That Championship Season: Agent Carter, Season Two

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Dominant as Marvel Studios have been on the movie landscape the past decade or so — without a doubt, the success of their model of narrative interconnectivity has completely transformed how most of commercial filmmaking works — their ride has been far more wobbly on the television side. The entertainment conglomerate’s first true foray into small screen fare, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., may be heading —shockingly — into its fifth season, but no one mistakes it for a sensation or anything more than a modest success, artistically or in terms of its ratings. Similarly, the bevy of Netflix shows mining the comic book publisher’s stable of darker, more street-level heroes have met with a decidedly mixed reception.

A major contributor to the problem is a sense of undue seriousness, which primarily manifests as an overt commitment to heaping melodrama. Most of the series give off an aura of ponderous gloom, even when delivering some snappy moments and appealing characters. As they stretch on, those qualities are further burdened by compounding convolution, which make the various storylines instantly exhausting.

There is one Marvel live-action show that strayed from this norm, becoming, in my eyes anyway, the studio’s clearest creative success in the series format. Of course, it’s also the one ongoing series that has officially faced the dreaded judgment of cancellation.

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Although Agent Carter aped the origin of Agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. in spinning off directly from the Marvel movies, it was different in every other substantive way. The show picked up with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) shortly after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, so it was set in the years immediately following World War II. It followed her as she began work with the Strategic Scientific Reserve — the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. — facing down adversaries fighting for the forces of evil even as she had to contend will colleagues who caused a whole other set of hardships through their era-appropriate withering sexism.

Agent Carter was flawed in its first season, but it had its strengths, chief among them the performance of Atwell. She took a character who sometimes struggled to transcend the plucky love interest trope in her film introduction and made her into a layered figure, strong-willed but also vulnerable, all without succumbing to cliche. And the series had a point of view. Underneath the eager cash-in motivation, it was gratifyingly purposeful.

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In the second season, the creators of Agent Carter expertly retained what was already strong in the show and showed they’d been paying close attention to what they’d be. They downplayed the more muddled through lines and accentuated the smaller portions that proved winning. This working methodology practically bangs pans together and announces itself as the most logical approach for any showrunners to employ as a series progresses, but its amazing how often the opposite tack is taken, including, it must be said, by many of the other Marvel outings.

Peggy was liberated from the more dour environs of the first season’s New York City setting and whisked off to sunny California, a shift orchestrated with the ease of giving her a West Coast case to work. Since the Marvel movie mythos had already established Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) as a Howard Hughes avatar, it was similarly simple to wind Peggy’s exploits into the land of Hollywood, setting her against a megalomaniacal movie star named Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett).

The change of scenery was already enough to give Atwell more zingy moments to play, letting her be loose and charming as well as strident and strong. To further facilitate that, the second season gave plenty of screen time to Peggy’s interactions with Jarvis (James D’Arcy), devoted butler to Howard Stark. Again, this was no flailing attempt at ginning up some choice material. Atwell and D’Arcy demonstrated marvelous chemistry in their comparatively limited interactions in the first season. Collaborative showrunners Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, and Chris Dingess recognized and exploited a good thing.

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In the earlier season, Agent Carter could feel a little bound to its period setting without fully taking advantage of its possibilities. After the retro sets were built and the smashing costumes draped over the actors, there was little else to truly distinguish it as a piece of a fine fictional past. That’s also corrected in the second season, as the old Hollywood glamor is further stirred up by bullish gangsters straight of the film noir gems of the era. The show embraced and adapted the more stylish sensibility of the earlier creative era, giving it more texture, even if the obvious budget limitations meant there could only be so much panache to the visuals. Still, the tribute was pure and warm, as best exemplified by a dream sequence dance number that played out the various conflicts Peggy was going through.

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That willingness to play around — to upend expectations just slightly, as if inviting the audience in on the joke rather than trying to leave them rattled — was fully representative of one of the most vital qualities elevating the whole season. Agent Carter operated with a crackling joy at dressing up boundless imagination with just enough plausibility. In other words, the show felt like a really great old school Marvel comic book, right down to the jaunty pseudo-science built around goofy, imposing contraptions.

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Once more acknowledging that I’m about to deliver a compliment that indicates more creator thinking that should be commonplace but is actually somewhat revolutionary, the second season of Agent Carter committed itself to being fun. It is striking and a little sad that such a mindset qualifies as novel, but there it is. At nearly every turn — the bittersweet romantic entanglements, the mounting mania of the villains, the clever incorporation of first season villain Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan) into various schemes — the storytelling is sure-footed and inviting.

