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Eugoogly / Time of the Season: S5 of The Wire

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 10, 2008

Yeah, might be one or two spoilers ahead

It wasn’t going to be like The Sopranos. No matter what you expected from the series finale of The Wire, the one thing everyone seemed to sense was that it wouldn’t be nearly as maddening, hard to read or (arguably) brilliant as Tony, Carmela, AJ and Meadow eating onion rings in a diner. That just wasn’t David Simon’s style–though it’s probably the less commercial show of the two, The Wire was in essence a more conventional series than The Sopranos–just like you wouldn’t have episodes where McNulty kills one of his relatives, or entire episodes based around characters’ dreams, you wouldn’t have a series finale that ended in a ellipsis. The Sopranos was often purposefully ambiguous, but The Wire was always a show that had something to say. Regardless of what the finale was, you knew that it would feel like a finale.

But before we start talking about the finale, let’s size up Season Five a bit. It seems likely to me that Season Five will go down as the weakest thusfar, with its only real competition coming from S2, which continues to polarize audiences in its feeling of separation from the themes and characters of the other four seasons. And I agree-it’s the worst season of The Wire yet.

A lot of the blame for this can be attributed to the focus on the news room, which while introducing one of the show’s better characters in Gus Haynes (played, of course, by the inimitable Clark Johnson), never really developed the sense of urgency that the subplots of other seasons possessed. Yeah, OK, so it’s a hard world for journalists, and tightening of costs puts pressure on writers which causes them to resort to desperate measures which ends up making ethics increasingly stringent. Fair enough, but this is The Wire, a show where characters are actually killed in practically every episode. So the stakes don’t exactly feel too high when we’re talking about the death of journalistic integrity as opposed to the death of, y’know, people. It was well-handled, but it felt ultimately inconsequential.

(One side note I will say in this plot’s defense: It did a great job of illustrating why Journalists cheat. Most actual news writers will talk about how realistic the newsroom stuff is, and I can’t really comment on that, but as a Journalism student, I can say that the show got spot on why the straight up journalistic process can be so frustrating. The scene where Gus gets Templeton to go out and interview a bunch of homeless people, they give him absolute shit to work with, and after a day of increasingly useless interviews, he just makes up his own stuff. That’s journalism–you interview a dozen people just hoping that they say what you already want to write, they probably don’t, and you’re stuck trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes for a whole article. Not saying I condone his actions, or that I’d act similarly–actually, I wouldn’t act at all, since I pretty much don’t plan on doing legit Journalism ever again, largely for these reasons–but I doubt there’s a journalist alive that doesn’t feel the temptation to do what Templeton did on a regular basis, and this season did a great job showing why.)

Anyway, that wasn’t even the main problem of this season. The real issue was the lack of an emotional connection to work with. Season one had the tragedies of Wallace and D’Angelo, two had the Sobotka family drama, three had the dissolution of Stringer and Avon, four had all them kids, and five…well, we were still rooting for Michael and Dookie, we wanted Bubs to get let out of the basement, and we wanted to see Omar take down Marlo, sure. But none of those plotlines were given enough attention or enough focus to hang an entire season on–they were supporting plots, not the driving drama of the season.

Instead, we got Jimmy McNulty the Serial Killer. I don’t think this plot was as much of a misstep as some–really, it was McNulty and Lester’s equivalent of Hamsterdam, a couple characters (and Simon, by proxy) experiment with what happens when, as Pearlman puts it, they start “coloring outside the lines”. And while it was a little ridiculous at times, and while I don’t believe for a second that Lester would have let himself ever get suckered in to a plot with such a high potential for failure, it was an interesting “what if?” as McNulty realizes that making a police department care about a serial killer (or indeed, even notice its existence) is harder than he thought, and then getting them to calm down from the mania afterwards is even harder. If nothing else, the plot was worth it for the scene where McNulty and Greggs hear the FBI’s profile of the serial killer and their description (loner, alcoholic, problem with authority) nails McNulty to a tee (“They’re not far off,” he comments).

But with all the things I liked about this plot, it just didn’t carry the emotional weight of the main arcs of the first four seasons. I mean, I wanted to see Lester and McNulty get away with it, but given the fall McNulty has (re-)experienced since the Changed Man of S4, I also kinda wanted to see him get his comeuppance for treating Beadie like shit, fucking over his partners, and just generally having no regard for anyone or anything besides himself and his personal vendetta (“Marlo doesn’t get to win, we get to win!”) It arguably made his character richer, but it meant I didn’t have half the investment in his project that I did in Bunny’s innovations.

To offset the lack of emotional connection here, the show needed to have more going on in the streets. In 3 or 4, even if you didn’t find stuff like Hamsterdam or Carcetti’s run for Mayor particularly riveting, you still had Avon and Stringer, or Bode revolting against Marlo’s reign of tyranny, or Omar waging war against whoever had tried to kill him or his people that week. This season, though, all we really had left were Marlo, Chris and Snoop–three of the show’s all-time great characters, no doubt, but none whose success you were particularly anxious to see. Michael’s battle with soullessness was occasionally brilliant, and for a while we had the tantalizing prospect of an Omar-Marlo showdown, but the latter ended too early and the former wasn’t given enough time to be a primary arc.

So, the weakest season of The Wire? Almost certainly. But I don’t mean that to sound nearly as much like a knock as it probably does. TV does not get better than Seasons Three or Four of this show–it just doesn’t, and I question if it ever will–and to expect the show to continue to play on that level…well, if anyone could do it, it’d be The Wire, but Memphis couldn’t stay perfect, the Patriots couldn’t stay perfect, and The Wire couldn’t quite do it either. Honestly, though, I felt like after the way S4 ended–as complete a season of TV that could possibly be produced–that anything afterwards would just be a bonus, a sort of coda after the grand finale of 4. And so that’s how I approach this season–a solid bonus track, not quite up to par with the rest of the LP, but with occasional moments of brilliance that remind you of how amazing the whole album is. And I just don’t think it’d be fair to have expected anything more.

