Robots, Paper Boi, and the Afterlife: My Top TV Shows of 2016

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In case you haven’t heard, TV is better than ever. Well, it’s certainly more than ever. As the era known as Peak TV progresses, it’s just about impossible to see everything. You can find a way to see most (if not all) of the year’s best films, but the year’s best TV? Good luck.

Even though we are well into 2017, I thought I’d glance back at the best television I did manage to catch in 2016. If you’re looking for an all-encompassing theme, it’s probably that TV is catching up to movies from a visual standpoint. As more filmmakers cross over to the small screen, TV has become more cinematic in look and feel (hello, Stranger Things). For awhile now, it’s been transforming into less of a writer’s medium and more of a director’s medium. It’s pretty thrilling to see so many TV shows arrive with their own original visual style, but the divide between TV and movies has never been so paper-thin.

These blurred lines were best represented by one of the best things I saw this year, period: O.J.: Made in America. It will probably win the Oscar for Best Documentary, but I watched it on ESPN so I’m counting it as a TV miniseries and not a 7.5-hour documentary. In the end, I don’t really care what it’s categorized as, just that it’s recognized as the monumental achievement that it is.

Aired in five parts through ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, O.J.: Made in America is insanely ambitious. In its retelling of OJ Simpson’s life, career, relationships, and (alleged) crimes, we are taken on a fascinating journey. Director Ezra Edelman masterfully reveals the massive, complex undercurrents of the OJ trial: be it race, class, celebrity, a ravenous media, or a flawed criminal justice system. O.J.: Made in America challenges all and comforts none. And despite its long runtime, it never feels like a slog. Even more than FX’s dramatized The People vs. O.J. Simpson (which was entertaining in its own right), Edelman’s documentary keeps you hooked and engaged from start to finish.

Whether you’re a sports fan or not is essentially irrelevant here. This is something every American should see, and I certainly don’t say that often.

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On the other end of that spectrum was season 3 of Black Mirror, a ruthlessly dystopian show that’s definitely not for everybody. However, I find it totally enthralling, even though it remains kind of a hit-or-miss enterprise.

Like the first two seasons, the third has its peaks and valleys, which is probably to be expected from any series that is a collection of standalone episodes. “Nosedive” and “Hated in the Nation” successfully interrogate our social media-obsessed society, while “Men Against Fire” misses its mark in attempting to entertain and comment on war’s eroding effect on humanity.

Despite its move to Netflix, Black Mirror remains a smart, incisive, and ominous series. Even amid all the darkness, there is a ray of light in the middle of the third season. “San Junipero” is the most upbeat and enjoyably sentimental the show has allowed itself to get, although there is still a melancholy interpretation underneath if you’re willing to read it that way. The brilliance in Black Mirror is that it’s not about how technology ruins our lives, but how our broken human nature always finds a way to muck everything up.

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While Black Mirror didn’t always stick its landing, HBO’s miniseries The Night Of was probably the most consistently excellent show on TV this year (excluding O.J.). The talent in front and behind the camera was too impressive for this not to work. Novelist and The Wire writer Richard Price and screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball) got together to create this riveting crime drama about a college student who sees a one-night stand turn into a murder investigation.

Riz Ahmed plays the student, Naz, and the always wonderful John Turturro is his defense lawyer. Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar’s comin’) plays a hardened inmate who takes Naz under his wing. All three actors are pitch-perfect in their roles, just as the writing and directing is equally top-drawer.

There was something so fresh about The Night Of that made me yearn for more of its kind. We don’t need every show on TV to run for a few (or more) seasons. Here was a highly compelling and nuanced drama that was too long for a movie, but perfect for an eight-episode arc. Just give HBO all the money to keep making shows like this.

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Another new HBO show actually looked like someone gave it all the money. Westworld was a hugely ambitious swing at a sci-fi/Western genre mash-up. Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother) and Lisa Joy co-created this remake of the 1973 movie about an adult theme park filled with artificial intelligence “hosts” where guests can come and live out their most debauched fantasies.

Season one of Westworld looks like a million bucks. From the action sequences to the sweeping desert landscape to the futuristic A.I. maintenance center, the budget had to be sky-high for a TV show to pull this off. Plus, the acting they brought in is full of respected veterans of film and TV, like Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, and Jeffrey Wright.

