Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Distant Locations: notes on Constellation, The Amazing Race and FBI: International

Constellation is a hallucinatory trip through the fabric of reality: a psychodrama disguised as a sci-fi thriller. Writer-creator Peter Harness promises us the ride will be rewarding, but he doesn’t pretend it will be easy. He scatters his clues with assurance, but some are tough to spot — and tougher still to decipher. And a few characters are so eerily alike that it’s hard at times to get our bearings. As Harness peels back the layers of his narrative, he only occasionally allows us to feel confident in what we’re seeing; sometimes he encourages us to guess what’s happening — and frequently he prompts us to guess wrong. (He regularly revisits old scenes from a fresh perspective, forcing us to rethink all our assumptions.) Yet Harness is a patient guide; he allows us to figure things out in our own time, and doesn’t hurry us along. And whenever we do seize upon solutions to the puzzle he’s placed before us, we’re overcome with waves of gratitude and delight. Harness is careful not to talk down to us; we watch the story unfold through his eyes — and his eyes are fixed on the stars.

“A mysterious accident unravels an astronaut’s life.” That's how Apple TV+ describes the series in its online listing, and it's a suitably terse summary; it’s best to jump into Constellation without too many spoilers. Vast portions of the series take place aboard an international space station, but Constellation isn’t so much concerned with research and exploration; instead, Harness uses the vastness of space — and the tight-lipped nature of government agencies — to play on our paranoia. There have been conspiracy theorists since the dawn of time, but none have gained greater traction than the space-travel deniers. There’s no way to verify it, they argue; we rely on images and facts fed to us by journalists and bureaucrats. Harness doesn’t give credence to science deniers, but in shaping his narrative, he seizes upon the impulse driving them. (“How do we really know what goes on in outer space?”) Harness wonders: if there are failed missions and accidents, might there not also be cover-ups? How about details held from us because they’re unaccountable — or even unimaginable? And if facts are being hidden, how much do the astronauts themselves know? Harness offers up his own theory on what’s happening in outer space — and at the agencies charged with disseminating data — and it’s wilder and more terrifying than anything the conspiracy theorists could have imagined.

Harness juggles and fuses impressive scientific concepts: liminal space, the observer effect. But it never comes off like a lecture; he paints a human face on it. Early on, physicist Henry Caldera distracts young Alice Taylor — who’s anxiously awaiting her mother Jo’s return from space — by telling her about his latest project, one designed to prove the principle of quantum superposition. He knows just how to make it accessible to a child, asking Alice to visualize a particle that exists in two alternate states at once: "While it is black in one world, it is white in another.” And further, he explains, in the space between worlds — “liminal space” — the particle is both black and white, but only shows its color when it’s observed. As the scene plays out, it seems to be merely about Caldera engaging in an act of kindness; it exposes the soft side of a hardened scientist. But we soon come to realize it’s Harness highlighting one of the cornerstones of the series.

And clever Alice learns her lesson well, because when Jo — having returned from space — references the same principle weeks later, Alice is quick to use it to explain inconsistencies in their lives that Jo has been grappling with. The truth is easy for the tween to grasp, because she trusts the evidence of her eyes and ears; it’s harder for the adult — a scientist, mind you — because she’s been trained to discount and dismiss the improbable. The teleplay is full of marvelous touches like this: scientific explanations that unfold as character beats – and character beats that ring true to human nature. Harness naming the girl Alice is clearly a tip of the hat to Lewis Carroll (the seventh episode is even entitled “Through the Looking Glass”), who postured — like Harness — that children of a certain age are capable of bridging worlds: young enough to be open to the fantastical, but old enough to intuit the logic in it. (One of Alice’s teachers even refers to her as being at “a liminal age.”) Harness’s homages are playful; even Schrodinger's cat — the most famous example of the observer effect — makes a late-season appearance in a ramshackle cabin in liminal space. And because Harness understands so well the scientific principles he’s exploring — and aspects of human behavior that we’re hardwired to accept — he knows how to keep us both curious and satisfied.

