What I’m Watching: Season Finale 2017

Heyoo, this blog has officially made it through an entire season of TV! I had no idea when I started if I’d make it past a month or two, but somehow, despite how draining this fall-through-spring has been, I’ve still been interested in babbling about media. The summer’s probably going to be lighter on posts (although I might try doing some stuff about video games), but I expect to be back at it when the next season of TV starts up. Anyway, here’s the final rundown on the shows I watched:

Madam Secretary

Good Bones

❤  my team of world-improvers!

This show felt a little listless coming back from the midseason break, like the writers weren’t quite sure where they wanted to take things. The primary serialized plot that ended up developing was with Henry’s investigation into an extremist religious group and that whole plotline felt pretty stale until the end.

Looking back at the list of episodes, though, the show still put in a bunch of good plots of the week, and it picked up a lot toward the end. A real standout episode was one right near the end of the season that started with a focus on Elizabeth’s assistant, Blake, and took turns over the course of the episode following each of the employees working for Elizabeth. It was a really neat idea for an episode and it was structured really well–each character gained focus as it was their turn to be instrumental to the plot of the week–and did a fantastic job of telling us something interesting about each character. And the season finale was a really good, not to mention timely, cap to the season.

Madam Secretary still sometimes veers too far into cheesiness or contrived storytelling (a plot about a political Romeo and Juliet was . . . a bit much), but when it’s on, it really packs a punch. And in the wake of the election, the show’s real-world parallels feels especially relevant which should help give the show life in season four.

Conviction

This one only came back for four more episodes in January and it didn’t really do anything to change my opinion of it. Conviction was hardly a masterpiece, but it was a solid procedural with good potential and some interesting, modern hooks. It’s too bad that the show never went anywhere in the ratings.

Fresh Off the Boat, The Real O’Neals, Agents of Shield

I ended up dropping all of these due to my life schedule making me extremely tired on Tuesday nights. I probably would have kept watching them if not for that, but I can’t say I especially missed the latter two shows–The Real O’Neals totally failed to live up to its potential, and Agents of Shield was really starting to bore me. I’ll probably pick Fresh Off the Boat back up when it returns in the fall, though.

The 100

So this season was really good. After the overambitious season three, the writers pulled back in the complexity in season four (even as the stakes were raised), focusing on moral quandaries over political machinations. This resulted in a kind of weird situation where this season was definitely better than season three (and in some ways was probably better than season two, which started pretty slow), but because of the reduction in scale and shocking moments it in some ways felt underwhelming.

Part of that is for the better, I think, as The 100 really Went There in season two with the death of Finn and the eradication of Mount Weather, and trying to top that probably would have ended up feeling stale and monotonous. But one of the best things about season three was, as much as the execution was fumbled, the ambition to it, the amount of stuff going on at any given point. Season four being so much simpler made it easier for the writers to execute, but it also meant that the show took a step back in terms of scope which was a little disappointing.

Still, though, this season proved that even at its simplest The 100 is just really good. The moral questions the show dealt with were handled well and seeing the culmination of Clarke’s growth into a pragmatic leader was fantastic, if kind of sad to see given her early idealism. Meanwhile, Octavia continued her arc as one of the most interesting, unique characters I’ve ever seen period, a young woman who’s basically forsaken society but not in a Holier Than Thou way, but in an angry, vengeful way. A lot of stories might have used Octavia as a moral compass, but instead she’s just a brutally effective warrior. To then conclude this arc with her literally fighting for peace, though, was really cool, and continues to move her character in new and interesting directions as she now finds herself in a leadership role.

Although, I think there was definitely some iffy subtext with Octavia this season, where her growth as a white woman was fueled by the death of a black man, Lincoln, and the mentorship of a black woman, Indra, a character whose agency was pretty limited this season. I wish Indra had been given a bit more importance within the narrative to alleviate some of that.

The finale was really a capstone in the “simple but good” thing the season had going for it, as it had no big decision or twist or dramatic shock. It was presented from the beginning as “the characters have to prepare the ship to launch,” and while you knew things were going to go wrong, that was about all there was to it. And yet, the last twenty minutes of the episode were just as tense and exciting as previous season finales and the flashforward at the end left me incredibly hyped up. Who knows if season five will live up to my expectations, but after season four I’m really hoping it will.