Reminiscent of some of the better Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, the second season of Agent Carter serves it corporate obligations while simultaneously  — maybe miraculously — coming across as an earnest realization of the more personal aspirations of those assembled for the singular project, as if every question that began “Wouldn’t it be great if…” was met with a resounding and cheerful, “Let’s do it!”

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two
Parks and Recreation, Season Three
Louie, Season Two
Togetherness, Season One
Braindead, Season One
Community, Season Two

That Championship Season: Community, Season Two

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It is dizzyingly appropriate that Community was a television series that eventually got swamped by its own behind-the-scenes backstory. From early in its run, Dan Harmon’s creation discarded most of its nominal overtures to sitcom convention in favor of demolishing any and all familiar tropes. The most basic summary of the show indicated that it was about a study group at a struggling community college. In actuality, Community was a television show about television shows, so enthralled with the clicking gears of traditional narrative that cracked the shell right off the machine, peering excitedly inside. It makes sense. That’s where all the action is.

Devoutly, defiantly strange, the show had no business being on a major network, and the executives at NBC, the program’s original home, never seemed to understand it. Even as the fans were engaged in a spirited, adoring dialogue with the show — utilizing then-upstart social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr — there was an air of bafflement to any official network and studio interaction with the show, up to the insane renewal to a fourth season without a corresponding invitation to return for Harmon, whose singular, obsessive vision provided the suspension cables to the dangerously swaying bridge. That drama combined with the fervent fan campaigns willing multiple seasons into existence — largely on the prompt of a single throwaway gag — to make Community about the construction of Community as much as it was about anything that actually made it to the screen for a Community episode.

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Before that whirlpool of self-reflection started its unstoppable swirl, Community was often a work of pure brilliance, offering a new standard for how inventive a comedy could be, at least if the particular were at all capable of being repeated. By its very nature, the show was destined to burn itself out. It wasn’t a candle lit at both ends; it was a stick of dynamite with a dozen fuses.

Given its postmodern, meta layering, Community could only get so far. Repeatedly demolishing and rebuilding a structure will always leave it rickety over time, no matter how much loving care goes into the process. Anyone laying odds surely would have pegged season two as the likely creative peak: characters and relationships have been established well enough to develop easily reachable story possibilities but the jolt of newness can still exist. The path is worn in, but not trampled into disrepair.

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What’s remarkable is just how good that second season is. In its exploitation of the possibilities — made more boundless by the narrative shenanigans that are key component — Community takes advantage of the strengths of classic narrative structure while brightly calling attention to the contrivances built right in. During the first season, the show skewed towards more specific spoofing — lifting directly from the likes of M*A*S*H and Goodfellas — but the second season took swings at genre more broadly, which, in a lovely paradox, actually allowed Harmon and his collaborators to be more specific. There were still little riffs that could be tied to a single pop culture predecessor, but there was a greater likelihood to parody material more generally: zombie and infection movies in “Epidemiology,” twisty mysteries in “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” and the whole range of action-based cinema in the spectacular paintball two-parter that closed the season.

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Even as the deconstructionist showmanship is the dominant personality trait of the season, the show the would stall out if there was little else going on. Harmon and his collaborators keep the material firmly grounded in character. As fun as it, in “Cooperative Calligraphy,” that the characters in a bottle episode are constantly discussing the rules and motivations of a bottle episode, it is ultimately the soundness of those characters — and the writers’ ability to shrewdly spark them off each other — that makes it work. Similarly, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” arguably the high point of the entire season, is fun as an excursion into the geekiest corner of geekdom, but it’s the way the episode still manages to offer revelatory glimpses of the people moving through the fiction that gives it resonance past the gimmick.

The improbable balance of the show is evident in the pendulum swings between churlishness and warmth. “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” takes bitter swipes at the storytelling shortcuts available to comedies that adopted a quasi-documentary format (notably The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family) and yet also slaloms convincing to genuinely poignant moments. And “Paradigms of Human Memory” parodies the laziness of clip shows by sprinkling in highlights of episodes that never happened, ingeniously deploying the offhand resolution of one of the will-they-or-won’t-they storylines of tedious necessity that the series included. It plays like an odd gesture of respect to the characters, wresting them from the threadbare cliche with a minimum of fuss.

