A Stupid Show for Stupid People: “The Blacklist”

As I sit here snowed in and killing time with the DVR, allow me a moment of genuine respect for The Blacklist–and to clarify this blog’s potentially inflammatory headline. You’re not stupid if you watch this NBC thriller. It’s an action thriller in which the larger-than-life portions are actually generated by the drama, particularly the scenery chewing performance of one James Spader.

But it’s also not a particularly smart show: the direction is workmanlike, without any of the flair or style of the cancelled Hannibal, and there’s more exposition than banter, which is generally a bad sign for a show. Its leads are ill-defined beyond the fact that one of them, the amoral anti-hero has just enough morals to make him a palatable protagonist: he’s doing things outside the system only because it’s corrupt–the shadowy Cabal controls the government. The other two, Liz and Tom, are breaking laws left and right, but it’s out of love, largely; beyond that, they have no real personality, just as Ressler and Cooper–the FBI agents now pursuing or aiding Liz, a former agent (see also: Quantico)–are driven by the case-of-the-week, as malleable as necessary to keep the plot moving.

None of this is the point, though. Continue reading

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Homeland Recap Season 5 Episode 8: “All About Allison”

As it turns out, Dar Adal and I have one very important thing in common: we don’t believe in coincidences. I may end up being proven as wrong as Dar Adal (about Saul’s loyalty, about Carrie’s usefulness, about Allison’s information, about Quinn’s mission), but right now, nothing on Homeland seems to be adding up.

Taking Allison’s origin as a double-agent at face value, recruited in a variation on the honeypot scheme back in 2005, she’s had ten years to harden to her position. The incriminating photo on Nazir’s computer indicates that, however betrayed she may have felt, she did go to St. Lucia’s with him. Her relationship with Ivan suggests something more than, as other recappers have mentioned, Stockholm Syndrome. The fact that she’s attempted to kill Carrie on multiple occasions doesn’t square with the decision made by both Ivan and Allison to leave her alone; sure, Claire Danes gives great cry face, begging for her non-CIA life back, and I believe that Carrie actually did find something other than the addiction-to-danger in both Jonas and her daughter. But the Russians showed no restraint in garroting both Numan’s oily hacker friend and his innocent stripper girlfriend, so why not kill Carrie, other than for dramatic purposes.

Continue reading

Reminder: Homeland Recaps at Slant

I’ve been lax about updating things here at the blog because I’ve been posting via Twitter and Facebook. Most unprofessional, I know, although maybe all the paranoia from watching Homeland is making me unconsciously pull at least a little back from this grid. I don’t want to make it too easy for everybody to blackmail me down the line by using my own words against me in the event that I, say, get tapped to be the next host of The Daily Show, right?

My quick assessment, incidentally, is that Homeland is being outdone by The Americans. Quinn is stuck more or less on his own show, which is the worst elements of Strike Back and 24, and Saul and Allison have, for a long stretch of time, been utilized as tools from the writer’s room, largely because they’re being coy about what information to dole out to viewers. (This is especially true when it comes to unpacking whatever major event happened to break up Saul and Carrie between the fourth and fifth seasons.) Claire Danes continues to impress, but the overall plot is a roundabout and coincidental affair, and I can only hope that it justifies the sleazy way that it’s using Sebastian Koch. The Secret Lives of Others mined this whole territory of German surveillance many, many years ago, and I’d hoped that Homeland would at least build upon it rather than muddying those familiar waters.

Ah, well. Here are some links:

http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/homeland-recap-season-5-episode-7-oriole

http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/homeland-recap-season-5-episode-6-parabiosis

http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/homeland-recap-season-5-episode-5-better-caul-saul

http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/homeland-recap-season-5-episode-4-why-is-this-night-different

http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/homeland-recap-season-5-episode-3-super-powers

http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/homeland-recap-season-5-episode-2-the-tradition-of-hospitality

http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/homeland-recap-season-5-episode-1-separation-anxiety

“Casual” Entertainment

Out of all the forms of criticism I’ve done, I enjoy recapping the most. The deadlines, not so much, but all that reading into a show’s mythology and stylistic choices? Unpacking Easter eggs with other fans? Getting to the heart of a conspiracy? I love that. It turns a lonely, lazy, and independent activity into a communal sport of sorts: within the Water Cooler Olympics we now have Binge Watching and Deep Diving. On the one level, you can dismiss True Detective as derivative of a thousand other films before it, or even the previous season, or you can decide to take it at face-value, assume that there’s a measure of worth, and then analyze every inch of frame to pull out the best and to decide why the rest doesn’t work for you. Obviously, the more a show gives you to work with, the better: that’s why a recap of CSI: Cyber can only be ascribed to the recent trend of hate-watching, whereas the recently cancelled Hannibal is filled with succulent and digestible sequences. Comedy and cartoon recaps once consisted of merely pointing out gags–it’s a sign of our television renaissance that we have shows like Rick and Morty to pull apart.

Passive entertainment is nothing more than killing time, emphasis on killing: it’s a negative, murderous action, one that leaves you with no room for personal improvement or growth. If we’ve “watched” and “read” entire series but can’t remember a single thing about them, then we might as well have spent our time locked in a dark closet. On the other hand, if we’ve discussed and shared our thoughts on these topics, as I did a few summers ago when talking about Infinite Jest, then even if you forget something, the idea itself may continue to live and gestate in someone else. Even thought it’s for something as theoretically frivolous as entertainment, isn’t generating anything better than simply tuning in to tune out, giving your brain cells even more space to continue their constant suicide?

Even the word entertainment is active–it’s not exittainment, after all. It implies a participation from the viewer, a contract entered into. (A world, really.) And look, if you’re watching television idly while doing something else actively (whilst cooking, exercising, etc.), then I can’t really fault you–you’re at least using the distraction in a positive way. But for the rest of us who watch reruns of Family Guy midway through and can’t describe anything about the episode mere seconds after it ends, I’d suggest that we need to reassess our motivations. Casual shouldn’t become usual, and entertainment is best when it’s meant for something better than stimulation alone. (Telebation as opposed to videocourse.)

TL;DR: My thoughts on “casual” entertainment can be summarized by this old cut-for-time SNL skit: http://www.hulu.com/watch/824028. (Hint: Now that I’m repurposing it to make a point, it’s no longer casual.)

Truly Trying Too Hard: Recap of “True Detective” Season 2 Episode 1

My thoughts on this week’s episode are up at Slant Magazine, and all I can say right now is: thank goodness there are only seven weeks left to go. Mind you, this isn’t an unwatchable or execrable show, but it’s damnably hard to write about. Last season was filled with moody portents and existential monologues, but this season seems to have pulled back from the occult and to have fixated on a more organized and recognizable sort of evil. Continue reading

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