Like a woman scorned

Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and then some.

Enlightened premiered on HBO back in 2011 and was canceled after two seasons. The only time I’ve ever heard about it was when Laura Dern won the Golden Globe for her performance in 2012. Thanks to Amazon Prime, I got to see both season one and two, and, wow.

Unlike HBO’s slate of female-driven shows, Enlightened is not a Sex and the City, nor a Veep, though it’s certainly closer to the latter, if you take away all the parts about power. More specifically, Enlightened has a female protagonist who is not an admirable hot mess like her female television counterparts–she’s simply just a mess.

At its heart, Enlightened is actually an ode to the little people, and that ode materializes in the form of Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a character that is so original, cathartic, and nuanced. She’s the kind of female character that we don’t usually see in television or the movies because she’s as insignificant and foolish as she is audacious–a refreshing departure from the usual stereotypes.

We first meet Amy as a middle manager at Abbaddon Industries, a corporate wasteland in suburban Riverside, California, that sells cleaning products, and she’s having a nervous breakdown as she berates her boss and ex-lover for screwing her over. Soon, Amy enters rehab in Hawaii, and returns a new woman, but only for so long, as the old Amy sort of re-emerges in Abbaddon for a lower-level data entry job in the company basement, in a department called Cogentiva.

As Amy is relegated to a crap position at Cogentiva, she feels compelled to be a corporate whistleblower, requesting the help of her fellow co-workers to join in on her mission. Surely enough, Amy’s act of revenge becomes something of the truth.

Dern’s Amy is a gift of a character, in the sense that she doesn’t fit into whatever box that female characters are so often forced into. Yes, Amy is socially awkward, but she’s not socially awkward in a cute, cloying way; in fact, we feel embarrassed for her most of the time. We see everyone in the room react in repulsion, and it makes us wonder–would we defend her, or would we want to step away from her as well?

And yes, Amy is also naive and idealistic, but instead of the show forcing us to view those qualities as good or bad, they are simply qualities that make her human. And yes, she’s messed up, and she’s messed up in a way that’s not overtly endearing, but she’s also not short of our sympathy either.

Because Amy is also relatable. She’s often rejected by the people she loves, and lobbies pretty damn hard for the love and respect of anyone at all. Amy is both victim and bitch, woman and girl. Both Dern and Mike White (co-creator with Dern, and oftentimes, writer and director) love and care about Amy, and wants us to do so too, flaws and all. Thus, Dern is spectacular at conveying everything Amy is, and could be.

Enlightened boasts a strong supporting cast: Diane Ladd (Dern’s real-life mother) as Amy’s mother, Helen; Luke Wilson as Amy’s coke-addict ex-husband, Levi; Mike White as Amy’s socially awkward co-worker, Tyler; Sarah Burns as Krista, Amy’s ex-assistant; and Timm Sharp, as Dougie, the VP of Cogentiva.

There are some wonderful guest stars as well, including Robin Wright, as Amy’s best friend from rehab in season one; Molly Shannon as the CEO of Abbaddon’s assistant in season two; and Dermot Mulroney as an L.A. Times journalist who helps Amy blow the whistle on Abbaddon, also in season two.

The show is anchored by not only Dern’s performance, but notably Wilson’s as well. Wilson, who has made a career out of playing that generic rom-com boyfriend, has conjured up all his dramatic acting chops that haven’t been seriously called upon since his performance in My Dog Skip, to play Amy’s ex-husband, a character that is sometimes lovable, sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes repulsive–a perfect counterpart to Amy’s ridiculous antics. Dern and Wilson have a lot of unexpected chemistry, and their scenes together are warm, moving, and bittersweet.

Same goes to Ladd, who is wonderful as Amy’s mother. Ladd is sharp-tongued and no-nonsense, but also cares about her daughter’s plight, and acknowledges that her daughter is as much a victim as she is an architect of her own rabbit hole.

While Enlightened’s second season felt plot-heavy and abbreviated compared to its near-perfect first season, the entire show is a truly a giant of female-driven shows. I don’t know if we’re ever going see another show that is so expertly crafted, funny, warm, moving, and sad, with a female character that is complex enough to provoke feelings that go beyond like and dislike. Amy Jellicoe is not a hero or villain, but a daughter, ex-wife, co-worker, friend, and, well, dreamer.


Suburban murder mystery

Cast of Secrets and Lies.

The cast of Secrets and Lies is stuck in the suburbs with a murder mystery.

This post contains spoilers.

Secrets and Lies should have existed a decade ago.