That commitment to an internal emotional integrity that is at least as robust as that energy devoted to the the excitable storytelling card tricks is vital to the second season of Community. An exercise in meta-narrative, no matter how clever, can easily feel hollow. That problem is avoided by filling the empty space with heart. That explanation is itself a wincing cliche. But Harmon and company proved that knowing mockery of the tried and true doesn’t necessarily invalidate a simultaneous embrace of the strengths that made the narrative tactics overly familiar in the first place. Indeed, it may allow for the loving hug to be just a little bit tighter.

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Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two
Parks and Recreation, Season Three
Louie, Season Two
Togetherness, Season One
Braindead, Season One

That Championship Season: Braindead, Season One

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead has one particular expression that she delivers better than just about anyone else with an up-to-date SAG card among their personal belongings. Her wide eyes narrow a telling fraction as she surveys some bit of madness in front of her, skepticism and a whirring intellect operating in tandem as she sorts through the cognitive dissonance. Every subtle signal of her face shows that she’s graciously, warily pausing to give reality a chance to admit to the slipstream prank it’s trying to pull. Then, with a little exhale of emotion, she visibly accepts the upending of the plausible and starts in on the necessary mental recalibration for her new paradigm.

There has been ample display of this particular gift in 2016, in the face of unexpected bunkering and a potentially delusional castaway. Admirable as those endeavors might have been, this vital Hollywood resource was most effectively deployed in the service of the sadly under-viewed television series Braindead. In this election year that finds new ways to defy belief on a daily basis, Winstead is a helpful stand-in for us all.

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Created by Robert and Michelle King, who previously ushered The Good Wife into existence, Braindead casts Winstead as Laurel Healy, a fledgling documentary filmmaker from a gently dynastic political family. When she struggles to find funding for her latest film, she’s coerced into returning to Washington, D.C., where she’s employed as a constituent liaison by her senator brother, Luke (Danny Pino). Before long, she discovers the increasingly divisive environment in the U.S. government isn’t merely the natural evolution of a two-party system. The root cause is more fantastic. To reduce the situation to delightful simplicity, the extreme partisanship is attributable to an invasion of space bugs that burrow into the human, hollowing out the parts that allow for empathetic moderation. With the nation’s capital under siege from the stealthy grey matter chompers — the intergalactic insects like nesting in cherry blossoms — any chance at productive governance is shot.

In Braindead, the satire is thrillingly offbeat and yet thoroughly grounded in the reality of modern party politics. As opposed to much of the comedy that traffics in the stuff of news network punditry, Braindead is deft at skewering both sides of the aisle, in part because it doesn’t overtly seek the safety of entirely fictionalized issues. Practically every bit of cantankerous sparring is around the very topics that start the most heated Twitter battles. The creators obviously revel in exposing the hypocrisies of the right, but the left’s intellectual blind spots are given equal time in scorching punchlines. This isn’t a case of the “both sides do it” fallacy that the punditocracy uses to further fuel the discord. Instead, it’s indicative of narrative soundness. Choosing sides in the dramatic conflicts only serves to leave the storytelling problematically imbalanced.

The pivoting between sharp political banter and deliriously unhinged adherence to the rules of the slippery science fiction conceit leads to a more welcome imbalance, or at least spirited unpredictability. Some of the finest moments hinge on following concepts through in their logical illogic, occasionally issuing the snappy friction to instill some originality into otherwise well-worn tropes, such as the romance between Laurel and Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), the right hand man to GOP Senator “Red” Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub).

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The cheeky inspiration of the show is built into every element, including the recap that opens every episode. An absolutely necessity in a time of season-long arcs built for binging, Braindead sidesteps the typical and spoilery Lego tower of clips by employing Jonathan Coulton to troubadour his way through a weekly hyper-verbal ditty that includes all the major plot points a newcomer or a forgetful returner could want. What’s already a meta flourish gets pushed to giddily inventive levels throughout the season, with instances in which Coulton gives up on the convolutions of Braindead and recounts the plot of another show altogether or tunefully tears down the proverbial fourth wall. It’s a cute conceit, but it’s more than that, too. It ideally establishes the tone of the show: clever, charming, and comfortable in its somewhat shambling, ego-free intelligence.