Westworld was not without its flaws, of course. The plot twists were so telegraphed that close readers of the show were able to figure out pretty much all of them. If I could go back in time, I’d watch the whole season without reading anything about it, although I may have been able to guess some of them anyway. For me, it was also more intellectually stimulating than something to invest in emotionally. The central issue for Westworld will continue to be how you make the audience actually care about robots. Overall, it was a thrilling ride that left me deeply curious for what next season will bring.

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Conversely, NBC comedy The Good Place‘s first season left me in anticipation for season two, but it did so through a genuinely shocking finale that no one saw coming. This high-concept network show is set in the afterlife, which makes it a variation on Westworld‘s problem: How do you make the audience care about dead people?

The Good Place creator Mike Schur has proven his comedy chops time and again as a writer for The Office and creator/showrunner of Parks and Recreation. Now he has given himself the challenge of making a show set in heaven a) funny, b) smart, and c) emotionally rewarding. For the most part, The Good Place hits all of those notes. Eleanor (a delightfully self-centered Kristen Bell) has mistakenly been sent to “the good place” (don’t worry, not a spoiler) by angel architect Michael (the GOAT TV star Ted Danson). From there, various hijinks ensue throughout a solidly clever and entertaining first season. The show truly separates itself from other network comedies because of its interest in moral and ethical philosophy. The Good Place takes Eleanor’s quest to become a better person seriously.

And yet, I’m not sure this show would’ve made my year-end list if not for its season finale. Its mind-bending twist reframes how you see these characters you’ve spent the entire season investing in. I can’t wait to find out where they go with this show…

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… is something I can easily say about FX’s Atlanta, which became a mini-sensation last year. Impossible to fully define or categorize, Donald Glover’s creation is stunning, unique, and worth every bit of praise heaped at its feet. The show follows Earn (Glover) and his cousin, upcoming rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), as they navigate the Atlanta rap scene, but Atlanta is sooo much more than this loose plot summary.

The sense of place and character is so strong on Atlanta that you want to live in this surreal world for much longer than the first season’s ten episodes. The Atlanta of the show is a strange funhouse where the quotidian and fantastical collide. The best part about it is that even as you’re trying to figure out what just happened on the previous episode, the next one is taking you in an entirely new direction. Even the “ordinary” plot-heavy episodes feel off-kilter in a refreshing way.

It helps that the characters are memorable and the acting is on point. In addition to Earn and Paper Boi, Van, Darius, and even one-episode guest stars leave you wanting to spend more time with these people (an obnoxious Instagram superstar named Zan is hilarious in “The Streisand Effect”). Atlanta‘s deadpan charms won’t return until 2018, but the first season probably merits multiple viewings anyway.

Those were the six shows that impressed me the most in 2016, but others were deserving of recognition as well: Stranger Things, for its nostalgic fun and creepy thrills. The second season of Narcos, for being a well-made and endlessly entertaining depiction of the Colombian drug wars. Veep‘s season 5, for being perhaps the most consistently funny thing on TV, especially in the thick of our strange political times. And The Americans, for being one of the best shows currently airing, although I’m still a season behind because, like I said earlier, there’s too much good TV right now.

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A Bittersweet Salute to Grantland

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I remember the exact moment I began to care about writing. It was 2009 and the Lakers had just won the NBA championship. Right after the game, I read a fascinating ESPN.com article on Kobe Bryant from a writer named Bill Simmons. With its entertaining tone and fan perspective, it was wholly unique to any sportswriting I had seen before. I was just about to start college, didn’t consider myself a writer, and didn’t have much interest in the subject at all.

The next two years I followed Simmons religiously. Sure, he was an obnoxious Boston fan most of the time, but he was a fun, relatable, and engaging obnoxious Boston fan. When it was announced that ESPN was opening up a Simmons-run site with 70% sports/30% pop culture content, I would say I was cautiously thrilled, if you can be such a thing. It sounded right up my alley, but an entire website of Simmons imitators made me a bit worried. Don’t get me wrong: I love Simmons’ writing, but a whole site of 4,000-word retro diaries and shaky sports-pop culture analogies supplemented by heavy doses of unabashed homerism? That didn’t sound so super.

Now, four-plus years later, my favorite site has shut down. 

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If I had to tally up all of the work/class hours I have spent reading Grantland, I’d be a little embarrassed. From its birth in the summer of 2011 to its death this past Friday, I was hooked. No, it wasn’t a perfect website; it took them some time to find their footing, but, I was all the way in since its first post, where editor-in-chief Bill Simmons wrote that one of Grantland’s goals was “to find writers we liked and let them do their thing.”