Once upon a time, blogosphere snark was so prevalent that Serious Journalists had to write op-eds to criticize its prevalence as cheap and lazy journalism–as it sometimes certainly was. I started to consistently blog during the Internet Age of Snark and sure, I miss it sometimes. I was one of those sixteen year old bloggers who feigned maturity through snark because that was what all the cool twentysomething pop culture bloggers were doing; little did I know, behind that snark, there was a lot of cynicism about being an young adult and living in a recession and, if I want to get psychoanalytical, all that low-hanging snark was merely a defense mechanism.

But as the economy has gotten better, the dismissal of snark has allowed for more serious analysis about pop culture–not to say overt snark doesn’t exist, but it now exists in very specific, niche places. We’re in 2015 and it’s a pro-sap, post-snark pop culture universe–or at least, a less brutal battlefield contra recession 2005 because today, Television Without Pity and Videogum are long gone, Gawker writer Emily Gould is dating/potentially married to Keith Gessen, the author of a book titled All the Sad Young Literary Men (sure) and who was once a subject of one of Gould’s own snark-ticles.

And, the most obvious sign of the times–there is only one mainstream television blogger who recaps Secrets and Lies (Michelle Newman of Entertainment Weekly, who deserves a raise) with the kind of snark it deserves. Oh, how the world has changed!

We’re inching close to the day when we will live in a world where there are more Internet articles defending Kim Kardashian than criticizing her–and you know, maybe that’s the way it always should have been. The blog denizens have become sentimentalists, protectors, and even champions of the public figures they used to mock because they are a much happier people now, and dare I say it–perhaps bloggers are even a genuine people now.

But man, does Secrets and Lies deserve to be mocked with snarky derision circa 2005. It’s a treasure chest of material for Television Without Pity or Videogum, and the show could have subsequently gotten higher Nielsen ratings as a result of whatever recaps those sites could have concocted for viewer reading the morning after.

Based on an Australian series of the same name, Secrets and Lies, a 10-episode anthology series that just finished its run on ABC, a murder mystery series with the unsettling gloss of a daytime soap. It stars two movie stars, or former movie stars, if you will–Ryan Phillippe and Juliette Lewis–who, unfortunately, don’t have the pluck to rise above a comically terrible script.

Philippe stars as Ben Crawford, a suburban husband, father of two, and house painter, who goes jogging one morning, only to find the dead body of a neighbor’s six-year old son. Lewis’ Detective Andrea Cornell is put on the case and she instantly suspects that Ben could be the killer. And, of course, Ben’s defense is weak as he struggles to recall what happened the night before he discovered the body; all he can remember is that he got into a fight with his estranged wife (KaDee Strickland) and went out for a night of drinks with his best friend Dave (Dan Fogler), but beyond that, he’s got nothing.

Instead of instantly trying to retrace his steps (he does eventually do it, though), Ben spends most of the show accusing his neighbors of murdering his neighbor’s son who he discovers at the end of the first episode is his biological son from an one-night stand he had with his neighbor six years ago. So Ben actually spends most of the show barging into people’s homes, declaring that they’ve killed his son, only to discover they really haven’t, and that he’s not a very good detective after all. Other than accusing people of killing his son, Ben spends his downtime wrongly accusing his best friend of molesting his teenage daughter, the detective for putting her own daughter in jail, and his wife of cheating on him. So Ben’s a pretty busy guy–being a prime murder suspect in his biological son’s death is almost besides the point.

There are a plethora of issues about this show, the most unbelievable being that the police department was apparently able to determine the exact murder weapon from the victim’s wounds–in fact, they were able to conclude that it was a flashlight of a specific make and model. And also, it’s a show about a guy who may have murdered his own biological son after all, but couldn’t remember because he blacked out.

But as much as I would like to make fun of the show, the tenth episode of this show continues to haunt me. It’s been a few weeks, and I still can’t get over the exceptional twist–not so much that it was particularly unexpected, but just the way it unfolded. I haven’t seen the Australian series, which the show was reportedly loyally based on, but geez, I wished that tenth episode was the fifth episode and the suspense could have been Det. Cornell proving that Ben didn’t do it after all. The last half hour of this series is brilliant because of a young actress’ bold, nuanced performance. All I’m saying is, Bella Shouse–she’s one to watch out for.

Murder, she found

Serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) watches Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) with great interest.

Serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) watches Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) with keen interest.

The Fall is the greatest show I’ve ever seen

I’m going to warn you that I do say that with the kind of hyperbolic glee akin to the satiated fanaticism of some 15 year old sci-fi nerd who just saw Star Wars for the first time in 1977. Because I’m pretty into the murder mystery genre right now, and not so much with the whodunnit aspect, but with the all too fascinating why. After too many episodes of Snapped, I’ve realized that the story doesn’t necessarily end with the killer in handcuffs, but the killer being interrogated in a way that may or may not bring a sense of the humane into the already very obvious psycho. And, of course, The Fall fits that bill–or, more accurately, transcends it.

