TIME Television

What I Learned Watching 16 Years of Television for TIME

The cast of 'Freaks and Geeks' on Aug. 5, 1999.
Chris Haston—NBC/Getty Images Class of '99: The cast of Freaks and Geeks, one of the first series I reviewed for TIME.

After a decade and a half, this is my series finale. Here’s a look back at a period that changed TV and changed me.

Almost a decade ago, in September 2005, my editors approached me with the idea of starting a fall-TV-review blog. The name would be Tuned In, because TV. (We did not spend a lot of time thinking about the name.) It would be temporary, like a pop-up store at the mall; I’d review the new fall series, then we’d close it down. My first post reviewed Martha, the post-prison talk show starring Martha Stewart. My last–well, it turned out I loved blogging, and I found more and more things to write about, and that last post never came.

Until now.

This is my last post for TIME, my series finale, give or take. (I have one more big piece coming out in the print magazine later this month. Look for it on the newsstand! Buy it! Take it to the beach!) Starting September 8, I’m moving to the New York Times as its chief TV critic. I’m not retiring or disappearing, so it would be silly to write a goodbye. But it also seemed wrong to leave without a thank you, both to TIME for letting me write here all these years and to everyone who read me here.

I already had plenty to do at TIME before Tuned In. I visited the sets of Freaks and Geeks (my first set visit ever and a good place to start) and The Sopranos (more than once). I wrote about pop culture responding to the 9/11 attacks and argued, at the height of Joe Millionaire’s infamy, that reality TV was actually good for us. But reviewing TV in print for a weekly newsmagazine, with limited space for the culture section, was often like being a farmer paid not to grow corn.

Online, I could cover TV in close to real time, the way viewers experience it. I could do quick takes and long essays, reviews and recaps. I could deep-read Mad Men and obsess over the fine points of Game of Thrones. (One thing the Internet did for TV criticism was to make it less about previewing shows the audience hadn’t seen and more about reviewing shows they had–which allowed you to go into more depth and detail.) I could be mortified in song by Rosie O’Donnell and write about it. I could indulge my obscure interests. I could write about the experience of watching TV: about the way DVRs are an attempt to cheat death, or about bonding with my kids over reality TV. I could bang the drum for great series like Enlightened that deserved more attention. I could blog about news coverage of elections, the business of media, the digital culture wars. It was like running a small, personal magazine within the magazine.

But there was always more I could have done, because there was suddenly so freaking much TV. Since 1999–the year TIME hired me–the number of scripted series on cable has increased 1000%, and no, I did not add an extra zero there. Since 2009 alone, according to FX research, we went from 211 scripted TV series to 371 last year, and we’re on track for over 400 this year. (And that’s before you add in reality, news, sports, and anything else.)

When I told people about my new job with TIME, sympathy was not an uncommon reaction: “You must have to watch so much terrible TV!” That urban legend, the “I don’t even own a television” guy, was real and in abundance at parties. Not many people thought TV was worth engaged criticism. TV, as Intelligent People of Quality saw it, was occasionally good, almost by accident; otherwise, at best it was mindless escapism, of mainly anthropological interest for understanding Joe Q. Walmart.

Tony Soprano kicked that idea in the stugots, with help from Buffy Summers and Vic Mackey and the Bluth family. Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show right around The Sopranos’ launch, saving the political relevance of late-night talk from the Dancing Itos. TV became more serial and narratively ambitious; a 1970s camp classic like Battlestar Galactica could come back as a post-9/11 story of terror, faith and survival. AMC–a classic-movies network, so basically TV for people who didn’t like TV–launched Mad Men. Nearly every channel needed at least one signature series, and then nearly every online service did. That “I don’t own a television” guy? He bought one, or at least a computer, and was now at parties asking me what he should binge next.

Having too much material in a great job is a high-class problem. But it does mean, as a simple practical matter, that even a critic paid to watch TV can’t watch every episode of everything, any more than you can. Once a film critic sees a movie or a music critic hears an album, it’s done: there are not 13 more hours of Age of Ultron coming out. TV, God bless it, never ends.

Which means that for TV critics above all, a dialogue with readers is essential. As a critic, you’re a generalist, sampling widely and drawing connections across a broad medium. But you will never know as much about any particular show as its dedicated fans do. I rely on you, in the comments and in social media, to be my eyes and ears–not just to let me know when I made a typo or wrote something stupid, but to let me know what I’m missing. (And doing this job means accepting that you will always miss a lot.)

