True confessions: I liked True Detective, Season 2

true-detective-season-2-colin-farrellI liked the sophomore season of True Detective. There, I said it.

A heady mix of mob politics, police drama and introspective narrative, season 2 was a lot to digest, particularly since it came on the heels of the relatively simple (although masterfully executed) format of the first season.

This season gave us four tragic co-stars, each with their own motivations and back story (an ambitious undertaking for the writers). From the moment we met each of them, we knew things would never be wrapped in a pretty bow for Frank (Vince Vaughn), Ray (Colin Farrell), Ani (Rachel McAdams), and Paul (Taylor Kitsch).

Much has been written of Farrell’s performance as Ray Velcoro, particularly of that Lynch-esque, Conway Twitty look-alike, bar scene. While the critics seem to have disliked almost everything else about the show, they have lauded Farrell’s portrayal of the conflicted, failed detective. On this, we are in agreement.

As Frank Semyon, Vaughn easily shed his big-screen, goofball image for this complicated character study. Watching him juggle his roles as king of the Vinci underworld and husband/potential father/ wounded son, I found myself hoping that he could somehow leave the streets for a legitimate lifestyle. But alas, he was doomed from the start (time is a flat circle) and he delivered one of the most gut-wrenching, haunting, death scenes that I’ve seen in a while. After that final episode, I couldn’t sleep.

McAdams also showed hidden depth as Ani, tackling emotionally charged scenes with her father, sister and male coworkers and carrying that intense sex-party scene that was reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut.

Of the four leads, Paul Woodrugh (Kitsch) probably suffered the most from the writer’s challenge to fit so much story into 8 episodes. There were glimpses into Woodrugh’s true self but there was no time to really delve in. Maybe that was the point. Viewers – like his wife, mother and friends – never really knew who he was.

I’ll admit, at times the dense story and multitude of subplots were confusing. And it was tough to keep the names of minor and supporting characters straight. But overall, the writers delivered a complex story with artistic, noir elements that kept me coming back each week.

The ending was bleak. The bad guys won. There was no hard-won redemption for Frank or Ray. No long lost loves reuniting on the white sand beaches of Venezuela. After a couple weeks to digest it, I’m OK with this. It was tough to see both Frank and Ray die such awful deaths. But it would have felt contrived if it ended any other way. Also, I can sympathize with the need of the writers to mix it up after last season ended with both major characters surviving.

Given some time, perhaps other critics will agree with me on this one – dense, dark and imperfect, season 2 was worth watching.

Blurring the lines: Orange is the New Black Season 3 Review

Orange is the New Black Season 3One of the truest marks of a great show is how it does coming off of one of its best seasons. For a lot of shows, seasons 3 and 4 can be tough – the show is established in its first season, and usually hits a good pace in season 2, and can sometimes struggle to keep up and maintain focus in season 3.

After an amazing sophomore set of episodes, Orange is the New Black came back earlier this month with a solid season, albeit one that lacked some of the momentum of its predecessor.

Notably lacking a “big bad” like Vee, the show bounced around, alternately showing the current situations and origins of the women of Litchfield. At times funny (Felonious Spunk) and at times poignantly sad (who knew we could feel so much for Pensatucky?), it played out like a series of vignettes.

All of the characters are evolving, and it speaks to the strength of the writing that they can grow and reveal new aspects of themselves without losing the audience. Take Pensatucky (Taryn Manning), for example. This season, we find her a quieter, softer version of herself – dare I say humbled by her experiences, she is questioning her sense of self and learning to accept that there are some gray areas in life. Her friendship with Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) seemed odd at first, but by the end of the season, it was one of my favorite storylines. Life has hardened both of these women, and yet somehow, in the end, they make the right choice with the donut-pushing, rapist guard, Coates.

Most surprisingly, I was touched by Black Cindy’s (Adrienne C. Moore) conversion, which started out as a way to get kosher meals, and ended up as a sincere coming of age moment for a woman who, as the new counselor Berdie said of the inmates, seemed to have the emotional maturity of a child.

These high points were offset by Piper’s (Taylor Schilling) evolution. While her new criminal enterprise was amusing at times (her prison yard rallying cry was memorable and her conversations with her brother brought some levity), I didn’t completely buy her newfound lack of empathy and hardened attitude. And although I love the addition of Ruby Rose (beautifully androgynous and captivating on screen as Stella), her talent seemed to be wasted in the love triangle with Piper and Vause (Laura Prepon). Frankly, I just didn’t care that much.

