TIME Television

Hello, Simpsons World. Goodbye, the Rest of Your Life.

A sample screenshot from Simpsons World FX Networks

The biggest TV premiere of the fall season could be the one involving a 25-year-old show.

Years ago, when I named The Simpsons the best TV show of the 20th century for TIME magazine, one of the reasons that I gave was its depth; it had a vast canvas and dozens, nay hundreds, of characters well-drawn enough to potentially carry a story. It “created worlds within worlds,” I wrote–and this October, it’s going to become a world.

Simpsons World, to be exact: the digital platform, unveiled for TV reporters in Los Angeles yesterday, that FXX network will use to take maximum advantage of acquiring the entire 25-season run of The Simpsons. Accessible on the web and through apps (you also need service from a participating cable provider), it will allow you to watch any Simpsons episode you want, any time.

So there are several years of your life gone right there. But there’s more. You’ll be able to search for episodes by themes, quotes, and characters: if you want to watch nothing but Artie Ziff clips, your dream has come true. You can pull up an extensive episode guide and scripts. You can build playlists or have them suggested for you. And most important: you’ll be able to find, snip and share Simpsons clips–currently made scarce by the long arm of copyright law–in social media.

You may never do anything else again.

The ability to watch all 552 episodes is staggering in itself. (FXX will also marathon the whole shebang Aug. 21 to Sept. 1.) But it’s the search-and-share functions that threaten to transform communication as we know it. I’ve long said that there is a Simpsons quote applicable to nearly every situation in life; now we will be able to prove that. Online comments arguments will become an endless stream of “HA ha” and “Eat my shorts” clips. No one will be able to publish a beer review or write about a celebrity-drunkenness incident without a clip of Homer saying, “To alcohol! The cause of–and solution to–all of life’s problems!” We may be on the verge of a Simpsons Singularity, in which all digital dialogue, and eventually all of human thought, will be expressed in terms of easily accessible Simpsons quotes. (Here, for instance, is where I would insert a clip of Homer saying “Television: Teacher–mother–secret lover!” if only I could.)

More seriously, the venture suggests a new kind of future for TV, or at least for certain kinds of entertainments and franchises: one in which truly immersive TV is not just a show but an app, a platform, a medium. TV shows used to be on channels; now something like The Simpsons can be a channel. Earlier this month, South Park–long maintained with as much independence as possible by Trey Parker and Matt Stone–signed a different but related deal with Hulu, which gets rights to its entire catalog of reruns for over $80 million.

It’s not Simpsons World exactly–though South Park has long had an online home at South Park Studios–but it underscores a similar creative and business fact: a creative franchise evolving into something independent from, and in some ways greater than, any particular channel that happens to host it at the time.

Probably certain kinds of shows are more suited to world-ificiation than others: animated comedies like The Simpsons and South Park have vast room for invention, and large-scale world-building is part of their mission. But someday the same kind of strategy might be used by, say, a sci-fi or fantasy franchise or an immersive soap opera.

It’s partly a business phenomenon, in which digital opportunities allow already big franchises to become even bigger. But hopefully, there are creative implications here. What makes a Simpsons or South Park–or a Game of Thrones–great is its ability to create a vast imagined reality. If there are more ways to encourage that and reward the artists who create it, so much the better. The Simpsons, as producer Al Jean pointed out at yesterday’s presentation, predates social media (and it debuted on Fox the same year Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web), but it was creating a virtual world even then. Now that world is inviting our world in.

I still say The Simpsons was the greatest TV show of the 20th century. It would be something if it helped redefine what TV shows are going to be in the 21st century.

TIME Television

James Garner, 1928–2014

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There are actors who become stars because they strike awe — because they’re imposing, powerful, monumental. And then there was James Garner.

Garner, who died Saturday night of natural causes at age 86, was no toothpick of a man — he was a former high school football and basketball player who kept his rugged, weathered good looks long into life. But the characters he became famous for, especially TV’s Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, won you over with their minds. They got through trouble with cleverness, charm and subtle wit. Garner wasn’t the kind of star who won love because he seemed so elevated above you: he made you love him by showing you that he was on your level — had in fact spent some time down in the dirt, brushed off the dust, and moved on with a rascally smile.

Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Okla., in 1928, Garner had experience rebounding from tough times early in life. His mother died when he was small, and his father remarried a woman who Garner would later recall was physically abusive. His family moved around the West, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where — after a stint in the Korean War — he was discovered for the movies.

The handsome Garner was a natural for westerns and war pictures and adventure movies. But the characters that proved the best fit for his natural, easygoing charm were anything but typical screen stars. He came of age as an actor in the heyday of the TV western, not by playing an upstanding lawman but as the wily, disarming card shark Bret Maverick in the action-comedy Maverick, a gambler and ladies’ man who had the fastest mind in the West.

Debuting in 1957, Maverick was a character ahead of his time in spirit, a forerunner of the little-guy heroes, the roguish, antiauthoritarians who would rule movies and TV in the 1970s. You can see a little bit of a proto–Bill Murray in the dry, sly Maverick, and if Star Wars had been made 20 years earlier, Garner would have been your Han Solo hands down. Garner stayed off TV for a decade after Maverick, but he had a great run in the movies in the 1960s, drama and comedy alike. (Support Your Local Sheriff! would be a great catch-up watch for anyone wanting to discover, or rediscover, his work.)