You delivered, whether it was in the blog comments–as I liked to call them, “Tuned Inland”–or on Twitter. At TIME, I was lucky to have readers who believed in taking ridiculous entertainment seriously and having a sense of humor about the serious stuff, who had fun with TV but believed it really mattered. And that dialogue matters too. I’ve never accepted the simplistic idea that TV dictates morality or brainwashes us politically–like all powerful art’s, its influence isn’t easily predictable, and our relationship with it is complicated and two-way. It reflects as much as it directs; we make it at least as much as it makes us.

All of which is why I think TV is as revealing a subject as any in the world to write about–and why the conversation around TV is at least as important as the reviews critics write. Recently at Vox, Todd Van der Werff wrote about how “the Internet of 2005”–the year I started Tuned In–has disappeared. What he meant, correctly, is that digital journalism has moved from a blog model, where you assumed a steady readership that would visit a site and its comments regularly, to a social-web model, where most readers come to your articles through links–and most of the conversation has moved from comments sections to social feeds.

That’s been true here, too. Tuned In hasn’t really existed as a distinct blog for a few years, since it was folded in to TIME’s Entertainment vertical, and we (with much of the media) stopped using the term “blog.” The past few years–with the explosion of recaps and cultural hot takes online–I’ve been trying to do fewer recaps and quick hits, publishing less but spending more time on each piece.

But the conversation has gone on, and it’ll keep going. After Labor Day, you can find me at the New York Times, writing about much the same things I have been here–and you can find me, always, as usual, on Twitter @poniewozik. In the words of Desmond Hume, see you in another life, brothers and sisters–and thank you all for keeping me tuned in.

TIME Television

It’s Not Easy Making Green: Why the Sesame Street Deal Hurts Parents More Than Kids

For kids, it just means more Big Bird. For parents, it means a preview of inequalities to come.

For over 45 years, Sesame Street has been teaching America’s kids about numbers and feelings. The deal that its producer, Sesame Workshop, struck on Thursday to move the beloved children’s series to HBO is an education in both.

On the numbers, the deal is probably better than any likely alternative. Thanks to that HBO cash, Sesame Street will be able to produce nearly twice as many episodes in a production schedule that had long been shrinking, and will develop new series for kids as well. Episodes and archives will still be available on PBS, which will have more money free for other programming.

The hitch: new episodes won’t be available on free PBS for nine months. Sesame Street’s target young audience is not likely to notice. Preschoolers, even more so than the rest of us, increasingly get their TV by streaming it, and as most parents can attest, they are not exactly averse to seeing the same thing over and over. The kids who watch the show on live TV will probably not mind that the droll parodies of adult cable shows are dated, nor are they likely to miss out on new developments in the alphabet.

As for the funding problems that drove Sesame to the deal, it’s not quite as simple as “the government cut their money.” Sesame Workshop’s revenues have cratered not because of politics but because their commercial revenue streams, especially DVD sales, are evaporating.

Yes, if we had the lavishly supported BBC-style system that the U.S. never had, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting might have been able to step in and feather Big Bird’s nest. But even then, there’s long been debate over whether public broadcasting should spend limited funds on popular shows like Sesame Street–which at least have the option of striking deals–as opposed to programming that can’t, like documentaries, or supporting local stations in remote and low-income areas. For decades, the producers have made the kind of deals that led Ralph Nader to call Sesame Street a sell-out. Licensing, sponsorships, rerun sales: there has long been commerce transacted on Sesame Street, and not just in Mr. Hooper’s Store.

But as Sesame Street has taught for so long, feelings matter too. And however well the decision works practically, in principle it feels gross.

Sesame Workshop and HBO are doing the right thing by finding a way to keep a valuable institution vital. But they could not have come up with a more symbolically freighted announcement if they had cut a secret pact to foment the revolution. Here was something for our kids, all our kids–not just any kids’ show, but the kids’ show, created to give a head start to the kids who needed it the most, advantaged or not, and that was proven to work. It was for everyone, created in a late ‘60s spirit of public weal and social equity. And now it was being sold, not just to commercial television, but to hypercommercial television, a gold-plated premium channel that requires either cable or broadband and then a subscription fee on top of that.

Like most controversies in children’s television, this one is really about the parents, about our ideals for childhood and how we fall short of them, about our anxiety in preparing our kids for the world. Kids are just going to enjoy more Sesame Street. It’s parents who see this change and know that their children are being introduced, before they can even read, to a world that is tiered, tracked and sold on an a la carte basis.