And he understands, too, the holy trinity of sea, snow and sky — at least as it relates to liminal space. Constellation alternates regularly between the ISS in outer space and a snowy wasteland in northern Sweden — and in the fourth episode, it adds another distant location, a marine observatory bordering the open sea. The sea and the snow allow us access to some of the same sensations that astronauts routinely experience in space. All three environments are so still and so remote that it feels like the laws of the universe no longer apply — that if we listen carefully enough, we might just hear transmissions from the stars, or the voices of those we’ve lost. Harness zeroes in on those spots where time seems to be standing still. Most of us, at some point, have been far out to sea with only the horizon as our guide, or in a snowy landscape where the only sounds are unseen. And perhaps we’ve imagined that we’re alone in the universe — or that something imperceptible is hovering nearby. By letting us draw from our own experiences, Harness eases us into accepting the concept of liminal space: that dividing line between enchantment and terror.

But Constellation is about more than the mysteries of the universe. It’s about how trauma can transform us; one life-shattering episode — in Jo’s case, one near-death experience in space — and suddenly we’re someone else entirely. It’s common to talk about “the moment my life changed forever” — books and dissertations and poems have been written on the subject. We posit that a single event can be the dividing line between who we were and who we are. Patients with cancer will define themselves before and after their diagnosis. Soldiers who return from war — or survivors of a horrific accident or shock — will struggle to regain the relationships they once had. They grow almost unrecognizable to those they love; they become strangers to those they’ve nursed and nurtured, and to those on whom they depend. Putting aside all sci-fi conceits, Constellation is about the ripple effect of tragedy — how it splinters not just the lives of those who’ve suffered, but the lives of everyone in their orbit. And Constellation is about the challenge of finding your way home.

At the heart of the series is the bond between a mother and daughter — or more accurately, between two mothers and daughters — or to be more precise, between each mother and the other’s daughter. And in a still broader sense, it’s about two families placed in similar circumstances, and the varying paths on which fate has led them. Where have their lives diverged, and why? Which relationships have grown strained, and which stronger? As the astronaut and her husband, Noomi Rapace and James D’Arcy are remarkable; they make their uneasy reunion and all that results — the miscommunications, the veiled accusations, and the many, many words left unspoken — every bit as absorbing as the rescue mission aboard the ISS. And as the two daughters, Rosie and Davina Coleman are no less riveting: searching awkwardly, painfully, resolutely for mothers who didn’t return from space as expected. The four fully convey the quiet terror of living in a world that no longer seems as it should, and no one will explain why. A world where our cars aren’t the color we remember, and our children refuse to mourn the dead. Where spouses deny knowledge of their own infidelities, and nightmares bleed not only into our daily lives, but into the lives of those we love. And where a “return to normal” seems naggingly — sometimes maddeningly — out of reach.

Every time you think you’ve mastered Harness’s design, he throws you a curve that prompts you to revisit all your presumptions. But the reveals never feel manufactured. He has a clear understanding of when we’re prepared to process new information, and he delivers handsomely. After flirting with perspective for five episodes, he shifts focus fully in the sixth, knowing we’re ready to start filling in the blanks. And by the seventh episode (of eight), Harness senses our eagerness to get a glimpse of the full design, so he traps the participants in a snowbound setting — and I can’t remember the last time I witnessed such a dazzling and dexterous feat of story-telling. As the snow drifts and the wind howls, the two families intersect in ways you never thought possible. Characters with no obvious means of communicating figure out how. (Fittingly, a child’s cassette player — or to be more accurate, four of them — proves key.) And through the course of one evening, as liminal space asserts itself, souls are bared and secrets shared, parents are reborn and children reclaimed — and worlds are literally and figuratively shaken. Harness blows his premise wide open, yet boils it down to its essence. It’s a masterful conjuring trick — a brilliant piece of sorcery, cunningly sustained.

And then the magic dies.

Constellation is about duality, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the series’ most exhilarating hour is followed by one that’s almost defiantly dispiriting. Harness plays fair with us. When Alice asks her mother — with quiet urgency — when she's coming back to her, Jo promises, “I'll figure it out,” but Harness admits that — in a very real sense — there's no “coming back” from trauma; there's just a long, arduous, uncertain road forward. We crave answers to what's happened to us, but getting the answers we need doesn’t mean getting the results we want. We have to chart our own path. Constellation is a series about not knowing all the answers, accepting it and moving on with grace. That’s what it asks of its characters, and that’s what it asks of its audience. It’s a series about “an accident in space,” true — but it’s mostly about the isolating effects of tragedy and the need to move on, by whatever means possible. And because of that, the sense of resolve that the characters reach by the end is tempered by an equally palpable sense of grief. Constellation manages to be both the most uplifting and the saddest series of the year to date; it says “keep your eyes fixed on the stars, but your feet planted firmly on the ground.” And Harness, as if heading up the expedition himself, leads by example.


