jackpot of television production. Although How I Met Your Mother would rake in some chips thanks to reruns on superstations and cable networks, it was also one of the first shows to benefit from prime placement on Netflix, where excavations of its clues invited pinpoint repeat viewings. Looking at the overall structure of the full series, it probably would have benefitted from shorter seasons and fewer years, letting the elusiveness of the mother’s identity remain a clever gimmick rather than an unbearably coy tease. That quality alone is a major part of the reason the show’s strongest season was its second.

HIMYM car

At its core, How I Met Your Mother was about growing up. Ted’s wounded puppy pining for true love was simply one expression of moving from carefree youth to the responsibilities of adulthood, often fulfilled by compromises to secure career progress or letting go of sentimental artifacts, like a first car with the same cassingle eternal trapped in the tape deck. Exploiting its retrospective structure, the show allowed itself to bounce back and forth in time, sometimes letting an individual episode’s plot spill out as jumbled fragments, the ruptured chronology allowing for a more complex and comedically satisfying punchlines.

And since it was about growing up, finding the characters still early in that trajectory was more satisfying. Back and forth fretting meant to prolong conflicts necessary for drama hadn’t yet become tiresome, and there was no need yet to overly indulge in the constant shuffling of relationships required to inject something new into the series. The need to keep circling Ted into new romances, each one meant to tantalize that it could finally payoff the promise of the title, was particularly problematic. Well before the series drew to its conclusion, he seemed less like a hopeful romantic and more like a fickle basket case so saddled with issues that he repelled potential partners.

None of those issues weighed on How I Met Your Mother in the second season, but it had also overcome its natural growing pains. The writers and actors built characters so strong that the mere introduction of a comic premise could be effective because of how it fed into established personality rhythms. Nothing exemplifies that better than the second season episode “Slap Bet,” which remarkably introduced the show’s two very best recurring bits: a wager that allowed Marshall to deliver five surprise physical assaults to Barney, as well as the Robin’s secret shame as Canadian teen pop sensation Robin Sparkles.

HIMYM sparkles

The strong and satisfying second season found its complete opposite in the ninth and final season of How I Met Your Mother. It foolishly spread twenty-four episodes across the weekend of Robin and Barney’s wedding, in part to further delay Ted’s first encounter with the mother, who was revealed — in the form of actress Cristin Millioti — in the prior season’s finale. The voice of the series was already growing weak and raspy. In the ninth season, it completely gave out. The tone became shrill, and the pace was frenetic in individual episodes and yet glacial in the season-long arc. Putting a dreadful punctuation mark on the whole series, Bays and Carter insisted on sticking with the overall ending they’d originally conceived, though by that point they had spun so many contradicting side tales that it was now emotionally unworkable.

Dogged in my completionist tendencies, I stuck with How I Met Your Mother to the extra-bitter end. Kids, I should have stopped when I could still keep all the memories happy.

HIMYM wedding

 

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The Leftovers, Season Three
Treme, Season One

That Championship Season — Treme, Season One

treme title

The premiere episode of Treme begins with white words on a black screen. First, they establish that the series takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana. Then comes the critical information about timing: “Three Months After.” The event that took place a quarter of a year earlier required no further explanation.

Treme was the first ongoing series David Simon signed his name to after completing five seasons of The Wire, which was already being hailed as monumental television, a reputation that has only grown in the years since. The expectation was that Simon — along with co-creator Eric Overmyer, another Wire vet — would do for New Orleans what he did for Baltimore in the earlier series, exposing the layers of political and moral complications that prevented a major U.S. city — and its citizenry — from achieving its full potential.

New Orleans, though, proved to be a more difficult metropolitan beast to wrestle into a manageable narrative, and that’s with a creator who was more open to raggedness and ambiguity than most. Therein, lie the program’s inescapable flaws. In the same cascade of ricocheting notes, its exuberant, unique strength also takes up residence.

treme parade

Debuting in 2010, the series is initially set around five years later, when the wounds of Hurricane Katrina and its more devastating aftermath — predicated on the failings of institutions and structures rather than the uncontrollable bullying of weather patterns — were still at their rawest. New Orleans is a city in heartbreaking disrepair, populated by people trying their best to persevere even as the bare mechanics of urban redemption feel forever out of reach. Heavily reliant on tourist dollars, the community has effectively had a “Stay Out” sign erected at the border, and all structures — social, physical, spiritual — crumble anew as soon as rebuilding gets underway.

In this place at this time, Treme settles in with a slew of characters whose pathways occasionally intersect. There are academics, attorneys, DJs, musicians, chefs, bartenders, and other scraggly souls operating on what look to the outside eye like the edges of professional society. In New Orleans, though, they’re the lifeblood, providing the culture with infusions of assured idiosyncrasy. They carry whole histories with them — their own, obviously, but also the accumulated lore of an almost mystical place that forgives most transgressions against courtly rectitude, even as an abiding craving for justice is one of the most common traits. Instinctively or strategically, Simon and his collaborators know that the best way to portray the people of New Orleans is to lovingly acknowledge the messiness that existed there well before the levees were breached.

treme dj davis

Simon carries over some of his favored cast members from previous endeavors, including Khandi Alexander (who anchored his acclaimed HBO mini-series The Corner), Clarke Peters, and Wendell Pierce, the latter of whom has never — and likely will never — look as wonderfully at ease as he does as trombone player Antoine Batiste. (As a native of New Orleans, the cause of Pierce’s comfort is easy to surmise.) Some of these roles were surely shaped to suit the actors, but the astute instincts prevail up and down the call sheet.

In particular, it feels like Treme captures the last available time Steve Zahn could play the whip-smart wiseacre of wavering ambition that stood as his greatest expertise. Already a little long in the tooth to play such a character without it seeming sad or sociologically out of step, Zahn instead can tap into a certain New Orleans archetype: the crafty layabout equally thwarted and enabled by the city’s genially lax brand of hedonism. It would be an overstatement to call Zahn’s performance great, but his own history onscreen gives it a certain valedictory aura, which itself suits the the soft gloom misgivings of a vibrant city veering treacherously close to permanent decline.

treme chef

As it continued, Treme became somewhat a victim of the necessity for the characters to progress. And the creators were true to the logic of the arcs they’d begun, even when it arguably did some harm, dragging characters into realms that were less compelling, such as chef Janette Desautel’s (Kim Dickens) relocation to New York City or violinist Annie Talarico (Lucia Micarelli) achieving greater success and resultant expectations of commercial acquiescence. These progressions made perfect sense (Simon is too careful a storyteller to settle anything less), but they pulled the series away from its hardscrabble soul, depicting a vibrant place and colorful people asked to endure more than should be reasonably borne in the modern age.

In the first season, Treme is at its purest and most powerful because it’s also at its leanest. The emotions are potent and unyielding, given their clearest, sharpest expression in the YouTube monologues delivered by Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a Tulane professor raging against all the ways the city was let down by the structures — physical and social — that were supposed to offer protection. The surprising fate of Creighton is another part of the program’s poignant thesis, arguing hope can be pushed to a breaking point and defeat can eventually swamp out joy.

At its strongest and most resonant, Treme mirrors the common travails of humanity, using the city of New Orleans as the ideal backdrop, garish and soiled and beautiful.

treme smoke

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The Leftovers, Season Three