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

That Championship Season — The Leftovers, Season Three

leftovers 3 intro

My journey with The Leftovers was, I suspect, fairly typical. Upon its debut, I committed space to the series on the DVR, because it aired on HBO, and it’s basically obligatory as a pop culture devotee to at least sample every new program of significance on the cable channel. Adapted from the novel of the same name by series co-creator Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers focuses on the tilted lives of people existing in a world in which a small percentage of the population suddenly disappeared one day, with no explanation in sight. There were no wild imaginings about how society might recalibrate itself or edifices of civility crumbling into the rubble of a dystopian future. There were simply wounded, recognizable people, shuffling through days marked by grief and confusion.

From the start, I was impressed by the show’s fearless commitment to a bleak outlook, often manifested in the darkest of humor. And yet something didn’t entirely click into place for me. I was even perilously close to quitting altogether after watching the third episode, which closed in on small town reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), delivering upon him the careening fantastical good fortune and cruel fate comeuppance that struck me as an unfortunate echo of the very worst of Lost, the earlier program of The Leftovers series co-creator Damon Lindelof. I stuck it out, ready to snap off the mental commitment at the sign of a similar infraction. Luckily, three episodes later came “Guest,” a showcase for Carrie Coon as Nora Durst, a woman who’d had the notable bad luck of losing her husband and both her children in the even known as the Sudden Departure. It was a powerhouse and the first unimpeachable signal of the brilliance the creators of The Leftovers were onto.

In truth, the second season can be tough sledding, too. The series finds a sharper focus and clearer momentum when it moves into a Texas town that made headlines as one of the only places on the planet that didn’t lose any citizens to the Sudden Departure. The community has been transformed into a bunkered National Park, selectively letting people in for desperate pilgrimages.

The third season, though, is as good as any stretch of television I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of television.

leftovers church

The season opens with a set piece that establishes theme and tone rather than plot, depicting the Sisyphean actions of a nineteen century religious sect that believed the Rapture was imminent, set to the song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” by the nineteen-seventies Christian pop group the Good News Circle. It was hardly the first time The Leftovers strayed from the confines of its chief narrative to make an impression, but purposefulness and ingenuity were like girders of steel to the sequence. To a degree, it’s simply storytelling tomfoolery, offering a pledge of unpredictability as much as anything. But it immediately feels vital, underscoring the universal nature of the series themes. Humanity has always been twisted up in the uncertainty and futility of belief. And it always will be.

As with the leap from the first to second seasons, The Leftovers wastes little time establishing a change of scenery. Though the season begins in Texas, orchestrations are quickly afoot to carry most of the cast to Australia.

leftovers 3 passport

Densely constructed, there’s too much detail to reasonably recount here. In some ways, it’s more satisfying to list off the significant plot elements that come in and out of play: a new bible being written around the exploits of former police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the certainty of Kevin’s father (Scott Glenn) that he must collect Aboriginal chants to stomp an impending second Sudden Departure, a device that can supposedly send people to encounter those who’d previously departed, the mere existence of an Australia sex party boat celebrating the legend of a nineteen-seventies swinger lion.

In the mere describing, it all sounds absurd. Sometimes it plays out — deliberately so — as absurd, too. And yet it’s also all poignant, true, meaningful. This is a series that once pulled off the feat of making a karaoke performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” in a purgatory hotel bar into a scene of profound emotional power. It’s as if the creative team asking themselves if they could be that audaciously inventive across an entire season of television. And then they resounding answered in the affirmative.

leftovers 3 missiles

Material like this needs actors who are all in, scraping to find the streaks of honesty within the most lunatic imaginings. Theroux is a marvel as Kevin, drawing upon a endless variety of expressions of perplexed anguish. And there’s grand work from Eccleston, Glenn, Amy Brenneman (as Kevin’s ex-wife, Laurie), and Regina King (briefly, but memorably, as Erika, a neighbor from Texas and confidante of Nora). The clear standout, though, is Coon. Nora is simultaneously defiant and bereft, operating with forceful certainty and yet almost entirely astray. She’s a fierce cynic and an aching believer all in one.

The third season was the last for The Leftovers, and the title of the finale, “The Book of Nora” (which mirrors the season premiere, titled “The Book of Kevin”), suggests that Nora has been the core character all along. In the particulars, Kevin has gone on the wildest ride — almost literally to Hell and back — but in the soul, which is what the show is resonantly about, Nora is the one whose life has been the stormiest of seas. Coon plays that tumult without hesitation, but also with wise restraint. She’s masterful.

leftovers nora depart

I can say with certainty that the third season of The Leftovers is phenomenal and the two leading up to it are of wavering quality. And yet I can’t imagine watching the third season in isolation and feeling the same impact. There’s no mysteries that couldn’t be puzzled out easily enough, I don’t think, nor are the various callbacks necessarily so joyfully nostalgic that stripping them of familiarity would doom the experience.

Instead, part of the triumph of the third season is the way it feels like a proper culmination of all that’s come before. Again, this is less in the rigors of the narrative than in the artful realization of all of the ideas flowing through the series, sometimes with such cascading force ground was eroded that would have been better preserved. The enveloping contentment of the final season is less in the unlikely steering toward hopeful perseverance than in the snapping realization that all that was once unwieldy has been smartly contained and controlled. Living with that aspect of the long creative process adds to the potency of the series’ last lap. The beauty embedded within The Leftovers, especially in its closing moments, wasn’t found. It was earned.

leftovers 3 nora cry

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 Carter, Season Two

That Championship Season: Agent Carter, Season Two

agent carter opening

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.

agent carter 1

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.

agent carter 3

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.

agent carter 2

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.

agent carter 4

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.

agent carter 5

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

community

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.

rocket

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.

halloween

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.

conspiracy

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.

D&D

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

Braindead logo.png

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.

braindead 1.png

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).

braindead 2.png

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.

braindead 3.png

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.

braindead 4.png

 

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

togetherness title.png

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.

togetherness tom.png

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.

togetherness kick.png

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.

togetherness finale.png

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