The Look Back: The Wire’s “Middle Ground”

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In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

Nine years ago today the nominations for the 57th Primetime Emmy Awards were announced. 2005 was a simpler time; Everybody Loves Raymond led the pack with 10 nominations, Angela Lansbury received her 18th nomination, and Desperate Housewives became the second series ever to earn 3 nominations in a lead acting category (the other series? Golden Girls, of course). But not every nomination announced was as standard as expected. A small HBO drama well into its third year earned its first Emmy nomination ever in the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category. The series was The Wire, and the episode was “Middle Ground.”

For some reason, “Middle Ground” was The Wire‘s first Emmy nomination ever. (The show would only come to earn one more nomination, for its series finale “–30–” again in Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.) How is it that the most talked about series of its time took 3 years to earn an Emmy nomination? Well, because the voters who decide the Emmy nominations are a group of asinine dumbfucks. Regardless, “Middle Ground” has good reason for being The Wire‘s first Emmy nomination. It’s a brilliant hour of storytelling (as most episodes of The Wire are) and stands out from every other episode of The Wires 5 year run. This is because “Middle Ground” is something all other episodes of The Wire are not: a stand-alone episode of television.

What makes “Middle Ground” a stand-alone episode is that all of the major stories of Season 3 start to come to a head. McNulty and co. have successfully sold the Barksdale crew tapped phones and are thisclose to catching Stringer Bell. Bunny has given a presentation revealing the existence of Hamsterdam and Rawls and Mayor Royce are scrambling in how to explain it before the story breaks. Cutty is nearing his redemptive end. And there’s Stinger and Avon, whose relationship is the heart of this episode. All of these stories are reaching their ends because “Middle Ground” is the penultimate episode of The Wire‘s 3rd season, but there’s something about the narrative propulsion that brings a unique energy to the episode.

Take “Middle Ground”‘s opening scene, for example, which is one of the greatest scenes in television history.

The scene is impeccably shot by episode director Joe Chappelle, whose blocking of the scene hearkens back to Sergio Leone westerns. But the scene works as well as it does not because of its incredible visual style, but because of the palpable energy that stems from a simple conversation between two characters, Omar and Brother Mouzone. (I’d love to show every Breaking Bad fan who thinks Gus Fring is the best television villain ever Brother Mouzone, who puts Fring to shame.) Every line crackles, and when watching the scene it feels like it’s the most thrilling thing you’ll ever see, even though it’s just two men talking to each other. Immediately, “Middle Ground” finds energy and propulsion by simply trusting its characters, which is something that carries on throughout the entire episode.

Another benchmark sequence in “Middle Ground” is the collection of scenes where Bunny shows off his precinct to Carcetti. The scenes are made up of, again, two men talking to each other, this time about the simplicities of daily life in Baltimore. Bunny’s precinct has turned into a “normal” neighborhood, something its residents haven’t been used to, and the sequence relishes in the beauty that comes from this newfound normalcy. One scene that particularly comes to mind is when Bunny and Carcetti attend a community meeting.

It’s a short scene that just features people talking, but the scene strikes a deeply emotional chord. It’s a meditation on human connection. The collection of these scenes between Bunny and Carcetti feel like if Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy was set in Baltimore, but that feeling comes to a crushing end once Carcetti reaches Hamsterdam. The close up of Carcetti’s face realizing what Hamsterdam is is a shattering moment in a series full of them, but that devastation could not be achieved without the beauty of the scenes that preceded it.

And speaking of devastation: Stringer and Avon. As mentioned before, Stringer and Avon’s relationship is the heart of “Middle Ground.” It’s been crumbling slowly, but in “Middle Ground” it reaches its breaking point. The last scene the two men share together is another hallmark one, as it is just Stringer and Avon reminiscing about where they’ve come from and where they stand now.

The scene is, again, filled with incredible dialogue, every line more loaded as the next. There’s “We ain’t gotta dream no more, man” the episode’s epigraph, and the ending line of “Us, motherfucker.” It’s one of the most rich and textured scenes of television I’ve ever seen in my life, and it’s only made possible by The Wire trusting its characters and believing in the small moments they’re able to produce.

And it’s made even more devastating by Stringer’s death. The act of killing off Stringer Bell is an incredibly shocking, ambitious, and devastating one (I’d also love to show every Game of Thrones fan who thinks that the show’s killing off of characters are the most ambitious in television history what The Wire did in 2004), but the most crushing thing about it is that it’s just a small moment in The Wire‘s gigantic universe. Sure, Stringer’s death causes serious complications for the Major Crimes Unit, but after the season finale The Wire just moves on.

Handling Stringer’s death in this way brings perspective and gravity to the episode and series as a whole in a way that is, in the macro, uncommon for The Wire. The series has been lauded continuously for its tactfulness in understanding why institutions fail us, and its sweeping weightiness when exhausting the subject. But for my money, The Wire is not recognized enough for its smaller moments and perspective. The most striking thing about the series is how it’s able to craft a gigantic and complex universe while still being able to deliver small and intimate character moments that feel just as weighty as its big picture ideas. This is readily apparent in “Middle Ground,” as the episode is built on small and unique character moments which bring perspective, and is ultimately why the episode works on its own. It’s what I love about The Wire, and it’s why “Middle Ground” is the series’ best episode.

