TIME Television

Review: Happyish Suffers from First-World Problems

Steve Coogan as Thom in Happyish (Season 1, Episode 1). - Photo:  Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME - happyish_101_09094.R
Mark Schafer/Showtime

Smarts and strong casting don't hide that there are old whines in this new bottle.

Meet Thom Payne (Steve Coogan). He’s just turned 44. He feels old. He has a wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), and a kid, Julius (Sawyer Shipman), and a suburban house and the pressure of keeping them all afloat. He hates his job, and he fears for it. He wonders if this is all there is. He–

Oh, you’ve already met? Sure; you’ve met one version of him or another–middle-aged, ennui-ridden, losing a step to the advancing hordes of The Youngs–in numerous cable dramas and comedies and dramedies. Sometimes he sells crystal meth, sometimes he does standup. In Showtime’s Happyish (premieres April 26), he works for an advertising agency–no, not that one–and his first campaign is to sell you on the urgency of his particular set of First World problems.

Thom knows he has it good by present-day standards: he pulls in a big income, takes a morning train from the affluent suburb of Woodstock, N.Y. It doesn’t feel enough, though; he lives in a society where the goal, created in part by his own profession is “happiness,” something more than mere contentment. He doesn’t know what that is, but he’s pretty sure he’s not feeling it.

In the mid-20th-century, Don Draper’s day, Thom would at least have the rest of his working life to stew in comfortable angst. But Thom lives in the post-security era. His agency has been taken over by two young Swedes, spouting clichés about youth and disruption and change. They want, for instance, to establish a social-media presence for their clients, Keebler. Unable to contain himself, Thom asks why you need that kind of intimacy for every cookie or digestive-aid product: “Who the f— wants to follow Pepto-Bismol on Twitter?” It’s a clever outburst, but, Thom is learning, clever’s stock is dropping, and his along with it.

Happyish is created by novelist and memoirist Shalom Auslander, and a little like FX’s Man Seeking Woman (born of short stories by Simon Rich), it often seems like it might work better on the page than the screen. It’s not badly written at all; there are tour de force bursts of monologue and magma blasts of white-collar rage. But it is very written, very writerly; the only thing organic in this high-end suburb is the Whole Foods. Over and over, characters dispense perfectly crafted aphorisms to ensure you never forget precisely what the show is about.

“It’s Lord of the Flies out there, and everyone over 18 is Piggy,” Thom tells us. Says his corporate-headhunter pal Dani (Ellen Barkin), “It doesn’t matter how many cars you have, how big your house is, or how much pussy you get–you hit your joy ceiling and you’re done.” (Did I mention the show is called Happyish?) Thom’s boss Jonathan (Bradley Whitford) is practically a Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of middle-aged-male gloom: These days, he laments, “thinking’s not as important as tweeting.” And: “God’s a brand, and the brand’s in trouble.” And: “We’ve reached Peak America. We’re sitting in a puddle of was.” But we’re still the world’s leading exporter of midlife crises!

Happyish has a dark backstory of its own; it was meant to star the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and shot a pilot with him before his untimely death. The new version makes a nod to its British star–there’s an allusion to his “adopted” country in his opening rant on “the pursuit of happiness”–but it doesn’t give the acerbic Mancunian actor more of an outsider’s perspective on the American pop culture he toils in. Coogan tears beautifully into Thom’s twitchy, angry sarcasm, and he can do melancholy (see The Trip), but I have to wonder if Hoffman would have brought Thom a needed soulfulness.

Performances aren’t the show’s problem, though. It’s that we’ve seen so much of this before, like the manic reliance on voiceover and fantasy sequences. The most remarkable thing about the latter is that many use characters from actual ad campaigns to R-rated effect. They range from amusing to excruciating–you will never see the Keebler hollow tree again after the pilot–but it leaves the dispiriting feeling that this subversion is just another form of marketing.

At one point, Happyish acknowledges that it’s walking in past TV series’ loafers; “F— Mad Men,” Thom says, “Nothing about advertising is cool.” It’s an unfortunate contrast that Happyish premieres a week after a Mad Men episode, “The Forecast,” that more richly explored themes of youth vs. age and contentment vs. fulfillment (and even used a cookie advertising campaign to do it). There are signs of promise, as in the second episode, when Lee works through unresolved issue with her mother via a Jewish-guilt fantasy version of Dora the Explorer. But it squanders them with “We care why?” moments such as Thom imagining himself as Samuel Beckett, never writing his great works because of the pressures of paying the monthly nut on his suburban lifestyle.

Ultimately, Happyish shares Thom’s problem: it’s smart, it’s well-read and shows talent, and once that would have been enough, in an earlier age when the market allowed in less competition. Now it’s a buyer’s market for the anomie Happyish is selling; there are too many other diverse competing voices out there for a series to grab you simply by pointing out that a middle-aged professional with ample assets and options might kinda wish he were writing a novel instead.

It is, maybe, not fair to judge a series by its themes and its characters’ demographics. As Roger Ebert said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” But for all its rhetorical flourishes, Happyish isn’t about its well-covered themes in any interesting way. Thom, in the end, is one more guy who’s mistaken his wants for needs–which in the end, is your best proof that advertising really does work.

TIME Television

The Americans Watch: The Evil Empire Strikes Home

THE AMERICANS -- "March 8, 1983" Episode 313 (Airs Wednesday, April 22, 10:00 PM e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Patrick Harbon/FX
Patrick Harbon/FX

The end to a spectacular season sets up more dilemmas than it resolves.

Given the title of The Americans’ season three finale, “March 8, 1983,” it was not a spoiler to anyone with Google that the episode would involve Ronald Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech about the Soviet Union. That this series would use that signal moment in the Cold War isn’t surprising. How it used the speech was more so.