The Good Place

This one also only came back for four more episodes (although it’s been renewed, unlike Conviction), but, damn. I’m not exaggerating when I saw that this is one of the all-time best stories I’ve ever seen in a TV show. The twist in the finale was a masterclass in shocking, game-changing plot moves that totally recontextualizes everything that came before it. It’s astounding that all of this is going on in a sitcom, and that something like this exists on network television at all, but I’m so glad it does.

I really should have done a winter finale for this and Conviction because I can’t remember much of my more in-depth thoughts on this show, but suffice to say that it is incredible.


And that does it for the season! It was a pretty good one all around, although my viewing got pretty light by the end. There are a few new shows that look interesting next season (although most are being held for midseason), though, so it should expand again next season. (I don’t know if that’s interesting information but I needed a way to end this post lol.)

The 100, Diversity, and Death: Second Edition

With the conclusion of The 100‘s fourth season I figured I ought to update my post on the show’s demographics and how those demographics intersect with character death. The previous post can be found here.

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This season four promo image is very thematically appropriate.

What’s New

The most notable difference between this and the first edition is that there are seven new characters counted from season four, and those, as well as new character deaths, have affected the numbers.

Additionally, whereas in the first edition I compared the show’s numbers to the GLAAD “Where We Are on TV” report for the 2015-2016 season, in this post I compare the show’s numbers to the average of what GLAAD reported for all seasons the show has been on air. I think this is pretty clearly a more fair comparison.

Methods

I used IMDB’s page listing actors who have appeared in The 100 and counted named characters who have appeared in four or more episodes for my analysis. I chose to make four episodes a minimum to ensure that characters on the list had significant screentime (as it would be unfair to compare a character who appeared in a single scene to a character who appeared in dozens of episodes). Also note that I used seasons one through four for my analysis.

Once I had gathered my list, I categorized the 53 characters on the following attributes: male/female; white/black/Latinx/Asian; and straight/gay or bisexual. I then determined the percentages of each demographic in the categories of: total; regular; recurring; dead; and alive. (This post focuses on total and dead characters, as in my opinion the other categories are not as significant.)

There were some characters whose actors appeared racially ambiguous and for whom I couldn’t find concrete information on how they identified; in these cases, I used my judgment to make a subjective determination that may have been incorrect. These characters, along with a few exceptions and other notable categorizations, are listed at the end of this post.

Findings

Total Characters

Total Characters Gender

60% of The 100‘s characters are male and 40% are female.

According to GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV,” the average gender makeup of series regulars on network TV since the season The 100 began airing in is 57% male and 43% female. This means that The 100 is slightly below average in representing women compared to other TV shows, and is notably off from real-world statistics in which women make up approximately 50% of the population.

Since the GLAAD numbers are for regular characters specifically, it’s worth noting that 69% of The 100‘s regular characters are male and 31% are female. Counting only regular characters who are alive,* the split is 56/44 in favor of male characters.

*This is worth doing, I think, as starting in season two the show has consistently each season killed one or two of its male regular characters and added a new one as if in replacement. It’s disappointing that the show hasn’t added female characters to fix the gender imbalance, but it does mean that in any given season the gender disparity is not as large as it is overall.

The rest of this post can be found under the read more.

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What I’m Watching: Sense8

Alright! Season two of Sense8 is here and the world is a little bit better.

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Nooo Wolfgang get away from Kala!

Senseis one of the most visionary, original TV shows I’ve ever seen. Shot on location all across the world with characters from seven different countries and incredible production value, not to mention highly-involved action sequences, there’s simply nothing else like Sense8 on TV, streaming or otherwise. The show just oozes creative vision and cinematic sensibilities and it’s awesome.

The premise of Sense8 is that eight people across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas end up mentally linked through some magic-y sci-fi stuff, allowing them to telepathically visit each other and share their skills, knowledge, and perspectives on life. And while there is some meta story going on, the first season especially pretty much focuses entirely on these eight characters’ different plotlines–Capheus as a bus driver in Kenya, Will as a cop in Chicago, etc.–and how their newfound connection allows them to better handle their situations. The show uses its sci-fi concept to explore the ways in which we’re connected as humans, how we have more similarities than we might think and how much our lives are improved by using our capacity of empathy. That message happens to be right up my alley and it’s one of my favorite things about the show.