With all this in mind, my take on the finale is that it was exactly what the season, and in turn, the show, deserved. Like I said before, this wasn’t going to be the Sopranos finale, and indeed, it won’t be–it’s not the kind of episode that people are going to be talking about for years to come, not the kind of episode that sparks up a seemingly ceaseless series of blog debates, not the kind of episode that’ll make you question your entire conception of the series and fill your head for days afterwards. What it was is exactly what it needed to be–a neat ending to all the main plots of the season, a brief look into the future, and a summation of what the series was about in the first place.

And I gotta say, even though most people (including myself) seemed to be predicting a gloom and doom finale for The Wire‘s final act, I left “-30-” with a strange feeling of optimism. Sure, there was minorly some soul-crushing stuff in there–Carcetti officially succumbing to puppet status, Valchek stepping in as Commish over Daniels’ forced retirement, and of course, Dookie’s descent into full-fledged junkiedom among them. But I expected it to be a finale strewn with deaths and ruined lives, and aside from Dookie’s miserbale fate, you didn’t really get too much of that.

In fact, there were a handful of moments so joyous that made me literally squeal with glee. Pearlman and Daniels winking at each other from across the courtroom bench. Marlo taking about 1/16th the time it took Avon to conclude that the straight life wasn’t for him, and ditching his bishness man outfit for a white tee. Levy pinching Herc’s cheek and deeming him mishpacha. And, best of all, Slim Charles interrupting Cheese in the middle of his best Tony Montana rant with a bullet to the head–possibly the biggest SHIT YEAH moment in the entire series. These were some beautiful scenes, and they made me so relieved that Simon didn’t just try to bully his loyal subjects with Truth in the series’ last 90 minutes on earth–we’ve had plenty of that over five seasons, it’s nice to know that there’s room for hope as well.

Actually, at times it felt like the show let up a little too much, especially in the case of McNulty. Over the first three-quarters of this season, McNulty fucked up about as he’s ever fucked up in the history of the show (which, needless to say, is a pretty high fuck-up density), yet at the end of the line, not only does he not end up dead or in prison, he gets to keep his job, his cop friends and even his long-suffering girlfriend, the worst consequence being a transfer to a realtively inconsequential unit. For a guy that invented a serial killer, and even inspired a few real-life killings, that seems like a pretty light punishment (not to mention that his conflict-free reconciliation scene with Greggs, whose diming on him and Lester could’ve very well ended up landing ’em in the slammer, felt like one of the finale’s several “Oh shit, we only have thirty minutes left? Better wrap this one up quick” scenes).

Ultimately, though, the pervading feeling leaving the finale was one of satisfaction. Seeing the capable but not quite sociopathic Slim Charles take over the connect while Marlo goes back to low-level grindin’, seeing Bubs sit down to family dinner with his sister and her kid, even seeing Chris find his prison soulmate in Wee Bay–it all just felt sort of right, the perfect epilogue. Plus, one thing this season has been great with is in ensuring that all the old faces make at least one final appearances, and with Pres’s cameo (Dookie hits him up for drug money, effectively burning the last bridge he had left), we’ve now seen from just about all of ’em. What more could you really want from a final episode (or a final season, for that matter)?

Ironically, though, with all the differences between this finale and the Sopranos ending, the message of the two is ultimately the same–life goes on. The Sopranos showed it by demonstrating how though Tony Soprano had escaped a close call, he wasn’t out of the woods yet and likely never would be, always wondering whether that shady-looking guy going to the bathroom while you’re eating will come back with a gun and blow your head off. The Wire shows it by demonstrating how everything is cyclical, how Sydnor’s experience in Special Crimes lead to his overambition and ultimately his becoming the new McNulty, how Dookie’s lack of options have him becoming the new Bubbles, and how Michael’s alienation from his family and outlaw status on the streets have him becoming the new Omar (how I didn’t see this one coming I have no idea, but man am I glad I didn’t–awesome). The cops still care primarily about their stats, the politicians still care primarily about getting re-elected, and ain’t nobody gonna stop the hustlers from hustlin’ and the ‘yos from ‘yoin’. Shit in Bodymore, Murdaland is the same as it ever was.

“-30-” is not one of the Great Wire Episodes. Indeed, it even pales in comparison slightly to “Late Editions,” the previous episode, which felt far more like the season’s climax (Simon always did blow his show’s Big Moments in the season’s pentultimate episodes). And it’s definitely not the best Wire finale–that’s “Final Grades,” the S4 finale, a front-runner for not only my favorite Wire episode but a top fiver for any TV episode ever. But like the season on the whole, it’s hard to complain. In a world where most brilliant but challenging TV shows are lucky to get a full season, we were blessed to get four full, uncompromised, virtually flawless seasons of this show, and to get another season on top of that is a veritable godsend. The fact that S5 was often brilliant, and never less than thoroughly compelling television…well, it’s almost too much to ask for.

Thanks for the memories, guys.

R.I.P. The Wire, 2002-2008

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Time of the Season / Eugoogly (?): S2 of Friday Night Lights

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 21, 2008

Clear eyes and full hearts no longer guaranteed to prevent loss

The Night the Lights Went Out in Dillon was not much unlike any other Friday we’ve spent with our favorite sons and daughters of the Lone Star State this last TV season. Coach felt jealous of a man in Mrs. Coach’s life and acted questionably as a result. Landy and Tyra had relationship quandries, and Saracen spent a couple of lonely nights. Tim made more attempts to reconnect with Tyra, whose sexual urges prove incompatible with her relationship with God Boy. Really, it was one of the least noteworthy episodes of Friday Night Lights thusfar–a pleasant ep, not one you’d tend to single out while thinking either of the classic FNL moments or the bigger “what were they thinking??” moments. In fact, so unextraordinary was the episode that it wasn’t until far after finishing that the thought really struck me:

“Wait a minute…Is that it?

Given some of the short runs the WGA strike has reduced TV’s best shows to this season, I’ve considered the 15 episodes filmed of Friday Night Lights a blessing. But what didn’t occur to me is that these 15 episodes were no doubt structured not as a season unto themselves, but as just the first 15 episodes of a 22-episode seasonal arc. But now episode #15 has aired, and it looks like that’s it for the year–NBC has already made plans to release S2 with just the eps that have already aired, so chances of the show returning before next fall seem doubtful.