Garner’s most famous role, as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files in 1974, was the perfect meeting of Garner’s talents and the spirit of the age. Like Bret Maverick, Rockford was a screen-hero archetype who became all the bigger for being cut down to size: a private detective who’d spent time in jail on a bad rap, always one step ahead of the bill collectors and one good night’s sleep shy of his peak. He was not a pressed suit; he was a rumpled jacket that could use a dry cleaning. And that was what made him wear so comfortably.

The Rockford Files was a crime show where the characters were finally more important than the action: it had its share of brawls and car spinouts, but you really tuned in for the ping-pong dialogue between Rockford and con man Angel or his dad Rocky. (It was a precursor of the more character-based dramas of today’s cable-dominated TV era, and in fact the show was one of the first writing jobs for David Chase of The Sopranos.) Rockford might get his man in the end, but what made him loveable was less his triumphs than his ability to roll with defeat. He could throw a punch if he had to, but what made him a hero was his ability to take one.

I was too young for the run of the original Maverick, but I relished the brief-lived revival, Bret Maverick, in 1981, and I caught Rockford both in its original run and reruns. As a nerdy, not-too-athletic kid, I was especially drawn to pop-culture trickster figures — Bugs Bunny, Hawkeye Pierce, scoundrels who outwitted their rivals instead of outfighting them. Jim Rockford was the only TV crime fighter I really cared about, a charmer who could indeed win for losing.

I got older, and so did Garner, but he kept working late into life — collecting an Oscar nomination in 1985 for Murphy’s Romance, making a return to TV in 2004 on 8 Simple Rules after the sudden death of John Ritter. But Rockford lingered somewhere in my mind, and I suspect the minds of a lot of TV fans from that era. Garner created him as a sunny, fundamentally decent example of how to get through frustrations and disappointments not with rage, but a wry comeback.

In the end, charm and humor wear more comfortably than rage and drama. Audiences love that kind of character. Fate loves that kind of character. If you need a quick thumbnail philosophy for living, it would not be a terrible one to simply remember to ask yourself, whenever you face adversity, “What would Jim Rockford do?” For posing that question, and giving it such an entertaining answer, thank you James Garner, and RIP.

TIME Television

REVIEW: The Lottery

James Dittiger/Lifetime

Lifetime's venture into sci-fi is the latest TV drama centered on reproduction. But hoo baby, is it ridiculous.

Long before the Hobby Lobby decision, current TV has had reproduction on the brain–not just sex, but fertility, baby-making and their repercussions.

Orphan Black deals with the results of cloning gone awry; NBC remade O.B. horror story Rosemary’s Baby; CBS’s new sci-fi drama Extant is about both an astronaut’s mysterious conception of a baby in space and the android son she and her husband raise after having fertility issues. And Showtime’s Masters of Sex, just beginning a very strong second season, is not just about fireworks in bed but the medicine of fertility, obstetrics and contraception and how reproductive health–and who makes the decisions about it–affects every other part of women’s lives.

Now Lifetime’s The Lottery, premiering Sunday, makes baby-mania the stuff of dystopian sci-fi. Unfortunately, this baby was full of possibility in its conception, but it’s not hitting its developmental milestones.

It’s the mid-2020s, six years after the last human baby was born, amid a sudden, unexplained drop in fertility, and the world is learning What to Expect When No One Is Expecting. As the species faces extinction, women are subjected to mandatory fertility testing, a female “Uncle Sam” in a bikini implores men to donate sperm and a U.S. Department of Humanity prosecutes “fertility crimes,” including scams that promise babies to desperate would-be parents.

Amid the crisis, researcher Alison Lennon (Marley Shelton), has a breakthrough, successfully creating 100 embryos. The government thanks her, commandeers her lab, and announces that it will choose the hundred lucky new moms by, yes, lottery. But the administration appears to be up to something shady, as first evidenced by the fact that a top adviser is played by Martin Donovan. (No offense to the actor, but when’s the last time you’ve seen him in a role like this and thought, “Yep, I bet I can completely trust this character!”) In this newborn-starved world, the hand that controls the cradles rules the world, and Lennon makes it her quest to find out what ends her work is being put to.

Reproduction is, well, fertile ground for dystopian fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale imagined a totalitarian state that held women by the uterus. And Children of Men–whose Timothy J. Sexton writes and produces Lottery–took place in the hopeless aftermath of a similar baby drought.

But whatever potential The Lottery has to look at the connection between fertility and power, or the timely issues of women’s reproductive autonomy–or a simple dramatic fight over the future of the species–is wasted with flat characters and flimsy political intrigue that plays like a duller version of Scandal. (At one point, the President’s advisers discuss the danger of a “recall election,” with no mention of how we quickly managed to rewrite the Constitution to provide for one, or why a fertility crisis would cause it.) It doesn’t help that the show introduces Lennon as a woman on the prowl for a baby daddy, or that its scenes in the lab are written like Drunk Biology. “Behold, the first viable human embryo in six years,” someone actually says. Behold!

Meanwhile, the pilot devotes long, slow stretches to the single dad (Michael Graziadei) of one of that planet’s last remaining six-year-olds, trying to keep his son out of the clutches of a prying government and of his neighborhood’s circling, baby-mad would-be moms. Presumably this story and Lennon’s will eventually intersect. And eventually, maybe, the series will develop some ideas beyond, “People really want to have babies!” But I’m not sure I’ll stick around to see its story come to term.

TIME Television

REVIEW: The Divide

Marin Ireland in The Divide. WE

A new drama about guilt and innocence, justice and race, is much less black-and-white than you might think.