Reagan’s speech was not only a saber-rattling declaration. It was an ethical argument that his audience must choose a side–it cast the Cold War as a moral battle not just between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. but one within the West. Reagan gave the speech not to Congress or some think tank, but–befitting Paige’s spiritual crisis and turn to activist Pastor Tim–to the National Association of Evangelicals. As The Americans has showed, there was a strong pull toward the nuclear-freeze movement among some faithful, who heard a Biblical call for nonviolence and disarmament. Speaking to a more friendly religious group, Reagan made a counterargument:

So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

I don’t think The Americans is using Reagan’s words to say that he was right or wrong about the arms race. The show has never been very interested in relitigating the ideology of the Cold War, and it’s deeply empathetic with its killer Soviet protagonists (which does not mean it’s sympathetic to their goals or tactics).

But the show uses the speech to underline a more philosophical argument: that every person, weak or powerful, has moral agency and thus moral obligation. It can be tempting to believe otherwise. It’s such a cliché that Philip writes it into the suicide note he dashes off for poor, collateral-damage Gene: “I HAD NO CHOICE… I’M SORRY.”

An overarching theme of “March 8” was: you do have a choice. Maybe not a good one, maybe not an easy one, but a choice. A dependent, frightened teen like Paige has a choice–if maybe a disastrous one–to decide that living a lie is not in her character and to call Pastor Tim. Even prisoners in the gulag have choices within their limited range, as Anton tells Nina when she realizes she’s no longer willing to “keep buying back [her] life”: Turn down the comforts they offer, however hard it may be, and they have no power over you.

It’s not always easy to acknowledge, though. More efficient to get through life saying you’re trapped, or you’ve already made your decisions, or you have a duty. In her last words to her daughter, Elizabeth’s mother reckons with her choice: “I had to let you go. Everything was at stake.” Talking to Paige about her mother’s decision–with the implication hanging over it of possibly recruiting Paige as a spy herself–even Elizabeth, not one to blink at harsh reality, can’t bring herself to confront the choice head-on.

Paige gives her an opening to do it: “Would you let me do that?” But Elizabeth, whether for her sake or Paige’s, won’t accept the premise: “You would never have to do anything like that. OK?” (Not really an answer, Mom!) There is, maybe, an element of Elizabeth believing what she wants to believe about her daughter, as later when she tells Philip that Paige was “really good” on their trip when she’s plainly not doing well at all with carrying the family secret.

But then again, Elizabeth has a job to do, and she has the constant contrast of Philip, who always hopes for a choice–a way to satisfy both his patriotic duty and his conscience–and is tortured by the thought of making the wrong one. Sometimes it leads him to lash out, in a way that Gabriel likens to the rebellion of a petulant teenager: “Grow up.” Sometimes it leads him to turn inward, as when he returns to EST, maybe consoled by its quasi-Colbert emphasis on not overthinking things: “These feelings in your gut are just as important–more important–than all the shit in your head.”

Occasionally, his struggling works, as when he found a way out of committing statutory rape with the babysitter. Mostly, it leaves him morose, making greater-good arguments that don’t even persuade himself. “Yousaf, I feel like shit all the time,” he says, a stunningly simple and accurate summation of his character. By finale’s end, he’s unloading himself to Elizabeth, saying that he needs to start doing the job differently, but he can’t even articulate how–”From now on, I need to be know what I’m doing better so I…”–before he’s interrupted by the Great Communicator, for whom the answers, the right and wrong, seem to come so easily and without self-doubt.

And that’s pretty much it. Very little is final about this finale, by the standards of The Americans or of other dramas. Unlike in seasons one and two, there is no climactic mission, no violent resolution or reveal. (Who else had “Someone gets stranded in Russia” in their betting pool?) Nina started the season in prison–and she’s still there. Various of Philip and Elizabeth’s operations are still hanging out there. Is Martha dead, or a convert? Neither! She’s still processing Philip’s wig-off confessional (the details of which we never get). Stan’s defector sting is settled but only leaves more questions. And what of the mail robot?

After three seasons, The Americans is fully committed to being serial, to telling its story over however many seasons it gets, to build and build tension without releasing it. Its game is long, its pace controlled. The finale set up more business than it settled. (What’s this connection between Philip and Sandra Beeman? Is the FBI pushing Stan’s loyalty too far by sacrificing Nina?)

That’s had great benefits: it has never tipped over into Homeland-style absurdity in an effort to constantly keep things moving. (After season one, for instance, it had the good sense to dial back the cat-and-mouse game with Stan, which would have either become unbelievable or made him seem incompetent had he constantly been one step away from catching them.) It’s allowed the show to treat the characters, however outlandish the premise, with deep emotional realism. But that may alienate viewers who find the resulting slow burn frustrating, cold and without payoff.

But if you love The Americans like I do, it’s because the investment, the building of dread and its effects on the characters, is the payoff. Overall, season three was an improvement even on season two, which Transparent beat out for first place on my Best of 2014 list last year only by a wig-hair. Confident, soulful, rich: it will be quite a mission to dislodge this as best drama of 2015.

And while I say there was little climax or closure, there was a return to a pattern. Every Americans season finale has ended with Paige: alone in the laundry room in season one with her just-blooming doubts; targeted as an agent by the Centre at the end of season two; calling Pastor Tim here. (While young actors are often in a tough spot in very adult dramas like this–again, see Homeland–Holly Taylor makes Paige’s desperation achingly real.) Last year’s finale showed us the Jennings family in tableau, together, but alone in their thoughts. The finale ends strikingly with them each in a series of fade-ins: Henry (the most truly isolated, even if he doesn’t know it) with Stan, Paige huddled on her bedroom floor, Philip hanging his head, Elizabeth watching Reagan with a hawk’s sentinel intensity.

A war has begun. Little do Philip and Elizabeth know it happened right down their own hallway.

TIME Television

Netflix, Full House, and the Temptations of Nostalgia

DAVE COULIER;JODIE SWEETIN;MARY-KATE/ASHLEY OLSEN;BOB SAGET;CANDACE CAMERON;JOHN STAMOS
ABC/Getty Images Full House—Cast Gallery—August 8, 1989.

