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The TV Room: Nashville Season 4, by David Bax

31 May

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Even in the age of “peak TV,” when there are hours on end of noteworthy television every night of the week (and twice on Sundays), there is a particular, once-thriving subgenre that’s become increasingly hard to find: The old-fashioned primetime soap opera. I’m not talking about the shows of the Shondaland variety that are so exaggerated as to be a kind of postmodern melodrama. Nor am I talking about self-aware, high-concept shows like Jane the Virgin. Those series are great and people love them, as they should. But the classical middle ground is quickly disappearing. With the critically acclaimed Parenthood off the air and the still-breathing Mistresses taking up Summer airtime, the recent cancellation of ABC’s Nashville signaled another major move toward dormancy for the traditional evening soap.

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The TV Room: The Amazing Race Season 28, by David Bax

18 May

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When will I learn not to doubt The Amazing Race? Even when they come up with ideas that sound like trainwrecks, such as the “blind date” season, where half of the teams had never met before the race began (I wrote about that one here), the results end up being thrilling and maybe even revelatory in ways the producers likely didn’t anticipate. Perhaps the fundamental premise of the show is so strong that it’s impossible to knock it over. Then again, there was that “family” season.

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The TV Room: American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, by David Bax

8 Apr

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It’s always been true, even if it sounds paradoxical, that the best way to make a story relatable to a large number of people is to make it specific. If the particulars of a narrative are too broad or vague (like those movies that try to be cute by never letting us know what city they take place in), it begins to feel false and manufactured. The truth is that everyone’s own experiences are specific and we recognize that exactitude in the lives of fictional characters. After all, it’s not the occurrences themselves to which we relate; it’s the emotional, psychological and physical reactions to them. Few things are as specific as the trial of O.J. Simpson. It’s inexorably tied to its era. Nearly every American has their own thoughts and recollections about it permanently seared into their brains. And its cast of characters is so larger-than-life (Johnnie Cochran, Kato Kaelin, even Judge Ito) that it’s hard to find analogues for the everyman. Yet American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson managed, for ten weeks, to relate vital and immediate ideas that amounted to a staggering and impassioned dissertation on race in America while also being great drama.

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The TV Room: Daredevil Season 2, Episode 5, by Scott Nye

23 Mar

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“Kinbaku”, the fifth episode of Daredevil’s recently-released second season, will, I’m willing to bet without having seen the rest, prove to be a landmark episode of the series. It draws together so many dangling themes, clarifies a way of approaching it outside of what it has previously positioned itself to be, and abandons many elements we might have previously assumed required. It gives Matt (Charlie Cox), Foggy (Elden Henson), and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) separate missions that clearly defines their larger goals – for Matt, it’s coming to terms with his past and his desires; for Foggy, some element of prestige and honor; for Karen, the search for the truth. It is the first episode to not show Matt in any kind of costume. Outside of a sparring session in a boxing ring, it has no action scenes. There is, in fact, no villainous force Matt has to contend with at all. That just leaves, to play on a title from Mizoguchi, Matt and his two women.

Spoilers follow for “Kinbaku”, and by association, many episodes that have lead to it.

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The TV Room: The Amazing Race Season 27, by David Bax

16 Dec

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Since the series began back in 2001, the best seasons of The Amazing Race have always been those with a clear villain. The machinations and ticking clocks that already make the show fun to watch are heightened when unified behind a single, compelling question. Will the bad guys make it through to another leg? While this season’s antagonists don’t hold a candle to the show’s all-time great dastardly pair of former Survivor contestants Rob and Amber (who assumed the scheming villain role knowingly and gleefully), they did offer a twist on the archetype that makes season 27 one of the all-time greats.

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The TV Room: Project Runway Season 14, by David Bax

25 Nov

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Project Runway season fourteen? Didn’t that end, like, weeks ago?” This is what I assume you’re thinking. But Lifetime extended the run this year to include not just the requisite reunion special but, a week later, a clip show called “Tim Gunn’s Ultimate Throwback Thursday,” which purported to be a look back at the biggest moments in the show’s history. Though the hour-long bonus episode contained plenty of fun highlights, it soon became apparent that the show’s “history” in this case referred only to its run on Lifetime and that no clips were to come from the first five seasons. It got me thinking about the history of Project Runway and its current place in popular culture.

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The TV Room: Mr. Robot Season 1, by David Bax

8 Sep

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The kind of people who get referred to as “hackers” (that word still sounds corny to me twenty years after Iain Softley’s schlocky movie) are diggers. They spend their time beneath the surface, speaking the language that makes up the muscle behind the face of the modern world. In the groundbreaking first season of Mr. Robot, creator Sam Esmail gave us one of these individuals in Elliot Anderson (Rami Malek), a young man who is as fervently idealistic as he is troublingly mentally unwell. Elliot often wishes he could hack people the way he can other things – one memorable scene has him imagining a “view source” option for human beings; Elliot’s coworkers are suddenly wearing signs around their necks that say things like, “I pretend to love my husband.” One of the lessons Elliot must learn – and among the most poignant of the show’s many observations – is that people are far more complex and, tragically, far more fragile than machines. What makes the series stand out the most, though, is that while Elliot is trying to take apart and study the emotions of himself and others, Esmail is doing the same to the structure of televised storytelling and the role that we the audience play in it.

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The TV Room: Show Me a Hero, by David Bax

5 Sep

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To describe HBO’s Show Me a Hero as a miniseries about the controversy surrounding low-income public housing in Yonkers, New York is technically correct with the added bonus of making it sound like Important Television. But it’s not exactly the kind of summary that’s going to set people running to their DVRs. Writer David Simon and director Paul Haggis (who have both tackled social issue melodrama before to varied success with The Wire and Crash) certainly have plenty say about racial and economic divides and the reasons they are maintained, in ways both malicious and otherwise. Still, they never lose sight of a simple truth. The best way to use filmmaking to make a point is to first and foremost practice good filmmaking.

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The TV Room: Hannibal Season 3, by David Bax

4 Sep

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As all fannibals know (“fannibals” is here defined as anyone who loves Hannibal so much that they will willingly self-apply that corny portmanteau of a moniker; I count myself among their number), season three was not intended to be the final group of Hannibal episodes. Spectacular fan devotion, near-unanimous critical adoration and the bonus of splitting production costs with European counterpart Gaumont all failed to keep NBC from pulling the plug on this gorgeous, challenging and unique series, which may be remembered as one of the best in history. Yet the show’s ending, despite being constructed as a cliffhanger, can easily be interpreted as bearing satisfactory finality. Unlike Deadwood fans (Deadheads? No.), who are forever suspended in limbo after their show was cut down in its prime, fannibals can comfort themselves with the fact that Hannibal did indeed have an ending. And it may have been the perfect one.

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The TV Room: Welcome to Sweden Season 2, by David Bax

31 Jul

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On the one hand, it’s not hard to understand why NBC pulled the plug on Welcome to Sweden just four episodes into its second season. The show never, at least in the episodes we saw, found its voice. It went back and forth between broad, slapstick humor and low-key absurdism. And, as an international coproduction, it tried to pander to both its Swedish and its U.S. audiences. On the other hand, however, it’s a bummer to see the series cut down just as it was starting to address these issues and become a better show.

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