Overall, I’d give the season a B-. I enjoyed it and devoured the episodes, and there is plenty to look forward to next year. Is Vause going to make it out of that garden shed alive? What will happen when the celebrity chef joins the Litchfield gang? And how will all the inmates (and guards) deal with what looks to be a massive influx of new prisoners?

I’ll definitely be tuning in to find the answers to those questions, with the hope that there is a little more focus.

I almost fell off my treadmill…

Michelle Fairley’s performance as the tragic Catelyn was unforgettable.
Michelle Fairley’s performance as the tragic Catelyn was unforgettable.

…a few times this year.

First a little background. Ever since I had my daughter 18 months ago, I don’t have as much time. I know – it’s the story of every parent’s life. I’m not complaining, but it means less time for TV, writing and running, three of my personal passions.

I bought a treadmill last fall and managed to combine two of my loves, TV and running into a one-hour time slot every morning at about 5 a.m. I haven’t figured out a way to run, watch and write, so the blog has suffered. My apologies.

Watching TV while running is an experience. Those of you who do it often know what I mean. An exciting show with a lot of action, like Arrow, means you are pumped up and running strong. Slow-burner dramas like The Americans or Justified mean you might be slogging along through a lot of good dialogue, constantly turning the TV up so you can hear the characters over your breathing and the sound of your feet hitting the deck.

And then there are those jaw-dropping moments when right in the middle of a run, a show comes out of left field, my mouth gapes open, and I scramble to avoid falling off the treadmill. There were a few of those this year. You know the ones – the real gut punchers. Like the episode of The Walking Dead where Laurie died. Or the episode of Sons of Anarchy where Opie got killed in prison.

Then on Sunday you had Game of Thrones and the now-infamous Red Wedding. I haven’t read the books, so I wasn’t expecting the massacre, and once again, I nearly fell off the treadmill when I watched it on Monday morning. I’m not going to recap – there are plenty of blogs out there that have already done so (here’s a good one. It should suffice to say that I was deeply moved and emotionally disturbed by the entire scene, especially Michelle Fairley’s performance as the tragic Catelyn.

The one drawback to watching TV at 5 a.m. on the treadmill is that it is a solitary venture. So I’m lucky on days like Monday that I have my co-blogger, Mark, to talk to. It’s like a water cooler therapy session. And I have you too, people of the Internet. Thanks for being there.

Arrow through my heart

arrowThe mid-season TV break gives us all a chance to catch up – on a good book (in my case, One Shot by Lee Child), a movie or two (we watched a lot of old favorites on Blu-Ray including Zombie, Day of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, They Live and House By the Cemetery), or a show that you didn’t have time for during the jam-packed regular schedule. For me, that show was Arrow.

I watched one episode of Arrow when it started in the fall, so I knew it had potential (unlike Beauty and the Beast, also on CW, which I decided was a hopeless mess after two episodes – really, don’t get me started). After watching the rest of the first part of the season of Arrow, I will definitely be adding this to my weekly watch list.

First off, Stephen Amell, who plays Oliver Queen/Arrow, is an excellent actor. And he is very easy on the eyes. He’s the type of guy who you just know is destined for bigger things – I could see him in big-budget action movies or opposite popular starlets in romantic comedies in the years to come. The rest of the cast is also great – his bodyguard-turned-partner, Diggle; his scheming mother; his sometimes-annoying but overall likable sister; his rich-boy best friend; and of course his love interest, Laurel.

And you don’t have to be a fan of the Green Arrow comics, or comics in general. I’ve never read them, and I enjoy the show just the same. If you want the perspective of someone who has, Mark might be able to chime in. For the non-fans, the show gives plenty of back-story in the form of flashbacks to the island.

A lot of people might be turned off by the fact that Arrow is on the CW. I happen to like the CW, but I will say this show breaks their mold of high-school, boyfriend-girlfriend drama. It’s really just a solid drama with lots of action and intrigue, as well as a little romance. So if you have a chance, check it out when it comes back on Jan. 16 at 8 p.m.

