Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Is Too Much Freedom on TV Ever Bad?

The cast of Seinfeld shakes on it in "The Contest." Photo courtesy of

With all the talk about "sexposition" on Game of Thrones recently, as well as the return of the often-gratuitous True Blood last weekend, I've been thinking about the role of censorship in television. Not censorship of ideas or political views - I'm completely against that - but censorship of things like sex, violence and foul language. Now, I'm not for censorship in any way, as I was raised by parents who realized I was smart enough to figure things out for myself and therefore chose not to censor things; however, I do think that the inability to show sex or violence onscreen can often lead to increased creativity.

I started thinking about this issue while reading Nerd Do Well, a memoir by the incredibly funny and talented Simon Pegg. In the book, Pegg describes his early comedic leanings by describing a joke he told to a friend's mother. The punchline of the joke relied on a mildly dirty work that Pegg, who was in primary school at the time, didn't want to say in front of an adult. Instead, he just paused and allowed the mother to guess the word based on rhyme and context. According to Pegg, the fun of guessing the dirty word for oneself made the joke much funnier than it would have been had Pegg said it aloud.

Pegg's point - that something implied is often funnier, sexier or scarier than something that is actually seen - is one that has been backed up by many TV shows. With the exception of pay cable channels like HBO and Showtime, television is a medium that has to abide by certain guidelines as to how much sex, violence and profanity is allowed. While this can be incredibly frustrating - "nipplegate," anyone? - it can also lead to increased creativity on the part of showrunners and writers, who are forced to come up with alternative way to get their point across.

One of the best - and best-known - examples of this is the classic Seinfeld episode "The Contest." The episode, which was ranked as the single best television episode of all time by TV Guide, revolves around a contest between the four main characters to determine who can go the longest without masturbating. However, due to strict television guidelines, the word "masturbate" is never used in the episode, isntead being referred to by euphemisms such as the now-classic catchphrase "master of my domain." The episode would probably still be funny if the word could be used, but the heavy implication of the subject matter and the many amusing euphemisms used by the group make the whole thing much funnier, because it makes the audience feel like we're in on the joke.

Another example that I've always been fond of is the inclusion of marijuana in That 70s Show. The characters smoke pot in almost every episode, but it is never referred to by name and no joints or bongs ever appear on-screen. Instead, the audience sees the camera pan over the characters while puffs of smoke hang in the air around them, allowing viewers to pick up on the cues and laugh with the characters, while once again including the audience in the joke.

Dramas can also use implication and creativity to increase the impact of a scene without actually showing it. I'm not normally a big fan of Mad Men, but Joan's rape in the second season of that show was beautifully played, and all the more powerful because of how little was shown. It was far from gratuitous, showing no nudity and cutting away before the deed was actually done, focusing instead on Joan's glassy-eyed, resigned stare. Not showing the scene allowed the audience to imagine what is happening and project our horror onto the situation, while avoiding the fetishization of sexual violence that often comes with portrayals of such behavior onscreen.

It's not that showing sex, violence, drugs or profanity on TV is always badly done: The Wire showed characters doing drugs in order to illuminate the societal problems that plagued Baltimore, Tell Me You Love Me used explicit sex scenes in order to delve deeper into couples' relationships, and Deadwood elevated cursing to an art form. However, portraying these subjects on television is always dangerous, and difficult to do well. For every Tell Me You Love Me there are several True Bloods, a show that uses gratuitous sex to cover plot holes and that is often guilty of fetishizing violence against women. Shows like Seinfeld and Mad Men have shown viewers that censorship is not necessarily a bad thing; now, if only shows like True Blood would take that lesson to heart, and realize that ability to show something onscreen doesn't imply necessity.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Internet Find of the Week: "Arrested Westeros"

Arrested Westeros, the tumblr that combines quotes from Arrested Development with images from Game of Thrones, is quite possibly the best thing that has ever appeared on the Internet. After reading this brilliance I started noticing all the similarities between the cult comedy and the fantasy epic: parental disapproval, father-uncles, important life lessons, and numerous huge mistakes. So, in the spirit of things, I present my own Arrested Westeros submission!

Lucille: You tricked me.
Michael:  I deceived you. "Tricked" makes it sound like we have a playful relationship.

Marta Complex - 1x12

In related news, I promise that a recap of the GoT finale is coming. I need some time to process everything that happened. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Is "South Park" Growing Up?

Stan (Trey Parker) is disenchanted in mid-season finale of South Park, "You're Getting Old." Photo courtesy of

South Park has always possessed the uncanny ability to combine serious social commentary, pointed satire and juvenile toilet humor into a brilliant show. This ability has turned what could have been nothing more than a crudely animated parody of sitcoms about children into one of the most popular and influential television shows in recent memory, to the point where South Park was recently voted the best animated show of all time by readers. It even beat out long-running stalwart The Simpsons for the title.

Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's ability to blend juvenile toilet humor and big ideas was distilled perfectly in the mid-season finale of the fifteenth season, "You're Getting Old." The episode centered around Stan (Parker), who has just turned ten, as he becomes increasingly jaded and cynical. Eventually, Stan begins to think that everything is literally "shitty," as he hears music he previously liked as fart sounds and the penguins in a trailer for Mr. Popper's Penguins appear as turds. His attitude toward life eventually alienates him from all his friends, including his closest friend Kyle (Stone).

At the same time Stan is becoming more cynical, Randy (also voiced by Parker) is determined to appear cool to his son, and begins performing music that consists of him "shitting his britches" (in the words of another character) into a microphone as he strums his guitar. Just as Stan's cynicism comes between he and Kyle, Randy's ridiculous scheme estranges him from his wife, Sharon, and the couple ultimately gets a divorce at the end of the episode.

Randy and Sharon's divorce and Stan's move to a new house, as well as Sharon's rant to Randy that "the same shit just happens over and over - then in a week it all just resets until it happens again" was interpreted by many worried fans as a stealth finale for South Park, particularly given that Parker and Stone are currently enjoying success with their (Tony Award-winning!) Broadway show The Book of Mormon and have publicly described the stress of juggling South Park and the musical. However, as the AV Club pointed out, Parker and Stone are still under contract until 2013, so we have a couple of years until we need to worry.

"You're Getting Old" may not have been a series finale, but it is still one of the best episodes of South Park I have ever seen. Scratch that - it's one of the best episodes of any TV show that I've ever seen. The show dealt beautifully with themes of growing up, of alienation and the toll that unnecessary cynicism can take on people and relationships, and of the desperate yearning for youth that besets many adults. The closing montage, set to Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," was simple, lovely and unbearably sad (not to mention a much better dramatic closing montage than generally appears in serious dramas, and a better use of "Landslide" than Gwyneth Paltrow's version on Glee). I almost cried while watching it. I seriously almost cried while watching South Park. That is a phrase I never thought I would utter.

That Parker and Stone managed to address these themes so perfectly is an accomplishment in and of itself, one that very few TV shows can claim. The fact that they did it in an episode in which about half the dialogue was fart noises and managed to avoid jarring tonal shifts is even more impressive. However, the real question about this episode is whether this change will carry on and change the feel of the show, or whether the continuity will simple be reset when South Park comes back in the fall. There is evidence for both options. This is, after all, a show that spent the first five seasons repeatedly killing off the same character, only to have him return alive and unharmed in the next episode, and that history would indicate that the timeline will be reset.

There is also some indication that Parker and Stone would like to move beyond that era of the show, as evidenced by the explanation offered for Kenny's repeated deaths in last season's excellent Mysterion arc. The Mysterion episodes offered an early hint that Parker and Stone want to move beyond the episodic sitcom structure that South Park has traditionally followed; "You're Getting Old" strengthens that idea by directly criticizing (via Sharon) the lack of continuity that defines the sitcom.

I personally would like to see where a new set of circumstances could take South Park. I want to see how Randy and Sharon's divorce plays out, and whether Stan can manage to balance his cynicism with his childish innocence (innocence in terms of South Park being relative). However, I am sure that many other lovers of South Park don't want the show to change, and wish to see cutting satire and potty-mouthed kids every week. I understand that. I love the show as it is, and Parker and Stone are great at what they do. However, I suspect that they can do more, and I would love to see them try. I'll keep watching if the show simply reboots in the fall, and I'll surely keep laughing as well. That laughter, however, might be a little less heartfelt than before.

An added bonus for your viewing pleasure: I've been watching this performance of "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon on repeat for the last week. Parker and Stone are some talented guys.

Monday, June 13, 2011

"Game of Thrones": How Audacious Was That Twist?

Sean Bean as Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of

Warning: SPOILERS for those who haven't yet seen "Baelor." Serious spoilers. Absolutely DO NOT read this if you haven't watched the episode.

Well, I don't think many people saw that coming.

I have known for quite a while that Sean Bean's Ned Stark would not survive the first season of Game of Thrones, because a certain person spoiled it for me before the series even began. (You know who you are.) However, even though I knew what was coming, I found myself with my heart in my throat, pleading with the TV gods to spare this man and cursing that awful little shit Joffrey with every breath. I watched the show with my dad, who did not know what was coming, and he was completely shocked by Ned's death.

Various reviewers are discussing the shocking twist at the end of episode, particularly the audaciousness required to kill the main character before the end of the first season.'s recapper, James Hibberd, describes Ned Stark's death as "tragic and horrific and possibly unprecedented for a first-year show," while the AV Club's David Sims argues that the move is less audacious - largely because the show is based on a series of books - but still "a conclusion sure to blow the minds (and break the hearts) of all us non-initiated fans."