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Fargo is the Perfect Chaser to Breaking Bad

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Last night, FX’s Fargo wrapped up its 10 episode run in a wholly satisfying way. The stakes were set against the show from the very beginning, being that it is “inspired by” one of the greatest movies of all time, but somehow, someway Fargo stuck the landing. In all actuality, Fargo really shouldn’t have been this good. Not just because it was working off the unassailable legacy of the Coen Brothers’ classic, but also because it has become increasingly difficult to end cable dramas of the antihero persuasion in ways that are actually good. A prime example of this is Breaking Bad (though I’m also looking at you, True Detective). AMC’s juggernaut drama wrapped up its final run last fall, and looking back at the finale, it feels largely unnecessary. (For those keeping track: my feelings on “Felina” have gone from “perfectly fine while somewhat masturbatory” to “full on masturbatory.”) After years of being badass, Walter White never faced his true punishment and got the last say in his own endgame, riding things out in a storm of bullets. Fargo, on the other hand, managed to craft an ending that wasn’t only satisfying, but also true to its world and characters. In the shadow of Breaking Bad, Fargo shows what a morally satisfying ending should look like, and just how far the antihero genre can be taken in 10 episodes.

The differences between Breaking Bad and Fargo extend further than their Southwest vs. Midwest settings. The main difference between the two shows is how they treat their characters, most importantly the ones who make bad decisions. Obviously, both shows have very complex and differing depictions of the distinction between good and evil. In Breaking Bad, there is no black or white, just gray. In Fargo, the universe is deeply rooted in mythology, spirituality, folklore, and legends that help us learn more about good and evil. But, the most significant difference between Fargo and Breaking Bad’s moral compasses is Fargo’s fundamental understanding of one thing: bad people who make bad decisions are idiots.

From the moment Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) kills his ball-busting wife with a hammer to her head, Fargo makes it clear that this is a very, very bad decision for Lester to make. Lester was introduced as a simple and mild-mannered man (like someone else we knew), but at the moment he decides to break bad, it’s clear that he’s an idiot. Lester calls for help from the ambiguous Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton) but ends up with a bigger problem than what he started with. Instead of helping Lester with his wife’s dead body, Malvo shoots and kills the Bemidji chief of police (who has already called for backup) and flees the scene. This leaves Lester to act on his own wits—which he has none of—so logically, he decides to run headfirst into a brick wall, leaving him unconscious for when the backup unit comes.

Instances like these became frequent throughout Fargo’s 10 episode run. Instead of depicting Lester as one step ahead of everyone else, Fargo showed him only making one bad decision after the next. Each lie that Lester told only made us hate him more, and nothing was left up to ambiguity. Where Breaking Bad showed us Walter White consistently getting away scot-free in that “Yeah science! Yeah Mr. White!” kind of way, Fargo made a point of always showing us Lester at peak horribleness. What feeds into this even more is the violence at the forefront of Fargo. While the excessive amount of violence that occurred throughout the show’s run might be a misread of the Coen Brothers’ film on creator Noah Hawley’s part, the violence at least served some purpose in showing us the countless innocent casualties of one man’s idiocy.

Fargo also helped make the case against Lester by making him one of the only living assholes in a world full of saints. What made Fargo bearable was how Hawley took the term “Minnesota Nice” to heart and filled his world with an overwhelmingly amount of goodness. There was Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), the Bemidji cop who was determined to serve justice, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a good cop, even better father to his daughter Greta, and soon to be Molly’s husband, and Molly’s father Lou, a preserver of good throughout the ages. These characters put the good in good guys, and helped keep hope and justice alive in wasteland of Minnesota winters.

So, when Fargo came to close, justice was indeed served. While Lester didn’t suffer legal punishment or anything of the sort, he did suffer a horrible death only fit for the idiotic monster he had become. The show even hinted at Lester riding his fugitive status out, à la Walter White, but in the end consequences awaited him, and he drowned in a frozen lake. And even better, the good guys won! From what I’ve read, there seems to be a general dissatisfaction with Fargo’s finale. While recognizing that “Morton’s Fork” was at least satisfying, many have noted that it lacked payoff for Molly’s arc in the story. While I at least somewhat understand that dissatisfaction, I think it’s necessary to realize that Fargo was not Molly’s story. People seem to be confusing FX’s Fargo with the Coens’ Fargo, which truly is Marge Gunderson’s story. Since it was a 10 episode miniseries, I don’t think Fargo could just be one character’s story, because it instead built a rich tapestry of distinctive characters and unforgettable mysteries that created the general idea of Fargo.

I don’t want anyone who reads this to think that I am not a fan of Breaking Bad. Even though it suffered from having its weakest episode ever be its last, the whole of Breaking Bad is remarkable television that will undoubtably rank among my favorite shows of all time, (I’ve written nearly 7,000 words about it, for god’s sake!) I do, however, want anyone who reads this to think about what Fargo says about the antihero genre, and the radical changes it made to the genre in 10 episodes. The show was about good guys who prevailed until the very end and bad guys who made idiotic decisions, and it remained utterly compelling throughout. Fargo did the impossible: separated itself and became its own distinct entity from the Coen Brothers’ film, stuck the landing, and, most remarkably, found a new place to take television’s most tired genre.

The Age of Louie

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It takes a lot to start a new wave of television. You have to be expressive, influential, and most importantly, hold meaning and relevance for those watching. Our most recent wave of great TV has been the “golden age” of cable dramas with antiheroes at their forefront. However, the age of the antihero is over. Or at least is getting there. Instead of clinging to the past, it’s time for TV to move forward. And it already has.