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When she recently accepted her fifth straight Emmy for playing Selina Meyer on Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus apologized for inadvertently breaking down the wall between politics and comedy. She had a point. The actual electoral landscape has become so bleakly absurd that it nearly defies satire. In a half-decade on the air, Veep has gone from scabrous send-up portraying a version of Washington that reveals truths by being so much worst than what could feasibly be happening within the halls of power to a comedy that’s astoundingly two steps behind the inane mayhem taking place in the name of the citizenry. Veep didn’t change; the United States changed around it.

While I don’t honestly know for certain that CBS has confirmed there will never be a second season of Braindead, the dismal ratings for the show seem to offer a guarantee that no contract extensions will be drawn up. That might be for the best. Much as I enjoy Winstead’s work on the show, society as a whole is probably better off if Braindead doesn’t have an extended run that wields a similar dark magic as Veep. If she had to offer an echo of the Louis-Dreyfus speech from the Emmy stage five years from now, the world would be in trouble deep. The 2016 presidential campaign has already decisively proven that satire is more fun to watch than it is to live.

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Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two
Parks and Recreation, Season Three
Louie, Season Two
Togetherness, Season One

That Championship Season: Togetherness, Season One

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I don’t think the term “mumblecore” is flung around very much any more, but there was a time, not so long ago, it was tediously unavoidable in discussions about independent film. It supposedly described a certain kind of tone — ramshackle, understated, empathetic, wry — that was ubiquitous in the offerings from United States directors that had a home in art house theaters before the occasional Sundance-born bonanza twisted independent cinema into something more eager and rambunctious. Those who derided the mini-movement (in which almost no associated filmmaker actually claimed membership) fairly identified a lack of narrative discipline as a flaw. The movies that carried the banner, willingly or not, were low-key shrugs rather than rigorously whirring machines.

I think Mark and Jay Duplass were slotted in with the mumblecore crowd out a laziness fueled by handy chronology. Even so, the lax attention to the mechanics of plotting was a fair criticism of their filmmaking. Their creations were genial, but a little directionless, coming to the mile markers of the plot almost by happenstance. Everything they put into their films was good, but it wasn’t always purposeful. I assumed they needed to commit to making their work leaner and more focused. It turned out what they really needed was the additional elbow room afforded by a television series.

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Togetherness was co-created by the Duplass brothers, along with Steve Zissis. The Duplasses admitted part of their motivation in building the series was to provide a good role for Zissis, who’d they’d previously cast in several films. Zissis plays Alex Pappas, a character who’s surely highly autobiographical. A struggling actor who feels beat down by a cruel business, Pappas is walking, aching pathos. At last at the beginning of the series, he personifies loneliness and need. In doing so, he basically serves as the thesis statement of the whole series. He craves something that’s difficult to achieve. Togetherness is so vital because it’s so elusive.

Further proving the distance from aspiration to reality in the salve of human connection, there is the married couple at the front of the series. Brett and Michelle Pierson, played by Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey, are fully entangled with a handsome house and full family. They’re also feeling the strain of disconnection, mentally and physically. Much of the series’s impact comes from the honest, agonizing depiction of people who repeatedly and helplessly sabotage their own needs, often seeming to do so as they watch with slow motion awareness of the wreckage they’re creating. That’s found in the fermenting dysfunction of the Piersons, and it’s present with more of a road flare intensity in Michelle’s sister, Tina Morris, played by Amanda Peet.

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Though television has evolved to accommodate a longform narrative model in which one great big story is chopped into pieces, it is still at its best — at its most comfortable, perhaps — when it is truly episodic, basically comprised of a succession of subplots that eventually add up to something more. That suits the Duplass brothers and it gives Togetherness the ideal thematic shape, as if the fiction itself is fumbling towards meaning with the same yearning and hesitancy as the characters.

The whole series (which lasted only two seasons, during which HBO seemed perplexed about it fit into their overall brand) is about the gaps between people: the ways they form and the ways they widen. The first season is also shaded by the ways adulthood becomes crushing in its own right, as it relentlessly erodes the certainty of youth. Togetherness smells like middle-aged angst. For the most part, the characters try to recapture what they’ve lost, the elation of that bygone confidence, with benign digressions, like air drumming to Rush in a parked car or facing off against a bevy of entitled hipsters in an impromptu game of kick the can. It can also manifest in far more damaging behavior, like an illicit hotel room rendezvous, a situation that the Duplasses deliver in a season-ending sequence that is directed like an intense suspense thriller, rivaling the final scene of The Sopranos in its transformation of the mundane into a portentous pummeling of the emotions.