Speaking of “distant locations,” The Amazing Race last Wednesday took its first excursion to Guatapé, Columbia (often called the most colorful city in the world), and it may well have been the series’ funniest and most exhilarating hour. That’s pretty impressive for a show in its 36th cycle. (I haven’t laughed so hard since those runaway cheese wheels came rolling down the hill, threatening to trample unsuspecting townspeople.) Casting on a show like this, of course, is paramount — and on that point, this season has delivered in spades, with some of the most distinctive racers we’ve seen. I frequently go into episodes knowing full well whom I want eliminated next; this week, my loyalties shifted at least twice.

“It’s Not Over Till Phil Sings” had it all. It had human interest: one of the “firefighter moms” had lost her grandmother the previous night, and ran the leg in her memory; another contestant, born in Columbia, was returning for the first time since his family emigrated in 1999. It had delicious ironies — e.g., the vegetarians who didn’t even know how to recognize pork, but managed to cook it to perfection — then messed up the fruit. There was an irreverent scene where cancer survivors and retirees Derek and Shalisa gently mocked their own grandchildren, and the requisite Ugly American moment where a contestant — traveling to the Southern or Eastern hemisphere — expresses surprise that they haven’t touched down in a war zone.

But most of all we had delirious dysfunction, much of it centered around 26-year-old twins Anthony and Bailey, both of them sporting Fabio-like hairdos. At the top of the episode the Florida natives unveiled their mission statement: “I think game plan today is we kind of want to slow it down” — seemingly unaware that they were running a race. As they sauntered from challenge to challenge — noting their position at the back of the pack, but never apparently feeling the need to pick up the pace — you wondered if they thought they were competing on something called The Amazing Stroll or — perhaps channeling last week’s (eliminated) father and daughter, who seemingly stopped for hours to admire the scenery — The Amazing View.

The Detour was a choice between cooking an authentic Colombian dish or loading hundreds of objects onto a Willy jeep. The brothers decided to load — not yet realizing that the items had to be arranged in a certain way. You couldn’t tell if five minutes or two hours elapsed before — finally grasping the scope of the challenge — they decided to give up. (One conceded, “We did not have the brain power for it,” and the other concurred, “We thought it was gonna be more, like, brainless — like, throw things onto a truck.”)

So what next? Change detours, perhaps?

Fabio #1: Dude, this is a really hard decision.
Fabio #2: Maybe if we just get in the kitchen, we can just whip it out really quick.
Fabio #1: Yeah!
Fabio #2: This might be, like, the worst decision ever.
Fabio #1: The worst or best decision we’ve ever made.

They seemingly spent more time agonizing over which detour to choose than they spent at the actual detours themselves. Relocated at the cooking challenge, the muddy-headed Clearwater lads grew so overwhelmed, they never even unpacked the food. Just staring at the list of ingredients stupefied them. They paused just long enough for self-reflection (“We suck”) before hightailing it back to the loading challenge, where once again, they were tripped up by their apparent lack of any skill sets whatsoever. (“I don’t even know how to tie a good knot,” one bemoaned.) And back they went to the cooking challenge.

Anthony and Bailey were so good natured — and so frank about their own limitations — that it was impossible to dislike them. They were too damn charming. Although they should have been the obvious candidates for elimination, part of you couldn’t help but hope they stuck around long enough to experience some of the show’s most brutal brain-twisters: the Morse Code detour from Season 16, say, or the Hat Identification task from Season 17. And besides, over at the roadblock — in which one team member had to pick coffee beans along a hillside — mother-and-son duo Angie and Danny were on the verge of imploding. The 55-year-old mother was doing the picking; her 27-year-old son was picking at her: “I wish she would go up the mountain a little more, but I’m proud of her whatever she decides to do” — and you could practically see the sarcasm dripping from his lips. He then alternated between cheerleader and doomsayer, often in the same breath: “Mom, you got this! 8 teams have already come and left.” She instantly shut him down: “I’m gonna ask you to stop telling me how many teams are there.” (This, mind you, was not an unreasonable request coming from a woman who had literally fainted in the street from heat exhaustion in the previous leg — her face painted with sugar skull makeup, no less — just so her son could have the adventure of a lifetime.) But superfan Danny couldn’t stop himself, offering up this passive-aggressive nugget next: “Mom, you got this! I’m just chilling here solo.” (The waiting seemed to be taking such a toll on his mental health, you were aching for him to lose it entirely and shriek at her, “Why are you so slow, old lady?”) You could only imagine that once the leg was over, she was going to take him out of camera range and whoop him.