Two for January

While most of the shows I watch are on hiatus, I’ve been catching up on Arrow. And thinking about these two new shows that I will definitely tune in for:

  • AmericansThe Americans on FX: Home to two of my favorite dramas (Sons of Anarchy and Justified), FX has proven it can produce a quality show that keeps me coming back for more each week.  Set in the 1980s, this show is about a couple of Russian spies living in America. Starring Felicity’s Keri Russell, the show has a lot of promise, even if the promos have been light on details.So far, FX has outlined the following plot. Russell and co-star Matthew Rhys are two spies living in an arranged marriage. They have two kids, who don’t know anything about their spy lives. And they live next door to an FBI agent involved in counterintelligence. They have to balance their allegiance to their homeland with a growing affinity for the American way of life.
  • FollowingThe Following on FOX: Let me start out by saying I love Kevin Bacon. So I would probably watch just about anything he was in, small or big screen. He’s just one of those great actors who has proven over time to be adept at taking on a variety of roles, both light and heavy. And of course, it helps that Kevin Williamson (producer of The Vampire Diaries and the Scream movies) is at the helm.
    Bacon plays a broken cop on the hunt for a serial killer who uses his fans as his instruments of killing. The promo is gritty and compelling, and the production value looks excellent – you might even think you are watching a movie trailer.

Will you be checking out either of these shows? Is there anything else new on TV that I should be checking out?

When good shows disappoint

They are coming...and they are a total bummer.
They are coming…and they are a total bummer.

This is a tough post to write, because it’s a critique of two shows that I used to love. And while I still tune in to these shows, they just aren’t what they used to be.

First, Fringe. When Fringe started out, it was brilliant. In the tradition of The X-Files, Fringe was a clever mix of monster-of-the-week and recurring mythology. Even when the show made the leap of introducing an alternate universe, I was right there with it. And where many shows falter, it proved to be genius in bringing together its two main characters, Peter and Olivia.

But let’s face it, Fringe is the kind of show that doesn’t reach a wide audience. Although excellent, it is just too heavy for the mainstream viewer. So each year, I was surprised when it was renewed. And last year, I think the show’s creators were even a bit surprised, as the season finale would have made a perfect series ending.

Alas, the show was renewed, and my worst fears for it have come to pass. The one-off episode focused on the Observers from last year paved the way for this season. And instead of that brilliant mix of monster-of-the-week and mythology, it has become a bleak, dystopian mini-series. Each episode drags on, and the characters lack their original appeal. Frankly, if it weren’t in the final few episodes, I’m not sure I would continue watching.

I'm not drinking the Bones Kool-Aid.
I’m not drinking the Bones Kool-Aid.

Next, Bones. Now, you probably think I’m upset about Bones and Booth as a couple (the dreaded Moonlighting curse). But that’s not my gripe with the show. I do think the way Bones and Booth came together could have been handled better, but I’m over it. My real problem with the show is the lack of focus and the degradation of the characters. Bones basically comes across as a robot – with such lines (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) as “He is upset because this is a dead child and he has a little boy” and “I get it, it’s funny because you wouldn’t put a murder in a children’s book.” Seriously? Bones is a novelist and a mother, and she seemingly has no emotional depth. In years past, she struggled with empathy, but she seemed to be on a path to discovering herself. She never seemed so wooden as she does now. And Booth is about as interesting as a yard tool at Sears.

This show was at its peak during the long-term story arc of the Gravedigger. Now, it just seems to meander from episode to episode with no real direction. And don’t even get me started on the 9/11 episode, which was so flawed on so many levels.

I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on these points. And don’t get me wrong, I’m still tuning in, so there are obviously some redeeming qualities to Fringe and Bones. But I’d like to see them regain their former glory.

What makes a show great?

In the last year, the way I watch TV has changed a lot. Having a baby tends to shift your schedule around. So, instead of watching NCIS re-runs while I do my run at the gym, I now get up at 5 a.m. every morning and watch a lot of great TV on my home treadmill while The Husband and The Babe are snoozing.

And obviously, there just isn’t as much time to watch TV. So I’m pickier than ever about what fills up the DVR.

This morning I got to thinking about what makes a TV show great while I was watching Sons of Anarchy (probably in my top 3 favorite shows right now).

I came up with a bottom line answer that works for me. A show has to be truly believable. No matter how fantastic the premise (take The Walking Dead, for instance), a show has to be so true to its universe that you never question it.

