Wednesday, 3 October 2012

“Where do we go from here?” The Drama Dilemma; Or Sunday Night TV

I’ve been meaning to return to my semi-regular TV recaps for some time now, and I figured the official start of the new television season this past week was as good a time as any. I’m still working my way through how I plan to approach it this time around, and how regular it will but Sunday night TV was as good a place as any to start with not a whopping five top notch dramas.

I wasn’t reaching, though, when I noticed that as all five shows move into new seasons – four of them having their season premiere on Sunday – they were all faced with the same potential quandary. How to move on to a new chapter in a single tale without seeming repetitive or becoming stagnant? I can let out a sigh of relief because the four returning shows all start out with promise, and Boardwalk Empire now quarter way through the third season (already!) is shaping up well. It's a sign that we're lucky to have such good things to watch on the small screen.

Brief thoughts on the five Sunday dramas ahead….

Dexter: “Are you…?”; Season Seven, Episode One
It would be silly for me to launch into any overzealous defence of the last season of Dexter. It was fair, but unimpressive considering the goodness which had come in years before. (Apparently I’m in the minority of being a big fan of the fine fifth season with Stiles and Miller.) Still, I’d never thought of quitting the show because of the fumble last year, because one suspicious apple doesn’t invalidate the entire basket. And, the clunky sixth season ended with volumes of promise which the season opener immediately makes good on. For more than half a decade we’ve come to like Dexter despite all his typically antihero meanderings and despite his dark passenger within. Now that the pragmatic Deb finds out our own growing inclination to justify Dexter’s actions are subverted. In a way this season opener almost functions as a pilot, because seeing things through Deb’s eyes now we’re forced to eschew our appreciation of Dexter and examine his murderous inclinations through objective eyes. It is the same Dexter but we see him as a new Dexter, now. It’s a much appreciated turnaround and one which gives Hall more opportunity for nuance and provides the often underappreciated Jennifer Carpenter with key scenes to impress. The launchpad it will be for things to move ahead is indicative of good, maybe great, things to come.
Episode Grade: B+ 

The Good Wife: “I Fought the Law”; Season Four, Episode One
Of the five Sunday shows the issues the Kings face with The Good Wife are – in theory – the least difficult to navigate through. Or, they would be if the show went about its way in a more basic way. The focus on ongoing character-specific-stories makes it different from most (all?) CBS dramas, though. So, the familiar issue of where the relationship between Peter and Alicia is and just what it means for them individually, personally and (for him) publically continues to be something of extreme importance. It’s why Kristin Chenoweth’s lawyer is such a welcome presence forcing Alicia to answer questions that we all might have been thinking. Alicia, in true St. Alicia form, still hedges of course but answers are given. And, although I suspect the jury might be split on whether reconciliation between the two is good for “female empowerment” or no, the gradations of the relationship intrigue especially because both are firmly devoted to their children. It’s why having the opening case focus on Zack on trouble is such a good idea. Seeing how the two respond differently to the crisis, and then the reason for its existence, is pointing to so much interesting beats in their characters. And, Noth is often not fully utilised so it’s nice seeing him with much to do.

Of course, all the great beats of that arc are somewhat superseded by the machinations of our favourite in-house investigator – Kalinda Sharma. I heard cries of disappointment that the Kings had given in and gone overly violent, that they were trying to placate the masses and going “50 shades of Grey” on the core fans (I laughed and scoffed, even if I’ve not read that novel, so I can’t confirm or deny) and it points to a bigger hurdle the Kings have to overcome. Kalinda’s appeal for many has always been a mystery, but the character specific drama has always necessitated focus on the main players – and she’s one. So, in developing Kalinda’s back-story the quandary will, of course, become whether the audience is able to reconcile their feelings on Kalinda with whatever her past reveals. Me? I’m satisfied and interested so far, especially since the Kings and Archie have always highlighted Kalinda’s typically unperturbed nature it’s a good movement to having her more flustered and even though I’d prefer to NOT have an easy explanation of why Kalinda is Kalinda (do we even need to know?) and I trust it won't be easy or bland, so I'm willing to go along for this ride. Leather boots, sledgehammer and choreographed elevator fights and all.
Episode Grade: B+  

How Homeland and Revenge justify their second chapters and how Boardwalk Empire continues to impress below the jump...

Homeland: “The Smile”; Season Two, Episode One
Even more than The Good Wife and its Kalinda problems, Homeland has a whole lot to overcome. For one, it has to justify that (deserving, mind you) Emmy win for many and then because the final season had such a sense of completion to it – cliff-hanger and all – it needs to justify the existence of the second season. Why does this series need a second season? And, boy, does it justify its existence. More than making us care for the somewhat unhinged Brody the best thing Homeland has done in carving the terrorist inclinations of the soldier is never making it easy for us to examine the issues in a black-and-white way. True, the weakest instalment of the first season featured them trying so hard to make us see “Brody is a terrorist because he cares” (flashback to his days Abu Nazir) but it’s ultimately a positive. Consider how Brody’s Islamic inclinations are not aligned with his terrorist moves. So, even as Jessica explodes when she finds out, and even though WE know she’s right we also now she’s wrong because she’s reacting not to actual knowledge but in that bigoted way Westerners fear the unknown. It forces us to reassess our ideals, not unlike what Dexter does in its season opener and that’s always the mark of a fine drama. 
The narrative is made even more interesting by the juxtaposition of Brody’s rise with Carrie’s fall. I wondered, how would they manage to keep Carrie around and I’ll admit the conceit of her need to return is mildly amusing for being almost clunky in its obviousness – but such conceits are sometimes necessary and the gift of having Claire Danes emote in that specific way of hers is a thrill to watch. Two moments stand out in particular: her muddle of emotion as she stands before her ex-boss/ex-lover/new-enemy navigating through the emotions she feels and that almost overwhelmingly gleeful smile which gives the episode its name. Danes is such fantastic performer because of her unending fearlessness. She’s not afraid to take risks with this character and it’s one of the reasons I’m unable to look away.
Episode Grade: B+  