Boy, did they. This was a site where you could read a deep-dive into how LaMarcus Aldridge will fit in with the Spurs right next to a “Definitive Ranking” of all the jackets in Star WarsThe smartest thing Simmons ever did was hire a bunch of people who don’t write like he does. Whatever you think of him as a personality or as a writer, the guy knows how to find talent. 

Unsurprisingly, the collective nature of the enterprise was one of the things that will stand out the most in Grantland’s legacy. When several insanely skilled writers all jumped on one blog post — like in their NBA Shootarounds, the Lightning Round takes after a new album or movie trailer release, or the After-Party group posts the morning following the Emmys, Oscars, etc. — it was unlike anything you could find on the Internet. That was some of Grantland’s best stuff… except for a Brian Phillips piece on Federer, FIFA, Messi, sumo wrestling, shark attacks, sunken WWII battleships, and well, just about anything.

For me, Phillips was the Danny Ocean of the group, the guy whose effortless brilliance seemed to consistently outshine everyone else. His longform work, where he gifted readers with poetic, transcendent,  astonishing, and deeply weird pieces on Japan (The Sea of Crises) and the Iditarod, are perhaps my two favorite things to ever go up on Grantland.

That’s not to say the others couldn’t bring it. Andy Greenwald is the most clever and infectious TV writer I’ve read. Alex Pappademas came with fresh, intelligent perspectives on Hollywood, and film in general. Zach Lowe gave us exhaustive and insightful NBA coverage. Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays did the same on the NFL. Molly Lambert wrote in a number of different areas, but I’ll remember her witty and incisive celebrity profiles, as well as her extraordinarily perceptive Mad Men recaps, the most. Steven Hyden arrived more recently than the others, but the former Pitchfork contributor wrote knowledgeably and entertainingly on all things music, past and present. Rembert Browne brought that uncanny ability to merge the endearingly silly with the seriously journalistic, often in the same article. And Chris Ryan could seamlessly transition between the NBA, Premier League soccer, and film/TV analysis with aplomb.

Those are just my personal favorites. There’s countless other writers/editors whose work I thoroughly enjoyed. If you read Grantland daily, you were left astounded by the vast array of style. The other best thing Simmons did besides hiring writers that were unlike him? He allowed them to “do their thing” by straying across subject lines. On the same day, you could find a writer penning an essay on the latest Netflix show and appearing on a group NBA post. I don’t know of any other publication where this happens. Grantland had a deep understanding that people who write well in one area can probably write well in another.

There was this unpretentious combination of high and lowbrow that they pulled of so well. For example, they somehow put together a Paul Thomas Anderson Week and a Rom-Com Week. The engaging reader-voted brackets to decide the Best Tom Cruise or the greatest character from The Wire were acknowledged as the meaningless, yet highly amusing, content that they were. Then there was Oscarmetrics, the hilariously absurd Mad Men Power Rankings, and the NBA Playoffs and March Madness coverage that made those events even more fun to follow.

Of course, Grantland’s podcast network can’t go unmentioned. Any subject you wanted covered had a podcast that irreverently discussed the latest news. The rapport between hosts was obvious, probably because many of them were already familiar before they became Grantland coworkers. After a few listens to the Hollywood Prospectus or Girls in Hoodies, you felt like you were in on the jokes and a part of the circle.

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Time seems to fly by when you look back at a specific moment, like that first Simmons article I read six years ago. Then you realize just how much has happened in that elapsed time. I went from a holding an utter indifference to developing a serious love of writing. Now this blog exists. Now I write about soccer for a living. Now I know writing about sports and pop culture will be something I’ll likely do for the rest of my life. I’d say pretty confidently Grantland was the primary driving force behind this evolution. For the last couple years, my dream job was to write for that site.

What led to Grantland’s death was a mix of corporate politics, a post-Simmons lack of leadership, and its refusal to bend to the substance-free clickbait online culture to drive traffic. In the many eulogies across the web, you got the sense that Grantland’s influence had a wider reach than anybody thought. Its loss will be felt, but the talent is still out there to create something similar in the future — although its brilliance will be tough to match. We got four-plus years of thought-provoking, entertaining as hell, and routinely exceptional words on sports and culture.