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In general, succinctness and brevity are positive attributes in filmmaking, especially as more and more releases stretch to undue length in a misguided attempt at projecting importance. Watching other creations from the Duplass brothers, I occasional thought they needed a tough-minded editor. The first season of Togetherness argued the opposite. They simply needed more time to push into deeper truths.

 

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two
Parks and Recreation, Season Three
Louie, Season Two

That Championship Season: Louie, Season Two

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I recently ruminated on the vexing issue of ascribing authorship when evaluating cinema. That dilemma is even more pronounced when it comes to television programs. While we’re solidly into the era that venerates showrunners, television is undoubtedly an even more collaborative medium than film. Unless a program is being overseen by a near obsessive, such as David Milch, or a narcissistic self-sabotage artist, like Nic Pizzolatto, there’s sure to be a dizzying array of voices contributing to the creative process. One person may grab the baton and conduct, but the whole choir delivers the song. One of the satisfying pleasures of Louie, then, is that it comes as close as a multi-episode television endeavor can to being the platonic ideal of a single author creation. Louis C.K. is the star, producer, director, and writer throughout season two (sharing a writing credit with co-star Pamela Adlon on one episode), and he famously brokered a deal with FX that effectively prevented them from providing any unsolicited feedback on the work. No writers’ room, no network notes, no ideas lobbed by others that weren’t actively sought by C.K.

Of course, the appeal of that certainty is enhanced by the not insignificant detail that Louie stands as a tremendous accomplishment, arguably the high water mark in the flood of quality programming to be found in the so-called “Peak TV” era. From the beginning, C.K. operated with an agreeably downbeat shuffle that seemed plucked straight from the indie film playbook, especially the pages that were consulted most frequently during the nineteen-eighties, when casual understatement was most prized. Initially, he had a scuffling disregard for the rules of episodic television, blithely ignoring the sort of world-building — firmly established supporting cast, overarching storylines, recurring conflicts — intended to keep audiences hooked, coming back for new episodes out of a necessity to continue their commitment, not stepping away until the whole series reached completion. Instead, C.K. made a series that felt like a series of storytelling riffs, some comic and some more somber. Some of the more contrarian aspects of his creativity would eventually slip away, though he always operated by his own shifting set of guidelines, but the totally unique tone remained. He was clearly making what he wanted, how he wanted.

While the whole run is complex and rewarding, season two is the clear peak, if only because of the thrill that comes with watching C.K.’s sharp, exploratory sensibility cohere. Challenging as it is on most levels, the first season could occasionally step back into the safety of goofball absurdity, undercutting any external attempts to take it too seriously. Like one of those great early records by the Replacements, C.K. mitigates the risks he was taking by including moments that signaled a lack of serious intent. Plausible deniability is built right in, just in case someone levels mortifying criticism at the more heartfelt material. In season two, C.K. is more bold, directly addressing his own professional and personal anxieties in a manner that feels intensely vulnerable. He offers a consideration of the grind of his profession in an episode guest starring Joan Rivers and addresses a long-standing grievance related to Dane Cook’s theft of his stand-up material, casting the comic with smug rock star affectations in a phenomenal extended scene that is fiction informed by the schism of real-life lingering animosity.

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Consistently throughout the season, C.K. tests the patience of the audience. This isn’t done in the same way as a cinematic sadist like Lars von Trier, but instead with an undercurrent of reassurance. There’s a resonant sense that C.K. is excited by the unconventional maneuvers he employs (an extended subway set piece that shows how beauty and ugliness coexist in New York City, a scene in which he sings along to “Who Are You” while driving in the car) and truly believes that whatever initial skepticism the audience might have will fall away. He implicitly asks for trust, and constantly rewards it.

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C.K. shifted the axis of his stand-up career when he started following George Carlin’s advice to regularly scrap established material and start from scratch. C.K. noted the results were clear and unavoidable: “And I thought, well OK, when you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs and you throw those away, what do you have left? You can only dig deeper, start talking about your feelings and who you are.” When Carlin did that, he got fiercely political. C.K. instead veered to the personal, expressing his stress about being a father, a husband (and then ex-husband), and decent human being. That aspect of his creative voice becomes prominent in Louie, as well, with C.K. striving to get a new home to share with his daughters that is free of the burden of unhappy memories or laying his heart on the line for a woman he’s sure will never love him back (in a monologue that the twenty-year-old version of me, foolishly enraptured by romantic misery, would have memorized with pitiful pride).