I don’t want to give too much away, even though we know from the get-go who the killer is. As Heat-ian cat-and-mouse games often go, it’s more about the how the criminal gets caught, and why the criminal does what he/she does. The show stars two of the finest actors to ever grace a television series–Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. If these two actors didn’t work, this entire show would fall apart, but as fate would have it–they work, and very much so. Anderson plays an English police detective, Stella Gibson, brought to Belfast to review the police department, only to find herself investigating the murders of young, professional, dark-haired women; she concludes that the murders are linked and are the work of a serial killer. And unbeknownst to everyone, Paul Spector (Dornan), family man and grievance counselor by day, is a serial killer by night.

At first glance, Gibson appears cold and distant to a point of asexuality, but as the show goes on, she becomes increasingly womanly in what can be traditionally perceived as contradictory. Gibson is maternal and sexual, tough and scared–both embodying feminism and boldly challenging our perceptions of what is stereotypically feminist. Anderson gets all that and plays it brilliantly. And it’s shocking that such a character is written by a man–Allan Cubitt, the writer, creator, and director of season two; that said, Cubitt has a deep understanding of women and feminism to write a character and a show that interprets a post-feminism Europe with the kind of self-assured self-awareness that he articulates so well through his sense of character, setting, and story. Gibson is followed by a cast of other female characters–a pathologist, a cop, a mother, a daughter, a teenage girl–and while not all of them are strong and independent, they are certainly complex in their own unique ways. Only a man who celebrates womanhood could write the kind of female characters that Cubitt has so respectfully crafted.

Of course, it’s no coincidence that Gibson’s foil is a man who preys on women socially perceived as strong and independent–the assumed archetypes of the feminist movement–and who Gibson casually labels a misogynist. Yet, the audience gets to intimately know Spector in a way that Gibson doesn’t–we see very clearly that he’s a man who genuinely loves his children, is genuinely concerned about his domestic abuse patient, is genuinely remorseful after realizing he has murdered a pregnant woman. Sure, it’s easy to instantly label a man who controls, murders, and objectifies his female victims a misogynist, but the situation is more complex when that man struggles to objectify women he knows because, well, he is able to empathize with them as fellow human beings.

And it’s even harder for the audience to hate a man that we’ve gotten to know. Part of the great trick that Dornan’s performance plays on us–and what a sympathetic performance it is–is that, despite the fact that he has gruesomely murdered three women, we feel that there are some crimes that are beneath him. Even when the Spectors’ teenage babysitter comes on to him, we feel like we don’t want to add pedophile on the list–and in that weird way, we can oftentimes find ourselves rooting for him to become a better man–to not manipulate the young girl more than he already has, as we’re constantly counting on the good in him. But as Spector’s judgment day looms ever closer, we see, in season two, his day and night personas gradually merge as his daytime activities have become damage control for his sins of the night–yet we still feel for him, we still chuckle at his remarks, our hearts soften when he interacts with his daughter. There’s a beauty to Dornan’s layered, difficult performance, yet sadly, he couldn’t become superstar-famous until he signed on (i.e., sold his soul) to a certain movie franchise starring as a certain C.G.

Like all dramas of this nature, Gibson and Spector’s relationship does take center stage. Despite the fact they share very little actual screen time together in the show’s two seasons, Cubitt writes these characters as very connected people, not just because the story dictates it, but their characters’ very existence dictates it. Yes, they are both stone cold, meticulous people, but they can also be soft, hurt, lost–all colored by an intense degree of personal and professional moral ambiguity. That parallelism becomes very apparent when they finally meet face to face and it appears that they both share, arguably, an almost primal attraction to each other–sexual, or not, it doesn’t matter because any attraction must remain unspoken–that, in all its perversity, makes a world of sense.

I would even argue that Spector correctly assumed Gibson’s Electra complex as he himself may have his own Oedipus complex, as Gibson implied–point is, these two get each other. And what a relief that after all the unshared screen time between them and how their chemistry has been dependent on phone calls woven together in the editing room, the chemistry–of antagonism, of attraction, of repulsion, of fascination–in their scenes together in the same room are real and vital. How lucky is this show to have successfully gambled on two actors to be such equally matched characters; there had to be electricity when Anderson and Dornan inhabit the same space, and lo and behold, there was.

All two seasons (eleven episodes total) are on Netflix; that said, you should watch all of the episodes now. Season three is coming out soon and both Anderson and Dornan are set to return.

Dethroning the king


Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) seeks shelter as his house of cards comes tumbling down.

Deep down, we all knew that Netflix’s House of Cards was trash. Relentlessly soapy, popcorn-blockbuster trash that can be marathoned in the same way college kids shotgun cheap beer. The show is high fructose entertainment disguised as hifalutin theater–all on the good faith of a rented tux.