Remaking something people liked is not the way to make something people will love.

If the folks at Netflix watch Netflix, last December they might have seen a chilling episode of the British sci-fi series Black Mirror, titled “Be Right Back,” a kind of high-tech version of the short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” After her significant other is killed in an accident, a young woman hears about a tech startup that promises to bring him back–an artificially intelligent simulacrum, anyway–first as a smartphone app, then as a clone. The imitation is perfect, practically perfect, almost perfect–so tantalizingly close to perfect that it’s maddening, because in the end, she can never get past the fact that it’s not him.

Maybe the higher-ups at Netflix skipped that episode, or didn’t really take it to heart, because we’ve just got the official announcement that it is bringing back the sitcom Full House for a full season. John Stamos will be back as Uncle Jesse. D.J. will be a pregnant new widow. You will be young again, safe and loved.

During the long, rich life that Full House lived on ABC, it was not a good show. But it was a well-loved show, and that was enough to bring it back, because that’s what we do now. We’re getting a new X-Files. We have a new Odd Couple. We may be getting more Arrested Development, and possibly another Twin Peaks, depending how things shake out after David Lynch’s departure. Networks are trying to revive The Muppet Show, Coach, Uncle Buck, and Duck Tales.

Everything you loved once is coming back! Did you have a beloved dog who died when you were a kid? Expect to hear a scratching noise at your back door soon.

Over at HitFix, Dan Fienberg says that if there’s a mania for reboots now, it’s because networks, and their new non-reboots, are failing us: “something is missing in today’s TV landscape that causes a certain probably large group of viewers to yearn only for the pablum of their youth and I blame TV networks, not those viewers.”

I think he has part of a point. A good, original family sitcom might appeal to what Full House fans are missing, and it might recapture some of them. But there’s one thing it will never have that Full House did: you, in your Ninja Turtles pajamas, happy and laughing with your whole life ahead of you.

That’s nostalgia. That’s nothing new. What’s new is having the outlets and the resources to enable it. The reboot craze is a new iteration of the old impulse to program what focus groups say they want to see. And increasingly, as more past TV is available on streaming, what they want to see is their own past.

I don’t want to pick on Netflix alone here, because it’s also the TV networks doing this. But Netflix has a particular ability to weaponize this nostalgic impulse. With the granular data it has on who watches exactly what, and how much, it can microtarget shows that are ripe for revival, becoming a kind of TV Lourdes where the dead are brought back to life, if you vote for it with your eyeballs.

And hey, why shouldn’t people get what they want? Why be a hater? It may seem sad to me, but I don’t have to watch. (Though I will in fact totally watch a new X-Files.) I don’t know if any given reboot will be good or not; even if it’s terrible, that will make the original no better or worse in retrospect.

The problem is the millions of dollars, the creative energy, the airtime that’s not spent on something else, something new. Great TV shows–including Twin Peaks and The Muppet Show–were not devised by algorithm. The danger of all this revivalism is that the shows could work, just well enough. Making a reboot could be the most foolproof way of putting on a show with a built-in audience, but one whose highest upside will always be less than the original.

That’s the problem with making TV shows based on what you already know your viewers once liked. You guarantee you will never make the next thing that they’ll love.

Read next: Do We Really Need a Full House Reboot?

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TIME Television

Review: Inside Amy Schumer Makes the Personal Parodic

Comedy Central Amber Rose and Schumer on the season premiere.

Schumer's sketch show is a war comedy, and she's the battlefield.

I could tell you exactly how funny the season 3 premiere of Inside Amy Schumer is (Tues., April 21), but then I’d have to kill it. Explanations are deadly to comedy, not to mention giving away punchlines. And while Schumer’s already released the opening sketch–“Milk Milk Lemonade,” a parody of booty videos guest starring Amber Rose–the episode’s other highlights depend so much on surprise, twists and casting that if I told you–well, then you’d have to kill me.

I will say, though, that the episode’s title is “Last F—able Day,” a play on the idea that every woman in Hollywood has an expiration date, the moment directors fear “your vagina is going to turn into a hermit crab.” (See also Tina Fey’s rule, in Bossypants, that “the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f— her anymore.”) That kind of awareness–knowing how women are judged, rejecting it, enabling it, toying with it–is the nugget of nuclear fuel that powers Schumer’s feminist sketch machine.

At its best–and the first three episodes of the season among the show’s best–Amy Schumer’s comedy is often intensely about herself. Not in the sense that it’s autobiographical or introspective: it’s about her person, her body, how the world sees it, how she sees it, who feels they have the right to it.

Schumer jokes about being on the cusp between the kind of women pop culture objectifies and the kind it rejects; see the season 2 sketch where she played two opposing tennis players, one hot and girly (and fawned over by the announcers), one lumbering and athletic (and vilified by them). Finding comedy in the mirror isn’t unique to her or even to women comics–Louis CK bases plenty of comedy on his appearance–but the way Schumer does it, not with Phyllis Diller-style self-deprecation but playing in the gray zones of social judgment, is fruitfully uncomfortable.

That sensibility is still there in season three, but it’s honed, assertive and blisteringly satirical, as in a birth-control ad where the boilerplate “Ask your doctor if birth control is right for you” morphs into demands that you also ask your boss, your boss’ priest, and random strangers. Inside Amy Schumer is really a war comedy; this battle is going on inside women, and it’s about who has the right to control them.

Some sketches seem to revisit territory from the first two seasons, like one about a woman enthusiastically going to a strip club with her male coworkers, a sort-of reprise of last season’s “Chick Who Can Hang” sketch. But others take the same themes into an entirely new dimension, like the audacious third episode, “Twleve Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer.”