FX’s Louie has sparked the next wave of great television. This might sound like a surprise because based on its description alone (Louis C.K. plays a fictional version of himself in this series that follows the comedian through the lows of being an awkward single dad in New York.), Louie sounds like a “normal” show. And it is! Louis C.K. is an ordinary everyman telling everyday stories in ways that are unusual for television. Because, at its core, Louie isn’t about plot, characters, or even being funny, but is instead about the nature of being human.

Humanity is an incredibly hard thing to explore in any medium, but Louie does it with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Through its transformative ways of storytelling, Louie strips down everything we know about regular storytelling, and offers a revealing look at what it’s like to be human. In Louie you can find the raw truths about life, the bizarre experiences of being human, our fears of rejection, humiliation, and loneliness, what personal victories, fulfillment, and self-discovery feel like, and what human connection really is. All of this in one 21 minute episode of television.

That’s the thing about Louie. One five-minute segment can be the most loving and profound scene you’ve seen all year, and the next as strange as a David Lynch filmLouie has been transcending normal storytelling for years in a very low-key way. The show takes its time to explore the small ideas that really matter, and the end result is unbelievably meaningful television. This is our new wave of great television: Low Key-TV.

The most obvious example of Louie’s influence on TV is HBO’s new era of dramedies. Picking up Girls and having Lena Dunham in a creatively auteur-ish position (she writes most episodes but has a writing staff, also directs occasionally) was an obvious response to Louis C.K.’s creative control over Louie (he writes and directs every episode, has edited most, and sits in with the musicians). Each episode of Enlightened, HBO’s best (albeit cancelled) dramedy was written by creator Mike White. And HBO’s new dramedies, the so-so Getting On and the wonderful Looking, are creator driven shows that have distinct visions. More importantly, each of these shows embody Louie’s low-key type of storytelling. They all tell small stories that end up having big impact emotionally, and are all incredibly resonant.

But low-key TV isn’t just half hour shows. Orange is the New Black takes a step back in every episode to examine how humanity binds each character together in their community. Sundance’s first original series Rectify is a thoughtful examination of how we view our lives and why they matter to us. And Showtime’s Masters of Sex is, ironically, the most intimate show on TV outside of Louie, telling very small stories.

However, the argument can be made that low-key storytelling has been present in television for years. Mad Men has always been a short story show disguised as an anti-hero one. Showtime’s network defining dramedies have always been blurring the lines of genre and storytelling. Even Freaks and Geeks employed a certain type of storytelling that was small, yet emotionally rich.

Still, this type of storytelling has been crystalized by Louie. It’s the main reason Louie’s the most ambitious and distinctive show on TV. You won’t find any other show on television that devotes 21 minutes to a conversation between two friends, with one who says he’s going to kill himself. There will never be a show that has its protagonist unknowingly bring a duckling into Afghanistan. Or any other episode that details a man’s escape from depression which ends with him connecting with a random family in China.

Thanks to Louie’s sheer ambition and expressiveness we have our next great wave of television. And hopefully we’ll be able to feel thankful for years to come.

Review is the Funniest–and Saddest–Show on TV

1617596_651970931526044_1102797902_oEver since The Sopranos premiered cable television has been the home of dark and grim stories. The word “dark” has been the defining trait of cable television for years now, and it’s usually been associated with those ever-present antihero shows. However, the darkest show on television is indeed on (basic) cable and features a male lead, but it’s actually, in the strictest sense, a comedy. I am speaking of Comedy Central’s new series Review starring Andy Daly, which has featured some of the darkest and saddest television to air in years.

Every episode of Review starts with Forrest MacNeil, a man who reviews not movies, books, or food, but life experiences for his show within the show, stating, “Life, it’s literally all we have. But is it any good?” This quote embodies everything Review stands for. It frames Forrest as a hopelessly inquisitive man yearning to find out if life has any meaning at all. Yet Forrest almost answers his question himself, in that he acknowledges it’s really all we have. The meaning of life is what we make of it.

And what does Forrest make of life? Well, because of his current employment situation Forrest can’t really make any decisions whatsoever, and instead has to react to the situations that are forced upon him. And because Review (the show within the show) is supposed to be an informative television program, Forrest is expected to learn about his life.

A perfect example of this is the “Racist” segment from Review‘s second episode. (NOTE: ALL OF Review‘s FIRST SEASON IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE TO STREAM FOR FREE ON YOUTUBE, LINKED HERE. YOU NOW HAVE NO EXCUSE TO HAVE NOT WATCHED 2014’S BEST NEW SHOW.) At face value the segment serves as an incredibly hilarious take on contemporary racism, but it also shows how reviewing life experiences will come to affect Forrest’s personal life. After being a racist in daily life (putting up “White” and “Colored” signs in the office, bonding with a white supremacist) Forrest brings his work home with him, where his neighbors, one of whom is Black, are gathered. Forrest sees fit to shout the N-word at his neighbor, but he doesn’t seem too surprised by Forrest’s behavior. Instead, he’s more taken aback by Forrest’s decision to become an “overt racist.”

This is Review at its best. As Forrest’s work gets personal, his wife becomes embarrassed, and his neighbors grow more disillusioned by his behavior. (It’s worth nothing that everyone in Forrest’s life is unable to tell what he is doing for the show, and what Forrest is doing for himself). Best of all Forrest realizes that he was a racist all along. By making his work extremely personal, Review just barely scratches the surface of the deep dark depths it will take Forrest in its 9 episode run.