The Sesame Street is, practically, a good deal. But it is a deal nonetheless, over something that was once a given. It’s one more replacement of a public trust with a public-private arrangement, like a luxury developer given rights and tax breaks to build condos, in exchange for a certain percentage of affordable housing. It’s a deteriorating postal service vs. FedEx, the bus vs. Uber. Everyone still gets to visit Big Bird. Some people just have to use the poor door.

It’s not about Sesame Street per se. It’s about the disappearing idea that there are certain baseline goods that should belong to all of us. It’s about knowing that this is just the first of many inflection points where your child will get a benefit if you have the money, and if not, not: quality daycare, a house in a good school district, tutoring, test prep. It’s about generational advantages that in turn allow some future adults to pass on greater advantage. The kids, squatting in front of the tube or curled up with a tablet screen, won’t know or care. Parents will, because they know about what’s to come.

Parents will know that, for another five years at least, someone will be there to tell their kids how to get to Sesame Street. But now the answer will be that–as with more and more things in life today–you’ll get there a lot faster if you’re born on third base.

Read next: This Is Why HBO Really Wants Sesame Street

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TIME Television

Review: Housing Drama Show Me a Hero Hits Us Where We Live

HBO

David Simon's miniseries makes an absorbing, and surprisingly hopeful, drama out of urban policy.

I’m going to tell you about David Simon’s absorbing new HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero (premieres Aug. 16), but first I need you to work with me. Suspend, if you can, the belief that a period TV drama about a battle over housing policy is going to be boring.

As countless HGTV shows know, there are few things in the average life more fraught with stress, emotion and psychic investment than obtaining and keeping shelter. A home is not just four walls. It’s physical and financial security, a repository of self-image, a vessel of hopes and fears.

It’s certainly not boring to the white homeowners of east Yonkers, N.Y., circa 1987, who at the beginning of Hero are frothing in rage over a judge’s order that the midsized city desegregate its public housing by building units on their side of town. It’s not boring to Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), elected the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city, whom we meet chugging Maalox from the bottle like a protein shake. And it’s certainly not boring to the housing-project residents Hero introduces one by one, for whom four walls in a more peaceful neighborhood could mean a second chance at life.

Based on a nonfiction book by the New York Times‘ Lisa Belkin and cowritten by Simon’s former Baltimore Sun colleague William F. Zorzi, the six-part Hero works journalistically from the inside out, starting in City Hall. Everyone in Yonkers government knows the city faces bankruptcy from fines if it doesn’t comply with the court order. They also have every political incentive to resist anyway. Wasicsko himself rides to office on a tide of civic rage because he supported a court appeal that the pragmatic previous mayor (Jim Belushi) knew was pointless.

But even as he campaigns, he’s unsettled by the ugly forces carrying him–“That Jew judge ain’t gonna build that garbage nohow!” one voter yells–and once he’s elected and has to implement the order anyway, the tide washes back over him in the form of his constituents’ spit. As dated as the late ’80s fashions are here, the small-scale racial politics are sadly current. Isaac, wearing Wasicsko’s soup-strainer mustache like a 50-pound weight, masterfully shows his youthful energy and optimism curdling into gallows humor and bitterness. (Between Isaac and True Detective‘s Colin Farrell, 2015 is becoming The Year of the Sad Mustache.)

Meanwhile, Hero dips in and out of the stories of the black and Hispanic residents of the west side projects–single mothers, mostly, trying to hold families together in a place of concentrated dysfunction. Hero, directed by Paul Haggis, has an acute sociological eye for how the projects alter the smallest human interaction: a flirty moment between two young lovers is chilled by a two officers giving them the stink-eye from a passing Yonkers P.D. cruiser.

Show Me a Hero is to Simon’s The Wire as The Silmarillion is to The Lord of the Rings: pure uncut wonkery, without the genre trappings of a cop story. This is a show that will build a scene around housing expert Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert), explaining his “defensible space” theory–that small, discrete homes, like the planned townhouses, promote a sense of investment–and actually knows how to dramatize it. The themes are a natural evolution of Simon’s urban oeuvre (also including The Corner and Treme) which contrasts personal stories with the greater power of impersonal forces.

Haggis, known for Crash–the Oscar-winning 2004 ballpeen hammer of race-and-class-consciousness–proves a good fit for the material, roving across Yonkers to capture a postindustrial city divided by color and politics but united by economic fear of falling. (The soundtrack is almost exclusively music by Bruce Springsteen, official troubadour of East Coast decline.)