In the full-episode sketch, a parody of the Henry Fonda jury movie, a dozen men (including Jeff Goldblum, Paul Giamatti and Vincent Kartheiser) are sequestered to judge Schumer physically. At first it’s like a remake of last season’s “You Would Bang Her?”–but it pushes the conceit into absurdity into a faux-melodrama about the male gaze arguing against itself. (“Am I the only one thinking with my dick here!” one furious juror demands.) It’s a satire of how women are assessed, and of how men are socialized to assess them, and of how pop culture presses a standardized, and thus boring, idea of sexiness on everyone. At the same time, it’s both a pitch-perfect satire of Sidney Lumet-style social-issues movies and an effective piece of social issues comedy.

Schumer barely appears in the half-hour-long sketch. And yet her presence, her sensibility, is everywhere here. Like all of Inside Amy Schumer at its best, it’s hot because it’s funny.

TIME Television

Game of Thrones Watch: Making a List, Checking It Twice

HBO

Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but in Westeros it is a multicourse banquet.

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

The following review discusses Game of Thrones, “The House of Black and White,” in detail:

“Cersei. Walder Frey. The Mountain. Meryn Trant…”

Arya Stark’s long list is getting shorter. (So long, Joffrey! Hasta la Vista, Tywin! See you in the Seven Hells, Hound?) But it is only a partial one, the opening bars to a long, long tune of vengeance awaited in Westeros. You want payback? Get in line, behind the slaves of Meereen, the Martells of Dorne, pretty much anyone who ever crossed a Lannister (especially other Lannisters). Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but in Westeros, it is a multicourse banquet.

Vengeance is a big theme in “The House of Black and White,” an ironic title since the moral question here is anything but. Westeros’ history, like most any other continent’s, is a chain of they-did-it-to-us-first stretching back to the mists of creation. Hardly a character on screen lacks just cause for revenge on someone. But while the quest may be thrilling, it’s never simple. Vengeance is sweet. But is it just? Is it right? Is it smart?

The episode starts its investigation with Arya, whom we’d follow to the ends of the Earth–and now we have, almost anyway, on a ship sailing underneath the dangly bits of the Titan of Braavos. Our first sight is her fixed, intent stare. Her anger and bitterness have honed her sharper than Needle, and she’s come in hopes of weaponizing herself, clutching her worried coin, seeking J’aqen Haghar. She’s rowed in, past the homey scenes of a beautiful harbor, hanging melons, frying fish, but the only tourist site she’s interested in is the massive building built entirely of cold rock and Manichean symbolism.

Her plan may be drawn from the Underpants Gnome school of retribution. (“1. House of Black and White. 2. ??? 3. Vengeance!”) But this is all she has left: a coin, a badass fighting stance and the name of a guy. Because there’s no good sensei story without a challenge, she’s met be a strange elderly man who turns her away. Later, he reveals himself as the face-shifting J’aqen, though he denies that name. He’s no one–he has many faces, but no identity–and if she enters the building that’s who she will have to become too.

Message: when you make a list of names for revenge, save a line at the bottom for your own.

If that’s some kind of cautionary parable, though, no one’s listening. Certainly not Cersei, who has issued a bounty that is reaping her dwarfheads by the bagful from opportunistic bounty hunters. Not Brienne, driven across the countryside by duty and unquenched fury of Renly’s murder. Not Stannis, of the inflexible code of justice, who tells Jon Snow that if you want to be followed, you need to be feared.

And it’s not long before we’re in our first new location, Dorne, which is beautiful and angry. Someone has FedExed Cersei a gorgeous hexagonal box with a snake–symbol of Dorne–and the necklace of her daughter Myrcella, living as a ward/hostage in the land whose prince, Oberyn, her champion the Mountain recently made into head-jelly.

It’s a threat, but not a certain one: back at the Water Gardens, Ellaria Sand is arguing with Prince Doran whether to punish Myrcella–an eye for Oberyn’s literal eyes. “We do not mutilate little girls for vengeance,” he answers. “Not here. Not while I rule.”

From the looks of things, the argument is not over. But he has powerful recent history on his side. The reason Oberyn came to King’s Landing at all, and accepted the battle with the Mountain so gladly, was vengeance for his own sister, brutally raped and murdered in the sack of King’s Landing. Does it do anyone any good to launch another round, paying it forward to another innocent and ensuring yet another reprisal, when the view of the gardens is so lovely?

It may be a moral question–turn the other cheek and all that–but because Game of Thrones is very much a political story too, it’s also a practical one. On the one hand, maybe you can reign more peacefully and prosperously if you’re willing to risk weakness and break the cycle. On the other hand, how do you do that without rewarding the very worst?

These are the irreconcilable questions facing Dany, in a conquered Meereen where everyone is keeping a list. The Sons of the Harpy are waging urban guerilla warfare in payback for the slave rebellion, and former slaves are paying back the payback. Ser Barristan counsels her that her father, the Mad King, acted out of a sense of cruel, deserved justice and it was his downfall. Her Meereen aides argue that the slave masters–the same ones who crucified children on the road–only understand cruelty. (Complicating everything is that the Harpy murderers aren’t the slavemasters themselves, but poor freedmen paid to do their dirty work. Vengeance, as so often in real life, really means taking the low-hanging fruit.)

They’re all right, and thus all wrong. And when Daenerys tries to balance the scales by using due process, that goes wrong too: the prisoner is murderered in custody, which finally pushes Dany to lose the moral high ground–and at least some of her subjects’ affection–by having him summarily executed.

So justice has been done. Payment has been exacted. The scales have been balanced. And everybody is better off–not least Dany, who alienated her “children” in Meereen, and ends the episode looking out on the landscape as her dragon-child Drogon flies off over the dusky horizon.

It’s as if she’s looking into the future, one in which all debts are paid, all grievances settled, a land where justice is so thorough and complete that there’s no one left to live in it.

Now for the hail of arrows:

* “But you forgot about…!” There’s a hell of a lot of story in Game of Thrones, and as in my reviews of past seasons, I can think of nothing more useless than trying to mention every last thing that happened in every episode. Each week, I’ll write about the stuff that interests me most. Feel free to take it from there in the comments!