Perhaps more upsettingly, it’s equally doubtful that the show will be returning after that. “I love it, you love it,” says NBC chief Ben Silverman. “Unfortunately, no one watches it. That’s the thing with shows. People have to watch them.” Kind of hard to disagree with the practicality of Silverman’s statement, especially since his estimation of an average FNL audience could probably be considered generous–Lights hasn’t produced a rating of 4.0 or better since the season premiere, and I think we’re probably beyond the “well, it just needs some time to gain it’s audience” stage. It’s time to face facts: despite everything it has going for it, this simply is not a show that was destined for mainstream success.

And so here we are, fifteen episodes down in the show’s second season, with absolutely no provided closure, and with little hope of getting any in the future. In all likelihood, we’ll never know whether or not Street’s waitress trystee decides to keep his miracle love child, whether Smash finds peace as an RB at familial but little-known Whitmore, or whether the Panthers make the playoffs and get a shot at defending their title. Hell, I don’t think we ever even found out if Julie got her driver’s license or not. Sure, there’ve been great two-season-wonder shows before–Twin Peaks, the UK Office, The Venture Bros (for now at least)–but despite their arguably premature ends, they at least got to say goodbye with a season (if not necessarily series) finale. The Twin Peaks S2 finale was like watching the end of The Empire Strikes Back with no Return of the Jedi to follow, but the FNL s2 finale was like turning off Aliens in the middle of Bill Paxton’s “GAME OVER, MAN!!” rant. No show deserves that, especially not a show as brilliant as Friday Night Lights.

But enough of all this talk about ends–let’s spend a few minutes talking about the season that was. Few would disagree that it started off a little shaky–the show could’ve ran for 14 seasons, and memories of that Landry murder storyline would’ve continued to linger unpleasantly in fan memories–and Coach being away from Dillon was just too distressing to watch a lot of the time. But once Coach reclaimed the Dillon throne, the show quickly kicked back into high gear, and if it can’t compete with the freshness of S1, there are plenty of moments in the season that rank with any of the beauts from the first–Coach telling Street how much he’s learned from him, Landry berating Tyra for acting surprised after telling her he loves her, and my personal favorite moment, Riggins listening to Lyla’s Christian talk show on his car radio and frustratedly exhorting “Damn it, Lyla!” as he realizes how much he still cares about her. Even last week’s lukewarm episode did have one all-series classic, with Coach and his ex-romantic rival (played, somewhat poetically, by show creator Peter Berg himself) agreeing “red light” at dinner before jumping across the table at each other’s throats.

You will, of course, notice a plot element missing from all these highlights–football. Indeed, with the show’s producers deciding that FNL was more marketable as a “woman’s program,” the football content took a definite backseat this season, especially once Coach was Home Sweet Home for good. It’s hard to say that the show really suffered from it–indeed, this show was never really as much about the football as it was the people whose lives it impacted–but you did kind of miss moments like Saracen’s miraculous first Hail Mary in the pilot, the unforgettable Mud Bowl episode later in the season, and even simpler moments like Riggins, Saracen, Smash and Street gathering on the field Dazed & Confused style and just goofing around in the arena where they all felt the most comfortable. With characters like this, the show could be about mini-golf, but the gradual phasing out of the athletic aspect entirely might’ve been a dangeorus trend for the show’s future.

But really, this was a show whose future could still have been very bright. I would’ve loved to see the show’s first wave of teenagers no longer being indespensible fixtures of the show, but rather being replaced in the third season by a new wave of kids, with new problems and new drama. This was the advantage the show really had moving into the future–since the true protagonists of Lights were Eric and Tami, they could’ve avoided the inevitable downfall of most Teen TV shows when the cast graduates by simpy letting them graduate and move on. It could’ve kept the show fresh through almost countless seasons, as well as allowing it to become one of the most reliable showcases of new acting talent to be found in popular entertainment.

Therein lies the problem, and maybe the solution as well. Like I said previously, Lights was never meant to be viewed as “popular entertainment”–the plot elements are there (sometimes even too much), but they’re filmed, written and acted in a way that feels far too real (gritty, unfrilled, non-televisual, whatever) for mass appeal. But what if the show just moved away from the majors? Given TNT’s oft-stated claim to Know Drama, or USA’s ofter-stated promise of Characters being Welcome, FNL could fit like a glove on either, while not having to live up to the significantly loftier ratings standards of NBC. But I think the show should maybe go even farther, and relocate all the way to IFC or Sundance, where in terms of look and rhythm, the show would be almost indistinguishable from most of the channels’ lineups. What’s more, it could set a precedent for the indie film world embracing the possibilities of the televisual format–the previous reluctance of which being one of the reasons why keeping a show like Friday Night Lights alive is so unfeasible in this day and age. Not everything can go to HBO.

No matter how you look at it, though, I think it’s hard to argue that we weren’t lucky to get as much of this show as we did. For the next generation of upcoming TV mavericks, I’d like to think that FNL was around for long enough to show that not all shows about teens have to be One Tree Hill, not all shows about sports have to be Arli$$, not all shows about a married couple have to be The King of Queens, not all shows adapted from movies have to be Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and hey, not all shows about the South have to be My Name is Earl. Perhaps most importantly, Friday Night Lights showed that you didn’t have to run from TV–the cliches, the contrivances, the character types–to make television that was urgent, innovative, and unbelievably moving.

Shine on, Dillon.

R.I.P. Friday Night Lights, 2006-2008 (?)

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Time of the Season: S1 – S3 of Oz (’97-’99)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 19, 2008

Oh-weee-oh, we-ohhhhh-oh…

When it comes to Pay Cable drama, it’s hard not to think of The Sopranos as the sort of Big Bang–it’s the show (along with comedy Sex & the City) that permanently put the channel on the map, that elevated it from a low-class, hotel-viewing-only station to a genuine TV powerhouse. It got all the ratings, won all the Emmys, made all the hedway in pop culture. But I guess it wasn’t really the first–for that we have Oz, which debuted about a year and a half before The Sopranos, and arguably forged even further into uncharted territory than HBO’s signature show.