Yet, Serious People watch House of Cards. Despite the soap, it remains a must-watch for the audience-elite. Blame it on David Fincher, who executive-produces the show. Blame it on Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, two of the finest actors of their generation, who star in the show. Blame it on its source material–a British book series turned BBC series. There’s a lot of surface prestige, but if you look closer (no pun intended, for all my Kevin Spacey fans out there), its first two seasons follow a man who almost too easily takes the American vice presidency and subsequently, the presidency, from opponents unworthy to rival him in a wannabe Shakespearean territory. Sure, it’s a show that sometimes wants to be about politics, but is actually more about one man’s ambition to the rule the world; at the end of day, however, House of Cards says very little about American government, but a lot about–well, a lot about something.

And therein lies the problem with the first two seasons of House of Cards–it’s a drama with a lot of showmanship, but not self-aware enough to know that it’s saying very little about any of the things it’s supposed to be about. Its opportunities to be more than a soap are vast, but all those opportunities are wasted on saying a lot of cynical things that we already know–politicians can be ruthless and dumb, journalists can be immoral and dumb. Reiteration is not insight.

In the third and most recent season of the show though, the tides have changed. The writers are now completely aware that their show is not so much a commentary on D.C. politics, but a commentary on, well, human nature–which is what they’ve wanted to explore all along, but were too afraid to venture too deep, too far, too fast. Yes, it’s still a D.C. show, but it’s now self-aware enough to acknowledge that it’s also a show starring Richard III and Lady Macbeth in all their theatrical glory. As such, the writers don’t have much to say about how the government run things, but they do have some things to say about the people running the government–and more precisely, people running things.

Season three has been criticized as being too slow, as Francis Underwood’s (Spacey) super-villainy begins to wane. Frank has attained the presidency, but that creates problems–his wife, Claire (Wright) has political ambitions of her own, he can’t get his damn bill past congress, his party doesn’t want to support him in the next presidential election, things aren’t going well with Russia–the list goes on. Broadly speaking, all of that sounds like a usual D.C. affair, but the details show just how uninterested the writers are about writing American political fanfiction.

As president, Frank desperately tries to push through a bill called America Works (AmWorks), which he considers the crux of his presidency–his legacy, if you will. AmWorks aims to create more jobs and hopes to succeed this by taking money of the Medicare budget and dumping it to businesses to create new jobs. There are, of course, a number of problems with this bill, the most obvious being (well, all of them are obvious) that there is no way in hell that this kind of bill would be championed by a Democrat, or even by any sane Republican. Any politician knows that social security benefits are a precious social commodity, even to conservatives. Predictably, Frank is met with opposition from both sides, including the leadership of his own party.

However, it seems besides the point to contemplate Frank’s foolishness. It’s clear that Frank is on a power trip and he wants to make a mark on history all with pure adrenaline, sans substance. And it begs the question: Is this what Frank has been all along–a political hack? And furthermore, is that what the show has been all along–a dramatic hack job, a much ado about nothing a la Entourage, but has managed to moonlight around as a serious show for serious people for two whole seasons? Perhaps, but with this AmWorks bullshit, the writers seem to wink at us, acknowledging exactly at what they’ve done.

And you realize that, just maybe, that Frank’s terrible bill is just the usual made-up nothingness consistent with the show’s capacity to be politically irrelevant. Even Frank meeting with the president of Russia (a Putin wannabe very well-played by Lars Mikkelsen) in the Jordan Valley is far-fetched and sort of, well, ridiculous. While The West Wing tried to play idealist politics and Veep wants to be a modern-day political satire responding to the Sarah Palin “what ifs?”, House of Cards is not concerned about how D.C. should or is running things as D.C. is merely a stage for whatever stories the writers want to tell about whichever people. It becomes quickly apparent that the writers want to showcase the women this season–not just women in politics, but women dealing with modern-day feminism, starting with Frank’s souring presidency/legacy being determined by the women who have the capability to save or destroy him. The female characters that populate House of Cards dwell in the Jezebelian age of patriarchal dissent–a faux feminist ideology that upholds independence and sexual prowess, yet ignores how often those two ideas contradict when intertwined.

This season, Claire proves that she could just be Frank’s Achilles’ heel. She has her eye on the open ambassador position, but she needs Frank’s help to get the position, which could be politically compromising for both of them. Problem is, Claire also views the presidency as theirs, but yet, deep down, it’s not–he’s made it and she’s trailing behind and needs him to set the score even; if so, were they ever truly equals? Or, was she just a politician’s wife who was tricked into the idea that her husband’s life was truly hers as well? We discover that, perhaps Frank loves Claire much more than he’d like to admit, but as the season progresses, Claire discovers that, perhaps, she doesn’t love Frank as much as she has admitted. Like most great tales, maybe House of Cards has really been about the Underwoods’ marriage all along because well, this season certainly is.