* We got a whopping new diversion from the source books this week, which I’ll spoiler-blur for those of you who don’t want to know how things go down in the original:

Brienne finds Sansa! I didn’t have this one in my Game of Thrones betting pool, but not only does it make for the action sequence of the week–as Brienne is slyly rebuffed by Littlefinger, then goes berserker on his knights in her getaway–it also solves a couple of narrative problems from A Feast for Crows. First, we no longer need follow Brienne trudging, and trudging, and trudging, through the countryside before finally getting strung up by the (no longer on the scene) Lady Stoneheart. Second, we had just about exhausted the existing from-the-books Littlefinger and Sansa story by this point. Like other changes, this one is driven by efficiency: don’t keep people sidelined, don’t introduce new characters where existing ones will do. The result may be better or worse, but the storyline is riding fast into unknown woods, and I like it.

* So how cornball are the House of Black and White sequences? We’re treading perilously close to Yoda/Miyagi territory with the mystic Eastern music and a-girl-must-become-nothing-isms. (And though I’m being that guy, it’s a shame that when a show that’s created a very white Westeros casts an older black man, his face is literally wiped after two scenes.) On the other hand, I loved how Thrones physically represented J’aqen’s transformation, with the camera passing behind Arya’s head just in time to catch the barest glimpse of a skin being pulled to the side of J’aqen’s cowl. And who am I kidding? I’m a sucker for cornball sensei-learner sequences; there’s a good reason we see them so often.

* “We’ve already got a ruler. Everywhere has got a ruler. Every pile of shit by the side of every road has someone’s banner hanging from it.” I will happily take a full hour of the Varys and Drunk Tyrion show every week.

* I suppose I should mention that Jon got himself elected Lord Commander (albeit turned down becoming Lord of Winterfell), which I assume means that he just bought a bigger load of problems. Still the election was satisfying, if nothing else for Sam sending Janos Slynt straight to the burn unit for cowering in the larder during the battle with the Wildlings. And in scenes like this–the divided cliques, Maester Aemon slyly casting the deciding vote–The Wall reminds me of a really dark version of Hogwarts.

* “Jaime fookin’ Lannister!” Ah, I fookin’ missed you too, Bronn.

TIME Television

“I’m On Television”: Britt McHenry’s Classist, Classless Mistake

As more meltdowns go viral, will people's behavior change, or will our standards for it?

Why was it fair for ESPN to suspend reporter Britt McHenry after she went Dennis Quaid on a towing-company clerk on viral video? She gave the reason herself: “I’m on television.”

McHenry’s sole job, at its root, is to make people want to watch her on TV. To the extent that she followed “I’m on television” with “and you’re in a f*cking trailer” along with a string of other untelegenic, education- and body-shaming insults, she has herself to blame. As with Phil Robertson and many other instances of TV stars getting penalized for popping off, this isn’t a free speech issue. No one has a constitutional right to a TV job.

But also as in those other cases, it’s worth asking what exactly McHenry’s being punished for. For abusing a poorer, less famous employee? For doing it in such a way that we found out about it? Or for doing it on camera?

As someone raised by two hard-working parents, neither of whom went to college, McHenry’s “That’s why I have a degree and you don’t” classist attitude disgusts me. And I also know there’s plenty more of it in the world, not caught on camera. The more cameras are out there–in business, in our pockets, on elevators–the more bad celebrity behavior we’re eventually going to witness.

What less certain is whether the awareness that someone might be watching will make people behave better, or whether the frequency of meltdown videos will numb us to it. Let’s say you believe that anyone, like McHenry, who verbally lashes a service employee, or underling, or anyone in a lower power position, should be punished for it. Lets further assume that two or three–or a squintillion–powerful people have done the same thing, but off-camera.

If you could invent a magic device (like a video camera) that could reveal every such instance, would you want them all punished? Would you want the same to every nonfamous person who ever cursed out the cable-company operator? Or would the scale of it–there are a lot of jerks in the world–make it seem futile and ridiculous?

Maybe the knowledge that you never know when you might be caught on tape will lead some people to behave better. Occasionally, the power of example does some real good; Jonah Hill, for instance, was videotaped in 2014 yelling a homophobic slur, and it produced one of the few seemingly true, contrite and considered public celebrity apologies. He went through the now-familiar ritual of public shaming, came out of it with his career just fine, and hopefully he and maybe a few fans learned an actual lesson.

But the more meltdowns become public–not just celebrity ones, but increasing cable-TV fodder of amateur bad behavior–the more I wonder if they’ll become cautionary tales or just entertainment. It’s something we’ll have to work out, intentionally or gradually–will we define our standards of behavior up, or our ability to be shocked down? As McHenry reminded us, she’s on TV. But these days, who isn’t?

Read next: ESPN Suspends Reporter Britt McHenry Over Leaked Parking Lot Video

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TIME Television

Review: Other Space Is a Cosmic Blast

Yahoo

Paul Feig's oddball sci-fi comedy gives us a spaceship as dysfunctional dorm room.

TV has given us space as final frontier (Star Trek), space as epic war site (Battlestar Galactica), space as source of mystery (Extant) and menace (V). Paul Feig’s goofily funny Other Space, whose full eight-episode first season is now on Yahoo Screen, gives us space as a site to work out your personal business. In Other Space, no one can hear you scream, except the family members, unrequited loves and assorted misfits you’re trapped with.

It’s the year 2105, and the Universal Mapping Project has given command of one of its ships, the UMP Cruiser, to wet-behind-the-ears captain Stewart Lipinski (Karan Soni). It seems like a big assignment for the well-meaning but jittery newbie, but deep-space exploration has become a less glamorous job over the half century in which the UMP has found nothing but rocks and dust.