Oz is a bleak, bleak fucking show. At least the sociopathic monsters in The Sopranos have the decency to dress up their evil in nice clothes, big smiles and warmhearted joking–on Oz they are given the permission to run rampant, and the moral black hole that the show seems to exist in also means that no one ever escapes for long. Jail sucks. To call it gritty would be something of an understatement (considering Tom Fontana–one of the creators of Homicide–and his Executive Producer credit, it’s hard to consider that too surprising)–there’s probably a rider in actors’ contracts that makes them sign off on both showing full frontal and getting shived at least once each before their contract is over.

No more is Oz‘s trailblazing streak evident than in its ensemble cast, which, simply put, would create an acting pool from which nearly every important TV drama to follow would draw. There’s The Sopranos itself, of course (Edie Falco), LOST (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Harold Perrineau), Dexter (Lauren Velez, supposedly David Zayas next season), The Wire (J.D. Williams, Seth Gilliam), even Law & Order: SVU (Christopher Meloni, B.D. Wong). Hell, one of the guys from 30 Rock (Dean Winters) is even in there. It’s amaazing to think of the shows that might not have been possible had this pack of actors not had their careers launched by Oz.

OK, so influence, importance, innovation, blah blah. And the answer to that is definitely yes–I was able to power through three seasons in a week, not bad even though that only makes a total of 24 episodes. Over those seasons, the show wasn’t always compelling–too much repetitive feuding, too many beefs that don’t really amount to anything, and a too-confined setting for such a wide cast (it’s remarkable what a difference geographical diversity can make in a visceral drama like this–see Deadwood for another show whose sparsity of scenery also got quickly frustrtating). And some of the dramatic right turns that characters take, seemingly unprovoked, over the course of the series, can be extremely frustrating.

Still, it’s hard not to like a show not only with drama this heightened, and with a cast this wide. Dean Winters’ Ryan O’Reilly was probably my favorite, for the first season at least–possibly the most manipulatively self-serving character in screen history, at least until he falls in love and his brother joins him jail and sorts of other things leave him unfortunately mellowed out. J.K. Simmons and Lee Tergesen also deserve props for their roles as Aryan asshole Vern Schellinger and quickly-crushed new guy Tobias Beecher–the feuds the two have over the course of the three seasons make for some of its most riveting moments. And like McNulty on The Wire, Terry Kinney’s Tim McManus is the glue keeping it all together, the sympathetic but highly flawed (especially in the sexual department) core of the show.

I’m a little too tired right now to right more on the show, and it probably deseres better, but to sum up: On the whole, I really only come away from Oz thinking one thing: I really, really, really don’t want to go to prison. So I guess it’s a success.

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Time of the Season: S3 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (’07)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 25, 2007

“You’re the most horrible people alive.”

Gotta give credit to the It’s Always Sunny folk for sticking to their guns. In its longest (14 eps), most widely exposed season yet, the show is same as it ever was, from the brilliantly lo-fi credit sequence to the small, self-contained cast and of course, the pure heartlessness. I seem to remember there at least being some attempts from the guys to temper their less magnanimous impulses in the first two seasons, but now it’s basically just an amorality free-for-all (the episode pictured above, in which Dee and Frank actually get married to try to con Dee’s father out of her dead mother’s money, is particular high/lowlight). The cast almost approaches Master Shake territory at some points when it comes to self-defeating assholeishness–times when it’d actually be in the characters’ best interests to do something decent, but they still can’t bring themselves to do it.

I have now watched over 30 episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in not even so many days. And like Mama always says, watching too much TV in a row will give you hairy palms. Same of course applies for Philadelphia, whose edge just starts getting duller if you watch too many episodes of it in too concentrated a period of time. Eventually it becomes sort of like “hmm, what racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic/anti-social/evil exploits will the gang get into this episode?” The show’s relatively newfound practice of titling its episodes in reference to the episode’s first scene, a sort of punchline to the opener’s set-up, started out as clever, but once you’re not only expecting the punchline, but you’re pretty much able to predict what the punchline’s gonna be, you know something’s not the way it should be.

Not to say it was a bad season, though. Plenty of good episodes, and plenty of great moments, most of which in some way involve Charlie Kelly, quickly becoming not only the show’s breakout character but one of the most hilarious characters on TV right now. His Serpico impression in “Bums: Making a Mess All Over the City” is topped only by the scenes of his two musical opuses, “Nightman” and “Dayman,” in “Sweet Dee Dates a Retarded Person.” Charlie gets closer every episode to being the true successor to George Costanza: the kind of character who’d be disgusting and disturbing if he wasn’t so lovably pathetic.

And once again, the entire season passes without any multi-episode plot arcs. No love interests, no plot twists, nothing really of consequence whatsoever. That’s all well and fine for now, but the show’s going to get boring pretty quickly without any sort of development–this isn’t House, the formula isn’t quite rock solid enough to never plan to deviate from it. But the establishment of a minor supporting cast is probably a good start, and hell, as long as they keep the classic Charlie moments and the WaWa references flowing, it’s hard to complain too much. Just no more “Gang Gets Hooked on [Drug]” episodes please.

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Time of the Season: S1-2 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (’05-’06)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 6, 2007

“Clown Baby has arrived…”

Can you believe how long it’s been since I’ve done one of these columns? Seems it was only a few months ago that I was cranking these out every couple of days, but a combination of external factors sapping my time normally devoted to catching up on old (well, not new) TV means that I haven’t actually written one of these bad boys since my write-up of the original run of Sports Night almost two months ago. And aside from the usual self-loathing unavoidable when watching 15 or so straight episodes of about anything, it feels good to be back in the saddle again.

Anyway, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Quick sum up for those still unexposed to the show–a twin brother and sister, Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Deandra / “Sweet Dee” (Kaitlin Olson) own an Irish pub in Philadelphia, along with Dennis’s friend Mac (show creator Rob McElhenney) and Mac’s childhood friend Charlie (Charlie Day). In the second season, Dennis and Dee’s dad Frank (Danny DeVito) shows up and buys a share of the bar as well.

There’s some minor subplotting going on as well–Charlie’s infatuation with an extremely uninterested local waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and Frank’s addiction to unethical gambling practices among them–but as far as actual plot arcs go, that’s about it. Most of the time, the four (and as of the second season, five) of them just lounge around their bar, yelling, hatching get rich quick schemes, and looking for ways to compete with each other in ridiculous contests of pride and vanity. Works for me.