Contrary to its title (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”), there aren’t unambiguous heroes here. Wasicsko eventually becomes a champion of the housing, at great cost to him and his young wife Nay (Carla Quevado), but it’s as much out of pragmatism and spite as principle. The opposition is less well-drawn. Alfred Molina blusters and mercilessly sucks an omnipresent toothpick as a race-baiting councilman. The main entree to the “I’m not a racist, but…” white homeowners is Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), a townhouse opponent who becomes turned off by the blatant racism of some of her neighbors; she’s a key link between the sides, but more a device than a character.

But the plot advances, slowly and inexorably as the gears of bureaucracy, and Hero‘s emotional power builds as it focuses on the townhouses’ new residents and the initiative’s power to change their lives. Lives and careers are destroyed along the way, and the triumphs are small, like the sight of a young boy running in circles in a tiny yard, on a patch of grass that’s his own.

Show Me a Hero ends poignantly yet–considering that Simon’s worldview is so bleak he calls his blog The Audacity of Despair–hopefully. It’s just a distinctly David Simon brand of hope: the kind that says the victories we can hope for in this life are modest, and not unlike keeping a home, they involve a hell of a lot of hard work and maintenance.

TIME Television

True Detective, Louie, and the Limits of TV Auteurism

true detective finale
HBO

One of TV best shows, and one of its biggest messes, show that sometimes an artist needs a team--or some time off.

I come here not to bury True Detective season 2. It did a good enough job of that by itself. The season ended much as it began, in a purple-prose haze of portent, masculine agony and confusion. It had too much plot and too little story; its murder mystery was so convoluted and foggy that, paradoxically, the show felt formless, like a string of long, unrelated audition monologues one after another. For eight episodes it turned and spun, like a driver on one of its complex California highway interchanges, circling and circling and never finding the right exit.

But True Detective will likely be back anyway. The ratings were still good by HBO standards, and the network has stood behind it, and creator Nic Pizzolatto, publicly. So we, and the network, might as well focus on what would make True Detective season 3 become something more than a source of funny Internet memes.

Simply: Nic Pizzolatto needs help.

True Detective is the logical progression, and most conspicuous failure, of something that has in many ways been good for television: the auteur principle of TV, the idea that a great series can and should be the expression of a single artist’s vision, like an author’s or (after a similar idea took hold in film) a movie director’s.

TVis historically a collaborative medium, because it has to be: there are too many moving parts and too many hours to fill for anyone to do it all. But the idea of the author-driven series has been growing in TV for decades, with network creators like Steven Bochco or David E. Kelley making series that–while they employed a lot of creative talent–spoke with a certain, distinctive voice. It grew in the late 1990s and 2000s, as writers like The Sopranos‘ David Chase and Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner became celebrated as artists, organizing their shows around a single vision and intention. But even they had teams of writers: there were only so many superwriters like Aaron Sorkin and David Milch who either wrote or significantly rewrote nearly every script.

Pizzolatto, an author by background, was of that latter school, and that made season one of True Detective what it was, for better and worse. (Well, partly it did: you can’t underestimate the breathtaking directing of Cary Fukunaga.) That first season had definite weaknesses–it overdid the writerly monologues and suffered from flat characters, especially the women–but it sounded like nothing else, rich and haunting. Pizzolatto was using noir fiction the way detective writers did, as the greasy-spoon plate on which to serve an existentialist main course.

But Pizzolatto had the classic songwriter’s problem: You have your whole life to make your first album, and a year to make your second. He didn’t do it entirely alone (the fourth episode was the series’ first to feature a co-writer), but he mostly did. And it showed. There were flashes of beauty–YMMV, but Ray’s final, unsent recording to his son was lovely–but a whole lot of notebook-emptying. Many of the season’s weaknesses might have been improved by an empowered room of writers to talk back, cut the fat, handle fundamentals like breaking a coherent story. Yes, that would risk diluting the voice, but the 180-proof Pizzolatto we got this year could have used it.

Occasionally, the all-but-solo act can work, but it takes the right combination of talent, skill and circumstances. The most obvious example today is FX’s Louie, for which Louis CK writes, stars, directs, edits and all but runs the craft service buffet. But he has a couple advantages: he has experience both directing and doing the gruntwork of filmmaking, and he’s created a show that has the freedom to essentially be a series of short (or somewhat longer) films.

And even he, it turns out, needs a break. He’s taken absences of more than a year between seasons. This year, he made an abbreviated season of only seven episodes. And at FX’s presentation to the Television Critics Association press tour, the network announced that he was taking an indefinite break; like Larry David with Curb Your Enthusiasm, he’ll do another season when and if he’s ready.

