Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life Death

"The whole journalism thing didn't really pan out the way I hoped." -- Rory Gilmore

If I hadn't already been hating Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, that one line alone (in the final episode) would have made me hate it. "The whole journalism thing" -- you remember that, right? The passion for reporting that had consumed Rory, as we understood it, even before the series began. Her resolve to become the next Christiane Amanpour. Her accepting menial assignments at the Yale Daily News just to get her foot in the door, and her eventually rising to Editor-in-Chief. Her job offer from the Providence Journal-Bulletin, which she turned down in hopes of a prestigious fellowship at The New York Times. Her despair when not only the Times rejected her, but a host of other newspapers, and then her triumphant rise from the ashes when an online magazine asked her to cover Senator Barack Obama's nascent Presidential campaign. You remember all that, right?

Well, joke's on you. It turns out Rory's lifelong desire to be a journalist wasn't a passion. It wasn't a calling. It was just a "thing."

Friday, November 4, 2016

Knots Landing season 11

In the days before the internet and social media, there was little uproar when a good show went bad. No fanzines started ragging on it regularly; no bloggers started penning "whatever happened to" posts -- and if the ratings took a simultaneous tumble, there were no online number-crunchers wondering how long it would take before the network staged a sit-down with the showrunner. If a long-running series took a wrong turn, viewers simply waited it out. The mea culpa that Knots Landing creator David Jacobs offered up seven episodes into Season 13 was rare for the time -- an Executive Producer admitting his show had lost its way and asking for another chance -- but he had no choice but to go public: the show was shutting down production to bring in a new headwriter. Word was bound to get out. But that sort of exchange between the creative team and the audience has since become commonplace. Nowadays, a half-season of subpar episodes or sliding ratings, and the showrunner will be out talking to the fans, assuring them he's "making adjustments." Some network honcho will take to the Television Critics Association, to let them know that the situation is under control; the show will soon be "back on track."

If Season 11 of Knots Landing aired today, then midway through the season, there no doubt would be outcries from fandom about how dark and dreary the series had become, and gurus would be swift to note that its ratings had declined dramatically from the previous season. And viewers would be assured that changes were on the way. And when people, in the far future, spoke about Knots Landing Season 11, they probably would divide the season into two parts -- maybe Season 11A and 11B -- to delineate the point where it "got good again." Because the truth is, it's hard to view Knots Landing Season 11 as one season. Earlier seasons have course corrections, but they're more subtle. The one that Season 11 undergoes, two-thirds of the way through, is mammoth. A half-dozen characters added; a half-dozen characters jettisoned. Stories that seemed designed to dominate the season wrapped up without explanation; new plotlines introduced at the drop of a hat. The salvage job that showrunners and headwriters Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham perform at the start of the third (and final) block of Knots Landing Season 11 is nothing short of amazing; it absolutely rescues the season. But perhaps as interesting as the salvage job itself is what got them there in the first place.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 3)

The conclusion of my latest Doctor Who three-parter: reflections on the William Hartnell years. You can read my overview of the era here, and my initial countdown of favorite serials -- #10 through #6 -- here. What follows are my top-5 First Doctor serials.

As you'll see (and as you'll probably expect if you've read any of my other blog entries), my top Hartnells don't necessarily include the most acclaimed or seminal serials. Certainly one celebrated story is conspicuously absent: "The Aztecs." I simply don't feel the enthusiasm for it that I feel for the others on my list, and for me, it's more worthy for what it represents (the first surviving historical) than for what it actually achieves. But as I noted when I began counting down my favorite Hartnells, there are very few First Doctor serials I actively loathe; even the ones of which I'm not especially fond have premises I respect (e.g., "The Space Museum") or individual episodes I enjoy ("The Keys of Marinus," "The Daleks"). In fact, I think the only Hartnell I can't stand, top to bottom, is "The Reign of Terror." But most of the Hartnell era I consider a joy: sometimes just for the aspiration, but often for the execution as well.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 2)

Part 2 of my loving look at the First Doctor era, beginning a countdown of my top ten serials. It's worth my noting that even with Hartnell serials I don't particularly care for, there's often an episode or two I genuinely enjoy (e.g., Episode 2 of "The Keys of Marinus," the first two episodes of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," Episodes 1 & 3 of "The Chase"). There's hardly a serial I wholly dislike. Thus, my proclaiming the Hartnell years one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who.