Props to my friend REL for browbeating me into finally giving this a chance (as well as showing me my first handful of episodes), since it’s certainly a winner–the sort of heartless, super-black comedy badly missing from my TV rotation sinice I got sick of watching the same Seinfeld reruns for the 7th and 8th time twice a night. In fact, the show’s semi-official tagline is “Seinfeld on crack,” which is fairly accurate, though I prefer “Arrested Development without a conscience” (DeAndra even looks like AD’s Lindsay Funke after a few years of smack dabbling).

‘Coz when I look back on it after having seen some of Philadelphia, it seems more and more like Arrested pulled its punches a little. And that would’ve been OK if the show had legitimate heart to go with it, but it tried a little too hard to have it both ways–to simultaneously maintain a rep as the least compromised comedy on TV, but to still throw enough half-hearted sentimentality in there that critics could still maintain that all the backstabbing and near-sociopathic self-interest on display in the show was OK because at heart, it was a family show (which, as the show’s ultra-cynical finale made blindingly obvious, it most definitely wasn’t). Plus, it had that fucking awful Ron Howard narration.

Not to say that Philadelphia is the better show, necessarily–AD was almost certainly more creative, had more unique characters (played by better actors) and was possibly even funnier on an ep-by-ep basis. But after the way AD had to temper itself to stay on FOX (and ultimately, on the air at all), the way Philadelphia absolutely refuses to apologize for the heartlessness presented is more than a little refreshing. Not to mention that its status as an FX show means that it can actually let loose with the language a little bit–they still can’t use “fuck” (resulting in an increasingly unnatural reliance on the substitute “bang”), but they can usually work around it enough so that you don’t notice so much.

And despite lacking the depth and diversity of AD’s cast, Philadelphia‘s crew can still certainly hold their own. The group dynamic (three guys and one girl, all selfish assholes only looking out for number one–which I guess makes Danny DeVito’s character a combination of Frank Costanza and Newman) is the part of the show most obviously cribbed from Seinfeld, but unlike that show, which centered around and was even named after its star–obviously the most narcissistic member of the cast–Philadelphia tends to be fairly democratic with its division of time and plot space. If you had to choose a protagonist, it’d probably be Dennis, simply because he’s the most outwardly successful of the bunch, but unlike Jerry’s position smug superiority over his three friends, Dennis’s ass gets kicked, physically and emotionally, about as much as the other three.

Consequently, there’s not really one character that’s more relatable or likeable than the others–you’re not rooting for any one of them to triumph over the others, you’re generally rooting for them all to fail, and to be as hilarious as possible in their self-destruction. The one character that possibly merges as being the most sympathetic is probably Charlie, but that’s not because he’s any less detestable a person than the other three–rather, he’s just a little bit more pathetic than the others, and so you want his ass to get kicked slightly less, since it seems like life has already done most of the job already. And I do keep hoping the waitress (who might be the cutest short-haired girl in popular entertainment since Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment) throws Charlie at least one pity-fuck, even if he has to lie, cheat and blackmail his way there–which he’s already done, even, just not quite successfully enough. And that’s one of the brilliant parts of the show, really–watching it, you’re already operating under the assumption that you’re in a moral black hole of a universe, so you don’t have to feel bad about the times that you do actually desire these characters’ success to be achieved, by any means necessary.

The other brilliant part? Setting it in Philly. Besides providing the show with a hell of a title–one of those great titles that sounds like its making some sort of comment but actually both means nothing and reflects absolutely zero on the show’s actual content, besides its location anyway–it gives the show a lack of connotation that allows it to function as a kind of Every City, USA. ‘Coz when you get down to it, what do people really know about Philadelphia? Besides the Liberty Bell, the constant failure of the sports teams, and the cheese steaks, I feel like the answer is not much. Which is why I find the opening stroll through the more scenic parts of city, set to the lush strings of a 50s-era TV drama, so hilarious–I know where most, if not all of these places are, and yeah, they’re kind of nice looking, but would they have any meaning whatsoever to someone who lived outside the city? I dunno, maybe I’m just a sucker for WaWa namedropping, but I feel like the Philly location was the final stroke of genius to give the show what it really needed–a total blank slate of a setting to let the characters’ horrific actions speak for themselves.

My only real worry about the show is how it’s going to manage to stay fresh. It’s easy to not get stale over two seasons when you only have a total of 17 half-hour long episodes, but can it really keep it up over the course of another couple full seasons? It’ll almost have to introduce some actual plot arcs, and it’s only a matter of time before two of the main characters hook up, and unless they treat that inevitability with the minimum amount of delicacy possible (my vote is for either Mac & Charlie or Dennis & Dee, the latter of which they even sort of foreshadowed in the S2 finale), it could be the end of the show right there. Seinfeld managed nine classic seasons without doing too much of this, but AD could barely hold on for three. It’ll be interesting to see in which camp Philadelphia ends up.

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Time of the Season: S1-2 of Sports Night (’98-’00)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 15, 2007

“And I finally get Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night! It’s a comedy that’s too good to be funny!

If there was one way to make the abortive run of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip seem even more disappointing, it’s a reviewing of Aaron Sorkin’s similarly short-lived but far more cult-endearing debut series, Sports Night. The similarities are truly astounding–not just in terms of being about the behind-the-scenes workings of a serialized TV show, but in almost all the character types (especially the two male bffs at the creative center, one coming out of a bad breakup and one with deep-seated psychological issues) and, of course, the rapid-fire dialogue, presented in Sorkin’s now trademark and cliched format of choice, the walk-and-talk. And, unsurprisingly, it even shares pretty much all the strenghts and weaknesses of Studio 60, and there are indeed many of both.

The show’s basic premise is of an ESPN-esque station, CSC (Continental Sports Channel), and its Sportscenter-like flagship program, Sports Night, hosted by Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause). Keeping them afloat in the studio are executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), station head Isaac Jaffee (Robert Guillaume), and assistant producers Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd) and Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina). The show, which ranks a solid but unextroardinary third in the ratings, is constantly under pressure from internal and external sources, and by the end of season two, CSC is put on the market, possibly putting the future of Sports Night and all its involved parties in jeopardy.