One of the closest analogues to Louis CK in TV now is Lena Dunham, a film director making an arty comedy that’s more like indie film than a traditional sitcom. But Girls is also structured more like a TV series than Louie; it has continuity, it has multiple story arcs, and it’s been returning on a yearly basis. Dunham’s managed this by teaming with people who know how to make TV–Judd Apatow, and especially showrunner Jenni Konner–while still making a show that is unmistakably Dunhamesque.

What’s good enough for Lena Dunham would be even better for Nic Pizzolatto. Assuming HBO is not willing to wait years for another True Detective, Pizzolatto needs a team, professionals who can take a manuscript and turn it into a show. This doesn’t need to be a step back for TV as a writer’s medium; if it improves on the mess that was season 2, it will be a step forward. In a job as complicated as making TV, sometimes you need help to be yourself.

TIME Television

Jon Stewart Bids Farewell to The Daily Show With a Small Treat for Himself

A phalanx of stars made the veteran host's final run especially poignant

It was Jon Stewart’s goodbye party. But he was the one who came with presents for everyone.

Talk-show hosts’ finales often end with a tribute line, as guests, friends and regulars streaming in to pay respects and offer thanks. It’s not an act of vanity or selfishness necessarily; it’s a way of giving the audience surrogates through whom to say “so long” and “all the best.” And sure, Jon Stewart’s last weeks on The Daily Show involved plenty of familiar faces coming by to salute.

But for most of Stewart’s final hour or so (Comedy Central extended his sendoff, and then let it run longer), he turned the camera on everyone else. The first extended bit was a celebration of the vast army of contributors that had come through the show, beginning with the current crew, and going back through the show’s history: Hodgman and Black; Schall, Bee and Carell; Munn, Riggle and Helms; and more and more (and Wilmore). The segment closed with a video wall of the cast, conveying just how vast the show’s reach has been, not just in late-night comedy but sitcoms, movies and ideas in general.

After a break, Stewart returned with another bravura thank you: an extended, Goodfellas-style tracking shot through The Daily Show offices. Viewers, even critics who should know better, tend to think about such series as the work of the star as a single author. But, of course, they’re not; The Daily Show has developed a sharp writers’ voice independent of, while guided by, Stewart, and it takes an army to fake the news nightly: makeup folks and prop masters, accountants and researchers (including the media watchers, shown with blood coming out of their eyes), camera crew and costumers.

Stewart got out of it without being thanked himself — almost. At the end of the correspondents’ segment, his greatest disciple, Stephen Colbert, took a seat at the desk to go off-prompter, likening him, in Colbertian high-nerd fashion, to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, who bore the Ring of media criticism and satire for us all these years. “You said to me and to many other people here many years ago never to thank you because we owe you nothing,” Colbert said, chasing a sheepish Stewart around his desk in their rolling chairs. “And it is one of the few times I’ve known you to be dead wrong.”

After all that, Stewart had a one more parting thank you gift for the audience, a last speech to camera 3 — on “bullshit.” “Bullshit is everywhere,” he said. “There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been infused with bullshit.” The kind that makes bad things sound good. The kind that hides bad things under a pile of verbiage. And the kind that rationalizes complacency by sowing doubt. The good news, he said, is that “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance,” and it’s getting easier to spot because liars are getting lazy.

That’s modest of him — but if we’re following his example, we must call b.s. on him a little here too. If it’s gotten easier to spot, it’s partly because of him: because Stewart, over 16 years, has sat down with us and gradually gone over the instructions to build our own detectors. I wrote, as many other have, that Stewart changed TV political comedy by creating and paving the way for many successors. But he’s also made a difference by showing folks how b.s. works — in politics, in the media — empowering them to spot it themselves.

Stewart is leaving the show, but he deputized his audience to replace him, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer opening the books for an army of slayers to replace her — or, to steal Colbert’s LOTR reference, like Galadriel, who gave each of the Fellowship a gift to use to carry on the fight and keep hope alive.

Then Stewart signed off — “Here it is, my moment of Zen” — and turned over the stage to Bruce Springsteen, fellow New Jersey balladeer of skepticism and hope, to play him off. This, at last, was just a little treat for Jersey boy Stewart, a little gift for himself. He earned it.

TIME Television

What I’ll Miss Most About Jon Stewart on The Daily Show

After 16 years, Jon Stewart’s term as voice of reason comes to an end

Of all the ways that I’ll miss The Daily Show host Jon Stewart—as comedian, truth teller, BS caller—above all I will miss him as a media filter. I don’t mean “media filter” in the usual sense of someone who takes in a great deal of news, scans over it and highlights those bits most worthy of your attention. I mean a filter like you find in a pool or a sewage-treatment plant, or your bloodstream: something that absorbs a torrent filled with toxins—in this case, politics, punditry and sensationalism—and passes it through in a form that you can safely tolerate.

