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.)

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!

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.

What I’m Watching: Halt and Catch Fire

It seems like Halt and Catch Fire has been stuck with one narrative from critics, that of a show with a troubled first season that turned it around in season two but never found its audience due to Peak TV. I think that’s a somewhat inaccurate story (how many shows really see any audience gain from improvement in critical reception, Peak TV aside?) and, honestly, I don’t think the show was that bad in season one and thus I don’t think season two was that much of an improvement. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Whyyyy did they give Joe a beard in season three?

I don’t know how Halt and Catch Fire was conceived or why it was greenlit, but the show certainly came across in its first season as a bit of a “prestige drama paint-by-numbers.” You got your artsy but kind of nonsensical sequences, your ~mysterious and ~edgy antihero, your “electrical shock from computers as foreplay” scene. And as silly as some of it was (electrocuting yourselves for foreplay! What the heck!) I thoroughly enjoyed the show’s first season, mostly on the strength of its core characters and their relationships with one another. I can’t think of another character, at least on TV, who’s quite like Cameron Howe–young, idealistic, creative, but tough and hard-edged and hot-headed.

Meanwhile, I loved the way that Gordon and Donna were united in their passion and skill for technology–Donna could so easily have been slotted into the role of “nagging wife holding the dude back,” but instead she was a force unto her own right, and ended up being a crucial part of the team. Gordon is a little less interesting, although the fact that he’s kind of really pathetic drove a lot of probably-unintentional humor.

So, yeah, I was along for the ride after season one, and I was stoked to hear that the show’s supposedly-bad quality took a sharp upturn in season two, coinciding with its drastic change in status quo and focus. Where season one was about early computers, season two was essentially about CompuServe–an early mix of MMO and web forum, sort of like Club Penguin but not kid-oriented and using pre-internet multiplayer technology.

It was a bold shift for the show, and it paid off. While some of the interpersonal storylines got a little silly (Gordon and Donna’s home life got pretty melodramatic), the show did a fantastic job of capturing an exciting time in computer software and was overall totally fantastic.

Which brings us to season three, which just hit Netflix. There was less critical hubbub around season three so I went in not really knowing where it was going; all I had was the implications at the end of season two, which ended up being not very indicative of the show’s direction in season three. Season three almost felt like it was picked up by a totally different team of writers from season two, and I think the season suffered for it.

Let’s start with Joe MacMillan, the aforementioned antihero character. He was basically just a caricature of a TV antihero in season one, behaving erratically and kind of swapping between “good” and “evil” with no real reason to it. Season two used this to amazing effect: Joe claimed to now be a “good guy” and seemed to behave altruistically, but because both the other main characters and the audience had experience with his “evilness” (I’m using quotes because you can only be so evil in the context of the computer business) it was hard to trust him. The show wisely never gave much insight into his true feelings until toward the end of the season, where the conclusion to his arc appeared to be that he had indeed been trying to be a good guy, but because nobody believed him and things outside his control went wrong, he decided to just give up and be a jerk.

Joe’s character arc in season two is one of my all-time favorite plotlines in a TV show, and I was really excited to see where they’d take “evil anti-virus mogul Joe MacMillan” in season three. So where did they take him? . . . Nowhere. Joe in season three had very little in the way of personality, a bizarre turn for character who previously was so exaggerated, and what personality was there was more “normal guy who loves technology” than “evil genius.”

All the characters kind of felt muted, really. The show as a whole kind of felt that way; the season was way low on actual conflict, so most of the tension I experienced watching it was more from an expectation of something going wrong, or characters having a difference of opinion, then anything really happening. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing–I like nontraditional storytelling and I had a fondness for these characters and this show built up. But the problem is, I’m left in the end wondering what actually happened in season three. Joe’s plotline with Ryan led to an anticlimax, as did the “Mutiny going public” thing, with the only real drama being the pretty-contrived split between Cameron and Donna.

I can respect a certain amount of “things petering out” as a purposeful narrative choice, but here the petering out was over the entire season–until the timeskip for the last two episodes, at which point the show seemed like it was in setup mode for season four. And at that point I think that’s just bad writing–to spend the last two episodes of your season on setup is such a bizarre move and results in such an anticlimax, especially after such an understated season. I can’t imagine how weird it would have been to watch this season live (I watch on Netflix). I’m still in for season four, especially since it’s already been determined that it’ll be the show’s last, but sadly I have a feeling Halt and Catch Fire peaked in season two.

Pilot: Time After Time

Yeah, this is way late; I got sick and didn’t have any desire to write about TV. Anyway.

I really wasn’t sure what to make of Time After Time prior to watching it; the premise was beyond absurd, but then, the same was true of Sleepy Hollow and that show managed a fun season before going off the rails. However, the trailers made this look far less self-aware and lighthearted than Sleepy Hollow, so it was a big question mark if the show would manage to be fun and entertaining or end up being boring and just plain bad.

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A little bummed they didn’t keep the period facial hair.

Interestingly, the two-hour premiere was both! The first hour was exactly what I was hoping for–a complete embrace of the show’s absurd premise and shameless silliness. My favorite part was when the female lead started blabbing her life story and insecurities to H.G. Wells like five minutes after meeting him. It was amazing not just because it was ridiculous, but also because H.G. Wells in this is so incredibly adorable and immensely attractive that I absolutely buy that she would do that. I would probably do that!

The first hour of the show really banks on the appeal of H.G. Wells’ character, and it’s to the show’s strength because he is written fantastically and cast perfectly. I was really feeling the Sleepy Hollow comparison, although I don’t think any show will ever quite top the sheer enjoyability of season-one Sleepy Hollow

Then the premiere got into its second hour and . . . spent the majority of its runtime on a hostage situation. Also it started toeing into its meta-mystery, and sadly both of these things proved to be extremely boring. Like, kudos for having a pretty respectable escape attempt from the female lead, but still–we’ve seen a character taken hostage how many times in TV before? What a waste of screentime.

Meanwhile to the female lead (whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, sorry) being kidnapped, H.G. Wells was getting to know his granddaughter whose being related to him is a mystery and she’s wealthy and powerful and has met him before through time travel and well, there’s some intriguing stuff there on paper but in practice she was boring and the episode didn’t delve deep enough into this mystery stuff for it to actually be interesting. Like, your premise is H.G. Wells following Jack the Ripper into the present–you can’t immediately segue into time travel conspiracy stuff unless you’re going to really commit.

So, yeah, this has aired a couple more episodes now but I can’t say I’m watching. My Sunday nights at nine continue to belong to Madam Secretary. I’d give ABC kudos for trying but really, who the heck gave this the okay?