If film’s auteur theory could be applied to television’s writers and producers, then Aaron Sorkin would undoubtedly be the primary example. Two seconds of this show and you know exactly who’s behind it–not just in the dialogue’s speed and presentation, but in its constantly repeating patterns, and the characters’ unfailing and stupifyingly obvious tendencies to say the exact opposite of the way they actually feel and act. Studio 60‘s dialogue fell into the same traps almost instantly, and had it lasted for the two seasons Sports Night runs, it almost certainly would’ve become as grating as Sports Night‘s eventually gets. There’s definitely some comfort in being able to map out the entire arc of an episode from its first few minutes of dialogue, but watch enough episodes in a row and you’ll be praying for a hail storm or some other meteorological phenomenon to whip through the CSS studios and actually cause a little unforseeable drama.

That said, it’s hard to find too much fault with a show as tight-knit as Sports Night. The dialogue, if unbearably cyclical, is always engaging, and the cast is uniformly strong, as evidenced by the near across-the-board leap to greater TV success the show’s actors would have after the show’s demise (Krause to Six Feet Under, Huffman to Desperate Housewives, Malina to Sorkin’s own West Wing). The article’s lead-in quote, an acid-induced observation from Family Guy that for many serves as the show’s only real contemporary pop culture reference point, is fairly on point–the show rarely induces above a chuckle, but by the end of the pilot, you’re not really even expecting it to, and that’s OK–Sports Night doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t.

Speaking of pilots, if there’s one thing that Sorkin really knows how to do, it’s how to bookend a series. I’ve only seen two episodes of West Wing that I remember in my life, the first and the last, and they were so good–the premiere so perfect at breakneck-speed plot exposition, introduction of main characters and beginning of important theme, and the finale so heartbreaking in its wrapping up of characters and plotlines, and in its general sense of finality and moving on–that it didn’t matter at all that I never bothered to see any of the episodes in between, and now I’m not sure that I’d even want to. I knew this was as good as the show had the potential to be.

Needless to say, Sports Night has a similarly thrilling pilot, and a similarly emotional farewell. It’s the latter that really comes as something of a shock–one of the only ones you’ll find in the series–since, with the exception of some darker stuff uncovered in Danny’s dalliances with a professional psychiatrist, the show had generally kept its emotional content strictly on the lighter side. But by the end of the series, when you’re legitimately unsure whether Sports Night will be sticking around, it’s some uncharted territory for the show and its characters, added to by the brilliance of Dana’s last-minute interactions with the show’s greatest one-off character, known only as The Stranger (classic That Guy, Clark Gregg)–episodes which should have garnered at least Emmy nominations for Huffman and Gregg.

Similar to the post-mortem offers rumored to be on the table for Arrested Development after FOX decided not to stick with the show, Sports Night could have had a future on any number of cable and pay channels had Sorkin decided to stick with the show. However, he decided to instead proceed with The West Wing, a wise choice which garnered him far more commercial and critical success than Sports Night was ever really capable of. Basically, Sports Night ends up a series that deserved just about everything it got–two full seasons, limited mass success but a devoted cult following–and nothing more. Can’t argue with that.

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Time of the Season: S1 of Flight of the Conchords (’07)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 13, 2007

Who likes to rock the party?

My initial resistance to Flight of the Conchords can be blamed almost entirely on Tenacious D. I probably should’ve liked those guys–I like Jack Black, I like faux-metal, I like jokes, y’know, some of the time–but I dunno, the limited bits of their stuff I heard just felt like a big joke that I was never in on. It didn’t help that so many other people knew their catalogue by heart, and would recite it perfectly in tandem while I stared at them dumbly. But yeah, I think it put me off the idea of musical comedy for a long time.

Thank God that Flight of the Conchords is nothing like that. Or maybe it is–who knows if the songs would be any good out of the show’s context, it’s entirely I’d find them just as alienating. But the show–which documents the travails of the semi-fictional New Zealand musical duo of the same name, played by Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie–is far more than that, and while I can’t imagine the show without the musical numbers, it’s a great TV show as well as a great musical showcase.

Oddly, the closest thing I can think of to an antecedent for FotC is the Bjork-starring Palme D’Or winner from the turn of the millennium, Dancer in the Dark. Odd to think of Lars Von Trier as an influence on any sort of musical comedy, but FotC shares the movie’s jarring mixture of humdrum, uncinematic and often fairly depressing real-life sequences mixed with spontaneous, explosive and impressively large-scale musical numbers. The main difference, of course, is that Von Trier used the juxtaposition for tragedy, and McKenzie and Clement do it for comedy.

And it’s real, real funny all right. The non-musical parts of the show mix the deadpan humor and lo-fi visuals of The Office with the occasional ridiculousness of the best Adult Swim characters and the sort of “shit happens” vibe of Curb Your Enthusiasm. McKenzie and Clement have the task of essentially playing the straight men to the craziness of the world around them–their unstable, overenthusiastic and underqualified manager Murray (Rhys Darby, in a perpetually scene-stealing role), their obsessed #1/only fan Mel (Kristen Schaal), and their supremely unhelpful American friend Dave (Arj Barker) the most frequently recurring crazies–and they do it with the comedic timing of pros, surely a carry-over from their pre-TV days as a touring live duo.

And those musical numbers–you’re just not gonna see anything else like them on TV, likely ever. Whether eschewing sensitive singer/songwriting (“If You’re Into It”), Pet Shop Boys-style urban balladry (“Inner City Pressure”), dance hall (“She’s So Hot, BOOM!”) or seduction funk (“It’s Business Time,” which has become something of a hit on its own), FotC gets it right on, with hilarious and surprisingly catchy results. The songs are never too broad, either, so they tend to slide right in with the show’s otherwise extremely straight-faced humor, and the visuals–whether a psychedelic skip through the park during the acid trip of “Prince of Parties,” or the children’s animation-style clip for “Albi the Racist Dragon”–tend to be just as clever.

What’s more, the show had the balls to end the season on a hell of a downer, albeit a predictably hysterical one–presumably because, having run out of songs from their live repertoire, the show’s future is extremely uncertain. But here’s hoping the band can get back together for at least one more season–it’s hard to picture another show getting musical comedy down this perfectly again.