#10. The Gunfighters
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Rex Tucker

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years

I love the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who. It's probably my second favorite era of Classic Who, as my latest rewatch reminded me. It's not that I find the serials themselves consistently strong -- I suspect I like maybe 50% of Classic Who, and the Hartnell era is no exception. (In fact, I don't really like the first season much at all.) And although I'm fond of Hartnell himself, I don't respond to him as an actor the way I do Troughton or Davison. It's the spirit of the Hartnell era that gets to me: it's everything I want Who to be. It's daring. It's unpredictable. It's a show eager to explore its potential and defy its limitations: to challenge itself and its audience's expectations. It never strives or settles for a "formula," except the one that serves as the show's premise: the sheer wonder of traveling through time and space, without ever knowing what your next destination might be.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Judging Amy season 6

"I reject the notion that there is such a thing as an irredeemable child."
-- Judge Amy Gray, Judging Amy Season 6

Judging Amy premiered on CBS in the fall of 1999. It aired Tuesdays at 10, a perennial problem spot for the network; their last hit series there had been The Garry Moore Show in 1964. For thirty-five years, they'd been filling the timeslot with news magazines, or the second half of a two-hour movie; occasionally, they'd order up a new drama, which would stumble out of the gate (anyone remember Island Son, Dellaventura or Four Corners?), and back would come the CBS Tuesday Night Movie. But audiences who had taken to Amy Brenneman in her Emmy-nominated role on NYPD Blue found themselves once again in love with Amy. The series premiered to critical carping (an outwardly similar show, Providence, had debuted the previous winter, and critics were content to dismiss Amy as derivative), but audiences knew better. Even if they didn't recognize quite how original it was (and it was), they knew how engaging it was. It ran for six seasons, securing a host of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and one win.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Knots Landing season 7

Over its fourteen seasons, Knots Landing saw its share of soft reboots and wholesale revamps. Sometimes they occurred at the start of a season, as new headwriters took the reins and charted their own course for the series; sometimes they happened mid-season, as story-lines deemed unsuccessful were jettisoned and new ones quickly devised. But for three seasons -- 5 through 7 -- Knots maintained unparalleled stability in terms of its principal cast and story arcs.

Season 5, Knots' best season, is a dizzying display of confident story-telling that builds to an adrenaline-rush conclusion. Season 6 suffers from a static start and a noticeable tonal shift two-thirds of the way through, but it's blessed with a middle section -- an acting showcase for co-star Joan Van Ark -- that's at once novelette-ish flight of fancy and piercing character drama, and that sees you through. So if you're a fan of Knots Landing Seasons 5 and 6, you should -- by all outward appearances -- love Season 7; in many ways, the three seasons form one long arc. The cast remains intact; all the Season 6 principals stick around for Season 7. The characters who are romantically paired in Season 5 -- author Valene Ewing and reporter Ben Gibson, real estate whiz Laura Avery and politician-turned-tycoon Gregory Sumner -- finally tie the knot in Season 7, while the one Season 5 marriage -- that of hapless millionaire Gary Ewing to aspiring businesswoman Abby Cunningham -- eventually runs its course. The plots left hanging in Season 6 -- the turbulent relationship between newlyweds Joshua Rush and Cathy Geary; Gary's plans to turn his newly-acquired Empire Valley acreage into "a community of the future" (all while Greg and Abby conspire to build a secret communications center beneath it); the hunt for Val's twins (the result of a one-night stand with Gary in Season 5) who were stolen at birth early in Season 6 -- all continue into Season 7, and most are tidily resolved.

So what's not to like about Season 7?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders (part 2)

Following CBS's cancellation of Limitless last month, I decided to look at ten great shows that were canned after one season. I intended to limit this post to shows that came out of the gate fully formed (like Limitless), that had solid first-season runs. But I realized that if I were discussing "one-season wonders," then just as wondrous were the shows that took time to get their bearings -- often much of their first season. Sometimes, that feels like the greater loss: when a show is trying diligently to refine itself during its early months, to tap into what's working and discard what isn't, and then, just as it seems to be coming into its own, it's gone. Everybody Loves Raymond was certainly a show that took almost a season to fully distinguish itself, to learn how best to use the family dynamics to mine laughs; can you imagine if CBS hadn't rewarded it with faith, patience, a better time slot and (ultimately) a renewal? Anyway, my first five one-season wonders can be found here; here are the final five:

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders

CBS cancelled Limitless last week; there goes another great TV series, jettisoned after one season. The network seemed to lose interest early on; they never tried a new timeslot to see if a more compatible lead-in might boost its ratings. (Mondays at 10 PM, after Scorpion, seemed a good option.) And ironically, the serialized elements that the network itself had encouraged made it less valuable to them in syndication than their more static procedurals, Code Black and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, both of which got second-season pick-ups. Limitless's cancellation got me thinking of other worthy shows that disappeared after one season: shows with unexplored potential that seemed, well, limitless. Ten instantly came to mind; here are the first five. If you've read any of my blog entries, you know this list probably won't match anyone else's; my tastes remain emphatically, occasionally erratically, my own. (You also won't find Limitless on this list -- but only because I discussed it, and its brain-twisty brilliance, last November. It's a post entitled "Welcome Home, CBS," written at a time when I thought the network was finally reinventing itself with novel programming; now that it's prematurely cancelled both Mike & Molly and Limitless in the same season, I find myself watching less on CBS than at any point since the late '60s.)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Knots Landing season 9