In the body of American civil discourse, Jon Stewart was our liver.

And 16 years was a pretty good run for a liver, considering how many shots of high-proof bad faith and doublespeak our culture knocks back on a daily basis. Granted, this was a burden Stewart chose for himself. The Daily Show he inherited from Craig Kilborn was more innocuous, a product of the it’s-all-good ’90s, less a commentary on the news than a parody of the phoniness of news shows. Stewart, with his team of writers and producers, discovered that they could use the show to pick apart not just the format of the news but its content and the way it was presented.

Stewart debuted in January 1999, the year that the online self—publishing platform Blogger would debut, and his Daily Show was a kind of blog of the cableverse: it fed off primary sources but added value, not just by lampooning the soapboxing of public figures but by diagramming the construction of the soapbox. The prototypical, heavily researched Daily Show takedown—say, a montage showing how Fox News’ conservative pundits fed off controversies fanned by the channel’s own news shows—was essentially a high-production version of “fisking,” the blogosphere practice of dismantling a mainstream-media narrative point by point.

The common narrative holds that Stewart’s Daily Show hit another level and got seriously funny (or hilariously serious) after 9/11. Certainly Stewart had one of the most memorable responses. He preemptively mocked his own response: “It’s another entertainment show beginning with the overwrought speech of a shaken host.” He tweaked and echoed the sense of shock and siege: “There were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying.” Then he shared a nugget of hope: the view from his apartment had been the World Trade Center, but now it was the Statue of Liberty. “You can’t beat that,” he said.

But the events that truly defined Stewart’s era may have come both before and after 9/11. First, there was the Bush v. Gore debacle of 2000 (the show covered it with the rubric “Courting Disaster”), which turned an agreed-on given of democracy—who is the rightfully elected President?—into a source of endless recrimination and fuel for the argument engine of cable news. And after 9/11 came the invasion of Iraq—“Mess O’Potamia,” as the show branded it—in which Stewart and his writers found their acerbic voice, puncturing the certitude of media hawks and playing syncopated counterpoint to the drums of war.

Maybe you didn’t have to be a liberal to like Stewart, but it became plain enough he was one, well before it emerged that he had been called to the White House for tête-à-têtes with President Obama. (Stewart, of course, mocked the breathless Politico report of the “secret,” yet publicly logged, meetings under the rubric “When Barry Met Silly.”) But Stewart’s real driving ideology was reasonableness, the idea that not every disagreement had to be Armageddon. His approach to the media was not so much to kill the messenger as to tell the messenger: You’re killing us. “Stop hurting America,” he begged the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire in a legendary 2004 appearance.

Stewart did care about things, passionately and profanely, whether it was shaming Congress into passing a bill to aid 9/11 first responders or telling Fox News, “Go f-ck yourself,” with the help of a gospel choir. But by nature he was a wincer, not a shouter. In 2010, with protégé Stephen Colbert, he held the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in D.C., a demonstration devoted to the idea that reasonable people could disagree.

Guess what? People disagreed—including progressives like Rachel Maddow, who accused Stewart of promoting “false equivalence” between left and right media. There were always those who wanted Stewart to be angrier. (His anger, reportedly, could come out behind the scenes. Wyatt Cenac, once one of The Daily Show’s only black writers and correspondents, contended in a podcast interview that Stewart blew up at him in a meeting after Cenac complained that Stewart’s imitation of Republican candidate Herman Cain reminded him of the racist caricature Kingfish from Amos ’n’ Andy.)

There are no term limits on voices of reason, but with another presidency ending—and Colbert retiring his eagle and decamping to CBS—it feels time. The Daily Show’s political-comedy successors will owe a lot to Stewart, not least because so many of them worked on his show. But the cultural momentum is with the likes of former understudy John Oliver, whose polymath essay-rants on HBO’s Last Week Tonight take sides fervently and often end with calls to action, not moments of Zen. Stewart’s replacement, Trevor Noah, is known for lacerating stand-up on racism and has already promised a show that will respond less to cable news than the immense, endless outrage cycle online.

Stewart’s time as filter is ending, but the torrent spews on. As if in a cruel taunt, God and Fox News scheduled the first Republican debate—likely to feature Donald Trump—the same night he leaves the air. And his heirs will serve an audience who want video clips of their hosts “destroying” and “eviscerating” their targets more than wry appeals to comity. That was Zen; this is now.