It’s generally a good thing for a new series to introduce itself with a clear, simple title, but in the case of The Divide, the first scripted drama from WeTV, the title makes it seem much more simple than it is. The eight-episode legal drama is, in brief, about a controversial effort to reopen the death-penalty convictions of two white prisoners in the murder of a black family. You might assume, then, that the show is about a single, sharp, unambiguous divide between white Americans and black Americans in the justice system–the law-drama equivalent of Crash.

But to its credit, and like the case it begins to explore in its two-hour premiere Wednesday night, The Divide is much more complicated than it seems. Yes, there is a racial divide at the center of the show: Christine Rosa (Marin Ireland), an advocate for a Philadelphia group based on the Innocence Project, and most of her colleagues working to overturn what they believe to be wrongful convictions, are white. District attorney Adam Page (Damon Gupton), his police-commissioner father (Clarke Peters) and the surviving daughter of the victims are black.

As the case unfolds, however, it becomes clear that neither side of this (purposely unsettled) case has a monopoly on righteousness or ethical conflict. Christine and Adam are each driven, if to different ends, and each is vulnerable to being blinded by their determination and external motivations. (He’s politically ambitious; her father is in jail for a crime she knows he’s innocent of because she was with him when it happened.)

The divides that emerge in this series are not simply between two races but between prosecution and defense, between the desire for justice and for resolution. In the two-hour premiere, we get to see multiple sides of each character, including the inmates–who, the script suggests, may be innocent, may be guilty, may be innocent of this crime yet bad people in other ways. There’s a remarkable scene between one convict (Chris Bauer) and his mother (Ann Dowd) before his scheduled last meal, for which he requested a brand of hot dogs he used to hate when she served them when he was a kid–it packs a while life’s history of mutual blame and sorrow into a few brief minutes.

There’s a certain amount of melodrama in the premiere (which is all that was previewed for critics), but the beginning fits a fair amount of nuance into a package that could have been a soapbox. Ireland in particular gives Christine fine shading, and the way that race plays into the story–and into Adam’s career ambitions–feels more natural than engineered. The Divide provides a good head start on a fall network season that’s unusually diverse in its casting; if The Divide continues the way it started, it will set an example of how to tell stories of black and white (and brown, and yellow…) in shades of gray.

TIME Television

REVIEW: Married, With Issues, on USA’s Satisfaction and FX’s Married

Guy D'Alema/USA Network

A new drama and comedy premiering Thursday night each put the "we" in "ennui."

I hope it doesn’t say anything about the home lives of the TV-development community, but Thursday night, two networks are premiering a drama and a comedy about marriage, malaise and infidelity–and the drama is the more lighthearted of the two.

That drama, Satisfaction, is still more heavy than USA’s trademark joyrides like Suits, which it already departs from because it isn’t about wisecracking con artists, spies, doctors or lawyers. (Fans of old-school USA might instead watch the new Rush, also on Thursday, a drama about an L.A. doctor-to-the-stars that’s a sort of Royal Pains West.) Protagonist Neil Truman (Matt Passmore) does have a suit (he’s an investment advisor for a successful and soulless firm) but we meet him in the process of shedding it. Fed up with his stressful job, disillusioned by his outwardly perfect life, he blows a gasket on a plane stranded on a tarmac–a seeming homage to JetBlue attendant Steven Slater’s 2010 deplaning–becomes a YouTube folk hero, quits his job and goes home to tell his wife, Grace (Stephanie Szostak), the news. But–

SPOILER ALERT, I guess: this paragraph reveals some twists early in Satisfaction’s pilot that are almost meaningless to discuss the show without, since they set up the series’ premise. Ready? Grace, as Neil discovers is (twist 1) having an affair–or not a love affair, exactly, because (twist 2) she’s seeing a male escort, whose cell phone Neil ends up coming in possession of. Which leads him–jobless, distraught and not having told Grace he knows her secret–to get a call from one of the hooker’s clients and decide to (twist 3) try a second career as an escort himself.

It’s a variation of the premise of HBO’s Hung, with a motive of depression rather than recession. But while USA may be ready move out of its light-escapist comfort zone–feeling a little restless itself, maybe–I’m not yet sure Satisfaction is committed enough to see through the premise in an interesting way. What the network is positioning Satisfaction as, and what it feels like it should be, is a morally complex story of two people experimenting with what makes them happy, the TV equivalent of a ‘70s adult-relationship movie. And for maybe a half-hour, the pilot feels like that.

But it takes two people to be in an unhappy marriage, and we don’t get much of Grace’s perspective but a short, perfunctory detour–she’s bored, “No one has wanted me in so long,” &c. And the back half of Satisfaction‘s premiere seems to lose its nerve, focusing more on Neil’s sexy escapades than what’s eating at his soul. Cable is already full of middle-aged men who learn to “feel alive” again by walking on the wild side; if USA wants to pull off the kind of story others have already told well, it’ll need to really commit to the premise, rather than just have a fling.

Prashant Gupta/FX

The first episode of FX’s comedy Married, on the other hand, has the opposite issue, and how. I was keenly excited for this one, out of an affection for stars Nat Faxon and Judy Greer–which the pilot very nearly killed. Their characters, Russ and Lina, have three daughters, too many bills and too little time. And in the first scene we see them in, he has an erection she wants nothing to do with: “We had a quickie a few weeks ago!” she complains.