So Stewart inherits a ship and crew of castoffs and oddballs, including his hard-charging big sister Karen (Bess Rous), who resents being his second-in command; his childhood buddy Michael (Eugene Cordero); Tina (Milana Vayntraub), whom Stewart hired because of a badly-hidden crush; and onboard computer avatar Natasha (Conor Leslie), who was originally programmed as a blackjack dealer. In a nod to low-budget sci-fi-TV past, the gang is rounded out by Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s Joel Hodgson as a stoner tech officer and Trace Beaulieu as the voice of outmoded robot A.R.T. (who, we learn, is the downloaded consciousness of a billionaire who made a bad investment in Singularity technology).

All goes–not well, and then it goes worse. The Cruiser is sucked up by a temporary wormhole–or “space toilet”–that flushes it into another universe. Inexperienced, poorly provisioned and terrified (a UMP training video on resigning yourself to die alone in space doesn’t help) sets out to navigate its new envirnoment, as well as all the personal and interpersonal space-junk that the stress stirs up.

The subject matter may seem an odd choice for Feig if you know him from Freaks and Geeks, which he created, or Bridesmaids, which he directed. (He did branch out into comedy sci-fi in his young-adult Ignatius MacFarland: Frequenaut! books.) But the science in Other Space‘s fiction is definitely light, even by the standards of, say, Futurama, and the production design is decidedly old-school. (It’s reminiscent of one of the few live-action sci-fi sitcoms past, NBC’s Quark, starring Richard Benjamin, from 1977.)

Really, Other Space is a workplace self-discovery comedy about misfits finding their place, in a office that just happens to be floating in an alien dust cloud. Though Yahoo may not have planned it this way, actually, Other Space (which Feig originally conceived for NBC) turns out to be a closer companion to its adopted Community than anything NBC ever paired with the show. The vibe is a little like a college dorm set afloat in space (at one point Tina draws on “my RA training” to handle a challenge), as the Cruiser’s maladjusted crew gets a forced crash course in socialization. (There’s a great example in the second episode, in which nebbishy officer Kent, played by Neil Casey, reveals an origin sotry that’s both heartwarming and hilariously gross.)

As with the LED-lit, beep-boop control panels of the Cruiser, there’s little brand-new about Other Space, but it grows into a low-stakes, good-hearted good time. The production feels amateurish in a good way, loose, light and benefitting from a cast heavy on sketch comedy experience.

Early in the pilot, the crew of the Cruiser discovers that its food replicator is busted, leaving them with nothing to eat but a massive stash of fudge in the ship’s hold. It feels like a metaphor for streaming the show. It might be too much to binge this odd confection all at once (just as, Karen dourly informs the crew, an all-fudge diet will lead to a ghastly death within weeks). But who doesn’t like fudge? Other Space may not be TV’s, or streaming’s, next great comedy. But it’s a welcome and unexpected treat.

TIME Television

Justified Watch: It Beats Angry

JUSTIFIED -- "Promise" Episode 313 (Airs Tuesday, April 14, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured (l-r): Nick Searcy as Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Art Mullen & Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens.CR: Prashant Gupta/FX
FX

Fittingly for this series finale, shots are fired but it's the words that hit the target.

Spoilers for the series finale of Justified, “The Promise,” below:

The last gunshot in “The Promise” is fired 20 minutes before the episode ends. The scene is as Western as Western can be without the tumbleweeds. Raylan and quick-draw artist Boon stare each other down on a lonesome highway. We see Boon framed, classically, from the vantage of Raylan’s holster. There’s a cut quick enough to just show Boon draw first. We see a long view of the two shootists, firing exactly at the same time. Raylan falls, Boon crumples, and Loretta kicks away his gun before he can fire the kill shot at Raylan, who has suffered only a graze.

Then the guns are holstered and put away.

Justified from the beginning has been a kind of modern-day Western. Timothy Olyphant, previously the seething Sheriff Seth Bullock on Deadwood, played Raylan Givens as a tortured hero in an (off-)white hat, basically decent yet–as ex-wife Winona pointed out in the show’s pilot–“the angriest man I have ever known.”

But it’s only a kind of Western, and what has made it great–its true legacy from late godfather Elmore Leonard–is that its choicest ammunition has always been the word. It shoots nothing as well as it does the breeze. This was not a series that was going to end in a climactic bloodbath with one gunslinger standing. In the end, contra Darrell Scott’s ballad, Raylan, Ava and Boyd all leave Harlan alive, albeit in different states of liberty. And Justified spends its final 20 minutes displaying its verbal firepower.

So Avery Markham’s story ended in blood, as was inevitable since Sam Elliott’s mustache-less, menacingly turtle-mouthed visage made its way to the screen. (Of Justified‘s many villains, he was probably the most compelling save for Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett and of course Boyd Crowder.) But Markham was always merely the turtle-soup appetizer to this final meal, and Boon the middle course. The meat of the supper was the confrontation between deadly frenemies Raylan and Boyd.

That showdown at first seems to come too soon, Raylan getting the drop on an out-of-ammo Boyd halfway into the finale. (“God damn, Raylan, your timing sucks!”) But it turns out to be a non-shootout shootout, in which Raylan urges Boyd to draw, and Boyd refuses; if Raylan wants him dead, he’ll have to cross that line. That’s the penalty of being the good guy: you have to let the other guy draw first. We met Raylan as a good guy, but a pissed-off one, seething, grudge-bearing, giving crooks the make-my-day nudge that made his shootings, as the title says, justified–just barely.

“You make me pull,” he tells Boyd in that first episode, “I’ll put you down.” Two questions have hung over Raylan all these six seasons. Would he ever rid himself of that chip on his shoulder (which even his criminal daddy Arlo’s death could not dislodge)? And would he ever kill Boyd? In the end, he achieves the first by letting go of the second.

The scene is one of many callbacks to Justified’s pilot, fitting for a series so conscious of the pull of the past. History, in Justified’s Harlan, is a living thing–and it’s an ornery, spiteful bastard, lurking below your feet in a mine you thought was long closed, waiting to pull you back down. At best, it can be a source of pride. (Loretta, maybe my favorite character, makes the pot business into a kind of higher calling by promising to protect Harlan’s patrimony from Markham.) At worst, it goads you to keep soaking the ground with blood to feed it. Justified’s strength has been to show without condescension how Harlan’s people–beat-up, exploited, looked down on–have been both victims and enablers of this kind of historical cycle.

