That Championship Season — Raising Hope, Season Three

raising-hope

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

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

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

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

hope delorean

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

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

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

raising hope wedding

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

hope earl

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

Previously…

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

That Championship Season — Firefly, Season One

firefly

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

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

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

firefly-train-job

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

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

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

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

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

firefly first serenity

Previously…

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

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

himym

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

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

HIMYM bar

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

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

HIMYM car

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

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

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

HIMYM sparkles

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

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

HIMYM wedding

 

Previously…

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

That Championship Season — Treme, Season One

treme title

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

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

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

treme parade

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

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

treme dj davis

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

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

treme chef

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

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

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

treme smoke

Previously…

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

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.

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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