It’s the world’s oldest joke about the world’s oldest activity; she’s tired and sour, he’s horny and whiny, and one day she exasperatedly suggests he “go and be with someone else,” which leads him to an inept effort to recruit a mistress. The episode is occasionally funny–John Hodgman and Jenny Slate are well-cast as Russ’ friends and sounding boards–but more often it’s mean and miserable. (If you love the idea that a running joke depends on Russ’ potential lover having a dog with the same name as the baby she miscarried, well, YMMV.)

Stick with Married, though, and it gets better–which is to say that Russ and Lina begin to turn into people. The series drops the mistress-hunting angle after the pilot and focuses on refining a raw but generous take on the strains of parenting: wondering if you’ve lost your identity, feeling sexually invisible, getting a vet bill and having to mentally calculate precisely how much you love the family pet, in dollar terms. In a way, Lina and Russ are the couple that USA might imagine plopping down at night and watching Satisfaction, being reassured that if they had more money they wouldn’t necessarily be any happier, though he’d have a better job to quit and she could afford a fancy hooker.

Russ and Lina don’t suddenly become cuddly, but they have a connection and the bleary-eyed solidarity that comes from years of shared sleep deprivation. A flawed-but-trying-harder Russ better fits Faxon’s specialty for playing the amiably clueless, and Lina becomes a character rather than a walking headache. In the fourth episode, she finds herself in the parents’ bind of being worn out by her kids yet sad at the idea of not having any more, which leads to an emotional trip to a thrift store to give away a used bassinet. “Can you estimate how much this stuff cost you?” the clerk asks her. “Um, my youth?” she says. “Every time I cough, I pee a little?” And the episode culminates in a round of phone sex that I won’t spoil, except to say that it’s both raunchily funny and a sharp picture of how Russ and Lina’s relationship works, for all its challenges. (If you prefer to have pre-married romance de-romanticized, FX is pairing Married with You’re the Worst, a jadedly raunchy love-hate-at-first-sight comedy.)

Married is not trying to be The Cosby Show, but if it keeps on this track it could become a show that strikes a balance between making you wince and making you laugh. Maybe hard enough to pee a little.

TIME Television

REVIEW: In the 24: Live Another Day Finale, Jack Bauer Feels Our Pain Again

24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY:  Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) makes an unthinkable decision in the "10:00 PM - 11:00 AM" Event Series Finale episode of 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY airing Monday, July 14 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.  ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Chris Raphael/FOX
Chris Raphael/FOX

Any dime-a-dozen action hero can save the country. In LAD's finale, Jack Bauer does again what he does best: suffering.

Spoilers for the 24: Live Another Day finale below:

The finale of 24: Live Another Day finally got down to business. No, I don’t mean the return of Cheng Zhi or the drone-override-device-threat by way of Catelyn Stark. (Incidentally, if you watched the first episodes of LAD and guessed, “I bet this all ends in a near-war with China,” you win the pool.) This being 24, those inconveniences were always going to be handled. But the final episode, “10:00 p.m. – 11:00 a.m.”–not a typo and more on that in a moment–movingly executed (so to speak) the real purpose of a 24 finale: making Jack Bauer suffer.

As I wrote in my season-opener review of this revival, suffering and sacrificing has always been Bauer’s ultimate job on 24, more so than saving the country. He may kill bad guys ingeniously, he may be help the President survive a drone-missile strike through, essentially, a video editing trick–but Bauer’s real service after 9/11 and for years beyond has been to take on himself the psychic pain of being a nation at war. It’s not enough that he save us, he must lose as well–lose his wife, his friends, his country’s trust and loyalty. He’s not just an action figure but America’s pin-bestudded emotional voodoo doll.

And while I would not have predicted that the franchise could have this kind of power after more than a dozen years, damned if this finale didn’t deliver. As usual, Kiefer Sutherland deserves much of the credit; 24 hurtles along on such a rocket engine of silliness that if it hadn’t cast someone capable of being emotionally believable in the midst of it, it would be a far worse show.

Bauer’s reaction to hearing about the death of his once-lover, Audrey, was a classic example–maybe one of Sutherland’s finest moments in the series. First, he does–well, almost nothing. 24 is so breakneck (literally and figuratively) that simply seeing someone stilled for a moment is a powerful image. He lowers the phone, slowly. He looks… old. Spent. Empty. He unstraps his rifle, as if, finally, he’s given up. You see the emotion flicker across his face–heartbreak, then rage. Then he rises, screaming and–well, people will get shot and impaled and finally decapitated execution-style, but the real fireworks just happened right there, right on Jack’s face.

First the suffering, then the sacrifice. The time jump, rumored to be coming at some point in this 12-hour season, finally arrives just before the end of the hour, and it’s effective, if for no other reason than, for once, we’re able to see characters after having a few hours to process the events of a finale. LAD doesn’t go easy on us; there’s little uplift or hope in President Heller’s final words, unless you count the fact that, thanks to Alzheimer’s, he knows he will soon forget this terrible day. For now, though, he knows both that his daughter has died, and that soon so will his memory of her.

Audrey is a love from Jack’s past, but the season has returned time and again to his longest, most important relationship in the series–his friendship with Chloe. They’ve worked together, taken turns saving each other, but more than that they share the bond of comrades who, given the life they’ve chosen, can never expect any kind of normalcy. He tells her that she’s his “best friend”; earlier she tells him that she’s “the only friend you have left.” And even if those lines are straight out of the action-movie phrasebook, they’re moving nonetheless: each of them is the only one who has any idea what it’s like to be the other.