Killing Ned is an audacious move - albeit one that already happened in George R.R. Martin's novels - for two reasons. One, it establishes that literally no character on this show is safe. Other shows have tried to intimate that any character could die at any time, but despite Teri Bauer's death in 24's first season, everyone knew that Jack Bauer was going to survive, at least until the finale. The second season finale of The Vampire Diaries, as great as it was, also brought home this truth; the suspense wasn't about whether Ian Somerhalder's Damon was actually going to die, it was about the lengths to which Stefan and Elena would have to go in order to save him. With Ned's death, it has become clear that absolutely everyone is fair game, which puts all of our favorite characters in jeopardy.

Ned's death, however, is audacious for another reason, one that I find more compelling than the first. By killing Ned Stark, one of the few truly noble, honest characters on the show, Game of Thrones has demonstrated that this is no traditional fantasy epic. The noble characters will not survive because of their strength of character; rather, the more noble a character is, the more likely they are to lose the fight against manipulators like the Lannisters and Petyr Baelish. Robb may have won a battle and captured Jaime Lannister, but his father's death presents a bleak future for the rest of the noble Starks.

Ned's death scene was powerful because it was daring and shocking, but also because it was well shot and beautifully acted. The look on Joffrey's (Jack Gleeson's) face when he ordered Ned beheaded was truly disturbing, a malicious smile that contrasted beautifully with the grief, fear and horror present on Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya's (Maisie Williams) faces. Even Varys, who is always difficult to pin down, tried to save Ned at the end, but Joffrey's blood lust would not be slaked. To me, however, the most interesting reaction was not that of Joffrey, Sansa or Arya, even though all three young actors - particularly Williams and Gleeson - did an excellent job in that scene. I was instead fascinated by watching Lena Headey's Cersei, the woman who schemed to turn her son into what he is only to realize that even she can no longer control him. Cersei's look implied a realization that she had created an ungovernable monster, and there was fear in her eyes.

Lots of other great stuff happened in this episode - it appears that Khal Drogo is dying and Daenerys is losing her influence, and Tyrion had some wonderful scenes - but I can't really process it right now. I'm still reeling from Ned's death. I'll be back with more thoughts after next week's season finale, but right now all I can think about is that this is the beginning of the end, and that it doesn't look good. Robb is fighting a battle that he may not be able to win, Bran is alone in Winterfell, Arya is on the run, Jon is kept at the Wall and Sansa is trapped by Cersei and Joffrey. Things are certainly looking bleak for the Starks. Winter is coming.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sexual Violence and Vampires: or, why "True Blood" is much more offensive to women than "Game of Thrones"

Rutina Wesley of True Blood and Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones. Photos courtesy of and

In the past, I've written several articles about the role of sexual violence on Game of Thrones. This issue has recently become a hot topic; it was addressed in a story by Jace Lacob on the Daily Beast, where Lacob discussed how the role of sexual violence has actually been diminished in the TV show, compared to the prevalence of rape in George R.R. Martin's novels. In that same article, Lacob discusses the amount of sexual material in the show, saying that the (non-violent) sex in Game of Thrones is even more gratuitous than the sex in other HBO shows, specifically citing True Blood as an example of a show with less gratuitous sex and nudity than Game of Thrones.

Lacob's reference to True Blood - which was one of my favorite shows until it completely ran off the rails last season - got me thinking about the role of sex, specifically violent sex, on True Blood. It isn't surprising that True Blood contains a lot of gratuitous sex; after all, it's a show on HBO based on a series of extremely sexual novels. However, the show also contains worrisome amounts of violent, unwanted sex, perpetrated almost entirely against victimized female characters.

It isn't really surprising that a show about vampires would contain sexual violence; after all, the vampire mythos is rife with sexual symbolism, a tradition that dates back to what is widely considered the first true vampire novel, Bram Stoker's Dracula. In an article about portrayals of gender roles in both general audience and young adult vampire fiction, Melissa Ames, professor of media studies at Eastern Illinois University, describes scholarly analyses of Stoker's novel that emphasize the sexual metaphors inherent in vampirism. She specifically mentions Christopher Bentley's reading of the novel, in which he finds "'deviant' sexual behavior throughout the entire novel from the incestuous relationship Dracula has with his three sister/daughter figures [...] to the 'forced quasi-fellatio' invoked when Dracula imposes his blood upon Mina [quoted in Ames 2011]." In addition, the symbolism of drinking blood - a form of penetration - is often connected to sexuality, and unwanted or violent attacks can be read as sexual assault.