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Time of the Season: S1 of Undeclared (’01-’02)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 7, 2007

“Sleep don’t drink no beer.”

Truth of the matter is, it’s insanely difficult to make a quasi-realistic and yet still compelling show or movie about college life. And that’s because by their nature, college students really are not likeable people–the typical college student, at least as they are popularly perceived, tends to be lazy, entitled, and self-absorbed, without even the excuse of youth or inexperience to fall back on (and believe me, I do not think of myself as an exception to this). That’s why whereas even the jockiest high school movies tend to at least have semi-serious coming-of-age elements, the overwhelming majority of college movies tend to forgo any attempts at legitimate story or character development, in favor of PARTY PARTY PARTY pro-bro propoganda.

It’s especially hard to do a TV show about college, because basic college life doesn’t necessarily revolve around the same set of people and problems every week (unlike, say, in high school, where you very likely do the same things with the same people most of the time), so to make it as soap-ish as a high school show is a little harder to buy. And to do one on network TV is virtually impossible, since without copious amounts of cursing, sex, drugs, alcohol and porn, there’s barely anything left of college to portray.

All of this is really just an elaborate way of saying that even though I admired its efforts, I didn’t like Undeclared that much. A lot of it is due to my own prejudices, since the college life I lead/led is so different than those of the freshmen here, and since unlike show creator Judd Apatow (who claims that college is “the reward for surviving high school) I actually had a great time in high school, and have yet to really find the same happiness in college. There’s a little bit in Undeclared that makes sense to me, but really I’d be just as well off watching Van Wilder or something. Needless to say, I can’t imagine what a college show that did speak to me would look and feel like, but it’s definitely one that wouldn’t last even as long as Undeclared‘s scant 17 episodes, and it’s definitely not this.

I don’t want to let Apatow completely off the hook here, though, because I don’t feel like he really brought his A-game either. Mostly, it has to do with the characters–the cast of Freaks & Geeks wasn’t always totally on point either, but it least had a couple great characters. There is no such greatness coming from the cast of Undeclared–pretty boy Charlie Hunnam, loser Timm Sharp (what is it with Apatow casts and superfluous M’s?) and protagonist Jay Baruchel constantly alternate from endearing to grating, sometimes in the course of the same scene. Of the Undeclared guys, only Seth Rogen is consistently funny, and that’s because he’s just playing Seth Rogen.

But the two girls–Carla Gallo and Dawson’s Creek alum Rachel Lindquist–are basically Undeclared‘s black hole. I’ve heard accusations of sexism levied at Apatow before, but this is the only thing he’s done where I feel actually reflects it. The girls just don’t do anything, except to get manipulated by the boys, whose pathetic and yet somehow successful attempt to trick them into a racy game of truth or dare (in the episode of the same name) is particularly demeaning. This wouldn’t be quite so bad (or at least, quite so detrimental to the show) if the amount of screen time the girls got reflected their position in their universe’s hierarchy, but their lame problems take up almost as much of the show as the guys’ lame problems. Lame.

Maybe a year or two’s experience, some character development and some much-needed cast turnover would’ve helped the show deserve its cult status. Or an eventual re-imagining on a premium channel that didn’t hold so much of college back, that might not be such a bad idea. Maybe setting it in 1982 or something and having an awesome period soundtrack could’ve sold me on it a little more. As it is, though, I thought Undeclared looked boring and mediocre when I saw previews for it a half-decade ago, and it looks like my intiial assessment was mostly right on. Here’s to anticipating Apatow’s inevitable show about post-grad single life.

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Time of the Season: S1 of Dexter (’06 – ‘07)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 29, 2007

“Do you feel anything? ANYTHING at all?”

Has there never been a regular TV show from the perspective of a serial killer before? None that I can think of, but it seems too dynamite a concept for there not to be at least some precursor. Of course, Showtime’s hit new series Dexter cheats a little in the basic concept by making the title character unquestionably a serial killer, but one that at least has ambiguous claims to righteousness. For despite his sociopathic nature, Dexter Morgan has a slasher code of ethics (mostly meaning he just kills bad dudes), inbued in him by his adopted father Harry–one that gives him some semblance of humanity, as well as one that tends to keep his work away from prying eyes. It’s a clever trick, and one that makes the show’s story compelling, despite being about the workings of an essentially evil man.

Unsurprisingly, the show’s formula could still use a little tinkering–which I intend to forgive before S2 since, hey, this is relatively uncharted territory, and first timers are bound to make some mistakes here and there. Here’s how the story goes:

The Good:

  • Michael C. Hall as Dexter. It’s of course a particularly novel performance for me, coming off a two-week shotgun of the entire Six Feet Under, where he played Nate’s gay, uptight brother David. His performance in SFU always sort of verged on crepey itself–something about the intensity of his stare and the frogginess of his voice, combined with his repressed personality, which made him seem like he might snap at any moment. Dexter Morgan is probably who David Fisher would’ve grown up to be if he had snapped when he was about four, and it’s a joy to watch the unsettling instability of his SFU character taken to such an extreme. It’s a great performance, if occasionally somewhat cheesy. and despite being a role that most actors would kill for, it’s hard to imagine what it’d be like played by anybody else.
  • James Remar as Harry Morgan, Dexter’s adopted father. Remar has been an unfortunately unacknowledged actor since he broke out in The Warriors almost 30 years ago, and this is yet another plum role (adding to his turns in Sex & the City, 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Girl Next Door and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, among countless others) to add to his stunning That Guy resume. Remar has to contend with both limited screen time and having an already-deceased character that appears only in flashbacks, but he still manages to be the show’s heart, and the only show regular that can really contend with Hall.
  • The music. Most of it is dictated by the Miami setting, which means the show is peppered with (occasionally deliberately inappropriate) Salsa music, which adds to the show’s boiling-point atmosphere. But it’s the show’s two main themes that are the real treats, the title theme a jaunty (zither? plucked guitar?) number that sounds like a much creepier version of the Dead Like Me theme, and the closing theme a haunting piano ballad that could be from DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing if it had a breakbeat under it.
  • The finale. I don’t want to ruin it for those yet to see it, but it does a pretty impressive job of tying up all the season’s loose plot points in a resolution that’s half Marlowe and half Cronenberg.