I call this a bittersweet salute because I’m embittered and dejected seeing Grantland die. Still, I’m sentimental and grateful I ever saw it live.

40 Years Since “Born to Run”, Springsteen is Still Everywhere

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Earlier this year, we passed the 40th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. Even those who don’t have much Heartland rock on their Spotify have to admit it’s one of the great rock records ever. For my money, it’s one of the greatest albums of all-time, full stop. But I’m not here to talk about Born to Run, as much as I want to.

I’m here because it seems like Springsteen is having a moment in 2015. From younger musical acts borrowing his sound to TV shows lacing their soundtrack with his music, The Boss has been everywhere recently. Now, Springsteen is an American cultural touchstone, so his influence is going to shape music for a very long time. It’s possible he is always in the spotlight to this degree and I’m only realizing it now because I’ve been listening to so much of his catalog lately. That’s entirely possible.

However, I can’t shake that everywhere I look, Springsteen’s shadow is cast. Back in March of 2014, The War on Drugs released Lost in a Dream, their meditative, alluring masterpiece. More than a few publications immediately detected obvious strands of Springsteen in the album’s DNA. That steady drum beat, those cathartic highs, the sudden urge to jump on a highway and drive through the middle of Nebraska with it on repeat. All of it’s there. Fortunately, The War on Drugs have enough ideas of their own to avoid direct mimicry, but they clearly owe a debt to The Boss.

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Lost in a Dream set the stage for a 2015 chock-full of Springsteen references. When it was announced that Ryan Adams would be covering Taylor Swift’s immensely popular 1989, I couldn’t wait to see how he would handle straight pop smashes like “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space”. When his covers album dropped, it all made total sense when he went the Springsteen route, the original being an 80s-inflected album and all. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Adams said he thought to himself, “Let me record 1989 like it was Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska“. This is exactly why so many were excited to hear his take on the pop star’s work.

If you’ve never heard Nebraska, it’s unlike any other vintage Springsteen album, in that Born to Run makes you want to jump on the nearest table and sing your lungs out, while Nebraska makes you want to curl up on the sofa for a sad nap. It’s mainly an acoustic journey through various down-on-their-luck characters. The E Street Band’s usual contributions — those bouncy piano chords, those muscular drums, that blaring saxophone — are all stripped away. Adams treated “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” similarly, taking out the pop sheen and cutting the tempo in half. I don’t think he necessarily improved on either track, but he gave them his own Springsteenian spin.

For “Shake It Off”, he seemed to borrow a sound from “I’m On Fire”, the fourth single off Springsteen’s 1984 Born in the U.S.A., one of the highest selling records ever. The smoldering track moves at an even pace, but you’re convinced he’s about to break into a frenzied crescendo, a chorus with which you can shout along. It never comes, making the song even more memorable. In the same way, Adams slows down Swift’s glossy, defiant tune until it’s just burning embers on a fire about to go out. Utilizing this style, it doesn’t even sound that ridiculous when Adams sings “players gonna play / haters gonna hate”.

Around the same time Adams released 1989, Destroyer, a Canadian indie group, put out Poison Season, their tenth album. An unlikely candidate to use Springsteen as inspiration, the second track on the album, “Dream Lover”, sounds like (minus the lyrics) it could’ve been pulled directly from any ’70 or ’80s Springsteen and the E Street Band record. It has that hard-charging anthemic quality to it, with that heavy sax and loud drums. However, lead singer’s Dan Bejar’s voice is such the opposite of Bruce’s Man’s Man tenor that it’s a little disorienting. Other tracks on the record, like the excellent “Times Square”, have a vague whiff of The Boss as well. Hell, there’s even a song titled “The River“. Another instance of an artist using Springsteen’s influence to create their own original work.

This has even spread to TV this year. When Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” since 1999, waved his goodbye in the fantastic final episode, guess who was there to play him off. Now, Stewart grew up in New Jersey, Springsteen’s home state, so it was no shock that Stewart brought him in to blast “Born to Run” for his farewell. Still, seeing Springsteen up there for one of the more significant TV moments in recent memory made perfect sense for a year in which I had encountered him everywhere.