The role of sexual assault on True Blood is, then, even more prevalent than one might have originally thought. In addition to scenes and storylines that clearly dealt with rape and sexual assault - the attempted rape of Sookie (Anna Paquin) during her excursion to Dallas in the second-season episode "Rescue Me" and Tara's (Rutina Wesley) repeated rape at the hands of a vampire in the third season - there are less obvious examples that can be read as representative of sexual assault. Sookie's initial attraction to Bill (Stephen Moyer) was the result of her consumption of his blood, which caused her to have sex dreams about him; a scenario which can be expressed as unwanted penetration of Sookie's mind with these images, and coercion on Bill's part. A similar process takes place in the second season when, after drinking Eric's (Alexander Skarsgard) blood, Sookie once again experiences sexual dreams. Hoyt (Jim Parrack) and Jessica's (Deborah Ann Woll) relationship also has sexually violent undertones, as sex is always painful for Jessica due to the fact that she will always be a virgin no matter how many times she has sex.

Now, I don't necessarily have a problem with the portrayal of sexual violence onscreen (although I agree with A.O. Scott of the New York Times that seeing sexual violence in film or on television can lead to fetishization of such violence), as I think it can be done well and addresses an important issue. However, I have a serious problem with the rampant sexual violence on True Blood, and the way this violence victimizes the show's heterosexual female characters (and occasionally homosexual male characters) while not allowing the women to grow, or even change as a result of their experiences. As a result of this victimization, True Blood is, to me, one of the least feminist scripted shows on television. (Reality shows like Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of... are an entirely different ball game).

The most prominent example of female victimization in True Blood is Wesley's Tara Thornton. Over the course of the third season, Tara was raped repeatedly by James Frain's Franklin and was shown being unable to save herself. Instead, she was ultimately rescued by Jason (Ryan Kwanten), in an example of the kind of damsel-in-distress storytelling that is disturbingly common on True Blood. Indeed, her relationship with Franklin only begins when he comes to her rescue during an attack in the parking lot of Merlotte's. Indeed, much of Tara's life - like the lives of the other human, female characters on the show - is defined by men, whether they are rescuing her or terrorizing her. She never gets the upper hand in a romantic relationship.

In this way, Tara and the other women of True Blood, particularly Sookie, are constantly defined by their relationships to men. This is a criticism that is constantly leveled at Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series as well; according to Ames, Bella Swan (portrayed by Kristen Stewart in the films), is "constantly depicted as the damsel in distress forever in need of rescue by a male." The same can be said of all the female, non-vampire characters of True Blood. Sookie's life is largely defined by the conflict between her relationship to Bill and her attraction to Eric; Tara is a constant victim who always needs rescuing by the men in her life; Arlene is characterized by her string of husbands. In addition, the more minor characters such as the waitresses at Merlotte's are simply disposable, existing so that bad things can happen to them.

This is one major way in which True Blood differs from Game of Thrones and True Blood. While Game of Thrones depicts a world in which sexual violence is commonplace, the show's female characters are portrayed as more than just victims. Daenerys Targaryen, the show's most prominent rape victim, quickly learns that she can use her sexuality to her advantage and quickly sheds her victimization, learning to use her own power to accomplish things. By the most recent episodes, Daenerys' relationship with her husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) is one of the more equitable relationships on the show, and Daenerys is using her newfound power to save captive women from being raped by the Dothraki.

The CW's The Vampire Diaries also offers a much more positive, less victimized portrayal of women then True Blood. The show's protagonist, Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) certainly has as many problems as Sookie does, although she is never sexually assaulted. Elena is also in a relationship with Stefan (Paul Wesley), and also drawn to his brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder), just as Sookie is torn between Bill and Eric. However, Elena is a much stronger character than either Sookie or Tara; like Daenerys, she refuses to be controlled by the other characters, even when Stefan tries to protect her by preventing her from taking part in various events.

While the female characters on True Blood are certainly victimized by both explicit and implied sexual violence, that is not the only problem the show has in terms of feminist perspectives and sexual violence. Rape is often trivialized on the show, most notably when Sookie is assaulted and nearly raped in Dallas in the second season. After her return to Bon Temps and her realization that an evil maenad has taken over her house, Sookie articulates her sadness by saying "I was almost raped in Dallas, but this is so much worse." This comment made my jaw drop when I watched the episode, as it takes the pain and humiliation of sexual assault and sweeps it under the rug, much like the way in which Tara's abusive relationship with Franklin is shunted out of the way to make room for the other plotlines.

The issue of sexual violence is one that has been addressed on many different television shows, from Mad Men to Game of Thrones. However, one of the most distressing depictions of violence against women and victimization is that on True Blood, which routinely victimizes women and trivializes issues of sexual violence. The gender roles portrayed on True Blood are often just as old-fashioned and restrictive as those of Stephanie Meyer's infamous Twilight, but with more violently sexual undertones. True Blood can still be fun to watch - it's a soapy guilty pleasure - but I certainly wouldn't let a teenage daughter of mine watch it. Not for the gratuitous sex or the violence, since I don't believe in censorship. I simply wouldn't want my child to think that the passive, victimized behavior of the women on the show is any sort of ideal.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The "Game of Thrones" Rape Controversy Revisited

Emilia Clarke and Jason Momoa in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of

Previously, I wrote an article dealing with accusations that Game of Thrones was glorifying rape through the portrayal of Daenerys' relationship with Khal Drogo, a man who rapes her on her wedding night and with whom she subsequently falls in love. However, people are talking again about the role of rape on Game of Thrones, but this time they're complaining for the opposite reason.