I was impressed by how season two furthered the meta plot, though–where a lot of shows either overexplain or underexplain their central mysteries, Sense8 uses a sort of dreamy, vague method of exposition for its underlying story that allows the viewer to follow what’s going on without explicitly giving away anything. Additionally, the show expanded its mythology in other ways by introducing new sensates with their own agendas and relations to the nefarious BPO. The whole concept of the sensaste archipelago, allowing for indirect communication via a chain of connected sensates, was especially interesting.

I don’t think Sense8 is without faults, though. By having eight main characters and seven or eight concurrent plotlines, the show is unable to have a meaningful sense of structure–there’s simply no room for per-episode plots or a great deal of momentum to any given plotline when each character only gets an average of an hour and a half of screentime per season. This has the tendency of leaving the show without much underlying tension or drive, especially with how the show tends to give its scenes a lot of time to breathe. This works great with the action sequences, which can get really long and elaborate and intense, but can drag when the show gets conversation-heavy.

On the other hand, I do appreciate how fully the show utilizes its medium. The visual language of the show does such an evocative job of portraying a reality-breaking sci-fi concept that I don’t think it could work outside of TV or film, but no movie could handle this many characters and storylines. Combined with the aforementioned filmic qualities of the show in terms of cinematography and scope (which are easier to get when you’re filming on location, I imagine), it really stands out as a completely realized, masterfully-envisioned creative work.

Getting a little more specific, I have to say that I was a little disappointed with the final half or so of the last episode of season two. It seemed to cover about 40 minutes of screentime in half that, leaving what should have been a really big moment–the sensates all meeting each other in person–as an aside in the rush to get to the final moments. I understand that the writers wanted to avoid feeling repetitious to the BPO break-in that capped season one, but I think there could have been a more elegant way to accomplish what they wanted.

Still, that’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things, and it was a pretty thrilling sequence even if it had some unfulfilled potential. There’s just nothing else like Sense8 and after two seasons the originality of the show isn’t even beginning to fade.

What I’m Watching: Dear White People

Uhh, let’s start this post with a big ol’ “I’m white” disclaimer. I’m going to avoid delving too deep into the way the show engages with racism, but nevertheless everything I write here should be taken with a grain of salt as I don’t have authority on the subject. (I probably wouldn’t write this post at all if I had any meaningful audience here.)

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I’m not sure how relevant the title really is to the show but I guess that’s the point.

Dear White People is about a group of black students at a university and chronicles a couple weeks of their life as they grapple with the campus’ pretty crappy racial politics. The choice of protagonists is one of the areas where I think the show really succeeds, as you have Sam and Reggie who are on the more radical activist side, and then there are Troy and Coco who are more into appealing to the system and working within the establishment. By focusing on differing opinions on how to combat racism from within the community, the show avoids easy answers or clear villains and good guys. I get the impression you’re mostly meant to root for Sam and Reggie’s side (or at least I did), but the show acknowledges that there’s more nuance involved.

So while the character side of the premise is quite good, I think the plot side of things is where the show drops the ball a bit. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the show in terms of plot (and especially twisty revelations), but there is no one event that the show revolves around. This would be fine in normal circumstances, but Dear White People uses a structure where each episode focuses on a different character, with a bit of overlap between episodes. This format is best-suited, in my opinion, to narratives that focus on a singular event so that new details can be revealed as we switch to different characters, but because there is nothing like that the format sometimes feels distracting. Instead the overlapping is used to an inconsistent degree (and is more prominent in the early episodes), which comes across as, well, inconsistent.

I also wish the show did a little bit more with the way it inspects its characters through its format–again there’s an inconsistency to it. Lionel and Coco both get childhood flashbacks, while the others don’t; Reggie doesn’t even have any flashbacks that I remember; none of the flashbacks Sam is in are from her perspective; and Coco’s first focus episode is almost entirely a flashback to her Freshman year. There’s no real rhyme or reason as to who gets what kind of flashback or how these flashbacks are used to reveal information about the characters, and the end result is that the flashbacks feel like they’re used haphazardly rather than with real purpose.

