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


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

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'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.

TIME Television

Review: Game of Thrones Explores Uncharted Territory in Season 5


A power vacuum in Westeros--and the series' catching up with the source books--makes the future uncertain and exciting

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

Early in the fifth season of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen, conqueror of Meereen and aspirant to the Iron Throne of Westeros, has to deal with a family problem. Her dragons–her “children”–are getting too big, and she can’t control them anymore. Two of them are locked up, for their safety or everyone else’s, beneath the pyramid city. The biggest, Drogon, has been AWOL in the countryside for weeks. Damn kids! Once they grow up and learn how to drive, there’s no controlling them!

In the story, the dragons are a metaphor for Dany’s power. As it grows greater, it becomes more difficult to control–as she’s learned in Meereen, where effectively governing the city of former slave masters has proved harder than liberating it. It’s a typical message for Game of Thrones, which has always balanced its fantasy thrills with realpolitik. An awesome champion, it argues, is not necessarily a great ruler; and you are only a leader to the extent you can prove yourself worth following. Or as the season premiere puts it: “A dragon queen without dragons is not a queen.”

But the dragons could also be a metaphor for Game of Thrones itself, which is the offspring of the incomplete A Song of Ice and Fire novel series by George R.R. Martin. In its first episodes, it was newly hatched and wobbly, dependent on its mother novels. Gradually it grew, became confident, got its own voice, experimented with going its own way.

By season 5 (premieres April 12), it’s started to outgrow its parents; several storylines are approaching or passing what Martin has written in five novels. (It’s anybody’s guess when the projected final two books come out, though the previous two took about five years each.) The adapters, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, say they’ve consulted with Martin on his master plan, but they’re not waiting for him. As the series moves past the book on some storylines and changes others to better suit the screen, for the first time readers are as likely to be surprised by what happens as non-readers. Like it or not, this critter’s gotta fly solo now.

And it is still a magnificent beast: bold, confident and venturing off in new directions. It’s continuing to expand to new destinations on the map that springs to life in the title sequence. In Dorne, we meet the Sand Snakes–the bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell, preparing vengeance for their father’s death last season in trial-by-combat against the Lannisters’ champion The Mountain. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) pursues her own payback plot by traveling a continent away to Braavos, apprenticing with the mystic society of the Faceless Men to learn the skills of an assassin.

But the new episodes also have old characters re-cross paths, and move to bring some long-separated characters together. One of the most fruitful new scenarios is a departure from the books, but a well-publicized one: spymaster Varys (Conleth Hill) and fugitive patricide lord Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) are on the eastern continent headed to Dany, whom Varys believes is Westeros’ savior.

Giving the silver-tongued pair their own road movie is a treat, and it returns to one of the series’ longtime themes: what makes a good ruler? An honest-but-weak monarch can mean chaos, a strong-but-cruel one terror. When Varys hopes that Dany can deliver “a land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless,” Tyrion scoffs: “That’s how they became powerful in the first place.”

“Perhaps,” Varys says. “Or perhaps we have become so used to horror that we assume there is no other way.”

At times you might have said that about Game of Thrones itself, whose fourth season seemed determined to outdo itself in shock: rapes, cannibalism, head smashing. Season 5 hasn’t exactly become pacifist, but it’s also exploring the ideas and politics behind the battles. At The Wall, a newly responsible Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is balancing the needs of the neutral Night’s Watch against the demands of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). In King’s Landing, the power vacuum after Joffrey and Tywin Lannister’s deaths has left Cersei (Lena Headey) competing with daughter-in-law Margaery (Natalie Dormer), while war has led to a surge in religious fundamentalism led by holy ascetic the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). Even bloodthirsty Roose Bolton is advising his sadistic son Ramsay, “The best way to forge an alliance isn’t by peeling a man’s skin off,” which is practically “Give peace a chance” in Bolton-speak.

That’s a hell of a lot of story, and I’ve barely colored in the map–yet this is actually an efficiently streamlined version of the teeming, digression-filled story Martin has built after five books–especially the last two, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, which this season draws from. (Skip the following section if you haven’t read the books and don’t want to know about them, or if you have and don’t want to know how the new season departs from them.)

Benioff’s and Weiss’ strategy seems to be: don’t reach for a new tool when you can use one you have in hand. Where Martin introduced plot after plot, face after face, Game of Thrones uses already established characters. So Varys and Tyrion’s aforementioned Essos adventure comes in place of Tyrion’s river journey from ADWD–which means no Young Griff, the rival Targaryen claimant, at least for now. Jaime Lannister is not fighting in the Riverlands but on a mission to Dorne to retrieve Princess Myrcella, setting off various changes in that storyline (for one, the story of Arianne is assumed in part by Ellaria Sand). In the North, there’s no fake “Arya Stark” to be married off to Ramsay Bolton; meanwhile, the stories of Sansa and Littlefinger and Brienne (who no longer has Lady Stoneheart to encounter) intersect. (Even under the cloak of spoiler blurring, I won’t tell you how.)