The Daily Beast recently featured an article by Jace Lacob that accuses the series of lessening the amount of rape present in George R.R. Martin's books, while simultaneously upping the amount of sex and female nudity visible on screen. Lacob quotes various other critics, such as AOLtv's Maureen Ryan and the New York Times' Laura Miller, who complained about the "sexposition" utilized in the series' seventh episode, "You Win or You Die." That episode features a scene in which Aiden Gillen's Petyr Baelish presents a good deal of expository material while instructing two female prostitutes in how to show their pleasure.

According to Lacob, "while frank sex in HBO shows is common, Game of Thrones appears to be placing it front and center, as though the only way to make exposition-heavy bits like these interesting was to couch them in terms of sexuality." I disagree with this assertion for two reasons: one, while there is a not-insignificant amount of sex in Game of Thrones, there is nowhere close to as much gratuitous sex and nudity as there is in any given episode of True Blood, and two, there are plenty of expository scenes in Game of Thrones that involve no sex whatsoever. While I'll admit that the scene with Baelish and the two prostitutes was slightly gratuitous - as was the scene in episode eight in which the audience is treated to some full-frontal nudity by Hodor - I didn't have an active problem with it.

I'm more intrigued, however, by the other question that Lacob poses: is Game of Thrones the TV series really cutting down on the amount of rape present in the novels? As someone who has not read A Song of Ice and Fire, I can't really speak to the amount of rape present in the books, and my ignorance is compounded by the contradictory reports I get about the prevalence of rape in the original novels. A friend of mind who recently started reading the novels was shocked by the amount of rape present on the page, while my boyfriend, who read the series a few years ago, doesn't think that the amount of rape in the books is different from the amount present in the HBO series.

The TV series, in my opinion, hasn't shied away from representing rape onscreen. In my aforementioned article about possible trivialization of rape in Game of Thrones - which, judging by the sheer number of page views it gets, continues to fascinate readers - I discussed the outrage some commentators felt about the way Daenerys's relationship with Khal Drogo moved quickly from sexual assault to love. Indeed, Daenerys and Drogo now share one of the most stable, equitable romantic relationships on the show. In the first two episodes, the audience sees Dany raped by Drogo at least twice, which hardly seems like lessening the prevalence of rape to me.

The major scene that Lacob describes, however, is not Daenerys' rape - which, he does concede, is similar to the book, despite the fact that Daenerys' character on the show is older - but the scene, featured at the beginning of episode eight, in which Daenerys saves a group of conquered women from being raped by the Dothraki. According to Lacob, the scene as it is presented in the book is a "nightmarish one, as Dothraki invaders rape multiple women before Daenerys puts a stop to their abhorrent behavior," while the scene in the TV show declines to show the actual rape, instead holding the "intangible threat of rape" over the heads of the women in the scene.

After giving voice to these opinions, Lacob ultimately comes to the conclusion that the lessened role of rape in Game of Thrones is a good thing, saying that this creative decision "enables [the show] to be much less harrowing, keeping the horror restricted to the supernatural realm." I don't really understand this argument. After all, the horror in Game of Thrones is hardly restricted to the supernatural realm, as Sansa's direwolf Lady and a dead butcher's boy would certainly tell you. I also don't see why the show needs to be made less harrowing - after all, the series is dealing with a society similar to that of medieval Europe, where rape was fairly common and marital rape wasn't even a concept.

Personally, I think that a better argument for lessening the role of rape in the Game of Thrones TV series can be found in a recent New York Times article in which A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis discussed the recent spate of films featuring violent women. Scott in particular focused on the Swedish films of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy (a trailer for the David Fincher-directed American version can be found here), and the imagery of violence against women that accompanies the theme of violence perpetrated by women, generally in self-defense. Scott points out that sexual violence onscreen is a different matter entirely from the same violence on the page, pointing out that "it is in the nature of the moving image to give pleasure, and the nature of film audiences - consciously or not, admittedly or not - to find pleasure in what they see."

When this principle is applied to depictions of sexual violence against women filmmakers, no matter how good their intentions, "run the risk of aestheticizing, glamorizing, and eroticizing" rape. While George R.R. Martin is telling the truth when he says that rapists in A Song of Ice and Fire are depicted as neither noble or good (although he leaves out Khal Drogo, a seemingly good character who rapes Daenerys repeatedly), when sexual violence is put up on screen it becomes completely different. Perhaps in choosing not to depict rape on the show (if, indeed, there is less rape on the series than in the books) the creators of Game of Thrones are recognizing the pitfalls inherent in seeing sexual violence onscreen, and want to avoid glamorizing or eroticizing this heinous crime.