Then there’s Jackie Sharp (effortlessly played by Molly Parker), the former war veteran turned Democratic majority whip who owes Frank for turning her into a relevant political powerhouse in season two, but who also brews greater political ambitions of her own. Yet, politics is a hard game for a fortysomething woman who isn’t a wife and mother, so she’s forced into a compromising position, as she fights her lingering feelings for former lobbyist and current chief-of-staff to the president, Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali).

Also, enter Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), Frank’s major political foil this season–a morally righteous solicitor general with a wealthy family who is fighting a fight worth fighting for, despite that she needs to sometimes play dirty and certainly has the money for it. In Dunbar, we have someone to root for in a show populated by variations of villainy or unlikability because she’s a worthy political foil–she’s not another Russo who can be done away with the promise of a good time. Frank is unsure whether to place Dunbar as an ally or enemy because she’s smart enough to be a real threat on the other side, but she’s a good enough person to be a bane on his own turf. Dunbar is dangerous to Frank because not only is she one of the few people in the House of Cards universe that has a shot at heaven, but the audience has a reason to like her. Dunbar’s taking away Frank’s spotlight, despite the fact that we, as Frank’s audience, are supposed to root for him as he’s the one who has invited us into his world with those clever asides and we probably even cheered when he first entered the oval office and banged his ring on the desk and it faded to black. Above all else, this is Frank’s story and we’re all starting to like Dunbar more–and that’s why she feels like such a threat. And that’s when it begins to feel like Frank Underwood is no longer writing history like he so easily did before, in turn, unexpectedly humanizing him and making his story a bit more interesting than before.

Frank has a worthy foil now–she’s no longer just an inevitable loser to be destroyed on his way to power. Frank and Claire’s marriage has become more or less a fractured partnership. Frank’s protege doesn’t want to be a pawn anymore. Frank unintentionally bares his soul to the novelist of his propaganda biography (in a wonderfully understated performance by Paul Sparks, destined to be underrated) and we discover more about him than we ever did from his asides.

And, as a subplot that feels like it exists both in the same show and a different show, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly, in a supporting performance for the record books), tries to claw back into Frank’s good graces as he also searches for his attempted murderer/obsession, Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan). While Doug’s story line is a wicked slow burn, it’s also the most heartbreaking, frightening, and complex one this season–all that thanks to Kelly’s spectacular performance, worthy of an Emmy this year, or any other year. It’s hard not to be overshadowed by Spacey’s and Wright’s towering performances, but the show made the right decision to properly give Kelly his chance to carry his own space. Kelly reaches into every corner of Doug’s screwed up soul from every complicated, uncomfortable angle, just to find out that, deep down, Doug yearns for, well, embarrassingly enough–love and validation.

Not to say it’s not a season populated with other great performances–yes, Spacey and Wright are still fantastic to watch, especially in their last few scenes together. I almost forgot to mention Kim Dickens as as a White House journalist who is miles more likable than Zoe Barnes will ever be; in fact, Dickens’ and Sparks’ chemistry is one of the most charming parts of the season, if not sometimes oddly distracting because there’s a romantic comedy worthy of The West Wing in this bastard of a universe–it’s a mixed bag, for sure, but an enjoyable mixed bag, nonetheless. There’s also Jimmi Simpson as the hacker from season two and Kate Lyn Sheil as Rachel’s Christian ex-girlfriend whose stories unexpectedly intertwine in a very heartfelt, and sort of touching way.

Here’s a show that didn’t dabble in the matters of the heart, but now the show purely benefits from wearing its heart on its sleeve. Creator Beau Willimon’s staunch anti-sentimentality stance seemed to be running on empty and the show finally realized that to grow, we all need a little more than Claire Underwood feeling sorry for a middle-aged cashier lady (i.e., that brief moment of humanity in season one). Point is, Frank is not doing very well, personally or professionally, as president–which makes him less fun, but gives him more depth. Because the world around him is turning sentimental–or was it sentimental all along? And, maybe that’s part of the show’s point this season–it may have very little to say, politically, about foreign affairs, LGBT rights, racism, Medicare benefits, and unemployment as it handles all those issues quite awkwardly and there’s no reason to dwell on things that are clearly not meant to be done well, but it does have a lot to say about, well, humanity. The show has always been just that brash in its ambitiousness and it has taken three seasons for it to declare it with such honesty. And with such honesty, House of Cards is no longer trash–it’s the sustained operatic high note that it has always aspired to be.