In the beginning, Knots Landing was about four married couples living in a cul-de-sac in Southern California. But as the show grew in popularity, it grew in size, and by the seventh season, there were eleven in the principal cast. The show was riding high in the ratings, so CBS happily assumed a laissez-faire attitude. But then the network got greedy: at the start of Season 8, they decided to move Knots up an hour, so they could launch a new show behind it. (It's a move that hadn't worked in Season 3, but apparently the network programmers had short memories.) So up it went to Thursday at 9 PM, where it faced off against the formidable Cheers and Night Court on NBC, and against ABC's new Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys. Knots star Joan Van Ark predicted, in a bit of pre-season forecasting, "We're gonna whoop The Colbys" -- but it was Knots that took the drubbing. Oh, it beat The Colbys, and rather handily, but it shed a third of its viewers in the process. And its absence from the 10 PM slot allowed a new NBC upstart called L.A. Law to take over and dominate the time period -- so that even when CBS admitted the error of its ways and moved Knots back to its old home, it never regained its audience. While it was away, L.A. Law had blossomed into a mega-hit, and Knots was relegated to runner-up in the timeslot it once owned.

And so, the following season, instead of the Knots writers being allowed to expand the cast however they saw fit, a decree came down from the network brass: trim the budget. And by the time we were a third of the way into Season 9, there were just six principal cast members remaining.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Farewell, Flash. Adios, Arrow:
When Shows Jump the (King) Shark

How bad does a show have to get before you bail? I'm 56 now. My earliest television memory is an episode of Lost in Space called "The Keeper" from January of 1966 (the day after it aired, all the kids in the neighborhood took turns walking around as if hypnotized, repeating "I'm being summoned," as Dr. Smith had the night before) -- so I guess I've been a devoted TV viewer for half a century now. In the old days, if a show you loved got rotten, you kept watching; there were only three channels, and unless there was something compelling on one of the other two, you stuck with your show through even the dreariest lows. But today, chances are, there are more shows that interest you than hours in the day: not just those airing weekly on network television, but streaming series with dozens of episodes instantly available. How do you stick with a show through the dry patches when you know your viewing time could be put to better use: when there's that show on iPlayer or On Demand that's going to be disappearing soon, or that series from thirty years ago that you'd always heard about, that someone just uploaded to YouTube and might vanish any day due to copyright infringement?

The Flash and Arrow return to the air this week, after a four-week hiatus, and I'll no longer be watching. I made up my mind after their last airings that it was time to let go: over time, they'd managed to both bore me and offend me. (You'd think indifference would numb you to feeling actively insulted, but no.) And watching another comic-book adaptation, Agent Carter, which aired from January through March and basically got everything right, only further reminded me how much The Flash and Arrow were suffering creatively.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching

I was put on six months medical leave in September, and decided to join Twitter: my husband figured it would be a good way for me to stay "connected" while I was housebound. I found a lot of folks who shared my passion for television, but I also started to feel that -- with so many choices these days in terms of "what to watch" -- my new online friends were overlooking some of the very best series. I've spent the last few months talking them up on Twitter, but I thought, why not gather them and praise them here, where I wouldn't be limited to 140 characters? Herewith: five series that add immeasurably to my viewing pleasure, but that haven't yet reached the audiences I feel they deserve. Three are UK productions, and although they've done well there, a lot of US viewers are only now discovering them. The other two are US shows that -- splendid as they are -- have never blossomed into huge hits. But all five are so worth a look, or better, a binge.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mike & Molly: an appreciation

A friend and I like to poke fun at folks who issue hyperbolic statements about their favorite TV shows, because -- well, because we're a little mean. But you know how it is when fans post about shows they love. If a favorite character is leaving, it's "I'll never watch another episode." If the show is prematurely cancelled: "I'm boycotting the network." And heaven forbid, if a long-running show leaves of its own volition: "I no longer have a reason to own a TV." So given my aversion to over-the-top pronouncements, this is not an easy admission to make: when Mike & Molly concludes its six-season run this spring, my world will be a lot less bright.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Madam, I'm Adam: the year in review

My annual year in review. You can check out 2013 here, and 2014 here. As always, I do not purport to have watched every great show on television this past year; this is not a "best of 2015" list. These are simply the shows I watched, the trends I noted, the risks I saw taken, and the mistakes (plenty of 'em this year) I saw made.


The good got better, and the bad got worse -- but only the bad got rewarded. That's what I got from my TV viewing in 2015: the saddest life-lesson ever.