TIME Television

Halt and Catch Fire Became the Next Mad Men When It Stopped Trying to Be

Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark and Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Richard DuCree/AMC
Richard DuCree/AMC

AMC's computer-business drama just finished one of the year's best TV seasons. It deserves another one.

One problem with the first season of Halt and Catch Fire was that it seemed, intentionally or not, like AMC was trying to make another version of Mad Men. There was a period setting (the 1980s), an office environment (the early personal computer business) and above all, a tortured mystery man with a secret, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). It was as unsatisfying a substitution as replacing your martini with a New Coke.

But by the end of the first season, HACF found itself. It ditched the storyline about launching an IBM PC clone, it ditched the Jobs/Wozniak dynamic between Joe and hardware wiz Gordon (Scoot McNairy). It became a story about the thrill and costs of creation, shifting attention to the marriage of Gordon and Donna (Kerry Bishé)–herself a visionary shackled to a pay-the-bills job at Texas Instruments–and to Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), the spiky-haired programmer who wanted to foresaw computers as something people connect with, not simply log on to.

The second season improved logarithmically, as if through some TV-business version of Moore’s Law. It made Donna and Cameron into the show’s leads as they launched Mutiny, an early online gaming company. Focusing on two women launching a startup in the ’80s wasn’t just refreshing–Bechdel Test, meet Turing Test–it also simply made for a more interesting dynamic than Joe and Gordon’s Don-Draper-meets-Walter-White dynamic did. HACF found a truly vital story in ’80s computing–Donna seeing the value in chatrooms, the early iteration of the virtual lives we all lead today. In the process, it stopped trying to be Mad Men and learned how to be itself.

Yet, when I watched “Heaven Is a Place,” the excellent season two finale, I realized something: HACF has, in fact, kind of become the next Mad Men, but in the best possible way.

I’m not saying that simply because “Heaven” ended with nearly the entire cast boarding a plane for California, planning to reboot Mutiny (and God willing continue the show) in the location that so many of Mad Men‘s characters saw as a place for rebirth, reinvention, chasing the future and escaping the past. And HACF doesn’t resemble Mad Men in most surface aspects. It doesn’t have delectable fashions and furnishings (this is the ’80s). It doesn’t have a vast group of urbane characters dropping bon mots. It has a truly awful title. As a result, it doesn’t have even the sizeable cult audience that Mad Men did, and its fate is uncertain even though it’s become one of the best shows on TV.

But philosophically, HACF is doing precisely what Mad Men did: it’s showing how work, and the products of that work, express character. Season one had various problems to work through, but a basic one was simply that hardware is not as artistically interesting as software. Imagine if Mad Men were set at Kodak rather than among the folks trying to sell the Carousel.

Halt and Catch Fire is chronicling a time when computer software was moving from becoming mainly a tool to run calculations and solve problems to being a means for externalizing the self. It would become a place for play, for discovery, for friendship, for sex. Now that’s interesting. It’s the story of us, of people beginning to imagine the world where many of us now live half our lives.

But that’s still just an idea. What has made HACF a terrific story is that it used that premise to develop rich characters with complicated relationships. It’s realized, essentially, that software is its answer to advertising: it’s a device whose purpose is to tap into human needs or fears or desires, and thus it can reflect those in its own characters. (Think Don selling a Hawaiian hotel as a place to disappear, or Peggy drawing on her troubled Catholic background to sell Popsicles as communion.) It is more than a product. As a certain Korean War veteran used to say, the product is you, feeling something.

Thus it’s Cameron, who resists being subject to others’ restrictions and control, who insists on pushing the immersive aspects of Mutiny’s games: it’s not enough that Mutiny be fun, it needs to be a place to can disappear into, a place that feels without boundary, where you can replace your face with a skull because it’s badass and you can. Thus it’s Donna, who has had to hold together a family, manage an erratic husband, ride herd on a stubborn business partner, who sees that the real long-term play at Mutiny is Community–enabling connections among people.

Thus it’s Joe, who has learned suspicion as the only useful strategy for life, who sees an opening in the virus-protection market: “Real security is trusting no one.” (Yeah, he hits the metaphor a little hard, but sometimes Mad Men did that too.) And thus it’s Gordon, the hardware guy in an increasingly software world, who has been adrift this season despite the freedom that cashing in on his company would seem to have afforded him. He has a neurological condition–his wiring is failing him–and he ends the season realizing he needs to put Donna’s career first: he needs, literally, to put his faith in Community.

What began seeming like a misfire is now easily one of the few best dramas of the year. It may not be a lucrative decision for AMC to pick up another season, but that’s what Fear the Walking Dead is for. If a reputation for supporting quality still matters to AMC’s brand, it will order a third season.