I wouldn’t say that LAD was a classic of modern TV; over its dozen hours, it indulged in plenty of the plot zig-zagging that 24 wore out during its regular-series run. But emotionally? As Jack gave himself up once again, boarding that helicopter to Russia, I had to admit: damned if Bauer hadn’t pulled it off once again.

In the episode’s final moments, Jack’s captor said that he won’t like it in Moscow and I have no doubt that’s true. But I hope he stays a while anyway. Taking some time off now and then seems to do him good.

TIME Televison

The Leftovers Spins the Wheel of Fortune

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

A confounding but compelling episode feels like an "Are you in or out?" moment for the show. I'm in.

“Two Boats and a Helicopter” is the episode of The Leftovers that convinced me I was sticking with the show for the season.

This is not the same as saying that I left it convinced that The Leftovers is a great show, or that it will become one. It’s still tremendously confusing. It’s mysterious, and not necessarily to a purpose–we’ll have to see. And this episode was structurally very different from the first two, suggesting that The Leftovers is still figuring out what it’s going to be. What it’s going to be may, I realize, turn out to be a fancy pile of nothing.

But this tense, wrenching episode felt like an “Are you in or out?” juncture for The Leftovers, and I’m in. In part, it was a function of story; in radically shifting its approach and concentrating on one character, Christopher Eccleston’s Rev. Matt Jamison, the show had a drive that felt missing from the beautiful but diffuse first two episodes. The mood and sense of aching were still there, and how, but “Two Boats” also gave us one character with a specific problem, and even in a show like this, that makes a difference.

I know we’re all tired of the Lost comparisons at this point, but I can’t help it with “Two Boats,” which echoed the structure of producer Damon Lindelof’s earlier series–specifically Lost‘s flashbacks, with their reversals, cruel dramatic ironies, and hints of larger forces at work. It’s also remarkably directed for tension–see, for instance, the final roulette spin in the casino, where we hear the ball land but don’t see it, instead seeing Matt’s face tense up, then finally break into the release of a smile. But The Leftovers is distinctively its own thing: its characters are torn not between faith and science but between purpose and despair.

Rev. Matt is a man of God who has suffered loss almost Biblically: he was spared death as a child, we learn, only to lose his parents in a fire, to all-but-lose his wife (Janel Moloney) to a car accident caused by the Departure, and to lose most of his flock to the aftermath of Oct. 14 and its crisis of belief. Eccleston’s stressed-out performance here is commanding top to bottom. Every blow in Matt’s life has hammered a spring within him tighter; if you put a mood ring on him, it would probably explode.

The way Matt has reacted is not exactly likeable; his campaign to prove that bad people were among the departed may be his idea of defending his religion (this wasn’t the Rapture, so God’s plan continues unchanged), but it’s also pretty spiteful and face-punchable. But at least he hasn’t given up, and a lovely little sequence in mid-episode shows all the little things that not giving up means: changing light bulbs and hymnal numbers alone, sweeping, scrubbing rugs. It’s a complicated thing he’s doing, both self-interested and genuinely–if misguidedly–idealistic. It’s hard to tell where his work to keep God’s place in people’s hearts ends and his struggle to maintain his own place in the community begins.

“Two Boats” is an episode full of what seem to be signs and portents–the red lights, the pigeons–but unlike in a Lost flashback, it doesn’t necessary to some larger grand design. Like Hurley, Rev. Matt wins big and loses disastrously, but it’s not clear there is really any mystic power like The Numbers at work here. Instead, his story may simply be like the Departure itself–a dramatic, inexplicable stroke, but a random one with no discernable purpose. On the one hand, there has been an amazing, superhuman event; on the other hand, there is no particular sign that it happened because of anything we recognize as God. This may simply be life: unimaginably wonderful things happen, and unimaginably terrible things happen, and the only patterns to be found in it are the ones we impose on them after the fact. If Twin Peaks told us that the owls are not what they seem, this episode suggests that maybe a pigeon is just a pigeon.

There’s a lot to think about here, but what puzzles me most about “Two Boats and a Helicopter” is what’s meant by the title. It’s taken from an old story about a man who’s stranded by a flood and refuses help, from one vehicle after another, saying that he instead will wait for God to provide–until he drowns. When he gets to Heaven, God tells the man that He did provide–He sent two boats and a helicopter, didn’t He?

So what were the two boats and a helicopter here? Matt, after all, does not spend the episode placidly waiting around for divine intervention–no one, by boat or helicopter, offers to save his church, so he desperately tries to do it himself, and nearly does. How does the parable apply, then? Maybe–and maybe I’m being morbid here–losing the church was itself the two-boats-and-a-helicopter. Maybe the universe is offering Matt an out: a chance to let go his crusade, get his life together and care for his wife, pocket his winnings and let the Guilty Remnant take the punches.

Maybe, but–call it foolishness or heroism, vanity or selflessness–he’d rather do anything than let go of his one way of making meaning from what’s happened. The Leftovers has shown us several ways people deal with a world-changing event: violence, hedonism, insanity. Matt’s way is to accept his losing cause and stick with it, no matter what color the wheel lands on. “I had to try,” as he tells the young man who came to church for a baptism but admits that he won’t be coming back. “If I don’t, who will?”

TIME Television

REVIEW: The Strain on FX

Michael Gibson/FX

This giddily gross-out vampire thriller is better the less good it tries to be.