At that point, I was praying for Danny’s meltdown and subsequent departure, till a third team took center stage. Married couple Michelle and Clark, aerobic studio owners, had already foreshadowed the friction to come in the first task of the leg (in which they had to climb a monument some 60 stories high), when he countered her gumption and optimism with pure fear: “I’m petrified of heights. I can’t even stand on the second step of a ladder. I’m that petrified.” Now, at the coffee-bean challenge, she made her way down a slippery path, and he had to follow — and refused, because of his acrophobia. (You’re left thinking, “Really? You apply for The Amazing Race when you won’t risk the second step of a ladder? Were you hoping that — for the first time ever — there wouldn’t be any challenges involving heights?” It’s like the contestants who go on Survivor, then apologize to their tribemates that they can’t swim. Did you not think there might be the occasional water challenge? On Fiji?) And every helpful suggestion Michelle offered, Clark shut down with a “no” or “nah” — until finally, he planted himself on the hillside and refused to budge, leaving you to anticipate his departure. (It could not have been more perfect that at that moment we cut to an ad of host Phil Keoghan encouraging folks to apply for the race “if you think you have what it takes” — the implication being “if you’re willing to risk the third rung of a ladder.” Even the commercials were on target.)

The edit this past week was never unkind — there was no intent to mock or degrade — but it was clear that the creative team reveled in the dysfunctional dynamics, yielding an episode that was wickedly funny. Keoghan himself was in particularly fine fettle and good spirits, as the top seven or eight teams were so tightly grouped at the pit stop (they arrived “like a swarm of bees,” as Keoghan put it), he anticipated a highly competitive season. But the stragglers were every bit as inviting; everyone ultimately overcame their issues through hard work, good humor and — where necessary — a forgiving heart. Often the early episodes of The Amazing Race — the disposal of the deadwood, as it were — can be a drag, but this season they’ve been a delight. This cast is so quirky, I’ll be sorry to see any teams go — and I’ll be pleased if a few with thornier dynamics hang on a while. If you haven’t sampled this season, it’s worth joining at the starting gate.


About 2-1/2 years ago, Philip and I got hooked on the three FBI shows. I guess “hooked” is too strong a word. We started binging them and they were good binges; they were modestly entertaining and (like the ideal Amazing Race challenge) didn’t require a lot of brain power. There was a time when I would’ve argued that all three were in good shape; I can’t make that claim anymore. FBI has embraced all of its worst clichés and story-telling shortcuts. (Now, anytime they’re hunting for a suspect and come up with an address, one of the agents will announce from their car, “I’m right near there.” And as they pull onto the suspect’s street, his will be the first face they see: “There he is!”) And spinoff FBI: Most Wanted — once a fine ensemble show — has become an oppressive star vehicle for new team leader Dylan McDermott. Clearly, McDermott worked out a deal to be more focal than his predecessor; in the two years since he arrived, the task force has dissolved into a dictatorship where no one is allowed to make a move — or command a story-line — except him. He comes to a conclusion, and the others nod their heads in dopey agreement. (It’s like revisiting Vera, where none of the supporting players are allowed to shine because it might tarnish the crown of their queen.)

But I’m sticking with FBI and FBI: Most Wanted — the former for the rare moments that John Boyd and Katherine Renee Kane take centerstage, the latter because I’ve been a Shantel VanSanten fan since For All Mankind. But I can’t think of a single reason to continue with FBI: International. Showrunner and creator Derek Haas departed last spring at the end of Season 2, and writer-producer Matt Olmstead took charge. I hadn’t cared for a single episode that Olmstead had penned to that point, so my hopes weren’t high — but he’s failed to live up to even my low expectations. We’re six episodes into Season 3, and we’ve already seen four cast departures and a soft reboot. None of them were necessary, and none of them were good. (And three of those characters were vital to broadening the show’s outlook, appeal and storytelling potential.) I don’t think I’ve seen a series change its mind so often since The Doris Day Show some 55 years ago, and at least she spread her format changes across four seasons. On FBI: International, they come biweekly.