And yet the darkest episode of television in years airs the following week. It is the glorious “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes.” The episode is one of the most devastating pieces of television I have ever seen. First, Forrest sets out to see what it’s like to eat 15 pancakes. Then, he experiences what going through divorce is like. Finally, Forrest returns to the circumstances his first review, except in a wildly different state of mind. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling, and you should see why:

The ramifications of this review are immediately recognized. Forrest has to end a 14 year marriage, the most successful in MacNeil family history, without any reason whatsoever. Forrest also has to somehow break it to his still unaware wife Suzanne, and their young son. Forrest has to do it for the show, because his Producer Grant (played brilliantly by James Urbaniak) reminds Forrest that he has to “commit to the standard” that he set for himself.

What plays out is outstanding cringe comedy. After a brutal initial argument, Suzanne meets with Forrest again only to tell him that his request of a divorce was right. Again, Forrest learns more about his life in the worst possible way, but he still views this realization as “a plus.” In the end, Forrest isn’t able to assign “Divorce” a star rating. This is coming from the man who gave being a racist half a star. The show has completely destroyed Forrest, but it isn’t done yet.

When returning to eat 30 more pancakes, Forrest is only able to feel a “vast, empty numbness.” When starting the challenge, courage eventually turns into nihilism. Forrest connects with the darkest corner of his soul and remarks, “Perhaps I simply understood that these pancakes couldn’t kill me. Because I was already dead.”

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Instead of connecting with the profundity of life, Forrest continues to only learn about the worst. Forrest’s dark journey turns incredibly sad, and ultimately devastating. A man’s job has driven him to become addicted to cocaine, divorce his wife, kill a man through road rage, be institutionalized, and many other terribly sad things. This is what television was made for. Week to week we check in with Forrest, only to find his life even more devastating than the week before. And the worst/best part is that it’s incredibly funny.

Review makes us laugh at the most devastating aspects of Forrest’s life. We’re watching, and sometimes even enjoying, the slow disintegration of a seemingly normal man’s life. The show’s mockumentary style of filming makes us even complicit in doing so. By doing this, Review is pushing the medium of the television sitcom to its limits.

And thankfully, no other show on TV is doing anything like what Review is doing. The direction of Forrest’s character arc is something completely idiosyncratic to Review, and it’s utterly audacious television. There’s nothing darker, sadder, and funnier on TV right now other than Review. So, the only thing to say is 5 Stars!

Politics Have Never Been So Boring: On House of Cards and the Banality of Frank Underwood

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When House of Cards premiered last year it was clear that the show was a game-changer. Netflix’s first original series showed what was clearly the future of television. By releasing every episode of the show’s first season at once, Netflix singlehandedly changed the television landscape and House of Cards became something revolutionary. However, this can only be said of House of Cards’ release model and not of the show itself, because House of Cards is, plainly put, a qualitative failure.

Why is House of Cards, one of the most critically lauded and big-name awards nominated shows of 2013, a qualitative failure? Well, it’s mostly because the show isn’t saying anything about anything. I guess to be fair I should say that with regard to Washington D.C. and American Politics House of Cards says about as much as its opening credits do on the subject matter. Which, again, is nothing. The only point of view that House of Cards takes on is one that is terribly uninteresting, and that is all thanks to the show’s main character.

The problems with Frank Underwood arise from House of Cards’ narrative construction. Right from the get-go, it’s made clear that Underwood is the only important thing about the show. Frank Underwood is the disgruntled, middle-aged white male (more on that later) who is guiding us through his world. (Sometimes Underwood guides us quite literally when he speaks directly to the camera in lazily written asides.) Nothing else besides Frank Underwood matters in the world of House of Cards. Every other character that exists in Underwood’s ecosystem is just a bland and expressionless cog in his machine called life. Everything goes Underwood’s way, and always without a hitch. Now, this all wouldn’t matter so much if Frank Underwood was an actual interesting and compelling character, but sadly, that doesn’t happen to be the case.

The most interesting things about Frank Underwood are that he plays video games and eats ribs. One could say that Underwood’s ability to kill a dying dog, or go against the President of the United States’ orders, or manipulate everyone around him, or even compose himself in an old-timey way are the most interesting things about him, but they are not. The problem is that these exact things are what Netflix and House of Cards think are the most interesting and compelling aspects of Frank Underwood.

What’s exactly wrong with these aspects being the most important ones that make up who Frank Underwood is? I have a very scientifically calculated answer to that question:

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As you can see in the very accurately calculated graph pictured above, there is very little that makes Frank Underwood distinctive. He’s a character continuing on the stock type middle-aged, white male antihero that the cable drama once championed. The SopranosThe ShieldThe WireDeadwoodMad Men, and Breaking Bad are all great shows with great main characters, but they have thoroughly covered the middle-aged, white male antihero and taken him to his extremes. What’s problematic is that House of Cards is built on these shows. Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Tommy Carcetii, Al Swearengen, Don Draper, and Walter White are all deeply embedded into the character of Frank Underwood (one might think Underwood himself was created by an algorithm, like House of Cards was), and what’s left for distinctiveness isn’t much. I’m all for ribs and video games, but it simply isn’t enough to make a compelling and satisfying character.

Without Kevin Spacey playing Frank Underwood and earning his Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe nominations, House of Cards would be unwatchable. And without the prestige of being Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards would be dismissed and belong in a class of other subpar cable dramas continuing on the tired trend of the middle-aged, white male antihero, like Ray Donovan or Low Winter Sun, to name a few. I’d like to have hope that someone behind House of Cards can realize its narrative problems, but with the level of popularity it’s at now, that’s just not going to happen.