Revenge: “Destiny”; Season Two, Episode One 
With the opening of the second chapter there are still so many thorny things at work for Batmanda and company. Like Homeland, Kelly has to convince us with Revenge that this is a chapter which demands a second chapter. Two reveals towards the end of the episode do this in fine form – realising that Victoria is alive and working alongside that sinister white-haired man points to glorious shenanigans down the road, and then Conrad Grayson’s descent into unremitting evilness means that we won’t be lacking a real villain to loathe. I’m less enthused about Emily’s mother in the psychiatric hospital if only because the chance way that memories resurface makes me laugh more than ponder. I’m even less certain of what to make of FauxManda’s baby and Jack’s continued boringness as a character. Nolan and Batmanda continue to make for a good pair, though, and the opener works well as a set-up for things to come. The return to the Hampton’s proves that there’s still drama to be eked out of this summer get-away.
Grade: B  

Boardwalk Empire: “Bone for Tuna”; Season Three, Episode Three 
Now, Winter has the season moving along we’re beginning to discern just how things are changing for our main players. The show continues to be good without James Darmody, but I can’t deny that I do miss Pitt and the reveal that Richard’s vengeance was meted out only for Angela does make his memory somewhat duller. I’m not the only one with Jimmy on his mind, though, and it’s fitting that Nucky is plagued with the memories of his now-dead surrogate son. It’s imperative because as the supporting cast grow more relatable, Nucky threatens to become more stolid and as the protagonist – even an antihero, one – we must finds to understand him. Major points to the creators, though, for managing to turn Nelson Van Alden into such a layered man. Even as Nucky remains implacable look at the pilot and observe the differences in Margaret and Van Alden. Macdonald and Shannon are doing excellent work, and this episode has key moments for both. Margaret’s strong-arming of the doctor shows just how focused she has become, and that moment where Van Alden is faced with the police officer reminding him of his former job is a great moment for the narrative and even great one for Shannon.
Bonus points to the writers, too, for the excellent use of the Bone for Tuna gaffe (a mispronunciation of Bona Fortuna). It beautifully mocks the fates of all the characters, none of whom is truly headed to good fortune and then gives Cannavale the chance to react in that unhinged way he’s so good at. Gyp Rosetti is a welcome addition because his unfamiliarity with the town makes us consider how characters appear to newcomers and because he's unfamiliar he is also fearless when it comes to butting heads with Nucky. It promises for great fireworks ahead.
Episode Grade: B+  

Standout Sunday Performances
Damian Lewis in Homeland B+/A-
Jennifer Carpenter in Dexter B+/A- 
Claire Danes in Homeland B+/A- 

 Michael C. Hall in Dexter B+ 
 Bobby Cannavale in Boardwalk Empire B+
Archie Panjabi in The Good Wife B+ 
Michael Shannon in Boardwalk Empire B+ 

Other things to note
  • Will Lockhart/Gardner always be in financial crisis or near financial ruin? Still, an understated Nathan Lane was a welcome addition.
  • Fauxmanda truly is one of my favourite things on TV, she's overwhelmingly trashy and sometimes her existence makes no sense but goodness Margarita Levieva is a joy to watch.
  • So, Sidney Braverman is young Deb? 
  • Gretchen Mol is such a delight to watch, I hope she gets more to do this season.
  • Where's Carrie's contact Virgil?
Are your Sundays full of great drama, too?


CrazyCris said...

Good look at the new beginnings... I was particularly wondering bout how they'd bring Carrie back into the fold, still not 100% convinced though. Love Brody's daughter! Poor girl... when she finds out the truth... :o(

I don't know wether to thank you or curse you for the title of this post... I know have this song stuck in my head:

Paolo said...

Love your defense of FauxManda who is still one of the most hated characters on that show. Nonetheless I'm more impressed at this season premiere's visuals and I hope they keep it up on that end. I also hope they reach the emotional payoffs of the fourth episode and the finale of the last season.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

crazycris OMG. a buffy shout-out is making me so nostalgic. aaargh.

brody's daughter is actually my enemy, but that burying the koran scene with them was real sweet.

paoloa i hope they work as well on the emotional pay-offs, too. and good note to you for spotting their attention to visuals. i love the shot of daniel in victoria's old spying spot.

CrazyCris said...

And I'm still cursing you Andrew... I've had that song stuck in my head all week!!! ;o)