The brilliant hour-long episode “Duckling,” a precursor to some of the longer form storytelling C.K. employed in later seasons, is the quintessential example of the self revelation that informed season two, made all the more impressive because it largely takes place while C.K. in on a USO tour in the Middle East, far from the now-recurring characters who presumably provide easy entry to exploring his conflicted emotions. A fictionalized memoir of C.K.’s actual time on such a tour, complete with fellow performers from that trip cast as themselves, it has the unmistakable heft of a truly transformative experience shared with grace and humility. As is often the case, its the unexpected distance from that which holds the greatest sway over someone that makes the power its pull most clear.

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By C.K.’s reckoning, Louie is likely done, as it probably should be. Exceptional as it is as a television series, it does feel like the establishing of a creative voice, a testing of range. C.K. has moved on to another episodic work that plays like an extension of his sensibility, but structured with a whole other set of daring risks. So much of Louie is about establishing an admirable dictum: never settle. There’s surely no better way to honor that part of the vision — to preserve its purity — than to move on. There are new, different heights to reach.

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two
Parks and Recreation, Season Three

That Championship Season: Parks and Recreation, Season Three

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The Bob Newhart Show never won an Emmy. In fact, the seminal sitcom was almost a non-presence at the annual awards ceremony meant to identify and honor the best of the best of broadcast television. Across six seasons, The Bob Newhart Show earned a mere four nominations, and one of those was in the category of “Outstanding Film Editing in a Comedy Series.” It’s easy to attribute that to the series built around a certain button-down mind existing at the same as some of the most important, groundbreaking sitcoms in the history of television, such as All in the Family and M*A*S*H, but the year after the sole Outstanding Comedy Series nomination for The Bob Newhart Show, one of the shows that replaced it in the line-up was Three’s Company. I’m convinced that forty years from now the similar lack of awards love for Parks and Recreation will be viewed as equally egregious.

Though Parks and Recreation never won a single Emmy, Amy Poehler was at least a mainstay in the Outstanding Lead Actress in Comedy Series category, as it should have been. As Leslie Knope, the most dedicated municipal employee imaginable, Poehler built an indelible character, and one fairly unique for television. A flawed first season found creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels mistakenly locking the show into the same groove that they etched with their work on The Office, including hobbling Leslie with a strain of eager incompetence. They learned, though, and probably drew from the famously forceful capability of their star in making alterations to the character. Leslie emerged as chipper and capable, occasionally prone to rash certainty in her interactions with others, but generous and insightful. Most sitcoms would then resort to making Leslie the straight woman reacting to the mayhem around her, piling quirky traits onto the supporting characters. One of the small revolutions of Parks and Recreation is the way it allows Leslie to perform effectively in her job and yet still be funny, the necessary conflicts for pointed comedy growing out the character’s strident fortitude rather than pitiful bumbling.

While the series grew significantly stronger in its sophomore year, the following season is when it completely locked in and hit its peak. Schur, a joyful apostle of Cheers, demonstrated a willingness to bring some pliability to the series, likely informed by the successful transitions the Boston barroom sitcom made over the years. The groundwork was laid at the end of the second season, with the departure of city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) and arrival of a pair of state auditors (Rob Lowe and Adam Scott) whose mandate number-crunching threatens the entire department. Not only were the dynamics different, they felt settled and fully correct for the first time in the run of the series, especially as the writers quickly determined how to write to the two new cast members’ talents, handing Lowe the hyper-alert, otherworldly positivity of Chris Traeger and investing Scott’s Ben Wyatt with layers of uniquely endearing pathos that incorporated darker humor in a natural way.

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The Parks and Recreation team managed to launch the third season with something as important as the continued viability of the very setting of the series at stake. They also wisely found a mission that extended beyond the usual will-they-or-they-won’t-they romantic plot that has been the most common through line for series ever since Schur’s beloved Cheers formulated that particular steel storytelling mold. To prove the value of the parks department, Leslie and her cohorts revive the Harvest Festival, a bygone tradition in their quaint Indiana town of Pawnee. Nearly half the season is touched by preparations for the event, and it gives the writers a solid base to keep returning to, effectively serving as a safeguard from going too far afield, as was the case with something like the disastrously cartoonish season two episode “Sister City.” Parks and Recreation always had room for outright silliness, but it was at its strongest when it was committed to the reality of its setting, when it mirrored the modesty of its Midwestern small town.