The first version of Halt and Catch Fire had a shelf-life shorter than a PC the day before the new Macintosh came out. But the show’s strong casting and writing now has purpose and a worthy premise: complicated people trying to create a new world. A place where your essence, your you, is abstracted from your physical shell and can roam free. Today, we call that sort of place the Internet. People used to call it Heaven.

TIME Television

Review: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp Seems Like Old Times

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Saeed Adyani/Netflix Poehler and Cooper, back for the first day of camp.

They keep getting older, but their characters are slightly younger--and just as weirdly funny.

Even by the standards of today’s reboot/remake/remodel culture, there are enough layers of nostalgia in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (premieres on Netflix July 31) to rend the fabric of space-time. It’s a 2015 prequel to a 2001 movie, set in 1981. To watch this reunion-cum-origin-story, with its middle-aged original cast putting on teenage drag again, is to feel a tug of memory for the aughts and the ’90s heyday of MTV’s The State (which gave us co-writers Michael Showalter and David Wain) and the ’70s and ’80s camp comedies like Meatballs it lovingly spoofs. If this eight-episode series were any more dense with resonances across time, it would be directed by Terrence Malick and have a prologue involving dinosaurs.

Fortunately, as reminders of one’s inexorable mortality go, First Day of Camp is good fun. Like the original (set on the last day of summer camp), it’s a machine constructed of pop parodies and well-curated period references (“He’s a total fox, like a young Larry Wilcox!”) that conceals an actual beating heart. On top of the goofs of the movie–which mashed up sex farces and hijinks with a plot involving the crash of Skylab and a montage of a wild afternoon that ended in heroin abuse–it adds the absurdity of showing us the “history” of characters whom, after all, we last saw only one short camp season later.

Sometimes that means putting the denizens of Camp Firewood through far-fetched changes (as when we learn how H. Jon Benjamin came to voice a talking can of vegetables). Sometimes it means characters living through essentially the same plots they did in the movie. Hapless romantic Cooperberg (Showalter, donning an ’80s-kid hair helmet at age 45) is led on by another female counselor (this time played by Lake Bell); Molly Shannon’s Gail confides her grown-up love problems to precociously wise campers; Ken Marino’s secret virgin Kulak is still fronting as a Romeo. But at eight episodes (I’ve seen six), Wain and Showalter have the chance to layer in more outlandish subplots involving toxic waste, President Reagan and ’80s rock journalism. It’s an imitation of the film, but at least it’s not a pale one.

Like Netflix’s ur-revival, Arrested Development, First Day of Camp reunites nearly all of the original cast. (Reportedly, the reunions involved creative scheduling and some use of greenscreen, but the interactions among the characters don’t suffer much for it.) And it doesn’t stop there: Josh Charles, Rich Sommer and Kristen Wiig ham it up as toffs at the rich camp across the lake; John Slattery owns the screen as a bigshot theater director; and the many, many additional guests include Michael Cera, Jordan Peele and Jon Hamm. If you are an actor known for playing cameos in oddball comedies and you are not in First Day of Camp, you need a new agent or you are dead.

Reboots often run into an existential crisis: why this, why again, why now? But the original Wet Hot American Summer was an absurd lark to begin with, which makes “Because we can, and enough people had free days on their calendars” reason enough to justify the prequel. It’s possible for a project like this to substitute cameos for creativity (think of Will Ferrell and Wiig’s Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption, whose chief attraction was that Ferrell and Wiig were in a Lifetime movie), and sometimes First Day of Camp is more knowing than funny. But the heart of its appeal is the oldest and most effective form of nostalgia: seeing how old pals have changed after all these years. Look, there’s Bradley Cooper–he’s a big movie star now! There’s Amy Poehler–she’s a comedy icon!

A little like Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, they all keep getting older, but their characters stay the same age. (The exception, of course, is Paul Rudd, who will remain unmarked by time long after the sun has flared into a red giant.) But rather than seeming tired or sad, the age dissonance–which was already built into the original movie–is all part of the fun. You could imagine the crew presenting a new, age-idealized version of themselves every few years, like a goofier 7 Up series, or like your Facebook feed.

At one point, for instance, we learn that a certain character, played by a 41-year-old actress who was 27 when the original movie was released, is actually a 24-year-old impersonating a teenager. I won’t spoil who or why, but when she’s told that there’s no way she can pull off the ruse, she responds by simply turning around and mussing up her hair. She looks no different, and everyone acts like it’s a remarkable transformation.

That’s the hopeful, silly, sweet spirit of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp–you’re only as old as you say you are.

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