The Iron Islands, meanwhile, have disappeared into the mist; AFFC’s Oldtown prologue is gone; and–maybe happiest of all–there’s no sign of Quentyn, sent in the books on a shaggy-dog mission from Dorne to become a dragon kebab in Meereen. (Disclaimer: I’ve seen four episodes of the season; there’s no telling what might come up later.) But there are also a few elements I’m pleasantly surprised the show has retained–including info dumps about Rheagar and Lyanna, Maester Qyburn’s weird-science research, and a nod to popular theories about Jon Snow’s parentage. Nuances will be lost, threads snipped, mythology glossed over, but that’s why we have the books (if Martin ever finishes). Benioff and Weiss are, mostly, remaking the story to work for the screen, where the lifting needs to be done by dialogue, visuals and emotional connection to people we’ve known for four seasons now.

All these tweaks make for a story that’s expanding–the new setting in Dorne is particularly breathtaking–but not quite metastasizing. We don’t know how much longer the series has (HBO has recently hinted at something longer than the bruited-about seven seasons), but even as it expands, it feels like it’s driving toward a point. And for once, readers and non-readers will be approach the story on something closer to equal footing. Readers can look forward to being genuinely surprised (pleasantly or not). Non-readers can share readers’ experience of wondering when Dany will stop moping around that freaking pyramid and get back to Westeros.

Answer: not quite yet, but in the second episode, as she stands on one of its high parapets, she has a visitor: Drogon, who lands his massive frame behind her. She reaches to caress his massive head, half in love, half in fear. Then he takes off again. Game of Thrones is flying, full tilt, toward a destination off the edge of our map of the known world. I can’t wait to see what it finds there.

Read next: Everything to Know About Game of Thrones Before Season 5 Starts

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TIME Television

Review: Louie Gets Back to Basics

LOUIE -- Key Art -- Pictured: Louis C.K. CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Louis CK's TV laboratory returns focused and funny.

One of the beauties of Louis CK’s Louie (returning April 9 on FX) has been that it allows itself to be whatever kind of show it needs to be. Does he have a funny story? Then it’s a comedy. Does he have a dramatic one? It’s a drama. It’s dirt-and-concrete realistic except when it’s nuttily surrealistic. There’s continuity unless something needs to happen and then be erased forever. If Louis CK has a story that needs five minutes to tell, that’s what he gives it; if he has a longer one, he’ll turn the show into a feature-length movie, as he essentially did twice last season.

In season 5–or the four episodes I was sent, because who knows after that–Louie is experimenting with being a weekly half-hour TV show. There are still continuing elements (Louie’s relationship with Pamela, for instance, carrying over from last season) and some short vignettes, but the episodes tell single stories that end at the half-four’s end. They are, by and large, blisteringly funny, even when they’re also poignant. (Prove it? If I give you examples, I’ll ruin them for you; you’ll have to take my word.)

There’s even the return of a long-lost friend: the opening titles and theme song, MIA since season 3. The simplest way of putting it is that the season looks like a return to basics, to the extent that there is a “basic” setting for this free-form canvas about Louis CK’s floundering, philosophical, single-dad alter ego. The confidence and adventurousness of Louie‘s experiments are still present, but reined in and focused. Louis CK has become a filmmaker who can make his instrument sound like he wants–filthy, funny, even scary. But as his character has become maybe a little more stable, so has the show. (It will also, unfortunately, be shorter; the season will be only seven episodes.)

It’s tempting to say that Louis CK is responding to criticisms last season that his show had gotten too artsy and ponderous. But deep down I don’t really think he writes anything reactively that way. If he had a four-hour Louie movie in him, he’d probably make it, and FX would be glad to take it. (One of the comedian’s great insights was to realize that the key to creative freedom was to deliver a good show cheap.) What are you going to do to him, really?

But there are moments in the new episodes that seem to comment on the last season. Talking to Pamela, Louie launches into a childhood story that starts out looking like his ninety-minute “In the Woods” flashback episode from last year, and she cuts him off: “This sounds long and boring.” And after several episodes last season that raised hackles over Louie’s relations with women, the fourth episode finds him role-reversed by–

Ah, but again, I risk saying too much. Suffice it to say that Louie has again successfully reinvented itself, this time as what it used to be.