Those are my only main issues with the show, though–otherwise I thought it was very strong. The characters deepen a lot beyond their basic archetypes over the course of the season and become really engaging, and I like the way the show doesn’t overtly tell the audience how they should feel about the important characters. I feel like my reading of various characters’ likability and morality is mostly based on my own opinions and could be quite different from someone else’s reading, which I generally I think is a good thing in fiction, especially in a character-driven story like this.

And then of course there’s the themes of social issues and activism that Dear White People puts at the center. I think the show does a really good job of exploring the complexities involved in activism and unlike a lot of politically-related fiction that I’ve seen, it doesn’t paint things in black and white or make its protagonists so obviously correct. The show also very deftly avoids feeling stilted when its characters discuss social issues, or like characters have been assigned opinions at random. Everything feels very natural, very effortless, in a way that a lot of fiction fails to be when tackling social issues.

I’m not sure the show is as good when it comes to issues other than anti-black racism, however. References to other forms of racism tend to be paired with the show’s flippant sense of humor in a way that feels dismissive of them Also, I don’t think the whole “supposed lesbian getting with a guy despite being engaged to a woman” thing was a great look, as either a) it’s portraying a lesbian as still being attracted to men, or b) it’s portraying a bisexual woman as a cheater. Both of those seem pretty bad.

There was a little more going on in the show thematically than just social issues, though, which I liked. There’s this recurring thing with the five protagonists being romantically involved/interested in someone they shouldn’t (or “shouldn’t”):” Sam is dating a white guy; Lionel is into Troy, who’s straight; Troy is having an affair with an engaged professor; Reggie is into Sam, who’s not single; and Coco is involved with Troy more because she thinks she should than because she wants to. And by the end of the season none of these relationships/crushes work out. I’m not totally clear as to what the show is trying to communicate–I wouldn’t really say that interracial relationships and gay guys being into straight guys are equally doomed–but I like that there’s an extra layer here.

Anyway, while I do have some quibbles with Dear White People, overall I very much enjoyed it and I think it nails the execution where it really matters. I should note again, though, that I really don’t have the authority to say whether the specific messages the show sends are correct or good, so my opinion of the show should not be considered particularly important.

What I’m Watching: Grace and Frankie

Continuing the saga of “everything I watch is a Netflix original” is–well, you can read the title. (It’s Grace and Frankie.)

Grace and Frankie

Searching for key art for this show turned up a surprising amount of stuff for Nashville.

Grace and Frankie is perhaps one of the most Netflix-y Netflix shows in its conception, not because of its tone or quality but because of its subject matter. Since most TV shows are funded based on advertising and advertisers only really care about the 18-49 demographic, you don’t really get many shows focusing on older characters. Netflix, on the other hand, doesn’t care about advertisers, allowing it to greenlight shows regardless of what demographics might be interested. So one of the results of that is Grace and Frankie, a show that’s very directly about issues that affect the above-60 crowd.

And it’s a pretty good show, too. There was something strangely captivating about the first season especially, as the show is billed as a comedy and its plots work like comedy plots, yet season one felt mostly devoid of actual jokes. Like, it wasn’t just that I didn’t think it was funny, it was that the show didn’t even seem to be trying to be funny. That’s really not something you get much in TV and it was really interesting to watch.

Season two and the recently-released season three play it more regular, though, with clearer (and very funny!) humor. It’s one of the more pleasant shows I’ve watched in recent memory, too–even when it’s emotional there’s a sort of low-key vibe to it that keeps it from being too stressful. The biggest exception was at the end of season three where the show played an anti-gay protest for laughs. That really didn’t work for me; closeups of clever signs isn’t very fun when the signs are hateful.

What does really work for me, though, is how the show handled its central premise. (Which is that the titular Grace and Frankie’s husbands, Robert and Sol, leave them for each other.) I was worried going into the show that it would minimize Robert and Sol and basically just use them as a prop, but instead they’re main characters and both sides of the divorces are given very fair treatment. Grace and Frankie are very understandably hurt that their husbands lied to them for decades, but the show also notes the hurt of Robert and Sol in having felt the need to hide their relationship. Everyone is allowed to have their feelings and the situation is generally recognized as one that kind of sucks all around.