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Finally, I’ll end with a miniseries that used him so overtly, and with such frequency, that it almost tipped over into obsessive fandom. “The Wire” creator David Simon’s HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero” basically kept Bruce on in the background throughout all six hours. This being a show set in late-80s Yonkers, New York, it’s not difficult to envision our main character, mayor Nick Wasicsko, as a Springsteen superfan. “Gave It a Name“‘s ruminative guitar opens the first episode, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” plays over Wasicsko fixing up his house, and Simon even throws in “Secret Garden” during a tender moment, despite its prominent use in that little-seen 1996 picture, Jerry Maguire.

“Show Me a Hero” is a gritty and true-to-life series, sometimes depressing, other times cathartic. Kind of like Springsteen’s music, which makes him the perfect soundtrack for such a show.

There’s plenty of unfortunate aspects about living in the Music Streaming Age (especially for current artists), but one of the positives is that we can go back through older artists’ discographies at will. If I get really into Fleetwood Mac, I don’t have to go digging around for an old copy of Rumours. I can just cue it up on Spotify. This means we can get familiar with music from the past in a way we were never previously capable of, which helps us understand today’s music on a deeper level.

Like I said, I’m not sure if Springsteen is having a moment in 2015 or if I’m just recognizing more the effect his wake is having on current artists’ boats. Either way, forty years on from the moment he burst into the mainstream, a 66-year-old from Jersey continues to find strands of his work in all kinds of culture.

Rian Johnson’s Crucial Influence on Breaking Bad

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When one of your favorite film directors works on one of your favorite TV shows, that’s pretty incredible luck. If a TV director graduates to film, they tend not to look back. If a director starts in film, they tend not to usually stray much into TV. Fortunately, Rian Johnson isn’t either of those directors.

After writing and directing Brick (2005), his hard-boiled teenage noir, and The Brothers Bloom (2008), his probably-too-clever-for-its-own-good-but-still-awesome-anyway con-men dramedy, Johnson stepped in to direct a season 3 episode of Breaking Bad, a well-rated AMC drama that had yet to burst through the cultural stratosphere, as it would a couple years later.

Like I said, the chances of a feature film director doing TV work is unusual, but Breaking Bad and Johnson turned out to be a natural fit. Full disclosure: Johnson’s previous efforts — the two I mentioned and Looper, which I’ll get to — are three of my personal favorites in the last decade. He’s the kind of movie geek writer-director that has a truly ridiculous amount of intriguing ideas rattling around in his brain, so each of his three films have their own quirks, fun moments, and Big Ideas. My only complaint is that he’s only made three movies in ten years.

Thus, it should be no surprise that I would rank two of Johnson’s three episodes in Breaking Bad’s top 5 ever. TV is essentially a writer’s medium, but some shows, particularly Golden Age shows, leave room for a director to imprint their indelible signature. With its easily identifiable visual style, Breaking Bad is surely a director’s showcase.

I decided to analyze Johnson’s three episodes, taking a close look at the visual language of each, not necessarily the dialogue, since he didn’t write it. Let’s start with quite possibly the greatest bottle episode in TV history.

Note: Spoilers abound

Fly

Season 3, episode 10
May 23, 2010

What in the world is a bottle episode? When a show’s budget is getting a little tight, you might see its makers craft an episode that takes place in one location and only features a few characters, at most. It’s basically a minimalist exercise brought on by budgetary necessities. Breaking Bad had kind of done this before with “4 Days Out” in season 2, but “Fly”, the late season 3 showstopper, was a different animal.

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Opening with a super-closeup of a fly had to be a strange sight for fans expecting us to jump right into action like Breaking Bad does so often. It was the first sign that this would be a polarizing episode among viewers. Post-opening credits, we only see a blinking red light filling the screen. It turns out it’s from the smoke detector Walt is staring at while he can’t sleep. We can see early that Walt is in a distressed state.

The clever thing about “Fly” is that it doesn’t mind giving us a helping of comedy with its emotional distress. In fact, the first half is basically slapstick entertainment as Walt tries in vain to kill a lone fly buzzing throughout his underground meth lab: Look, there’s Walt comically swatting at the fly with his clipboard! And there he is throwing his shoe at it! Of course it got stuck in the light fixture. How hilarious!