Monday, June 6, 2011

"Doctor Who:" Series Six So Far

Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Alex Kingston in "A Good Man Goes To War." Photo courtesy of

The first half of Doctor Who's sixth series came to an end with "A Good Man Goes To War" on Saturday. (Warning: This episode has not yet aired in the U.S. If you haven't seen "A Good Man Goes To War," stop reading now, because there are major SPOILERS ahead.) Since the show won't be back until the fall, I thought now would be a good time to discuss what has happened so far, and to predict what might come to pass when the show returns.

I'll get to the serious OMG-moments later in this post, but I first want to note that this is one of the most consistent runs of Doctor Who I have ever seen. This show can be remarkably inconsistent - for every "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" or "The Girl in the Fireplace," there is a "Daleks in Manhattan" or "Fear Her" - but the first seven episodes of the sixth series have all been remarkable in their consistency. The weakest episode was probably "The Curse of the Black Spot," but even the pirate-centric episode was entertaining (unlike "Fear Her"), and the pirates even made a return appearance in "A Good Man Goes To War."

While there were no truly bad episodes in the first half of the season, these episodes also featured one of the my new favorite episodes of the series as a whole. "The Doctor's Wife" ranks with the aforementioned "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" and "The Girl in the Fireplace," as well as the other excellent episodes "Blink" and "Vincent and the Doctor," as one of the top episodes of the rebooted series' run. Even if the other episodes had been terrible, I would have loved the season purely for the inclusion of "The Doctor's Wife;" as it was, it has been a great seven episodes, with that most excellent episode as a true standout in a series of solidly good-to-great hours.

Another excellent feature of these seven episodes has been the way that the season's major storyline has been prominently featured. Often in Doctor Who, the big story has been teased only intermittently throughout the season, and then come to play an important role in the final two or three episodes. (This is especially the case in Series Three, with the appearance of the Master, and Series Four, where the excellent Doctor-Donna revelation was barely brought up in the season's earlier episodes.) It's only Episode Seven, and many hints - the appearance of the Flesh and the creepy woman with the eye patch as two examples - have already been integrated into the major story.

It was clear as early as the first trailer for the season that Alex Kingston's River Song would play an important role in the season, and the seventh episode brought her character into the story in a big way. (Seriously, if you haven't seen "A Good Man Goes To War," stop reading NOW.) I still don't know how I feel about River Song being Amy and Rory's daughter, Melody Pond, largely because it makes her (apparently romantic) relationship with the Doctor seem a little creepy. However, I can't deny that the revelation seriously complicates the storyline as we know it so far. I'm a little worried, though, that this twist will take away from the suspense of the series. After all, we now know that little Melody will be safe, and will ultimately be protected by the Doctor, which makes the quest for her recovery less of an issue. Since it appears that finding Melody will make up the bulk of the second half of the season - which it might not, because what do I know? - it lessens the dramatic tension quite a bit to know that she will ultimately be alright.

I said before that the knowledge of River's true identity makes her relationship with the Doctor... strange, to say the least. However, there is dramatic potential here. Throughout the rebooted series, we've seen the Doctor's (mostly female) companions develop a romantic attachment to him, an idea that has been explored even more potently with Karen Gillan's Amy, who met the Doctor as a child and became extremely attached. Now, Amy has moved on and is happy with Rory, but another example was forthcoming in "A Good Man Goes To War:" Lorna Bucket, the young Cleric who joined the military purely to find the Doctor, having met him once as a child. Her story is similar to that of the individuals in the Series Two episode "Love and Monsters" - the people who aren't privileged enough to become companions, those who are touched by the Doctor and then spend their lives trying to regain the magic. The notion of the way the Doctor draws people to him, sometimes to an unhealthy extent, is one that is ripe with potential. This is the facet of the Doctor's relationship with River that could blossom into something really interesting.

There are a lot of interesting plot threads leading into the second half of the season. The use of the Flesh, for one, holds a lot of promise, as its existence has already proved critical for several plot devices. I'm also looking forward to the reemergence of the angry Doctor, the terrifying man whose name, in the language of Lorna's people, has come to mean "great warrior," the man who can summon an army at the mere mention of his name. The tension between who the Doctor is and what he has done has always been an excellent source of dramatic tension for the series, the knowledge that the man who never carries a weapon was responsible for the destruction of two species and countless other deaths. Davros used this contradiction to mock the Doctor in "Journey's End," and it was flung in his face again by Madame Kovarian in "A Good Man Goes To War." Watching the Doctor reconcile the two halves of himself - the one that strives for peace, and the one born in blood - has made for some compelling television in the past. I have no doubt that the second half of this season will be even more compelling, and that River Song and Melody Pond will play an important role in allowing the Doctor to embrace the mess of contradictions that makes up his self.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Analyzing the first full trailer for "Torchwood: Miracle Day"

Mekhi Phifer, John Barrowman, Kai Owen and Eve Myles in Torchwood: Miracle Day. Photo courtesy of

The first full trailer for this summer's Torchwood: Miracle Day is out, and it is certainly promising. I already mentioned how excited I am about the first season of Torchwood to be set in America (although it does take place in Los Angeles), and the trailer has only increased my anticipation.