On the micro, there’s really nothing obscenely wrong with House of Cards other than its misconceived narrative issues, but on the macro, House of Cards presents huge and troubling problems for television’s future. There’s nowhere for television to go if one of its most high-profile shows thrives only by supplying setbacks and problems for new and original ideas. Netflix might be the future of television, but House of Cards is clearly living in the past.

American Television’s Horror Story: On the Wildly Stupid (and Wildly Insensitive) Coven

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This is what it felt like to watch American Horror Story: Coven.

On all counts, American Horror Story: Coven was a failure. I should rephrase that. Calling something a failure suggests that it made an attempt at doing something, or simply tried, but it turns out Coven did no such thing. The third season of FX’s “anthology” series had a hard time barely existing on a week to week basis, and floundered about at every chance it got. So, on all counts, American Horror Story: Coven was some of the worst television to ever be put on the air, and was a fucking abomination, to say the least.

The only thing that kept me watching Coven week after week was the prospect that it could surpass American Horror Story‘s first season’s awful, horrendous, and often times excruciating terribleness. Spoiler alert: it did. This was a surprise to me because I really hated the series’ first iteration, Murder House, which was just about as dumb as its title suggests.

It might seem like I’m some sort of AHS: Hater who has way too much free time on his hands and uses it to write obsessive amateur blog posts about how much he hates the show, but I do have some affinity for Asylum, the series’ second iteration. Asylum was smart and knew exactly what it was doing. It didn’t matter that there were Aliens, Nazis, Werewolves, Nymphomaniacs, and a murderous Santa Claus all in one place, because it was simply set in an asylum, where the rules of storytelling could be stretched by any means necessary.

This gets me to why Coven worked so poorly. On a storytelling basis, Coven was absolutely horrible. In what seemed like every episode, one character would be killed, another turned into a ghost, and another brought back from the dead. Coven‘s muddled and convoluted mess of a plot never really advanced, and NOTHING. EVER. HAPPENED. The only thing that kept Coven (barely) afloat was the bizarre possibility that Stevie Nicks, a witch herself, would appear on the show and sing a song, and when it actually happened it was so inexplicable that it had no impact on anything that had to do with the show.

This is all to say that Coven was a disaster. The structural rules of the show’s universe were constantly being broken and consequently rewritten. Nothing was ever coherent, and everything that defined Coven became completely and utterly pointless. The titular Coven was supposed to be an organization that enforced rules and brought order, but everything the show presented contradicted that fact. Why would an institution break the rules week after week without any consequences? And why were there no consequences anywhere in Coven?

This lack of consequences became especially disheartening as Coven explored race and its significance within the show’s universe. From the start, one could say that Coven functioned as an examination of power, and how factors like gender, race, age, mental illness, and class affect that power. As Coven‘s plot became more incomprehensible and eventually utterly unimportant, somehow the show’s primary focus became race relations in contemporary America. This shift in focus resulted in some predictably bad television, as Ryan Murphy (a genius, according to Derbil McDillet Dylan McDermott) and Brad Falchuk, the show’s creators, “explored” the issue of race in the most ham-fisted way you cold imagine.

The following is a list of actual things that happened during the run of Coven.

  1. A Black man was tortured and consequently reconstructed as a Minotaur. On top of being reduced to a monster, the man’s status as an animal was fetishized and glamorized by the show.
  2. Said Minotaur became sexually involved with the only Black teenage girl featured on Coven.
  3. The primary conflict of Coven became between the Voodoo community and the witches of the Coven, and this conflict stemmed from each community’s race. Essentially, the primary conflict of Coven became a Black vs. White race war.
  4. A historically racist white woman (the real-life Madame LaLaurie) was reduced to a head, and during her time as a head learned to stop being racist merely because she watched the 1977 miniseries Roots.
  5. Almost every single member of the Voodoo community was massacred in a highly stylized action scene set to none other than the civil rights anthem “Oh Freedom.”

That last item on the list is particularly problematic. While it might serve as a relatively smart story beat (uniting the two groups and ending the race war was necessary and provided one of the few sources of momentum in Coven‘s story arc), the actual sequence of Black Americans being slaughtered set to a historically significant anthem was executed in the worst way possible, and is one of the stupidest things American Horror Story has ever come up with. The only thing that can be said for the sequence is that it is offensive, disgusting, and shameful.

But this should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever watched American Horror Story. In every moment, the show sets out to shock and horrify its viewers. There’s really no thinking behind the notion, other than the fact that it will get people talking. To constantly do this, American Horror Story exists in a hyper-reality where there are no rules, nor consequences. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk think they have the liberty to treat real-world issues, like race, lightly, and play around with them with no consequences whatsoever. This became entirely and painstakingly clear throughout the run of Coven, and it could be just as easy to get fervently upset about the show’s understanding (or lack thereof) of feminism or mental illness, for example. To truly enjoy American Horror Story (or any form or art, really) one must suspend disbelief. But to truly enjoy Coveit became clear that one must suspend their very own notions of cultural awareness and basic human decency.

I love television because of its profound ability to make one feel something over the course of many weeks. But when watching American Horror Story: Coven I only felt ashamed. Ashamed of those who were involved in making it, ashamed of the channel that aired it, and ashamed of myself for watching it. I don’t think television gets much worse than this.