The coming of age of a television drama

Thomas and O'Brien being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Since marathoning the first six episodes of season three of Downton Abbey, I was rather disappointed at the show’s increasingly slow, melodramatic nature. While season one was absolutely terrific–a Gossip Girl for the matronly and the pretentious–season two sort of prodded along, alternating between somewhat inspired, to somewhat dull, to moderately entertaining, with World War I as the backdrop of the excruciatingly ill-fated Matthew, Mary, and Lavinia love triangle.

After a hiatus from the show, I knew I had to finish season three someday, so I took the official beginning of my summer vacation to marathon the last few episodes. I dreaded the Bates and Anna scenes, but thank God–Bates finally got released from prison and we would never to deal with their boring angst ever again. And, well, the last few episodes were helluva more rewarding than I ever expected them to be. Sure, it wasn’t as fun as the first season, but the show demonstrated its undeniable age. And good shows, such as Downton, can age like fine wine.

The women in Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

The women in Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

I first had this thought about the coming of age of a television drama when I was marathoning the recent sixth season of Mad Men earlier this summer. I was initially skeptical about season six, mainly because there has been sort of a weird critical and audience negativity surrounding it (namely from The Washington Post). I, for one, thought it was brilliant. The show capitalized on its period backdrop; it expertly used that tumultuous time in American history (the late ’60s) to be a catalyst for the show’s escalating drama. It is by far my favorite season of the show because it is the season that avidly proves the show’s novelistic worth.

There are so many things that were done in season six that simply could not have been done if the show was a relatively young show. And if those things were done when the show was relatively young, it would not have been as nowhere as dramatically effective and emotionally satisfying. No one would savor it because no one would appreciate it.

I’m thinking about that great scene when Don eavesdrops on Peggy’s Heinz pitch. Or that scene when Don and Betty reconnect. Or when Don breaks down during the Hershey’s meeting. Or that last scene of the finale–that heartbreaking, moving look between Don and Sally, set to Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now.” None of these things would work if we didn’t know these characters, didn’t know what they have been through together, didn’t know their history together.

One of the great things about committing to a great television series–as a fan or as a writer–is that you really get to see the characters grow. And I suppose, as a writer, you get to a point where you have so much freedom to do so much with your characters because character dynamics are already so well-established and the viewers are already so familiar with this world you have created that you have the ability to capitalize on that. You can explore more and more possibilities as the show ages and the characters grow. That’s the advantage that a long, long story has over a 120-minute film: it has the capability to boast that it’s art that imitates life. Though, truth be told, it’s not necessarily better.

I understand that not all television series have the opportunity to flourish as much as  Mad Men and Downton have been so lucky to do so, but as a viewer, I feel like it’s such a rewarding experience when the writers know that their show has come of age.

So back to Downton.

While there were several shocking moments–Edith being left at the altar and Sybil’s death–I was never quite intrigued, if that is the best way to put it. Those were horrifying scenes, but in context, they weren’t fulfilling. However, for most of season three, I found myself strangely drawn to the Thomas and O’Brien relationship more than I ever did in previous seasons. Or, the development Thomas’ character, in particular. Upon the arrival for O’Brien’s nephew, Alfred, and Thomas’ unwillingness to help him out, the former smoking buddies have become antagonistic toward each other–and it’s one of the more interesting story lines in the eerily bland first half of season three. And, as Thomas’ attraction to the pretty boy footman James attraction escalates–you know O’Brien is going to exploit the hell out of it.

However, in the last few episodes, the drama escalates to a point where Thomas, creepily sneaks into James’ bedroom, while James is sleeping, to give him a kiss, based on O’Brien’s false tip about James’ supposed feelings for him. Alfred sees the entire scene and James begins screaming at Thomas. The dominoes fall as they do, and Thomas ends up in a position where he may have to leave Downton, after 10 years of service, without a reference, and perhaps with a prison sentence.

Thomas has always been difficult to sympathize with, but I certainly always have. I love to hate him, but I also hate to love him, and sometimes the latter certainly triumphs. Because I know that deep down, there are redemptive qualities about him. Not to say what he did wasn’t sort of creepy–for a lack of a better word–but for once, he seemed truly apologetic because he truly meant no harm. And I think that’s the sentiment that most of the other characters share, as everyone–all those former enemies turned allies–rallies behind Thomas to protect him. Because behind all the ambition and deceit, there is a character who just wants to be successful and happy, who just wants to be better than who he is, and find a place that is better than where he is. If he needs to worm his way into those places, you can’t really blame him for any of that. Like Thomas told Carson, it isn’t against the law to hope. And damn right it isn’t.