FBI: International was never what you’d call “quality television,” but there were elements in the first season in particular that felt welcoming and fresh: the fact that the two lead agents were navigating a personal relationship; the fact that occasionally you could count on a savvy dog to save the day; the fact that the writers were quite willing — even in those early stages — to throw an episode to a supporting player, understanding that if we didn’t care for the characters, we wouldn’t care about the cases. (In my “Best of 2022” essay, I singled out the late Season 1 entry “Shouldn’t Have Left Her” — a showcase for supporting player Carter Redwood, penned by Haas — as an impressively taut hour of procedural television, one that neatly toyed with the formula and upended expectations.) As originally conceived, the Fly Team — an elite FBI unit headquartered in Budapest, charged with traveling the globe and neutralizing threats against American citizens — consisted of five agents, plus a giant black schnauzer named Tank. (The schnauzer proved so popular – not just to viewers, but to us – that Philip and I wrote a song about him. I will spare you.) Clearly the more fan mail the dog received, the more someone’s ego got bruised, so the dog was given a “health crisis“ in the middle of the first season, and has been seen only sporadically since. He hasn’t appeared once this season. One can only imagine that lead actor Luke Kleintank (as Supervisory Special Agent Scott Forrester) didn’t like playing second fiddle to a dog, and insisted its airtime be diminished — a wild demand since Kleintank himself began to insist, in Season 2, on spending less time on the set, so he could focus on his family — and the producers dutifully fractured the story-lines to meet his demands. (When viewers continue to hound Kleintank about Tank, he keeps promising that “Tank is still around.” Sure, and Julianna Margulies loved doing scenes with Archie Panjabi.) How does an actor of such modest talent gain such control?

But then, how does an actress of far more interesting talent gain seemingly no control? (Could the industry be — gasp — sexist?) Heida Reed, as Special Agent Jamie Kellett, was the only member of the original cast for whom empathy seemed to come easily. Her face and manner exuded caring: not just because Jamie had a softness that the rest of the characters lacked — as a senior agent, she was unafraid to wear her heart on her sleeve — but because the actress had a natural generosity of spirit. That sort of quality is crucial to a show like FBI: International, a procedural about saving people we’ve only just been introduced to, or solving the murder of victims we’ve never met. Reed was our “way in”: the one who could convey to us — without ever needing to explain — why we should care. Lose that quality, and you’ve just got a team that’s focused and proficient — and focus and proficiency are pretty much the least these agents can bring to their jobs.

Reed, the second lead, was informed sometime after Season 2 finished filming that she was being let go. She was subsequently written off in the first episode of Season 3, in one of those embarrassing monologues where a character professes to a personal epiphany to justify an inexplicable professional decision. In the Season 2 cliffhanger, a bomb had destroyed the team headquarters, and in retrospect, the writers should’ve just killed her off in the explosion — and spent the season mourning her. But instead — perhaps because they hoped she’d return for the occasional “guest appearance“ — they decided to keep her alive. But how do you make sense of the team member who’s cared the most about the cases she’s pursued — who has saved literally hundreds of lives on our watch — deciding she’d “do more good” elsewhere? It was an impossible task, and you could practically hear the staff writers throwing ideas against the wall — anything to justify the senseless decision to write her off — and asking “does this one stick?” Reed’s departure had already been leaked to the trades, so it wasn’t a surprise – but it was a surprise how poorly it was handled.

But hers wasn’t even the worst scripted departure this season. Greg Hovanessian, as Special Agent Damian Powell, had joined the Fly Team four episodes from the end of Season 2, and he was a welcome addition to the cast. Like Reed, he didn’t default to the hyperfocused, humorless manner of most of his colleagues. His style was looser, yet his line readings edgier. He gave the show unpredictability and a sense of surprise, and the backstory the writers devised for his character allowed him to see cases from a novel perspective — and “novel perspective” is as valuable a commodity as “focus and proficiency.” Powell was acutely aware of his strengths and limitations — the latter a remarkable attribute for an agent on this sort of show. And his interoffice romance with fellow agent Cameron Vo (Vinessa Vidotto) was a breath of fresh air. It was as sudden and unexpected and unlikely as so many interoffice romances are — it rang true — and it was a lovely bit of character development for Vo; she was so committed to proving herself (and advancing herself) by doing everything by the book, it was refreshing to see her hormones get the better of her.