Cousins, Critically: 2013 In Television

Cousins, Critically started as a vehicle for M. Liam Moore and myself to rewatch Breaking Bad and “dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner.” After a while we realized that Cousins, Critically didn’t just have to be about Breaking Bad, and decided to bring in another cousin, which resulted in the best post to ever appear on this blog. With different voices on Aweful Writing, the content became decidedly better, and Cousins, Critically became a qualitative success (page views be damned!). So, in the spirit of the feature’s peak, Aweful Writing presents Cousins, Critically: The Best of Series. In part 1 of a 2 part series, a host of critical cousins has assembled to discuss their favorite television of 2013. Stay tuned for part 2!

J.T. and M. Liam Moore Discuss At Length Their Thoughts on Television In 2013

J.T. Moore: I’m thrilled to be creating a best (and worst) of list through Cousins, Critically. The series of posts that we have done in 2013 would top my list of favorite blogs in 2013, but I guess I’m biased. Then again, best of lists are kind of stupid in general. To say that one work of art is better than the other and rank them against each other is entirely subjective. But what’s more fun than a best of list?

To say that television in 2013 was great would be a massive understatement. There are 2 different posts and counting running at Aweful Writing on my favorites of the year that just have to do with TV, so I’d say that the medium had a good year.

One of the most remarkable things about television in 2013 is the number of fantastic new shows that came from what seemed like nowhere. Once you found you favorite show of 2013, the next week there would be a new one that you loved even more! A specific channel that had a particularly great year in 2013 is the Sundance Channel. They were for 3 for 3 in terms of outstanding new shows with Top of the Lake, Rectify, and Les Revenants (known in the states as The Returned). Instead of lingering on about how great these three shows were (as they all place within my Top 10 for the year) I’d like to talk about what this means for Sundance.

With these three premieres, Sundance experienced what might be one of the greatest calendar years for any network ever. In truth, 2 of the 3 series are foreign imports (Top of the Lake is from the UK, and Les Revenants is from France, obviously), but the selection of them is what matters most. These three shows gave Sundance an incredible year and one that is comparable to AMC’s humble beginnings with the premieres of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. However, I’d hope that Sundance doesn’t go down the dark path that AMC has taken, filled with Small Town Securitys and Low Winter Suns, and that the channel’s programing only gets better. But it’s hard to imagine a better year for the channel than 2013.

How about you, M. Liam? What was some of you favorite television of 2013?

M. Liam Moore: Funny you should mention new series, J.T. Like you, I devoted myself to a new show in 2013, one I began watching at the recommendation of my most trusted TV critic. That show was The Bridge (known in the States as The Bridge), and the critic who touted it as TV’s best new show was … well, there’s nothing to be gained in naming names. Let’s just say that despite an interesting premise, this Scandinavian import stunk like lutefisk.

While The Bridge may not have worked, it did strive to push the envelope. Even if it came up short, the network, FX, deserves credit for giving airtime to such an ambitious show, and allowing the show (which has since been renewed? REALLY?) time to develop its characters, explore its setting and, inevitably, either sink or swim.

FX gets a lot of love from me this year. I understand that, as a white male aged 18 to 49, I am nestled right into the network’s audience-bosom. But just as it sounds like Sundance (which I no longer get – thanks, unborn child! – though I am four episodes into its bewitching Top of the Lake) is willing to go “all in” on shows that could hardly be considered safe, FX has been doing the same thing for years, albeit with a Y-chromosome litmus test.

I love ducking into FX’s comedies: The League, It’s Always Sunny and, of course, the sublime Louie. I rank Justified fourth best among shows I watched in 2013, and The Americans was the best new series I watched this year. A mash-up of Mad Men and Homeland that keeps Mags Bennett alive AND expands Keri Russell’s wardrobe beyond flannel and slip dresses? Yes, please! I’ve got it fifth in my rankings, although only the top four are firm.

This should be lots of fun, J.T. Thanks for inviting me to be a part of Cousins, Critically: The Best of Series! And kudos to you for not including The Killing amongst the litter strewn about AMC’s recent “dark path.” (You know I like to enforce the watch-it-before-you-trash-it rule.) Still, I have to imagine there were some shows on the network that made your Best Of list for 2013, right?

JTM: Yes, it’s true both Mad Men and Breaking Bad placed within my top 10. (Though I stayed strong and didn’t let Breaking Bad take the top spot.) Both series had an excellent 2013 putting in some of their best work ever. Even though the shows are the same age, in 2013 they found themselves in very, very different places. Mad Men (which I found myself the anomaly this year in loving it) seemed like it would be taking it slow for the year, but at episode six titled “For Immediate Release” the surprises started coming, and Mad Men continued to provide some of the most dramatically rich television of 2013. But if I’m saying Mad Men was surprising, then I don’t know what to call Breaking Bad. What’s most surprising is that I’m still able talk about it after were spilled thousands of digital pixels on it throughout the year. So I’ll just say this: one of the shows ended, and the other is getting ready for the end, and all the while they produced some of the best television I have ever seen. I hope this becomes a new rule for shows in their final years.

Another returning show that I loved at one point in time (but is nowhere near it’s final years; I wish it was!!!) that had an interesting 2013 is Homeland. I have to call Homeland interesting because I don’t know if it’s bad or not. I feels bad, hell it feels terrible, but that could be because I was ready to bail after season 2 ended. What was once one of the most thrilling, ingenious, and genuine shows on television has now become the show that I dread most on Sunday nights. The writers don’t have a handle on any of the characters, the plot has become repetitive and convoluted, and the show has even tried (and failed) to put in a few absurd twists here or there. This has resulted in the creation of a show that has no idea what it is anymore (A character study? A show about the CIA? Anything???) and something that is just sad to look at now. But Homeland has accomplished one thing which it deserves credit for: making me want to watch Homeland even less than I did before.