Sometimes, making good TV is all about knowing the difference between bad ridiculous and good ridiculous. Tyrant, the Middle East drama that premiered last month on FX, was immediately ridiculous in all the wrong ways: its caricatures of Arab strongmen and their victims, its strained seriousness, its Homeland-meets-Dynasty family dynamics. Sunday, as if in recompense, the same network premieres The Strain, an oozy, disgusting vampire drama that is just as ridiculous as it should be.

How ridiculous is that? You may have seen the ads that show a worm crawling out of a human eyeball. They’re repulsive and intrusive, but they’re also truth in advertising. The Strain, adapted from novels by director Guillermo Del Toro, is silly and inventively grotesque, a rich fondue of blood and cheese. It has Nazi vampires. It has an ancient Armenian undead-hunter who carries a sword-cane and talks to a beating heart that he keeps in a jar. It has Corey Stoll in an absurd hairpiece that may well be a sentient being. It has enough gross-out depictions of vampiric biology that if you plan your Sunday meals around airings, you will lose ten pounds by the fall.

It may well not be your thing, but if it is, the first four episodes of The Strain have enough stylish gore, enough well-paced mystery and little enough self-seriousness to keep you watching, giggling, through your fingers. We begin at a New York City airport, where an overseas flight from Berlin has landed, radio-silent, with its passengers apparently overcome by a deadly illness. This attracts the attention of epidemiologist Ephraim Goodweather (Stoll), along with his team from the CDC (Mia Maestro and Sean Astin) who suspect a viral epidemic. If only! The plane, we soon learn, was carrying contraband, something–or someone–whose arrival is very important to a cabal of evil plutocrats in Manhattan, the type of wicked old bastards for whom the word “cabal” was invented.

The Strain comes to us from Carlton Cuse, co-producer of Lost with Damon Lindelof, who just premiered the mysterious, melancholy The Leftovers for HBO. And while it would be too simplistic to impose a Lennon-McCartney, Seinfeld-David dualism on the men who gave us Lost‘s philosophical entertainment, for the purpose of these two projects at least it seems like Lindelof got the philosophy and Cuse the entertainment. The Strain will lovingly autopsy corpses for you, but it doesn’t spend much time dissecting what it all means. (A voiceover about how “Love is our downfall” opens and closes the pilot, but it has about as much import as the Vincent Price rap from Thriller.) The dialogue is B-movie–”You tell those sons-of-bitches I am done!”–and the supporting characters dissolve with the merest shaft of sunlight; they are simply carriers for The Strain’s plot virus.

TV is not exactly short on undead drama in the Twilight years of pop culture. What distinguishes The Strain is that it emphasizes biology over mythology. Without giving too much away, Del Toro’s vampires–as the title suggests–are not so much damned as infected, and the series details their transformation and effluvia with giddy grossness. Del Toro directs the pilot, which sets the visual tone for the later episodes: blood-smeared, dirty, in need of a spray of disinfectant. It’s the Old World fear of the devil married to a New World fear of contagion.

Not that this is really a show about ideas, nor should it be. Stoll works hard to bring gravitas to The Strain, something this series needs about as much as Dracula needs a sunroof. The scripts attempt to ground his character with a personal struggle–his marriage is falling apart, he’s a control freak, he works too damn hard and is never “present” at home, yada yada yada–but it all feels mechanical, rote and, well, strained. Just make with the blood-sucking and the dancing hearts already!

And mainly The Strain does. Ephraim may be the show’s center, but its spirit is Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), the aforementioned vampire hunter, who crashes the CDC’s investigation, expostulating warnings–”Time is of the essence!”–with the crusty brio of Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. The Strain does not have much subtlety, taste, or high-art credentials. It just has a sword-cane, and it knows how to use it.

TIME Television

As TV Keeps Changing, the Emmys Stay a Few Steps Behind

Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany BBC America

There were some pleasant surprises in this year's nominations, but it looks like Emmy voters still have a big DVR backlog to get through.

Thursday morning’s live announcement of the Emmy nominations began with a statement about how dramatically the business of TV is changing. And it’s true–Emmy nominees can come from broadcast TV, premium cable, basic cable, streaming and public TV. I watched the announcements on Yahoo TV, which next year could be a (theoretical) contender with the sixth season of Community. In December, a live-action drama, Powers, will premiere on a video game platform, the Sony Playstation Network. It was almost quaint that the major awards nominations were announced by Mindy Kaling and Carson Daly, two broadcast TV personalities.

But have the Emmys kept up with it? The awards opened the books to some deserving new shows and performers this year–Fargo, Orange Is the New Black, Silicon Valley–but overall the inclusions and omissions in the major categories suggested that Emmy voters have a two- or three-year DVR backlog they’re still catching up on.

So the doors were open, happily, for some new faces (yay, Lizzy Caplan! alright alright alright, Matthew McConaughey!). But there are also a number of series and actors returning seemingly on the forces of momentum. House of Cards had an absolutely zooey second season, but Emmy still regards it as a top-quality drama because it has all the outward trimmings of one. Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom is up for best actor against McConaughey and the departing Bryan Cranston–and if history is a guide, he could actually win. It’s been a year of fresh comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Broad City and Review, yet Modern Family will have a permanent home in the comedy category long after it’s become Antique Family (speaking of which, Downton Abbey apparently has the same sinecure in Best Drama).