This might seem simple enough. But to be believable, a show has to have excellent writing, talented actors and superior production value. Take just one of these factors out of the equation and you can forget about it.

In a lesser show, I might raise an eyebrow over the fact that a bunch of rival criminal organizations could exist in one small area. But Sons of Anarchy sells it. And every week, I keep coming back, because I just can’t wait to see what these characters are going to endure next. How they will survive. What they will have to compromise to keep going. Who they will become. And that’s how you know its good TV.

It’s bleak, baby

Ah, Sunday. Relaxing before the work week with these cheery programs.

Sunday is supposed to be a restful day. The last bastion of a carefree weekend, in which you recoup for the work week ahead.

So why is there so much heavy (albeit good) TV on this night? My lineup for Sunday consists of The Walking Dead, Dexter and Boardwalk Empire. Does this sound like a restful evening?

To preserve my glass-half-full outlook on life, I spread these three shows out and watch them on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from my DVR. Otherwise, I lie awake Sunday night, with dreams of gangsters scalping cronies, religious zealots dismembering runners, and nice people getting torn apart by walkers, dancing in my head.

It’s bleak baby. Does anyone else watch all of these shows? If so, do you have the stones to watch all three on Sunday night?

99% full

If you have a DVR, you know what I mean.

Right now, there is simply too much good TV. My problem is this: I started watching The Mentalist re-runs on TNT this summer, and am recording two of those every Wednesday. But, I am also recording the new episodes of The Mentalist to watch when I get caught up.And then there’s Sons of Anarchy (SOA). I am caught up on SOA through the second season, which is available on Netflix instant watch. But the third season isn’t available yet, so I am recording the new episodes while waiting on that release.

And then, there’s Burn Notice, which I love, but didn’t have time to watch this summer. So I have six episodes of that on my DVR.

What this means is that I barely have enough room to tape the shows I watch weekly (Tosh.0, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, American Horror Story, Raising Hope, New Girl, Ringer, Vampire Diaries, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Fringe, and the aforementioned Mentalist reruns). Add to that the return of Beavis and Butthead, and next week’s return of Bones, and I’ve got a real problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m somewhat of an expert in solving recording conflicts, but the real issue here is space. Anyone else having these issues? How do you manage? I guess it’s a sign of good TV that there is so much to watch.

The Witching Hour: HBO, 9 p.m., Sunday

Marnie’s got that crazy look in her eye. I like it.

After a year of waiting, True Blood fans got their first episode of season four on Sunday.  Beginning with Sookie’s journey to the fairy world, the episode started off with a distinctly different feel from previous seasons. And while this may have seemed disjointed to some fans, die-hard Trubies who have read all of Charlaine Harris’s books probably weren’t too surprised by the show’s new dimension (although book purists probably noted many differences).

Here are my two cents on the premiere. I liked the opening. I think it was an abrupt start to the new season, but it also allowed the story to move forward one year in time. While this jump did not make much of a difference in the Bill-Sookie-Eric love triangle, the year seemed monumental in the character development of Jason, who is noticeably more mature; Andy, who is a V addict; Tara, who is having a lesbian relationship; and Bill, who seems to have taken on a high-profile role in local vampire politics. Of all of these developments, I was the most pleased to see the growth in Jason’s character. To be honest, his ditsy routine was getting a bit old by the end of last season. And he looks gorgeous in that uniform.

Many loyal fans of the books rate the fourth in the series as their favorite (myself included). There are a few reasons for this in my case. First, I’m Team Eric. And if the show follows the books (and Alan Ball’s allusions) this is going to be a good summer for Eric fans. Second, the witches are cool, and introduce yet another interesting supernatural element to the mythology. Third, Sookie really comes into her own as she explores her options post-Bill.

If the first episode is any indication, all of these elements are going to come into play. And while I’m not going to count down my favorite moments, I will say that the witches’ coven left quite an impression on me. The lead witch Marnie, played by Harry Potter’s Fiona Shaw, is a frightening, intimidating and wild presence. As she was chanting to resurrect her bird, I had the distinct feeling that she is completely unstable – and there’s nothing more dangerous and interesting than an unstable, morally dubious, brilliant purveyor of the mystic arts.

Did anyone else tune in? If so, I’d love to hear your two cents.