“The Promise” uses its callbacks to give us the happiest ending this show can: suggesting that, with work, old patterns can be broken. Raylan picks up Boon’s hipster-shootist hat after their showdown, but when we meet him four years later, he’s hatless, eating ice cream with Willa, being friendly with Winona who’s moved on with a new guy. He’s still, she says, “the most stubborn man I’ve ever known,” but as Raylan says, playing off the last line of the pilot, “It beats angry.” And so Raylan finds Ava, who–unlike his first visit to her after she blew her husband away–does not have Co’Cola or RC, and takes her hand off the rifle she’s hiding.

Which leaves Raylan one last challenge: to keep Boyd out of Ava’s life forever, and to do it with words, not bullets, by convincing him that she’s dead. Amazingly, the lie works. The bullshitter has finally been bullshat, and yet Raylan does it with a noticeably heavy heart.

There is no joy in Raylan’s final con, only necessity and the final awareness of how birth, family and the land mark you in ways you can’t escape or deny. Raylan may have contempt for Boyd, his schemes, his mud-people theories (another pilot callback), yet they will each always have Harlan under their fingernails and in their lungs: “We dug coal together.”

It’s no shootout, but it’s a confrontation as intimate as any. The two men are framed tight, from either side of the glass, cradling the receivers like a mother’s hand. There may be no love lost between them, but there’s a sadness; through it all, Olyphant and Goggins convey that this end may be no tragedy, but it’s a damn shame all the same.

And it falls, of course, to Boyd Crowder, infinite font of flourish and flim-flam, to give the last, best benediction to Justified and its love of lingo. “Raylan Givens,” he says, “I know you have never believed a word that has come out of my mouth. Though I have harbored a secret hope that you have nevertheless enjoyed hearing them.”

Every word, Boyd. Every damn word.

TIME Television

How I Met My Mother: Don Draper’s Oedipal Farewell Tour

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC
Justina Mintz/AMC

With Mad Men's mysterious Diana, Don seems to be going back to the beginning. The very beginning.

Spoilers for Mad Men, “New Business,” below:

“You think you’re going to begin your life over and get it right. But what if you never get past the beginning?”

Is Diana the waitress real?

Yes. Maybe! Probably. OK, yes–in the literal terms of how she’s presented on Mad Men, Diana appears to be an actual, in-the-flesh person, not a ghost, hallucination or Greek hunter-goddess. When we and Don first meet her, it’s in the company of other people, including Roger Sterling, who tips her the $100 she mistakes as an advance payment for sex. (As one does.) And in “New Business”–largely dedicated to the old business of Don’s love life–when Sylvia awkwardly encounters Don in his building’s elevator, she acknowledges his date.

But Diana is just barely real, in a way that seems too blatant to be accidental. While I don’t think Matthew Weiner is planning some kind of Sixth Sense shocker twist here, there is something Sideways Universe about her entire relationship with Don. For the most part, her scenes with him are written and staged precisely as you would if she were going to be revealed as a phantasm or a dream.

They’re generally alone, or in the presence of other people (restaurant workers, strangers) who take no note of them. They immediately fall into deep, revealing conversations about death, loss and the slipperiness of reality. (Think carefully about when you had that dream–when people die, everything gets mixed up.) She seems archetypal, more symbol than person, and she’s rootless, with no other connections–not even a telephone–or people around her. He meets her waitressing at one restaurant, then finds her–with the odd visual logic of a dream–waitressing in another restaurant, as if she is all waitresses, the Ur-Waitress.

It all fits into a real-world story, of course. (Diana has moved to New York after her daughter’s death precisely to be where she knows no one and has no connections, for instance.) But it plays out more or less the same as it would if she existed only in Don Draper’s head.

Which she does, even if she’s as real as you and I. Remember why Don goes back to her: he feels like he knows her from somewhere, she reminds him from someone, in a way that unsettles him. Elizabeth Reaser’s casting is perfect here, because she has the same effect on a Mad Men audience: she’s a familiar face, but just somewhat, and looks a little like so many of Don’s Dusky Sad Women past, from Midge to Rachel to Suzanne Farrell to Sylvia.

Oh, and one more: Don’s mother, Evangeline (make of that name what you will), the prostitute who died when he was born. A person Don can never have seen, except that he has, in the season 3 premiere “Out of Town.” Don is warming up milk for his expectant wife Betty, and while that big bubbling pot of symbolism froths on the stovetop, Don imagines the primal scene between his mother and Archie Whitman, his own birth, and the ironic naming of Dick Whitman. (“You get me in trouble, I’m gonna cut your dick off and boil it in hog fat.”) As Evangeline shivers near death, she’s asked if she wants to hold her baby. At least in Don’s vision, she never does.

You don’t have to be Dr. Freud, or Dr. Faye Miller, to see that Don in some way has all his life been trying to get into her arms, to get back to his own phantasmal, real-but-not-real mother. At the outset of season 4, after his divorce from Betty, we find him in bed with a prostitute, paying her to slap him. (That encounter is further complicated in season 6, when we learn that Dick Whitman lost his virginity as a boy to a prostitute who molested him.) Not coincidence, I’m guessing, that Don becomes fixated on Diana after she has sex with him for money (even if he wasn’t aware of it at the time).

Mad Men is about nothing if not pattern-following, and this echoes plenty of patterns in Don’s past relationships: women who often echo Evangeline’s appearance, women in whom he sees something maternal. (When Don chooses Megan over Faye, for instance, one thing that appears to seal the deal is how quickly she bonds with his kids, mopping up spilled milkshakes and making everything right again.)