The friendship between Grace and Frankie is handled really well, too. I think a lot of shows with odd couples struggle to pace the characters’ relationship, either making them too friendly too quick or holding onto the animosity for too long. Here, though, the development of Grace and Frankie’s relationship is handled perfectly: they still argue and clash by season three, but they also recognize each other as their best friend, and it makes for a really interesting, sweet friendship.

So, yeah, this is a really pleasant show and I really enjoy it. Glad it’s already renewed for season four!

Moana Is Great and Frozen Is Terrible

So before I get into the rest of this post I want to include the disclaimer that I am analyzing these two movies purely from a filmmaking standpoint, that is, I’m not getting into gender or race politics because I’m not qualified to speak on such issues. (The second half of this most recent episode of the podcast Still Buffering had some good discussion on gender representation in Moana and Frozen if you’re interested.) With that said:

Frozen_(2013_film)_poster

I hate how snow and ice are so blue in this movie.

I remember being fairly skeptical of Frozen‘s quality when I finally got around to seeing it a year after release. I think it was mostly because Olaf looked awful, and while he was, it turned out that was only the tip of the iceberg. Frozen reportedly went through some late-stage changes in story, and while that worked out well for Zootopia, it really did not here.

Let’s begin with the beginning. Frozen opens with Anna and Elsa as friends, playing with Elsa’s ice powers. Then Elsa accidentally hurts Anna and the sisters’ parents have trolls make Anna forget about the ice powers and tell Elsa to hide them, and then the parents die at sea and there’s a song showing Anna and Elsa growing up and not being friends anymore and then there’s going to be a big party and Anna sings about how the castle is finally going to be lively again.

That all happens in about 15 minutes, by the way. The extreme speed of all this plot information and changes in status quo make it impossible to care about any of it; sure, for Anna it’s been years since the castle was exciting and fun, but for the audience it’s been about five minutes.

This flip-flopping in status quo also drives the problem with Elsa as a character. Elsa basically has two characters in the movie: shy and afraid of her powers, and overly bold and confident. The result is a character with a totally unclear personality; is the confident Elsa just a blip and the shy Elsa we see for most of the movie “really” her, or is her confident side her “real” personality that’s otherwise been hidden? Because her character arc is kind of deemphasized at the end of the movie (at least to my recollection; it’s been a while since I saw the movie) there’s not really enough information to determine that.

Speaking of the end of the movie, that’s it’s other main problem. At this point in the plot Anna has been put under a magical curse that will freeze her unless broken by an “act of true love.” The resolution to this is when Anna steps in front of the villain Hans’ blade to save Elsa; Anna’s self-sacrifice is the act of true love. The problem with this is that Anna’s love for Elsa is something that’s never been in question during the movie. Half of the plot, in fact, is driven by how much Anna cares for Elsa. So for Anna saving Elsa to be the climax just doesn’t mean much because it says nothing new about the characters and requires no personal growth or change.

Hans, meanwhile, is a terrible villain. It’s really easy for characters who are pretending to be good but are secretly evil to come off as cheap because the writers can just write the character as if they were good until the reveal comes. And that’s exactly what happens here: there are no hints that Hans is evil, no indication that he’s putting on an act. He’s just a good guy who suddenly becomes a bad guy.

And it’s a shame that he turns out to be a bad guy, really, because of how it makes the song “Love is an Open Door” totally meaningless. I actually really like the song (it’s the only one in the movie I enjoy listening to), but not only is it lampshaded almost immediately when Elsa points out how ridiculous it is to get engaged to a dude after five minutes, but it turns out that the love was 100% fake on Hans’ part anyway so in retrospect, “Love is an Open Door” is basically just filler and its cuteness is totally undermined by the deception involved.

The final point against Frozen is its songs. Most of them are either emotionally hollow (“Love is an Open Door,” “For the First Time in Forever”) or more-or-less filler (Olaf’s song, the trolls’ song, the opening song which is sort of thematically relevant but is literally just about ice miners, whose lifestyle is totally irrelevant to the movie). “Let It Go” is the only song in the movie that has any real significance to it, and while its popularity is undeniable I don’t think it’s a very good song.