One of the reasons I'm so excited about the new season of Torchwood is the format: ten episodes that function more as a miniseries than a series, heavily serialized and following a single story. This format made the third season, Torchwood: Children of Earth, far superior to the first two, much more episodic, seasons. The similar format of Miracle Day is encouraging.

A major difference between this season and Children of Earth, however, is the prevalence of American accents in the trailer, which is certainly jarring in a series that spun off from the quintessential British series Doctor Who. Besides Alexa Havins, who plays Esther Drummond, an American who joins forces with John Barrowman's Captain Jack Harkness and Eve Myles' Gwen Cooper, the series features Mekhi Phifer, Bill Pullman and Lauren Ambrose in supporting roles.

Phifer and Pullman are visible early in the trailer as, respectively, a man who survives a fatal car crash and a convict who survives execution. Those early moments establish the creepiness that underlies the premise of the season - a single day in which not a single person on earth dies - which is celebrated by the media, but which has the potential for devastating consequences. The premise is intriguingly vague, much like the premise underlying Children of Earth, and based on the trailer it appears to be well-executed.

While the trailer is certainly ominous, there are moments of humor there to remind us Whovians of why we fell in love with Captain Jack and Gwen in the first place, and to entice newcomers who like a bit of fun with their sci-fi. The moment when Captain Jack, having just dived into a fountain with Havins, offers his hand and, with a rakish grin, his name to the blond American girl is a reminder of Barrowman's rougish, Nathan Fillion-esque charm, and the sight of Gwen shooting a gun with one hand while holding her baby with the other is a great juxtaposition. My favorite, however, is the trailer's final tag, where Gwen responds to a snide American's comment about being "the best England has to offer" with a resounding "I'm Welsh," followed by a punch. It's a great character moment for Gwen, while also ribbing those Americans who probably don't know anything about Wales' relationship to Great Britain.

All in all, the trailer leaves me even more excited for Miracle Day's July 8th premiere. But what about you? Does the trailer get you excited for the new season? Are you as excited to see John Barrowman escape from the hell of Desperate Housewives as I am?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Best TV Season and Series Finales

Clockwise from top left, photos courtesy of;;;

Sorry to have been MIA for the last week, but I was busy graduating from college. (Your dear writer is now the proud holder of a Bachelor of Arts! Yay!) Today however, as promised, I'll be finishing off FinaleStravaganza with a list of the five best season and series finales of all time. (Well, at least my favorite season and series finales.) Without any further ado, I'll start with the list of season finales.

5. South Park, "Cartman's Mom Is A Dirty Slut"

The first season finale of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's filthy, sharply satirical, button-pushing series both showcased the dirty humor the show was known for, but also provided an on-the-nose parody of cliffhanger season finales. The plot centered on Cartman's quest to find out who his father was, from a lineup of suspects that ranged from Chef to the Denver Broncos. The ending provided an absurd cliffhanger, in which Cartman's test results are delayed because someone shot the geneticist who knew the results. The episode was not only a razor-sharp parody of season finales, but it also provided viewers with the knowledge that, if Cartman ever hears the beginning of the Styx song "Come Sail away," he has to sing the entire song. And thus, a viral video was born.

4. Community, "A Fistful of Paintballs" and "For a Few Paintballs More"

 This finale was recent, but boy was it great. The two-part paintball war was as epic as they come, and the genre parodies - first a Western, then a Star Wars-style action film - were clever without being too all-consuming. You can read my full recap here, but the final hour of Community's second season managed to be laugh-out-loud funny, action-packed and emotional, all within the absurdist framework of a giant paintball war. This finale proved that Community is one of the smartest, funniest, most original shows on TV.

3. Fringe, "Over There Part 2"

Many people prefer the first season finale of Fringe, "There's More Than One of Everything," in which the parallel universe was revealed through a jaw-dropping shot of Olivia in an office in the World Trade Center. I, however, prefer the second season finale, with its action-packed fight between the Fringe team from our world and the team from Over There, the sacrifice of Leonard Nimoy's William Bell, and the final shocking twist. The last image of the episode - Ourlivia staring out of a cell on Liberty Island, begging for her freedom, while the other Olivia was safe on our side - was absolutely chilling, a perfect ending to the season and a great set-up for the war between the universes that culminated in the third season finale.