And it’s starting to look as if the final stretch of Mad Men may be taking stock of Don’s life by taking a farewell tour of each of Don’s relationships: we saw Rachel in “Severance,” Megan, Sylvia and Betty this week. The final episodes are driving forward to the future and the end; Don is trying to turn a corner with Megan, cutting her a check for a million dollars. But as Pete says to Don, there’s no guarantee you can ever make it past your beginning.

Don may see his mother in Diana, and shades of each woman he’s known since. But there’s one more nagging familiarity: he sees himself. She fled from the Midwest–Racine, Wisconsin–to New York. (Don was raised in Pennsylvania but was born in Illinois.) She left behind blood and kin after a trauma, and lives with the guilt of it, while escaping into alcohol and hookups. At one point, she even overtly echoes Don’s famous Carousel pitch from “The Wheel,” saying that she feels “a twinge in my chest.” (“In Greek,” as Don put it, “‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”)

But there’s a big difference between Diana and Don. Where he left his old life and diligently built a new one–name, home, career–she repudiates that idea as an evasion, a betrayal. She’s come to New York specifically to have nothing and no one, to have no identity at all, to live with her pain and dedicate herself to it. To Don, they each offer the other the chance at healing. To Diana, that’s exactly the danger–he makes her forget, and she never wants to. The last thing she wants is to Don Draper her own existence.

I’m still debating whether Diana really works as a character rather than as a thematic device; she’s still too ethereal and thin to seem more than an externalization of Don’s issues, a dream girl, a Renaissance painting, a Madonna with Coffee Carafe. And maybe things will end the way they have for so many of Don’s women, with him turning the relationship into what he needs it to be. Maybe that pattern will repeat too. (In general, though, judging a Mad Men season two episodes in is tempting fate.)

But one thing at least is different here. Even as Don again finds his mother in a woman, this time he’s also found an alternative, alliterative version of himself. (“Diana”–goddess of childbirth as well as hunting, if you’re keeping score–is practically “Donna,” which would have been a little on the nose.) But this version of himself argues that his whole ambition of remaking himself and starting again is a delusion.

Diana may be Don’s last relationship on Mad Men. She may turn out to be his best or his worst or neither. But with her parallels to both Dick Whitman and his mother, she’s at least a fitting return to the very beginning. However real Diana ultimately is, she’s a fitting last partner to Don/Dick, a man for whom nostalgia is the pain from an old womb.

(More: Read Nolan Feeney’s full Mad Men recap.)

TIME Television

Review: The Comedians in Search of a Punch Line

THE COMEDIANS -- Pictured: Billy Crystal, Josh Gad. CR: Ray Mickshaw/FX
FX

FX's inside-Hollywood comedy gets Billy Crystal, Josh Gad and a slew of cameos, but is less than the sum of its parts.

As a general rule, bad TV shows make for better TV than good TV shows do. 30 Rock was hilarious; TGS, from the glimpses we got, was mostly so unintentionally. (OK, I do still laugh at “Someone put too many farts in this engine!”) The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a landmark of ’70s television in a way that it’s safe to say Ted Baxter’s newscast was not. The Comeback, The Larry Sanders Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show each made magic from the process of making, at least, highly challenged productions.

FX’s The Comedians, starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as FX stars Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, is an unfortunate exception to this rule. The show-within-the-show is bad, intentionally so (I think). The show itself is worse, if only because there’s more of it.

The Comedians purports to be a making-of documentary about The Billy and Josh Show, a sketch comedy born after Crystal unsuccessfully pitches a solo show to FX president Denis Grant (Denis O’Hare, doing what I believe is a capable impression of actual FX honcho John Landgraf). The pilot tests badly; as Grant puts it, “We’re worried that we run the risk of too much… you.”

He offers to buy the show if the comedy vet takes on a younger partner: Gad, whom you may know from The Book of Mormon, 1600 Penn, Frozen, or thinking he was Jonah Hill. (The pilot makes a gag out of that latter mistake.) Neither comic wants to do it, but Crystal wants to get back on TV and Gad is burning through his savings. The resulting arranged marriage becomes a generational war of egos, a Nashville of comedy, a Smash of schtick.

There was a time long ago when it would have been brave for two real comics to play themselves in this light, but the inside-the-funny-business-business premise has been tackled many ways by now. And in its first four episodes, The Comedians will repeat nearly every one of those ways, not to its advantage.

Every supporting character here is a toothless type: the basket-case producer (Stephnie Weir), the nebbishy writer (Matt Oberg), the entitled Millennial assistant (Megan Ferguson). Next to this, Showtime’s Episodes (the broad inside-Hollywood comedy with Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc) is practically Robert Altman’s The Player. And The Comedians‘ departures from formula are worse: there’s a truly awful subplot involving a transgender character that’s essentially a “the guy’s a broad!” joke. (Ironic, since Crystal’s TV history includes the LGBT landmark of playing the first gay regular character in a sitcom on ABC’s Soap.)

The teaming of Crystal and Gad seems like it should work on paper. They each have an old-vaudeville sensibility, and each feels committed to making his “character” as unlikeable as the show requires. But the series falls into a pattern–they try to connect, Billy gets defensive and passive-aggressive, Josh tries too hard and ends up saying or doing something excruciating–that it repeats so often you know when every beat will come. Gad ends up seeming like he’s laboring in the role, Crystal like he’s sleepwalking. The whole thing goes down like a cold Nate’n Al’s matzo ball.

There are moments in The Comedians that hint at greater potential. A subplot in the fourth episode, with Gad’s Frozen songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, pays off, and there are promising moments where Gad and Crystal connect in a way that suggests their characters are really at odds because they’re so much alike. But The Comedians always returns to seltzer-down-your-pants mode, like it doesn’t want to challenge itself, or us.

In the end, I’m left watching The Comedians like the chagrinned FX executives watching the development of The Billy and Josh Show, looking at a project that had every advantage–the stars, the behind-the-scenes talent (including director Larry Charles), numerous celebrity cameos–but somehow never managed to gel. In that way, at least, life imitates the art that’s imitating life.

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