When James thanks the beaten-up Thomas for defending him when he was drunk at the town fair and even goes as far to call him brave (made more meaningful by the audience knowing how Thomas wanted out from WWI), James inquires why Thomas was even following him. Thomas responds honestly–“you know.” James mans up and tells Thomas that he can never reciprocate, but he’s willing to be friends. And perhaps, there is some hope for Thomas after all.

The writers couldn’t have possibly pulled the Thomas story line off without the show being well into its third season. Or without the supremely well-constructed performance of Rob James-Collier. Thomas’ villainy, on paper, defined who he was, but the show is starting to say it doesn’t have to be that way.

While there are a plethora of other things in the most recent season that can elicit feelings from long-time viewers of Downton (like the final scene of the Christmas special), the transformation of Thomas Barrow has been, personally, the most enthralling and rewarding story line in the dawn of the drama’s coming of age.

Do we care about the young folks?

Gossip Girl finally comes to an end. Doves are released. An impromptu performance of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” commences. True stories.

This is a spoiler-filled rant about, what most people think, is my favorite show ever. So you’ve been warned.

Gossip Girl has dominated a significant portion of my life and it’s kind of weird that it’s all over. I’ve gone from feeling really relieved because I never have to watch new episodes of this awful show again, to feeling kind of, should I say, bittersweet?

There. I said it.

Honestly, this is simply due to the fact that I’ve watched Gossip Girl longer than I’ve known most of my friends. It is also because I’ve wanted Dan and Blair to get together longer than I’ve ever had a crush on anyone. This is why time is the greatest gift you can give, period. As long as enough time has been invested, some things just seem more important than they actually should be.

I often joke about how I’m a Gossip Girl expert. And I don’t think I should joke anymore: I am a Gossip Girl expert. I’ve stuck with the show through its good and bad times. I fell in love with it in its brilliantly, shamelessly soapy season one. I’ve rooted for the characters whenever there was some shimmer of redemption. Hell, I rooted for the show whenever it looked like it was going to become slightly better than the atrocity it has become. I’ve been genuinely upset and genuinely happy because of the show.

Before everyone gripes about how I should get a life and why anyone would ever let me attend college, I will just admit that, yeah, I genuinely have no life and in the past couple of years, making fun of Gossip Girl with my friends who do watch it and performing commentaries of episodes to people who have never watched the show before but wanted to hear me talk about it anyway have given me tremendous joy. I don’t actually regret any of that, even though I had to endure inconsistent story lines and horribly developed characters. I mean, it’s no secret that the writers pretty much bullshitted through the past four seasons.

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At what cost?

Pete Campbell, street fighter. Who knew?

I realize that I’m a few weeks behind and it’s kind of late for a Mad Men season five reaction post, but this is my blog and I will write about whatever I want. I also just got out of school last week, so I have a legitimate excuse.

Season five may not have been my favorite Mad Men season–it’s a lot grimmer than its giddier, more hopeful predecessor, season four–but it’s probably the season with the most material to discuss at the technological watercooler, e.g. the internet.

The pacing for the first couple of episodes are slow. The direction seems a lot more experimental, the mood changes are more abrupt, but in the latter half of the season, those quirks become cleverer, more assured of its ability to effectively tell a story while conveying some level of artistic confidence. This ambitious directional efforts become most apparent in “The Other Woman,” when Don pitches Jaguar is intercut with Joan prostituting herself. It’s not trying too hard anymore–it has gotten it just right because it doesn’t overshadow the acting, the writing, and the storytelling, but rather, complements it.

Even though it’s been a few days since I finished the season, the characters’ decisions still haunt me. I think about the things they want and what they did to get it, but truly, at what cost?

Don seems to be losing his creative edge this season. He appears to be awkwardly old-school and out of place in the landscape of the mid-sixties. Realizing this, he throws out SCDP’s new employee, Ginsberg’s ideas and pitches his own sillier idea–an idea that comes off as safe and juvenile rather than innovative and fresh. It’s still not a terrible idea, but in comparison to Ginsberg’s idea, it’s nothing short of typical. But he needed to feel that confidence again–even if it means belittling someone else’s hard work.

Speaking of hard work, or the lack thereof, Megan, who I actually started off severely disliking, has become someone I sympathize with. I sympathize with her because she is an idiot, if there ever was one. She seduced Don, became his wife, got everything she ever wanted–money, status, a job she doesn’t deserve and claimed she really wanted–only to take it all for granted. She hasn’t earned anything. She’s spent her entire life getting things because she’s pretty and deep down, she knows that. And it’s sad, because what is there left to be proud of? Even when she strikes gold with the Heinz pitch–and yeah, like most people, she has some good ideas from time to time–she wants to give up and what? Become an actress? Get her husband to get her a role in a commercial because she can’t make it on her own? It’s embarrassing, but she’s willing to compromise to get what she wants. Because she gets it handed it to her, it seems like her dream of becoming an actress may be just another dream of hers, if her short stint as a copywriter proved anything.