The Bad:

  • The show’s over-reliance on wink-wink, nudge-nudge moments. Dexter spends so much time evil-hamming for the camera that it’s somewhat amazing that no one else in the cast seems to notice. Plus, the character has an annoying tendency to give himself too much credit–there’s a line about halfway through the season, something like not “I’m not human, and I’m not a monster, I’m a new breed…I AM DEXTER.” C’mon, Dex, save that shit for Spiderman or someone.
  • Jennifer Carpenter as Dexter’s sister, Deborah. As Dexter’s last remaining link to humanity (“If I could feel things about anyone, I’d feel them for Deb,” he says at one point, approximately), Deb needs to be a compelling enough character to be buyable as the character keeping Dexter sane. Unfortunately, she’s mosly just kind of annoying, and one she inevitably falls into danger, you’ll only be rooting half-heartedly for Dex to come to the rescue (“eh, on second thought, fuck it”).

The Questionable:

  • The title sequence. Using extreme close-ups of Dexter performing his ordinary morning ritual–meat getting chopped, facial hairs being shaved, eggs being fried–shot to look as disturbing and unordinary as possible. The intention is obviously to show the implied violence of Dexter’s (and, in turn, most other people’s) everyday routine, and I guess it sort of works, but it feels like it’s trying a little too hard. Plus I’m pretty sure it’s already been done in a Michel Gondry or Floria Sigismondi video or something.
  • The rest of the cast. There’s really not much going on there yet–Julie Benz as Dex’s confused girlfriend Rita, David Zayas as his good-timey Latino co-worker Angel, even Erik King as Sgt. Doakes, the one cop who can almost see through his mechinations, they all fail to make anything beyond superficial impressions. With a few seasons under their belt I could see them growing on me, but for the moment, this is the Hall and Remar show through and through. Maybe IITS’s newest compadre wants to make his acting debut as Dexter’s new partner–the hilarity and pop culture cache would be unimaginable.

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Time of the Season: (One Episode Of) S2-5 of Six Feet Under (’02-’05)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 23, 2007

Oh dear lord

There’s a part in season three of Six Feet Under, during the early days of Claire’s stay at art school, where her teacher and future mentor Olivier preaches something about how good art should make you want to vomit. I wish I had taken note of what the exact quote was, since it turned out to be the most prophetic piece of foreshadowing the show could have possibly had. The series’ finale, “Everybody’s Waiting,” literally made me feel ill–in the final minutes, I considered pausing it for a minute for fear I wasn’t going to be able to breathe by the end.

To be fair, the episode had help–a combination of over-indulgence on Chinese leftovers, fairly serious sleep deprivation, and mild to severe intoxication left me primed for such feelings. Still, the only time I can remember feeling a similar way was after watching Day of the Dead one night in High School, because both pecked mercilessly at all of my greatest, deepest fears in life–SFU = abandonement, rejection, alienation, death, family loss, DOTD = getting eaten by motherfucking zombies. And hey, at least Day of the Dead had a ridiculous happy ending, where all the characters escape to a blissful, safe existence on some island, presumably tacked on to keep patrons from walking out of the theater and straight into moving traffic. SFU ends with what is possibly the world’s first ever funeral montage. Judged solely on its own art = nausea standards, Six Feet Under must surely be considered the greatest piece of art to ever appear on TV.

Really, I’m not even gonna talk about most of the rest of Seasons 2 -5, which was largely good (with some minor issues and varying story arc success) but in retrospect seems basically just like a lead up to the series’ last five episodes, especially that fucking finale. It’s not my first time with truly emotionally painful TV–at least one or two Sopranos episodes inspired similar misery, as well as a certain episode of Seinfeld that I hope to talk about here at length sometime–but nothing quite like this. Starting about halfway through season five, I started racing through the last episodes as fast as I could to just get it over with already.

It started with Nate’s death about four episodes from the end, a death which, while somewhat predictable and anti-climactic at the time, set a chain of episodes in motion that just kept getting more and more miserable. But it wasn’t that bad quite yet–emotionally draining, sure, but manageable. And even when things started to go right again–with Claire moving on, Federico moving up, David and Keith making good with their kids Ruth learning how to live on her own, and Brenda finally being accepted as part of the Fisher family–somehow, that was still slightly doable. But at each of the show’s 100 could-possibly-end-here-endings (which make Return of the King seem like Crank by comparison), I started praying to myself end here, end here, let me out before any real damage is done.

And then, that fucking funeral montage. Choosing the most blatantly sentimental-sounding shit possible for the soundtrack (Sia’s “Breathe Me,” a piano + vocal number which has the sledgehammer effect of a combined Counting Crows x Cat Power x The Fray senso-wallop), it shows, in rapid-but-not-nearly-rapid-enough succession, scenes of each of the cast eventually growing up, living their full lives, and dying, while the remaining family members grieve in silence until only Claire is left, dying at age 102 in her house adorned with family photos. With each successive death, I thought “oh no, not [cast member], please just don’t show the death of [cast member]” I didn’t even like some of these people most of the time, but I just couldn’t bear seeing these fictional characters die. The show’s final message? No matter how well you live your life, you and everyone you know will eventually die. Which was probably the show’s message all along, although possibly in a more affirmative way than I’m interpreting it.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch this show again, at least not those last few episodes. I never quite had the balls to return to Day of the Dead, and I want these season five DVDs out of my living room first thing tomorrow morning. I’m not even sure if I’ll even be able to honestly say that I like the show, given the trauma-esque reactions I will have to recalling it. I’ve long said that certain shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office should be rated NC-17 for the horrific social awkwardness they portray, but for the neuroses and insecurities exploited in Six Feet Under, the show should be banned in 49 states and bootlegged in none but the most hardcore underground scenes. Why my parents didn’t try to forbid me from watching it, I’ll probably never understand.

Fuck it. Tomorrow I’m starting up season of two of Weeds. Is Flight of the Conchords on or something?

(Oh, and of course, huge retrospect-LOLs at the entirety of this. As always, can’t say I wasn’t warned)

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