But I suspect there are a lot of fans out there who had been shipping Vo and the character she’d been most paired with: fellow agent Andre Raines (Carter Redwood). And without question, Vidotto and Redwood have chemistry, but as ever, two actors sparking each other doesn’t mean their characters have to be romantically paired. These days, some fans have come to expect that – hell, they’ll compose fanfiction shipping any two characters with chemistry, even if they’re brothers (cf. Supernatural) — but that doesn’t mean the producers need to go there. Did Olmstead decide he needed to give the shippers what they want (which meant disposing of Hovanessian)? Did anyone tell him that pandering to the fans never works? (One word: “Olicity.”)

And as with Reed, it wasn’t just the loss of Hovanessian that was galling; it was the quality of the execution. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character’s exit so badly telegraphed. (First of all, by not adding his name to the opening credits in his second season, they pretty much gave away that he was a goner.) The writers decided to have him mangle an assignment to such an alarming degree — beating up a suspect because he reminded him of a case from his past — that there was no coming back. It was senseless character assassination; the agent who had successfully worked deep undercover for years — whom Forrester himself had touted as “one of the best agents out there” — couldn’t control his fists for five minutes? It was clear that the writers were destroying his credibility to ease his departure, and, indeed, that departure came at the end of the following episode — but only after Forrester forced him to stay behind while the team tackled their next assignment. (While Powell languished at headquarters, the nameless analysts who had been brought aboard during the recent soft reboot mocked him for his lack of computer skills. You heard right: a bunch of interchangeable geeks who just joined the series made fun of an agent who specialized in dangerous deep undercover work for not knowing how to massage a search engine. That’s apparently what passes for humor in the Olmstead era.) It was like Olmstead couldn’t just let the character go; he had to humiliate him first, as punishment for sleeping with a character who — in the minds of some fans — was “reserved” for another. You watch FBI: International now and the murders seem routine; the worst crimes are being carried out in the writers’ room.

So what have we gotten in Season 3, to make up for all that’s been lost? Oh, we’ve gotten a new computer analyst who’s focused and proficient, who herself has gotten a whole staff of computer analysts who are (no doubt) focused and proficient — basically duplicating the model they’ve been using for years on FBI. When FBI: International premiered, it felt — at its best — like a novel approach to a familiar topic: a spinoff that might just stand on its own creatively. It felt like Haas had put some thought and work into it. Now it’s chosen to abandon novelty, empathy and unpredictability – and settled for a team that “does its job well.“ (I suspect that’s the bare minimum for any TV pitch involving a group of agents charged with keeping the world safe.) And it’s eagerly embraced a format similar to that of its parent show. That’s not a show I’m interested in watching. There’s been a lot of talk this season about how the new CBS procedural Tracker has proven a “surprise hit.” There’s nothing surprising about it. Justin Hartley’s character is lost, troubled, compassionate and irreverent, and his line readings are fresh. (No doubt his soap opera background helped him understand that the lines are just placeholders for the emotions expressed — and the scripts play to that.) While the Fly Team continues to circle the globe, I’ll hitch my wagon to Hartley’s star, in search of happier trails.

Want more? Check out an essay called "The Fatal Blow", highlighting three noir-tinged dramas, Dark Winds, Black Snow and Blue Lights; an essay called "Negotations", in praise of three series that brightened my 2022: Minx, The Ipcress File and Inside Man; an essay called "Men in the Middle," highlighting four recent series that owe much of their success to the onscreen personas of their leading men: The Tourist, This Is Going to Hurt, The Responder and Around the World in 80 Days; an essay entitled "Rough Edges," in praise of two addictive comedies that I discovered in 2021, Back to Life and The Other Two; another entitled "Private Faces," highlighting two spectacular series that emerged in the fall of 2020, Roadkill and Life; and a fifth called "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. I offer up The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching, Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss, and my most personal essay, inspired by the death of my puppy Czerny in June of 2021, The 10 Most Comforting TV Episodes About Death.

If you like in-depth looks at hit shows, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7, One Day at a Time Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, WKRP in Cincinnati, Everybody Loves Raymond and Kate & Allie; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Doctor Who Series 8, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries: not (necessarily) the best episodes, but the best whodunnits.