But I’m tired of negative criticism. M. Liam, what other shows that didn’t air on FX made you happy you were watching them?

MLM: I was happy watching AMC’s old reliables as well. Mad Men was what you folks in the industry refer to as a VIEWING EVENT in my house last year. I poured martinis, stacked appetizers and welcomed Roger Sterling into my living room. But let me be clear, J.T.: I smoked no blue meth in tracking Walter White’s decay. (Or was it transformation?)

Had you been suspicious of some drug use this fall, given my positivity toward the show, it would have been understandable after all the whining I did about Lydia, the Nazis, Skyler, YOUR T-SHIRT, etc. But I really did make my peace with Breaking Bad in 2013, and I got there by giving up on perfection and simply enjoying the show’s finale throes. So much happened – so many things we’d been anticipating for so long – and it was handled so deftly, from the writing to the directing to the acting. I had a blast.

Rank Breaking Bad third among shows I watched in 2013, two spots behind a show I haven’t given up on when it comes to perfection. The increasingly dark, crisply beautiful Mad Men was the best TV I watched last year. It offered whip-smart dialogue, fully realized characters and, of course, a totally righteous wardrobe collection. It’s not always subtle – the advertising-agency-as-whorehouse analogy is wearing thin – but what makes Mad Men so much more provocative than anything else on TV is that the show speaks to power and privilege, opportunity and success, capitalism and consumerism – without being didactic. And yes, there is CHANGE, that constant, driving force propelling Mad Men forward, and IDENTITY, the show’s ultimate ace in the hole. Don Draper is an anti-hero; Dick Whitman is his shot at redemption.

My second-favorite show of 2013 was HBO’s half-hour dramedy Girls. It’s a deep dive into the subculture of overeducated, underemployed 20-somethings from privileged backgrounds, drawn to the energy, opportunity and cachet that comes with a New York City address. I thought the show found its legs in 2013, ranging from funny to poignant, coming off emotive but not sappy, with characters at once self-absorbed (Marnie’s Kanye scene) and fiercely, tenderly devoted to each other (the Oasis bathtub scene). It surprised me, J.T., to see you didn’t have Lena Dunham and the gang in your top 10 for 2013. What gives, cuz? I thought we were a couple guys who liked Girls, no?

JTM: You’ll be happy to know that Girls places within my next 10 best series of 2013 list. I thought the show fell short in its second season, but still held my interest. Long story short I liked the short stories that Girls had to offer (“One Man’s Trash” and “It’s A Shame About Ray” were standouts to me) rather than the long story that forced itself in by the end of the season (this is explained more in the next 10). But nevertheless, Lena Dunham has amazing and thought-provoking stories to tell, and even in an off season the show was some very enjoyable television.

M. Liam, if you’ve got nothing more to say on the state of television in 2013, then why don’t we open it up to the trenches of our other critical cousins who have plenty to say about the year in television?

Andy Stermer Exudes Life and Love for House of Cards

When Kevin Spacey talks, I listen. As congressman Frank Underwood in the Netflix original series House of Cards, Spacey talks a lot, sometimes even taking time out of his busy day as a dirty-dealing, revenge-seeking House Majority Whip to speak directly to me. Being a newcomer to the world of high-level television, I suppose it’s possible that I’m swept off my feet too easily, viewing these frequent destructions of the fourth wall as personal acknowledgements instead of trite storytelling devices. In any case, the web of dark political intrigue Spacey weaves with a cadre of well-developed cohorts is at least as addicting as it is over-dramatic. As the feisty young journalist Zoe Barnes, Kate Mara proves as intriguingly salacious as sister Rooney in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but without the weird hair and piercings. Robin Wright is smashing as Claire Underwood, Frank’s cool, calculated wife whose clever power-grabbing schemes at times rival his own. But best of all is Spacey himself, whose southern drawl and psychopathic lack of remorse carry the show even through its more tired moments. In the end, J.T.’s damning accusation of “good, not great” may be rather appropriate for House of Cards. But the rich blend of raw humanity and fantastic malice it’s characters exhibit gives their political adventures a breath of life that’s worth checking out, even if only as a stop gap between (re-watching) seasons of Breaking Bad.

L. James M. Delves Deep into One of the Year’s Best: Top of the Lake

First off, the cinematography in Top of the Lake is incredible. This is immediately apparent in the haunting opening sequence in which, after stunning shots of New Zealand landscape, a 12-year-old girl is found attempting to drown herself. We soon find out that the girl, Tui, is pregnant and that there are a number of shady goings-on in the picturesque town of Lake Top.

Another striking feature of the show is the acting, and for the most part this holds up throughout the series. The lead role, Detective Robin Griffin, is fantastic and played so perfectly by Elisabeth Moss (who you might recognize from Mad Men). In a world of sleezeballs she is one of the only ones trying to make a positive difference. I hear that Anna Paquin was originally offered the role, which could possibly have ruined the whole show. As it is, the casting, acting and directing are all superb. I thought for a while that I wasn’t sold on the character GJ, the faux-guru leader of a group of women looking for answers. Maybe it’s her air of supremacy (“she’s on another plane” says one of her followers) or her dickishness. In any case, she grew on me.