In addition to the actual quality and relevance of the songs, they also fall into a problem I have with a lot of Disney musicals, where the songs are majorly frontloaded. After “Let It Go” closes the first act, three of the four songs left in the movie are pointless filler and there aren’t any at all in the third act. (Also, while I don’t have the patience to start up the movie and check the timestamps, I’m pretty sure there’s only one song past the halfway point of the movie.) The end result is that the movie feels less like a musical and more like a movie that has some songs in it.

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Not sure why the pig even exists since it’s just there for like ten minutes.

And that brings us to Moana and the first point in its favor, which is that it has not one but two climactic songs, both of which are great. (I haven’t thought a lot about what my favorite Disney song is but “I Am Moana” is definitely up there.) And there really aren’t any filler songs, either–the closest one to being filler is “Shiny,” but the way it’s used as a focal point for the setpiece going on during the song makes it feel more important.

Beyond that, Moana just fundamentally works. The characters have clear personalities and their arcs make sense; the light plot twist feels natural; the climax is founded on Moana’s unique skills, not a test of something that was never in question; and while the pacing in the first act is a little jumpy, the prologue isn’t at all convoluted. I haven’t seen Big Hero 6, but that aside I feel quite confident in calling Moana Disney’s best 3D animated movie this decade. (Zootopia is pretty close, though.)

Ugh, this is why writing about stuff I like sucks. I got nine paragraphs out of Frozen but only two out of Moana. Anyway, Moana is awesome and Frozen is not, case closed.

What I’m Watching: When We Rise

Okay so this is even later than Time After Time but WHATEVER.

I don’t actually have a lot of pressing thoughts on When We Rise. And not because I found it boring, but because I think overall it’s such a strongly put together eight hours of television that I feel like there’s not a lot to say. (Also it’s been a couple weeks since it aired so I’ve forgotten a bunch of what I might have said.) So actually, what I’m going to do is rank each two-hour episode and use that as a jumping off point. (Technically it’s eight episodes with two aired per night but ABC’s website counts each pair as an episode so that’s how I’m doing it.)

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This show has no promo photos with all the characters in it which sucks.

4. Episode Three

So the central structure of When We Rise was that each two-hour episode would approximately cover one decade. Night three was for the ’90s, and ended up being a lull in the show’s story. The miniseries mostly focused on activism, but only one of the three main characters was actually doing activism in this episode–the other two were just living their lives. I think it was important for the show to have some downtime, and it’s not as if two women raising a child together wasn’t radical in its own right, but the end result was an episode that felt far less focused than the rest of the show.

Also, this episode had the “Cleve starts taking care of a baby and wants to adopt it but then can’t because the social workers notice his HIV medication” plotline which I have to assume actually happened, but boy did it feel like a Lifetime movie the way the show handled it.

3. Episode One

This episode had the most working against it structurally–it had to establish three protagonists as well as the time period’s culture and societal attitudes while also trying to get into the activism that’s central to the show’s premise. The result was an episode with a lot of small, hazily-connected scenes that was still good, but that didn’t work as well as it could have. It probably would have been better if the narration hadn’t retreated as the episode progressed and had instead been used to help hold together the narrative.

2. Episode Four

The thing about this episode is that I was basically sobbing for the entire last 20 minutes so I’m not sure there’s a lot to really discuss here. What can I say–seeing a heavily-promoted miniseries on a major-three network focus entirely on gay characters and social justice meant a lot to me, and this episode did a great job really selling the culmination-of-sorts of decades of activism and just life. These people went through so much, had such an intense struggle, and affected real, meaningful change and progress. That’s pretty incredible.

1. Episode Two

This is, however, the best episode of the When We Rise in my opinion. The first half, still in the ’70s, had a clear focus with the fight against a proposed anti-gay law in California and the second half was an effective portrayal of the harrowing beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. This episode also had the best use of voiceover, with Roma’s narration in the first half being used to give useful exposition and bridge the gap between scenes and both hers and Ken’s in the second half being revealed to be a letter and conversation, respectively, that had relevance to the plot.


Eh. I wish I had better, more meaningful commentary on this show, but at the end of the day it’s just something that I really liked and that I absolutely recommend. It’s a shame the show’s ratings were crap because I think it’s a really important piece of media.