  1. My recently departed Nanny loved The Amazing Race along with Big Brother...I never took to the latter but I did enjoy the former. I wouldn't say I was a religious viewer of it, but it did always feel like a nice and easy watch.

    I can remember when it kept winning the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Series year after year and some would be baffled by this, but I always found it to be a very well produced show. It just lacked the more catty drama of something like Survivor which, admittedly, I did watch more of back in the day but haven't seen in over a decade.

    1. Philip and I haven’t watched every season. There are some early seasons we didn’t care for at all – especially the ones where they brought on “celebrity teams,” like players who had a big following from Big Brother. Yuck. And the first season they filmed after the start of the pandemic was a valiant effort, but rather dispiriting. They had to keep the players isolated, of course, so it felt like practically every challenge took place on a distant mountaintop, which diminished the fun. But this is truly the one of the best seasons I’ve seen. I mean, Philip and I are laughing and cheering and jeering throughout the episodes – that’s a level of involvement we don’t usually have with The Amazing Race. One thing that’s helped is CBS’s decision to expand it to 90 minutes. You get a chance not only to focus on the personalities more, but to see the struggles they have at the various challenges — and the result is much more involving than I ever remember it being. It’s truly become sort of “appointment television” for us, and I don’t remember the last time I felt that way about a reality show.

  2. Tommy, I was so thrilled to see you write up Amazing Race. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you write about an episode midseason, but you’re so right; this season has been terrific. I think the 90 minute format has refreshed the show. I can’t remember: was this the first season they filmed knowing they were going to be 90 minute episodes? Anyway, as you said, last week’s episode was hilarious. But have you seen this week’s? Clark and I were ROARING! “The mother rat and the baby rat…” I could’ve watched an entire episode of the firefighters guessing wrong. And that final roadblock, or detour, or whatever they call it — all those teams guessing every statue wrong. I think one thing we’re especially enjoying about this season, and you mentioned it, is that even the teams who start to fight quickly solve their differences. Clark and I don’t care for seasons where there are teams who bicker the whole time. Anyway, great write up, and we’re so glad you guys are enjoying it too.

    I sort of skimmed your Constellation essay. I didn’t want to be spoiled. We’re looking forward to watching – just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Sorry to make this short – running off to work. We need to catch up sometime!

    1. Jerry, it’s always great to hear from you. If you do start watching Constellation, let me know what you think. I know sci-fi isn’t really your thing (and, of course, until a decade ago, I would have said it wasn’t mine either) – but we both thought it was tremendous. And it’s so much fun to hear that you and Clark are watching Amazing Race, too, and feeling the same way. Yes, absolutely, the firefighters massacring the puzzle this week might have been the highlight of the season to date. And then how perfect was it that they breezed their way through the final Roadblock? (Philip and I were hoping that the other two teams stuck at that roadblock would join forces, to finish before the firefighters got there – but I’m not sure even joining forces would’ve helped. They were so turned around.)

    2. Tommy, I wrote you about how much Clark & I were loving this season, and how I thought the 90 minute format had refreshed the show. But did you know that these last two installments were aired out of order? 36 was filmed before 35, I just found out, and that was the season where they actually shot 60 minute episodes, and then had to go back and re-edit them into 90. It was also obviously during an earlier time in the pandemic where they couldn’t get to Europe and Asia – thus their sticking in South America for pretty much thing the whole thing, which was kind of drag. That said, we’ve really enjoyed it, but it’s so interesting to imagine that these had already been edited into 60 minute episodes. You can’t help it feel that so much of the good stuff would’ve been left out!

      I do wish, knowing that there weren’t going to be any plane rides that would’ve reset the race to “zero” again, they had at least included a couple of spots where they had to visit a museum, but it wasn’t open till 9 AM, etc. – thereby leveling the playing field again. Seeing the same two guys win leg after leg, because they start at the top of the pack each time, has been a little anti-climactic.

  3. Tommy, I somehow had no idea that you ever paid any attention to The Amazing Race. And I probably never told you that I was a devoted viewer through its first 20 or so iterations, falling away in more recent years. More specifically, I would also attend the after-parties in NYC at which we'd watch the finale and then hang out with the racers when they joined us. (This was all organized among the community at Television Without Pity, so the events were called TARcon.) To my own present-day bemusement, these parties involved me in a twice-a-year flirtation with racer Oswald (of the beloved season 2 team Oswald and Danny).