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There is another way that season three rejected the sitcom trope of romantic pining beset by complicating setbacks, and it is representative of the humane quality that is arguably the greatest strengths of the series. While there’s an allowance that love is not arrived at easily, the show continually presents relationships that are thoughtful, healthy, and mutually giving, particularly when the onscreen chemistry between actors is such that any forced separation would play as a cheap contrivance. It was already a splendid epiphany to intertwine the lives of Chris Pratt’s puppyish Andy Dwyer and Aubrey Plaza’s April Ludgate. In season three, the creators take the relationship completely seriously without undercutting the characters’ individuality or forcing them to mature before taking major next steps. Mid-season episode “Andy and April’s Fancy Party” finds the characters holding an impromptu wedding, depicted not as impetuous foolishness (though that’s Leslie’s initial reaction) but a honest, accurate expression of who they are.

parks wedding

At the same time, the show draws together Leslie and Ben, another natural merging given shared propensity for pursuing passions almost compulsively. If they don’t fall together easily, it is through wholly believable reticence instead of the labored manipulations of fiction. In another rarity, the show also acknowledges the very real challenge of a romance that has its genesis in a workplace. Artfully developed across the whole season, Leslie and Ben’s relationship grows and shifts in subtle ways until their togetherness feels inevitable. There’s tremendous patience on display, which only cements the eventual soundness of the pairing.

In general, Parks and Recreation operates with affection as its fuel. There is a place for mockery, to be certain, but the prevailing tone is one of appreciation. The small town foibles, the nagging needs and worries of the characters, the sometimes clumsy quest for a bit of contentment are fodder for comedy, though not subject to derision. By season three, Pawnee was beginning to develop a rich inner pulse that rivaled that of Springfield in the first decade of The Simpsons, when consistency of place still mattered. Pawnee was not a place of random weirdos, populating town meetings indiscriminately. Instead, it had an internal watchworks that operated with consistency, allowing for the grand tinkering of episodic fiction. Nothing was purely throwaway. An undersized horse named Li’l Sebastian could be introduced to serve as an example of the way cities create their own icons, the stirring appeal forever elusive to outsiders, but then brought back later as a plot detail with surprising poignancy.

Everything that contributed to the enduring facility of Parks and Recreation came into its full fruition during the third season. That combined with the freshness of a show early enough in its run that it hadn’t yet exhausted its own possibilities — there were only so many times Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) could launch a new entrepreneurial venture or Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) could prove to care more than he initially let on — led to the series playing at its highest level (thought the following season, grounded in Leslie’s run for city council, comes admirably close to this pinnacle). Even Emmy voters were impressed, giving the series its first nomination as Outstanding Comedy Series. It lost, of course, one of many felled by Modern Family during its largely undeserved streak of five straight wins in the category. Just as I’m guessing most believe The Bob Newhart Show must have cleaned up on awards night at some point or another during its run, I’d like to think a similar misconception will arise for future viewers of episodes from the third season of Parks and Recreation. In the ever self-congratulatory entertainment industry, something this good had to inspire a trophy changing hands at some point or another, right?

parks sebastian

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two

That Championship Season: Justified, Season Two

justified

By now, there are enough smart, fitting adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s work to the screen — big and small — that it obscures the long, problematic history the prolific writer had when turning his work over to Hollywood. And it wasn’t from lack of trying. According to some sources, there have been over two dozen whacks at transforming Leonard’s fiction, which is lean enough to sometimes read as if it’s a script treatment, into film or television. Even though it seemed the curse was broken with 1995’s Get Shorty, a story fittingly inspired by Leonard’s dismal encounters with Hollywood studios, there were still plenty of dire and doomed adaptations to come, interspersed with only the occasional winner. So there was plenty of cause to be skeptical about Justified. Officially based on the Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole,” the television series was the handiwork of Graham Yost, who’d previously left his fingerprints on some pretty terrible screenplays and dubiously received solo credit for one great one that he’s the first to acknowledge owes an enormous debt to the doctoring work of Joss Whedon. And yet, Justified, at its very best, might represent the pinnacle of Leonard adaptations. The second season of the show is clearly Justified at its very best.