2. The Vampire Diaries, "Founder's Day"

The first season finale of the CW's addictive drama was, like most other episodes, packed to the gills with revelations, plot twists, emotional moments, and snarky Damon humor. The high point, however, was the final-scene revelation in which the woman we though was Elena, who had just shared a kiss with Damon, was revealed to be none other than Katherine Pierce. Bringing Katherine into the story was brilliant, and made the audience rethink every scene featuring Elena in the episode. The reveal of Tyler's supernatural abilities and Caroline's car accident were also great, and very important for the next season, but even these moments paled in comparison to the Katherine reveal. After the first season finale, the second season kept the action going as fast as possible, and never let up on the twists or the reveals. That's the mark of the good season finale; it kick starts an excellent next season, and The Vampire Diaries certainly did that.

1. Lost, "Through the Looking Glass," parts 1 and 2

The series finale of Lost may have left a bad taste in many viewers' mouths - I certainly felt it was too heavy on the spirituality, and too light on the answers - but no one can deny the power of the third season finale. "Through the Looking Glass" was full of emotional moments, like the tear-jerking death of Charlie Pace and the arrival of the helicopter that, at least for the moment, signaled rescue. However, the real impact of the episode came with the final scene, where a disheveled, alcoholic Jack was revealed to be not in a flashback, but in a flash-forward. The scene completely reinvented the show, introducing a whole new set of questions - how did Jack make it off the island? Who else managed to escape? Who was in the coffin? - while leaving our collective minds reeling. These two episodes were so powerful, they set a new standard for the show, one that the final season never managed to live up to. For the two hours of "Through the Looking Glass," however, the potential was unlimited.

And now, for the my four favorite series finales.

4. Freaks and Geeks, "Discos and Dragons"

Freaks and Geeks is a show that falls firmly in the category of "canceled too soon." The Judd Apatow-produced series featured many of today's leading comedic actors - Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel to name a few - in a show that was both heartwarming, funny and honest, a fine-grained portrait of the struggles of high school. The series finale was nothing more and nothing less than an encapsulation of the character's struggles, the most poignant being a storyline that featured Linda Cardellini's Lindsay struggling to decide whether to take part in an academic summit, or to spend the summer following the Grateful Dead around the country. It doesn't seem like that big a decision, but in the world of Freaks and Geeks it seemed like it could determine the course of Lindsay's entire life. The final episode was just as deft, funny and touching as the rest of the series, and left the rest of us wondering why this lovely, subtle show would never get a second season.

3. Arrested Development, "Development Arrested"

Another episode that perfectly sums up the series that preceded it, "Development Arrested" was a showcase for the meta humor and absurdist twists that made the series so funny and unpredictable. From Michael finally realizing that he doesn't want to take care of his family, to Buster apparently losing his other hand to the seal with the bowtie, to producer and narrator extraordinaire Ron Howard making a cameo and sparking hope of an Arrested Development movie (hope that just keeps getting destroyed), the episode was everything we loved about this too-short-lived sitcom. Save our Bluths, everyone, and pray for the movie!

2. Doctor Who, "The End of Time" parts 1 and 2

I know that "The End of Time" isn't technically a series finale, but since it marked the end of both David Tennant's performance as the Doctor and Russell T. Davies as showrunner, I'm counting it. The episode wasn't necessarily the best Doctor Who episode ever - that would be the Series Three two-parter "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" - but it featured great performances by Tennant, John Simm as the Master, and Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott, as well as some memorable visuals and a lovely final sequence in which the Doctor silently bids goodbye to all his past companions. The storyline with the return of the Time Lords - led by Timothy Dalton of all people - may have been a bit silly, but it offered a wonderful moment of redemption for the Master, and the Doctor's death and desperation to hang on to life were sad and, given the way he died to save Wilfred rather than at the hand of the Master, tragically ironic. Plus, there were no Daleks!

1. Scrubs, "My Finale"

Whatever you may think of the later seasons of Scrubs - I for one certainly found them uneven, and Zach Braff's J.D. became much whinier and more self-involved as the series went on - you can't deny the pitch-perfect emotional power of the finale. (And yes, this is the real finale, because I choose to pretend that the strange medical school spinoff never happened.)  From J.D. and Turk's inability to get their goodbye right to Braff's final scene with Dr. Cox. every moment struck a wonderful balance of sadness and laughter. The final scene, in which J.D. imagines his life playing, in a series of home movies, to the sound of Peter Gabriel's cover of "The Book of Love," it is a moment of bittersweet sadness that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It's a beautiful scene that brings magnificent closure to the show and J.D.'s character, and leaves the audience perfectly satisfied.

Of course, I'm sure you all have opinions about what I did and did not include, so sound off in the comments! (Although if any of you include the Lost finale in the best-of list, we will have words.)