Despite the show’s disturbing content, it really draws you in. The writing is solid and the plot takes you on some nice turns. Also, since it is a miniseries, each episode is packed with development and minimizes the fluff that you might find with your usual drama. The only issues I might have are with the climactic pacing of the last couple episodes, and occasional moments of awkward dialogue.

The music and sound design are great as well. The soundtrack at times can evoke desolate, open spaces, and at other times a claustrophobic intensity… and there’s some normal junk too.

All in all, if you are wanting a looker and a thinker, take a swim in Top of the Lake. Zing!

L. James M.’s other recommendations for 2013 shows from BBC and the Brits

The Fall – another excellent crime drama… starring Gillian Anderson of The X-Files! Who gets more and more beautiful with age! I watched it on Netflix, along with Top of the Lake.

The Wrong Mans – goofy comedy about a couple of dudes who get in way over their heads. On Hulu.

Misfits – wildly inappropriate sci-fi comedy about hooligans on community service who acquire superhuman abilities from an electrical storm. Actually this started in 2009 but they just had their final season this month! I watched this on Hulu+.

Also I hear Orphan Black is good, and Black Mirror looks amazing (though this began in 2011). If the titles tell us anything, they should be inspirational and uplifting.

And on the American front I have to add, in response to J.T.’s remarks regarding AMC’s crappy new shows, at least The Walking Dead had a great first half of season 4 this year.

Molly Moore Is Disappointed by How I Met Your Mother

This scene sucked.

How I Met Your Mother used to be great. I really enjoyed most of the past seasons, but recently it has gone downhill. Season 9 I believe, has hit rock bottom and has been quite a disappointment thus far. All episodes that have aired this season and that will continue to air take place within a 55 hour time period of Robin and Barney’s wedding. I guess the writers really had nothing to write about. Sure, it is nice of them to tie up loose ends and all but at the same time it would be nice to see how life works out for Ted and his future wife, as we have seen Ted fail time after time with relationships. “Bedtime Stories” an episode this season was all in rhyme, in order to get Marvin to fall asleep on a long bus ride that he and Marshall were taking to Long Island. It was creative and all, but it also was incredibly annoying to watch and listen to. (The lack of metre didn’t help either.) Speaking of Marshall, it would be nice to see more of him in current times at the wedding with the rest of the crew, rather than in a car cross-country road trippin’ from Minnesota to New York. I guess we can only hope that the remainder of the season will improve in 2014.

Tony Moore Presents The Legend of Korra

Some of you might be thinking to yourself “What the hell is Legend of Korra?” I am here to answer that very question.  LoK is the second incarnation of the Avatar television show, the first incarnation being The Last Airbender, NOT to be confused with the absolute travesty of a film remake produced by M. Night Shyamalan a few years ago. A little background for those who do not know anything about the show, there are four nations: the Air Nomads, the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation, each able to control their respective elements (known as bending). In The Last Airbender we are introduced to Aang, the titular character is the last of his kind, but also the Avatar, a powerful individual who is capable of harnessing power over all four elements. He was frozen in ice for one hundred years and missed the Fire Nation declaring war against everybody and Fire Lord Ozai attempting to take control of the entire world. Over the course of The Last Airbender’s three seasons, we follow Aang and his companions as they help him learn how to manipulate the remaining three elements so he can prevent the end of the world as they know it.

The Last Airbender series was phenomenal. It aired on Nickelodeon so it had the fun, kid-friendly atmosphere but it also got deep into issues of spirituality, moral conduct, and an ever changing world. Along with content that appeals to a variety of age groups, we get displays of bending that are extremely fun to watch. The Last Airbender had all kinds of awesome fight scenes but The Legend of Korra takes the visuals to a whole new level. The first season of The Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the events of the first series. Korra is the new Avatar, reborn after Avatar Aang passed away. While The Last Airbender took a good deal of time emphasizing the learning process Aang must go through to learn how to use each element, The Legend of Korra starts out with a nearly fully realized Avatar, able to bend Water (her natural element), Fire, and Earth. Season one of LoK focuses on Korra’s lack of spirituality, a necessity for learning Airbending. We also have the AMAZING addition of Pro Bending, a three-on-three, fast-paced, action-packed spectacle. After that description, I’ll need to throw on this link so you all can see what I mean:

So while The Last Airbender established what bending is, The Legend of Korra displays what you can do with it.

At long last we have come to my review of the second season of The Legend of Korra, airing from September through November of this year. This season has the most adult themes running through its veins than any of the other seasons of Avatar. This time we’re dealing with a civil war, brother fighting against brother, and a whole mess of evil spirits that have come to disrupt the land of the living. This latter theme opens up all kinds of possibilities for the animators and they certainly had fun with it. One of my favorite episodes of the season is one that spans two episodes that tells the story of how the first Avatar came to be, titled “Beginnings, Part 1 and 2”. Studio Mir animated both of these episodes, as well as certain episodes from The Last Airbender and all of LoK first season. I don’t expect all of you to take another nine minutes to watch another clip, but at least open it up and click on certain parts of the video so you can see some of the beautiful imagery produced by these amazing animators:

The writing isn’t always stellar for this show, but the good writing far outweighs the bad so it doesn’t take too much away from the season overall. And don’t take that the wrong way because you can still get very invested in the characters and the story in season two gets surprisingly heavy for a show on a children’s network. I know a cartoon can be a tough sell in this sea of Breaking Bads and Mad Mens but if you are looking for a show that has action, comedy, and real-world situations thrown into a beautiful fantasy world, look no further than The Legend of Korra.