The best possible spin on the situation is that, in a strange way, it’s a side effect of how much TV has grown and how much quality TV there is to judge today. If Emmy voters were too overwhelmed to consider everything back when they gave David Hyde Pierce a permanent trophy in the 1990s, it’s that much harder now to expect them to keep completely current. So the Emmys will probably keep advancing in fits and starts, having the occasional breakthrough year for new talent, who then become the new guard of usual suspects for a few years. The more things change in TV, the more likely that one is to stay the same.

That’s the big picture. Here, in no particular order, are some of my biggest grievances, joys, and general observations:

* Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany was robbed. Every one of her.

* The Americans had arguably–that is to say, I’m arguing it–the best season of TV so far this year, but except for Margo Martindale, the spies were left out in the cold. (Give Matthew Rhys Daniels’ slot and Keri Russell Michelle Dockery’s.)

* As for Masters of Sex, I’m half-happy because of Caplan’s well-deserved honor, but I had actually talked myself into believing its publicity blitz might have gotten it a best drama nod. (Sub out House of Cards or Downton, easy.) Maybe saddest, though, is Michael Sheen not being acknowledged for best actor as the achingly repressed William Masters, because apparently male performers have to bellow and blow a dramatic gasket to get Emmy’s attention.

* Of course, as usual, many of my grievances are not really surprises. One that genuinely was a surprise was The Good Wife, after its best season, since it had actually been nominated as Best Drama before.

* OK, let’s say something nice! I’m happy for Fargo, for Julianna Margulies (up for best actress despite The Good Wife‘s snub), and for even the flawed seasons of Game of Thrones and Louie. And here’s a usual suspect that actually deserved it: it would have been easy to ignore Mad Men this time out, since it aired a half-season and will get another shot next year for its finale. But it packed a lot of emotion and resonance into its seven episodes–especially the last two–and I have my fingers crossed for Christina Hendricks. (Jon Hamm? Nominated, but history shows that we could learn that he was also secretly playing Sally and Joan, and he still wouldn’t win the category.)

* I’m happy that Silicon Valley–by no means perfect but one of the season’s pleasant surprises–got a best comedy nomination. I’m perplexed, though, that Christopher Evan Welch didn’t get a posthumous nomination for the last performance of his life; if anything, I thought he’d get named and the show itself overlooked.

* In general, HBO shows again that it knows how to get Emmy nominations–not just for True Detective and Game of Thrones (which had the most of any series) but even for the final season of the underrated Treme, which snuck in with a nomination because HBO put up its shortened season in the miniseries category.

* Maybe the best-deserved Emmy nomination that Orange Is the New Black is up for is casting; the show put together a murderer’s row (so to speak) ensemble full of lesser-known actresses. It’s only too bad that TV’s best platform for actresses of color saw none of them nominated in the big categories, though Taylor Schilling and Kate Mulgrew were. (Uzo Aduba and Laverne Cox–as well as Natasha Lyonne–were nominated as “guest actresses,” because of the intricacies of the crediting and submissions process. Better than nothing.)

* But is OITNB really a comedy? I can’t say I really care. A lot of TV’s best shows are both dramatic and hilarious, and it’s just one of those things that doesn’t fit the dualistic comedy/drama model we’re stuck with. If I’d rather see Andy Daly as comedy actor than Ricky Gervais, for instance, it’s because he gave a better performance, not because Derek was maudlin.

* And I’ll stop here, though I’ve barely scratched the surface–the full Word document of Emmy nominations runs 43 pages, making it amazing that it’s even possible to snub anyone. But there is plenty more to parse–and a little over a month to do it before the unusually early Emmy ceremony in August. Maybe I’ll have finished reading the nominations list by then.

TIME Television

Must-Read TV: The Bridge‘s Elwood Reid on Getting America to Watch Subtitles

THE BRIDGE - "Yankee" - Episode 1 (Airs, Wednesday, July 9, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: Demian Bechir as Marco Ruiz. CR: Byron Cohen/FX Network
Demian Bechir as Marco Ruiz in the season 2 premiere of The Bridge. Byron Cohen/FX Network

"I don't ever want someone to watch my show and go, 'Why the hell are they speaking English here when it's two Mexican characters in Mexico?'"

In my print TIME column this week (subscription required), I look at how American viewers are learning to read their TV shows–through the increasing use of subtitles in shows from The Americans (Russian) to The Returned (French) to NBC’s new Greg Poehler sitcom premiering tonight, Welcome to Sweden (um, guess). Until recent years–when, for instance, Lost included lengthy flashbacks in Korean–subtitles were assumed to be a dealbreaker for U.S. viewers. (If English was good enough for the Bible, dammit, it’s good enough for our shows!)

Being able to have characters speak in their native languages–or sign, as on Switched at Birth–opens possibilities for TV writers. It’s an avenue for character and conflict, even on an amiable fish-out-of-water show like Sweden. It forces viewers to focus on a show rather than multitask. (How often do you “watch” a show while staring at your phone?) And it’s a source of authenticity–particularly on FX’s border drama, The Bridge, which returned for its second season this week. For the column, I talked to Bridge producer Elwood Reid; here’s an edited transcript of the interview:

Was the question of using Spanish and using subtitles ever an issue when you were developing the show or pitching it?

Elwood Reid: I don’t have a secret memo, but I think most networks would prefer that if it was in English. Now FX is a little bit different. They understood that we were pretty insistent on it being subtitled.