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However, what begins as slapstick comedy suddenly shifts into an emotionally devastating, philosophical slow-burn. After a concerned Jesse gives Walt sleeping pills to knock him out so he will quit worrying about the stupid fly, they continue attempting to swat it while a fatigued Walt gets ruminative on his sorry state. He rambles about how he wish he would’ve died at a time when his family appreciated him more. Then he complains about Skyler’s lack of understanding by basically saying that there “must exist some combination of words” to make her see why I need to produce and sell methamphetamine. That’s a classic Walt line right there — always thinking he can explain away his horrible actions. He finishes by noting that science teaches us that life is random, but his own experiences (like him meeting Jesse’s girlfriend’s father on the night he causes a plane crash) tell him otherwise. It only becomes more clear throughout the series that Breaking Bad’s own philosophy suggests life is not random, that things like morality and fate are very much real.

“Fly” climaxes with an incapacitated Walt barely holding a ladder steady while Jesse questionably stands atop it trying to finally get the fly. For a hot second, we are led to believe Walt is going to confess his role in Jane’s death. He doesn’t, but the tension between guilt-ridden Walt and unknowing Jesse is unbearable.

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This is a hugely stylistic hour, even for Breaking Bad. Almost the entire episode takes place in the lab between Walt and Jesse. Of course, Johnson provides us with several astounding shots and camera movements, such as the fly landing on Walt’s glasses or the camera attached to Jesse’s brush as he cleans the meth-making containers. However, it’s the haunting, evocative last sequence where a fly buzzes around Walt’s bedroom as he tries to sleep that leaves the lasting impression. It teems with foreshadowing and dread. After “Fly”, Johnson was officially 1-for-1.

Fifty-One

Season 5, episode 4
August 12th, 2012

When “Fifty-One” aired, Johnson’s biggest film to date, Looper, was about a month away from hitting theaters. This means that just as Johnson’s career was about to go mainstream, Breaking Bad was simultaneously taking off into the stratosphere due to everyone raving about it like it was actual meth.

Not nearly as stylistic as “Fly”, this ep advances the Lydia plot and takes stock of the Walt/Skyler relationship after the former moved back into the White household without total consent from Skyler. However, there are still a couple of gorgeously compelling shots to note. First is the closeup of Walt’s bald head bleeding as he shaves it — a strangely jarring visual.

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Then there is the subtle elegance of the shot of Skyler underwater in the White’s pool. She waded in as Walt was blabbing about his recovery, like she couldn’t stand to hear another minute of his bluster. As she floats, her blue skirt illuminates her from behind, creating an eye-popping, instantly memorable image.

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While “Fifty-One” surely isn’t as riveting as most episodes, the emotional violence between this messed up married couple is devastating. Walt challenges Skyler on what her alternative plan is to keeping their children safe from the dangers of the meth business. She tells him that she will just have to wait for the cancer to come back, delivering a haymaker to a stunned Walt. Johnson ends this quiet episode with a closeup of Walt’s watch ticking away his life, foreshadowing his certain downfall.

Ozymandias

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Season 5, episode 14
September 15th, 2013

Over a year and ten episodes later, we come to Breaking Bad’s finest hour. In the third-to-last ep, creator Vince Gilligan and his cast crank up the drama to 11 for the final stretch. “Ozymandias”, directed by Rian Johnson, is remarkably cinematic (wonder where that came from…) while launching the story forward in heartrending fashion.

The beginning transports us back in time to Walt and Jesse’s first RV cook out in the New Mexico desert. We see Walt before he lost his hair and Jesse before his soul had been crushed. Walt treks out to call (and lie to) Skyler. It’s a joy to see these characters again before everything goes to hell. Apparently, these were the last scenes the actors shot before wrapping. It was like the show was giving us one last breather.

Of course, it doesn’t last long, because this scene fades out into the bloody aftermath of Uncle Jack’s shootout with Hank. Johnson presents a few wide-angle beautiful landscape shots to show just how marred everything is by horrific violence and nihilistic greed.

After Walt and Nazi Jack briefly negotiate over Hank’s life, Jack raises his pistol and executes Walt’s brother-in-law. When the shot rings out, Walt drops to his knees in a perfect low angle, with the sun flaring into the picture behind him. Next, he topples to his side and Johnson brings the camera in on just his face. Of all the artfully composed shots in Breaking Bad, this one is most meaningful and evocative. Here it helps to understand a little of the episode’s background.

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Ozymandias is a sonnet by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here’s Bryan Cranston reciting it in his darkest and most epic voice.

Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias, was one of the Egyptian Empire’s most powerful pharaohs. His statue, broken and lying on its side in the middle of the desert, was brought back to Great Britain in 1818. In advance of the statue’s head arriving, Shelley penned a spectacular poem about the impermanence of even the greatest empires and the dangers inherent in overconfidence. It became maybe the most recognizable sonnet in history.