j raylan

Leonard was famously impatient with flowery language and elliptical routes to the point, so I’ll get straight to it: the second season of Justified is the best stretch the series ever had mostly because of the strength of the storyline centered on mountain matriarch Mags Bennett, played masterfully by Margo Martindale, duly rewarded with an Emmy for her efforts. Justified usually had a surprising amount of plot in play, but it prospered with the tried and true approach of gently easing through a season-long story, usually dominated by (in the parlance of Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) one “Big Bad,” while giving individual episodes their own spine with a case of the week, or at least some dilemma that could be solved before the allotted hour (with commercials) was up. One of the gratifying pleasures of Season Two is the way those week-to-week stories fed into the larger whole, like tributaries building a creek into a torrential river.

Even as the series is striking the perfect balance between big picture vision and incremental storytelling, it is simultaneously settling into proper place, figuring out the best methods to build some longevity into the work. At times in the first season, it seemed that Yost and company operated under the assumption that their efforts would be as short-lived as other adaptations of Leonard’s work for television. They didn’t exactly write themselves into corners, but there was less world-building than tracking through the first couple acts without all that much of a sense as to how long the third act would then have to last. Justified, then, spends time getting cars on the proper tracks to keep the show going: providing Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) motivation to stay in the Kentucky office he was transferred to against his preferences, better defining the relationships between the various supporting characters, and, maybe most importantly, positioning Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a character that wasn’t exactly supposed to have longevity, to be an enduring antagonist. Eventually, the need to keep escalating Boyd’s menace while keeping him in play would strain the credibility of the series. At this point, though, his position as a dangerous, unapprehended criminal presence in Harlan County still made sense.

j boyd

Still, the exceptional quality of the season all comes back to Mags and the rest of the Bennett clan. The potency of the story begins with the critical yet often forgotten truism that a villain is best if they don’t really operate as a villain, perpetrating actions out of pure malevolence. That makes for hollow fiction, and it’s something that occasionally dogged Justified in the future when it indulged in sadistic characters like Robert Quarles (in Season Three, played with admirable gusto by Neal McDonough) and Boon (in Season Six, played with one off-key note by Jonathan Tucker). Mags, however, does terrible things for reasons that she can clearly justify as part of a greater good for herself and her family. Sometimes her actions stem from an overblown sense of hill-folk honor and sometimes they result from her reckoning of the machinations necessary to reach an end goal of familial security. The story becomes more compelling because every decision is traceable and understandable, even those that are abhorrent.

j mags

Within the structure of the season, Yost and his team gift the actors with rich, delicious material and wisely let them blaze through it, whether with beautiful unhinged creativity (the invaluable Jeremy Davies as Dickie Bennett) or unyieldingly raw emotion (Kaitlyn Dever as Loretta McReady, a part she started playing when she was barely a teenager). Rewatching episodes now, I’m surprised at how direct and punchy the the language is. It’s still clever and sharp, but the writers’ room mantra clearly echoed Leonard’s own less is more (or at least enough, dammit) philosophy. The show would evolve to the point where a character would correctly describe Boyd’s manner of speaking as “using forty words where four will do,” as if Leonard’s sensibility was being juiced up with syringe blasts of David Milch’s roundabout elocutions (every time another Deadwood alumnus arrived on set, the writers propensity for intricately verbose monologues of pungent pontificating bloomed like a spreading meadow of voluptuously odiferous wildflowers increased exponentially). Much as I enjoyed the pile-up of words that would eventually become the norm on Justified, the tighter approach to the writing is ultimately more satisfying. Of course, that’s a prime takeaway from the Leonard lesson plan.

If there was any doubt Leonard agreed Justified stood as one of the more successful adaptations of his work (though I’m not sure he ever accepted the hat worn by the character), it was surely eliminated by the author’s decision to revisit the main character a new novel, entitled simply Raylan, released in 2012. Those pages in turn fed the storytelling of the third season, basically creating a narrative fiction circle of life. Further solidifying the importance of Justified in Leonard’s mighty legacy, Raylan was the novel published before his death, in 2013. The book even had a picture of Olyphant on the cover. It couldn’t be clearer. After years — decades, really — of mixed results, someone besides Leonard finally got Leonard right.

j apple pie

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four