    All of that is years ago now, and I haven't watched the last few Races at all. It sounds like I should catch up with the current one, huh?

    1. Jon, I love all the things I discover about you from writing this blog! I had no idea about your TAR after-party traditions, not to mention your flirtation with Oswald. Yes, absolutely check out this season. I obviously can’t promise it’s going to stay as good as it's been, but I can say without hesitation that the first four episodes are the most fun Philip and I have had watching the show in maybe a decade. (We’ve been unusually interactive: mimicking certain teams, cheering on others, psychoanalyzing some — and we have hit the rewind button several times, because a moment made us laugh so hard we wanted to see it again.) As my friend Jerry mentions above, the new 90-minute time slot has rejuvenated the series; we’re able to get to know the teams just that much better, we’re able to linger longer on their mistakes (and teams have been screwing up like crazy this season, delightfully), and we’re even getting wonderful bits from Phil that I suspect would’ve previously been been left on the editing room floor. I mean, slight spoiler, but he freaking jumps rope at the end of the latest episode. He seems to be having the best time, and that fun is contagious. If you start watching again, definitely pick it up at the beginning of the season, and we will compare notes. :)

  4. I might need to check out The Amazing Race. You make it sound like a lot of fun!

    1. It’s been a blast this season. Have you ever watched? (Obviously, you don’t need to know anything about it to enjoy it.) And I’d be really curious to know what you thought of Constellation. I loved Peter Harness’s four Doctor Who scripts (I thought he was the strongest freelancer of the Moffat era), and adored his 2015 miniseries ‘Jonathan Strange & Dr. Norrell’ — so I’ve been a fan for a while. It was nice to see him return with a new series.

  5. I like FBI more than you do (and was happy to see it renewed for three more years), but I take it last night’s episode was more to your liking? I thought the last scene between Isabel, Scola and Tiffany was the best so far this season. I wish there were more scenes like that.

    1. Yes, much more to my liking. I don’t have anything against OA, but Maggie gets on my nerves. She seems to be presented as a paragon of virtue, but I find her a very chilly character, and I think it’s a riot how often they resort to Maggie promising a witness or suspect that they’ll be safe if they wear a wire, and then they die. And for me, the whole “I’m thinking of IVF – oh look, my friend died, and now I have a daughter” subplot was just appalling, in concept and execution. But yes, both Philip and I both liked the focus on Scola and Tiff last night, and thought the scene with Isabel, Scola and Tiff was the best of its kind in quite a while. Given that the CBS house style requires FBI to retain a purely procedural format, littered by the occasional subplot (unlike its One Chicago cousins), I relish the times when the work environment yields interpersonal exchanges that feel weighty and significant. Last night was a great example of that.

  6. So, I watched it. And then I read your piece; amazingly enough, I missed only one thing, the most obvious of all - the Schrödinger joke! I even thought to myself, 'oh; one cat alive, one dead', and still didn't twig... Thus begins the decay of my mental faculties. Still, I can't be that bad, yet - I look to your writings to reveal things that were hidden from my obtuse sensibilities, and this time, I basically agreed with everything in your piece. If anything, I felt you slightly undersold the two youngsters, who I thought were astonishing.

    So, overall, yes, very impressive, particularly as I don't generally like stories that play with reality. I liked the way (as noted in your review) Harness drip-fed the clues to what was happening. I read an interview with Rapace where they mentioned the possibility of another series. That seems to me probably a mistake, but who knows..?

    1. By 'it', of course I mean Constellation!

    2. Oh my gosh, I can’t tell you how glad I am that you enjoyed Constellation. I truly thought it might be up your alley, but obviously, I don’t recommend things to you too often. I suspect I enjoyed it more than Philip. He liked it, but he wasn’t as consumed by it as I was, and as I mentioned, I thought the seventh episode was one of the best things I’ve seen in quite a while. I’ll confess, I think of everything I’ve written in the last 12 years, this was one of the hardest shows to write about, because I felt like I couldn’t say *anything* without giving away some big plot point. So I tried to be vague and cagey at the same time (“one life-shattering episode, and suddenly we’re someone else entirely”) — but my gosh, it was difficult to write. And you know me, I focus so much on the scripts, sometimes I forget all about the actors. When I finished my first draft, I realized I hadn’t mentioned any of the actors, so I added a couple of sentences to take care of that – but you’re right, I definitely undersold the performances.