For this episode, Johnson suggests that Walt and Ramesses aren’t so different. Both of them toiled to build up empires, only to end up with their head in the dust. Walt has spent so much time telling himself and those around him that he can keep his family safe, but now, with his life unraveling, he lies in ruin. The parallel between Walt and the old pharaoh Johnson evokes in this one image is beyond wrenching.

However, the tailspin isn’t over. Next, Walt gives up Jesse to Uncle Jack and requests him killed. They decide not to, but before the neo-Nazis kidnap Jesse to force him to cook meth again (what a sentence), Walt informs him that he watched Jane die, and did nothing to help her. In “Fly”, if you recall, he edged up to the precipice of admitting this out of guilt, but also respect for Jesse. Here, he actually does it, but out of nasty, knife-twisting spite. Incredibly, the performances that Johnson gets from his actors never tips into melodrama, despite the insane emotional violence taking place.

Similarly, the scene back at the White house is a freight train of emotional force, but somehow Johnson and his actors walk the tightrope of melodrama like the pros they are. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in all of dramatic television. You know the one I’m talking about: a distraught yet determined Walt comes back to pack up and disappear when Skyler and Walt Jr. show up and, thinking he’s been taken into custody, question why he’s there. Walt does his usual distracting jibber-jabber, but lets it slip that Hank is dead. Still set on leaving, Walt demands his family pack up their things. The next shot we see still brings chills down my spine — and I’ve seen it three or four times. Phone or knife. Knife or phone.

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When she picks up the knife, things get real frantic. She cuts his hand (in virtuoso slow-motion from Johnson) and a domestic knife-swinging scuffle ensues. I’m sure they used doubles for this, but the terrifyingly natural physicality of the fight left me thinking anything could happen. By the time Jr. defends his mother, Walt takes Holly, and Skyler desperately runs into the street as that horribly intense music pulsates, you’ve completely forgotten to breathe for about six straight minutes. It’s scorched earth televisual family drama of the highest caliber. This is thanks to Johnson’s control of the images and the performances he gets. You’d be hard-pressed to find a scene where Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, and Cranston are more on top of their game.

Later, there is the phone call between Walt and Skyler while the police listen in. Walt verbally brutalizes his wife, telling her these are the consequences for disobeying him. To me, this is Walt attempting to clear Skyler’s name in front of the police, but the darkness in his voice reminds us of Heisenberg, even if that persona has totally come apart at the seams by this point. The brilliance in this scene is the juxtaposition of the two calls, this one and the flashback at the episode’s beginning. It all started so harmlessly. He was just making a little money to provide for his wife and two children after the cancer takes him. Now his horrid actions have brought destruction on every facet of his life.

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From the intimate small-scale of “Fly”, to the quiet damage of “Fifty-One”, to the grand dizzying highs of “Ozymandias”, Rian Johnson left his mark on one of the great TV shows of all-time. That would be a career highlight in and of itself, but, probably as I type, Johnson is currently working on Star Wars: Episode VIII. So, yeah. This guy is only 41, has three excellent films behind him, and a freaking Star Wars movie on the way. I don’t think he needed Breaking Bad on his resume, but thank goodness he wasn’t too cool for TV.

How Fargo Represents the Best of TV’s New Breed

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Over the last decade-plus of television, you were introduced to the Anti-Hero. Not that movies, TV, and books didn’t have complicated, morally gray leading characters before, it’s just that beginning with The Sopranos in 1999, it became the template for intelligent, well-made prestige TV shows. This led to a kind of Golden Age inhabited by your Walter Whites and Don Drapers, but also your run-of-the-mill knockoffs like Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun (I haven’t seen either of these shows, which is totally unfair of me, but they are both horribly reviewed and haven’t found a wide audience, so they work as examples). Naturally an Anti-Hero fatigue has set in. Something would have to replace it.

The first season of FX’s Fargo went by fast. With only 10 episodes, it wasn’t able to gain the footing necessary to become a buzzy, water-cooler kind of show. This is a shame, because Fargo could be TV’s future.