And my favorite ridiculous knight of douchebaggery, Pete, begins an affair with a married woman. And like usual, his extramarital affairs aren’t those of no emotional consequences. He doesn’t feel guilty this time, instead, he wants to run away with the mentally unstable Rory Gilm–I mean, his mistress. But when she undergoes electroshock therapy and forgets who he is, Pete is left heartbroken. He was willing to risk losing his family to have a life with a woman he barely knows, and why? Because he wanted some excitement in his life? Because his life wasn’t the way he wanted it to be? Because he would always fall short of what he really wants for himself? Yeah, sure, hate Pete all you want, but there’s something frustratingly human about him. It’s gross how often he’s a perfect reflection of how I feel at my very worst and sure, I don’t go to the lengths that Pete does, but of course, the feelings do exist. So therefore, Vincent Kartheiser absolutely needs an Emmy nomination. He’s earned it because he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to play a complex character that audiences can both relate to and want to punch in the face.

Lane certainly did punch Pete in the face, but his devastating arc, which ended in the grimmest, disturbing moment in Mad Men history, is far from the ending that he deserved. SCDP took Lane for granted and he genuinely cared for the survival of the company. No one understood how difficult his job was and he was completely isolated–by his co-workers and his wife. Even if he moved on with his life, could he have found fulfillment elsewhere? I doubt it. He was born to be a martyr.

Joan chose what was best for her and her child. And the personal cost is low, but the moral cost is high. We still like her because we sympathize with why she did what she did. But it angers us that she even has to be in that position. This strong, powerful, beautiful woman–ditched by her tool of a husband, taking care of a man-child’s son, and being asked by Pete Campbell, out of all people, to secure the future of the company by doing what people think she does best–being objectified as a mere sexual creature–when she is capable of being so much more. We’re insulted that any of that had to happen to her, but we want her to succeed, and we’re glad that she got what she wanted, even though we weren’t happy about what she had to do get it.

Then there’s Peggy, the girl we root for, who never settles for less in her professional life, but pretty much settles for anything in her personal life. She agrees to move in with Abe and her mother is inevitably disappointed, but not solely because they will be living in sin, but because Peggy could do much better–she can find someone who would want to marry her. And Peggy’s mother is right. Peggy, always trying to adapt to the times, is a traditionalist at heart–she wanted Abe to propose to her and she was going to say yes, but instead, she settled for being a live-in girlfriend. Despite this, Peggy lands a job at a rival agency, only to realize that perhaps, even though her paycheck is going to be bigger, she is settling for less. Sure, she has her own office, but she’s working with the poor man’s Stan and Ginsberg and has to stay at a crappy hotel. She wants to settle for something, but she doesn’t get exactly what she wants. And I wonder how much longer she is willing to settle for other people’s plans for her. When will she finally create her own destiny? Because I, for one, can’t wait to see Peggy establish her own agency.

Meanwhile, Betty already chose her own destiny. Which seems to be one where she’s miserable and fat. Which also seems to be one where she shamelessly uses her daughter as collateral damage in her attempt to ruin her ex-husband and his current wife’s relationship. Even if Betty was successful, she doesn’t gain anything but a sick, disturbing joy, as a result of her brewing jealousy. Point is, she wouldn’t actually get anything, but she did it anyway. But I remember when she was actually a fairly good wife to Don–or better than what Don deserved, considering the kind of husband he was. What we didn’t like about her was not because she was a bad wife, but because she was just sort of a brat. And when she is upset when she finds out that she doesn’t have cancer and is, in fact, just fat, epitomizes exactly the kind of brat she is.

Last, but not least, there’s Roger–who has chosen to be lazy, to take LSD, to divorce his child-bride, to have a tryst with Megan’s charming, straight-shooting mother. And his cost? Just money.

In season six, I hope to see more Peggy Olson, Michael Ginsberg, Ken Cosgrove, and Stan Rizzo and better yet, Peggy forms her own agency and recruits the others. I would love to see those characters explored, though. Ginsberg has chosen to be work under the selfish dictatorship of SCDP, where his work is purposefully forgotten in the cab so another work can shine–and for what? To have a job? He’s proven be one of the more moral characters of the show and his father seems sweet. Cosgrove’s writing career is endearing and his relationship with his working girl wife seems lovely and here’s hoping he doesn’t fall into infidelity. And there’s incredible warmth to Rizzo, a far departure from his initial sexist comments to Peggy last season. And I kind of miss Henry Francis. Oh, I can dream big, right?

Here’s to another season of Mad Men over with. Which character’s decisions and dreams resonated with you the most? Thoughts?