Myself, I’m from Ohio, so I think of my very Midwesterner parents sitting there going, “They’re speaking a different language on TV!” So when you say you’re going to do subtitles, it makes you think about scenes. I would try to figure out ways to get an English speaker in there so I can justify an English-speaking scene, because if I was being correct the show would be probably 60 percent in Spanish, and I think FX has an appetite for around 20 to 30 percent. So it’s this juggling act you’re always trying to do.

But in my mind nothing was ever wrong with [subtitles]. I think Netflix has shrunk the world a lot. If something is good, people don’t give a shit if it’s subtitled. Me, for example, I don’t watch American movies; I mostly watch Korean movies. So subtitles to me are just the way I take my movies in. I watch a lot of French gangster movies. I’m always watching with subtitles. If you want to find good shit you’re going to be reading subtitles, and I think that’s true in TV too–look at [the Danish political drama] Borgen and all these other series. Because of Netflix, people don’t think twice about it anymore.

Are you fluent in Spanish yourself?

No. Not at all. My name is Elwood Reid and I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. I struggle with English. Of course a lot of my cast is of Mexican descent, and then this year I hired a screenwriter in Mexico City, Mauricio Katz–he wrote Miss Bala. We write it in English because the network has to vet it in English; they have to know what we’re talking about. And then we translate it–and we translate it very specifically for that dialect of that area of Mexico.

I find dramatically we use [Spanish] a lot because when people are speaking Spanish in a scene, especially if there’s a gringo there, a white person, and they switch over to Spanish, it creates this really cool narrative tension: you’re leaning into the screen going, “Why the fuck are they speaking Spanish here? What’s going on?” We can use it as a very effective plot device, the language of exclusion, when people choose to slip in and out of their language.

Are there advantages to being able to use two languages sort of at the character level? I’m thinking for instance of characters like Marco working on both sides of the border, and maybe see him in one way when he’s in his home element and then another way when he’s in El Paso?

Oh massively, yeah, and vice versa. Marco’s a good character because he passes in both places. And the actor himself, Demian [Bichir] and I talked about this a lot, he changes his demeanor when he’s around gringos. He’s a little more careful with his words. He’s a little more, I don’t want to say dispassionate but he’s not as direct. When you see [Marco] in Spanish he’s much more direct and there’s a sort of real edge to his character there. And he realizes, like we’re trying to play on the border, that he’s a guest over here in America. He feels the Other, he feels different, so he behaves accordingly–and vice versa, when Sonya’s over in Mexico, she’s a stranger in a strange land. They know she doesn’t belong over there because she’s blonde and blue-eyed, so they use the language to either exclude her or sort of try to suck her in by insulting her in Spanish.

You talked a bit about adapting the script to this particular region of Mexico. Did you hire writers with that in mind?

Well, it’s mostly about the actors, because where you fall down is–and again this is no fault of anybody but like a lot of times in Hollywood they’ll lump all the Hispanic people together. And there’s a massive difference between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and Cubans and Argentinians and Mexicans. So one of the changes I made this year was with my casting people. We try to cast people who are Mexican or Mexican descent, and even better if they’re from Northern Mexico because it gives you a certain dialect.

You’ll see a little bit of the difference as the season goes on. There’s a character that’s introduced at the end of episode two who’s a kind of weird, slinky business guy played by Bruno Bichir; it’s Demian’s brother. So those two guys were raised together. He speaks a very high sophisticated Spanish, and Demian’s got a very sort of Norteño sort of gruff Spanish that he speaks. So they’re differentiating themselves within Spanish. And just because someone speaks Spanish–one of my actors is Puerto Rican, and Demian is on set with him busting his ass on how it’s spoken, not just Mexico City dialect but Northern Mexico dialect. Of course I have untrained gringo ears but even I’ve learned to hear it a little bit, like the rolling of the Rs the way a Puerto Rican will do. So Demian is my policeman on that.

And the addition of Mauricio Katz this year has really – when he does he translation he’s just not doing an idiomatic translation, he’s doing a nuanced, “Here’s the meaning in English and here’s how I translate it into Spanish.” And that’s been a huge step up from last year.

Do you get much feedback from Spanish-speaking or bilingual viewers on how the show uses the language?

Well, I think people like it. Again, I don’t have any data. But with Hispanic audiences is that Spanish-speaking audiences tend to stick to Telemundo or Univision. So we’re offering this kind of premium cable experience and we’re trying to extend a hand and going look: here’s this thing that’s being made by a mainstream cable network, and it’s depicting your world in your language. That Hunt for Red October bullshit where they speak Russian for two seconds and then all of a sudden Sean Connery is speaking English–that really pulls me out. Maybe audiences 20, 30 years ago were naïve with that, but I think as evidenced by [Americans following] the World Cup and all this stuff, the world has shrunk a lot. People don’t recoil at hearing a different language. If you give them the subtitles, they’re in. I mean, I really think of it as an asset for our show.

It seems like, if you’re looking for an immersive viewing experience, this forces you to have a more immersive viewing experience.

Yeah. Exactly. We play with it a lot, but [the amount of subtitling] is always a discussion with the network. There’s a number beyond which my show could be on Telemundo. So there’s that balancing act, we’re always trying to make it authentic without seeming bullshit. I don’t ever want someone to watch my show and go, “Why the hell are they speaking English here when it’s two Mexican characters in Mexico talking about something?”

[To read the full column, and the rest of TIME magazine, click here to subscribe for just $30 a year.]

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