A Burgeoning Format

Fargo-Billy-Bob-ThorntonBeginning (from what I can recall) with House of Cards, prestige cable shows have been increasingly moving to a short-run, binge-friendly format. Netflix is obviously the key culprit. They lured Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright with a 13-episode season that shoots quickly (so they can get back to movies) and is dumped onto Netflix’s servers all at once, ready to be devoured. It was a success that put Netflix’s original content on the map.

Then there is the season-by-season method cable networks have been employing. Shows like True Detective, and now Fargo, create a full season, wrapped around one main plot and a few characters. At season’s end, the strategy is to move onto another storyline with a brand new cast, but keep the setting and tone. They can draw movie stars with the benefit of playing a role over 12 hours of runtime, not just two. It’s a way for them to challenge themselves by sinking their teeth into a character, without getting locked down to a network contract. One season, and they’re gone. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson did this in True Detective, and Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman do this in Fargo.

Billy Bob, in particular, is undeniably perfect for his character, Lorne Malvo. He possesses the range necessary to sweep from polite, oddball Minnesotan to cold, amoral nihilist that the role calls for. For a guy who doesn’t do much quality work anymore, Thornton clearly had fun biting into Malvo (his disturbing hairstyle alone is worth the watch). In fact, one of his best roles was in The Man Who Wasn’t There, a 2001 neo-noir written and directed by the Coen brothers, also responsible for the 1996 film Fargo, which, obviously, the show was inspired by.

Film Inspiration

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Creator Noah Hawley retained the tone and atmosphere of the film, but wrote an entirely new plot and characters (even if they do smell like Coen characters). It’s actually amazing more original shows don’t do this. You take an existing universe from the movies and design it for television, keeping the frame, but filling in a new picture. The story centers around Malvo wreaking havoc on the small town of Bemidji, Minnesota with his violence and terror, beginning with his influence on timid Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). Police in the form of Deputy Molly Solverson (I mean, that name) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) follow the bodies and try to piece together what is happening.

When I say more shows should do what Fargo did, I don’t think everyone should try. Hawley does a remarkable job of creating his own world of amusing circumstances and droll characters. The supporting actors on this project are a treat on their own. Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad‘s Saul Goodman) plays Police Chief Bill Oswalt, Adam Goldberg fits in effectively for a few eps, and even Key and Peele make an appearance late in the season. Part of the draw of Fargo (and Fargo, the movie) is the dry humor of northern small-town politeness in funny accents and behavior. The people of Fargo (the show, not the actual town) are courteous and deferential-to-a-fault. Yet, beneath the plaid coats and the “Oh, you betcha”s sits an undercurrent of deep-seated dissatisfaction that manifests itself in murderous ways for some of these characters. Kind of like how underneath the glamorous ’60s-era clothing and style of Mad Men sits a gnawing existential dread.

In the film, greed drives the characters. The Coens were probably making a bigger statement than this, but the basic plot shows each character’s (besides Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson) lust for money. Hawley’s show takes on a deeper, philosophical feel. This show ponders right and wrong, good and evil, and riddles. That last one is key, or else Fargo would be too self-serious for its own good. It holds onto just enough of the film’s comedic inclinations.

Anti-Villain Television

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However, as a post-Golden Age TV show, Fargo needs to be more than just an elegantly made “miniseries” with a sophisticated tone. Shows like True Detective have already cornered the market on that – and HBO draws bigger talent. What Fargo does better than just about any new show is ignore the modern compulsive desire to create an anti-hero.

The show begins by introducing us to Freeman’s Nygaard, who at first glance appears to be the spineless Average Joe that undergoes a dark transformation that leads to questionable moral choices, causing the audience to try and justify our empathy for this charming monster. There’s just one problem: Nygaard isn’t likable at all. In fact, he’s quite loathsome and (don’t worry, no major spoilers) by the end of the series, he’s revealed to be just as spineless as we originally thought.

No, the star of Fargo are the good guys – well, more accurately, the decent guys. Decency reigns in this season of television, an outcome that sprouts naturally from the show’s setting. We are used to seeing dramatic heroes swoop in to save the day, but the men and women of Bemidji are just doing their jobs, then going home and watching some Deal or No Deal.

Not that the unspeakable acts of violence that occur (they hit hard, but are not as graphic as they could be, fortunately) in their town don’t have an effect. This is still a dark and heavy show in the end, which is part of what is so refreshing. Fargo seems to have all of the anti-hero show tropes, yet subverts it by bringing good and evil, unambiguously, into the discussion. It’s good to know there is more than one way to do an elegant and complex TV show.