TIME Television

Review: Mad Men‘s Time Machine Warms Up for Its Last Trip

Jon Hamm as Don Draper and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Gallery _ Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Frank Ockenfels/AMC

The modern classic's final season premiere takes place in the past, the present and the future. Just like always.

“Severance,” the first of the last seven episodes of Mad Men, arrived on critics’ doorsteps recently along with the usual request from creator Matthew Weiner that we not reveal what year the new episode takes place in. I’m honoring that request here, partly because it’s not that significant, partly because some of the show’s fans care deeply enough about the secret, and partly because that secret is really a red herring.

See, the truth is, the new episode of Mad Men (which returns April 5) does not take place in any one year. Mad Men never does.

Mad Men is about a lot of things: history, business, love, family, sex, secrets. But its ultimate subject is time. In the first season’s finale, “The Wheel,” Don Draper said something about Kodak’s slide projector that has become a sort of an elevator pitch for Mad Men itself: “It’s a time machine.”

And sure it is, but not just in the Sherman-and-Peabody Wayback Machine sense. Mad Men is a complicated, quantum time machine that doesn’t go in a single direction or even exist at a single point in the continuum. It moves us backwards then takes us forwards; it delves into the history of its own history; it tells us that we are all live simultaneously in our past, our present and our future.

On the one hand, over seven seasons, the show’s simple but radical premise has been to say: Here is what it looks like, how it feels, for life to pass, in something close to real time. Most TV series distend time, deny it, cheat it. M*A*S*H took 11 years to fight a three-year war. Bart Simpson is still in grade school after 25 years.

Mad Men, on the other hand, has covered about a decade of its time in about a decade of our own. (The pilot, set in spring 1960, was shot in 2006; when we left the halls of SC&P last year, it was July 1969.) We see hair grow longer, hemlines shorter. Paul Kinsey’s blazers give way to Stan Rizzo’s fringe jackets. The children grow up (including four—count ’em, four—actors playing Bobby Draper). The colors get more saturated, the social mores more extreme, the cultural power shifting toward youth. Characters get prosperous, get fat, get lost.

It’s a potent effect: Just like in life, you don’t notice the gradual changes until you look back and—Jesus Christ—how far have they come? How far have we? Where has the time gone, besides into the creases of our foreheads?

At the same time, Mad Men‘s sense of history is so subtle and rich–and remarkably free of period clichés–because it’s constantly aware that the past has its own history. It’s Don Draper, flashing back to his impoverished life in the 1930s and his wandering days in California. It’s Conrad Hilton, dreaming of a hotel on the moon, yet driven by his memories of growing up in territorial New Mexico. It’s Betty’s dad, in 1963, pouring Don’s expensive alcohol down the sink because he thinks it’s still Prohibition. It’s Bobby Draper, in season six’s “The Flood,” tearing at his bedroom wallpaper to get at the wallpaper underneath. On Mad Men, history is a palimpsest. There is always wallpaper under the wallpaper.

Mad Men gets something essential about being human: we experience time both as a linear one-way trip forward and as a nonlinear four-dimensional space, where it’s always today and 20 years ago and every year you’ve ever lived through. Old people know this: the elderly will describe how a memory of a half-century ago can be more vivid than something that happened last week. It’s a perspective you rarely see in TV, as concerned as the medium is with youth, plot and the immediate moment.

That Mad Men has built a show around this awareness–what another era might just call “wisdom”–is one reason it’s both one of the greatest TV series of its period and one of the least successfully imitated.

In “Severance,” that dual consciousness of time is more prominent than ever. The first half of season seven ended with Don saving himself once again, engineering the sale of SC&P to McCann-Erickson. It was the kind of resolution you might expect to see in a series finale: America is on the Moon, the partners are now rich, Bert Cooper is soft-shoeing off to the afterlife and everyone else, like Peggy, has come a long way since we met them. Good job, everyone! Cue up the Beatles’ “The End” and let’s call it a wrap!

But the story is still going on for another half season, and “Severance” finds several characters facing the fact that they’ve gotten a decade older. We saw this in last year’s outstanding “The Strategy” as Peggy grappled with turning 30: every choice you make, every opportunity grasped, means other opportunities and choices you’ve passed up forever.

Some characters find they’ve gotten plenty but it’s left them unsatisfied. Others have to deal with what happens when life, like an inept waiter at a restaurant, brings you what someone else ordered. At one point in “Severance” Don finds himself talking to a colleague who’s suffered a loss but tells Don that he’s decided to take it instead as a sign. “Of what?” Don asks.

“The life not lived.”

That life–all the lives that could have been, the few remaining that might still be–hangs over a lot of characters in this premiere. After Bert Cooper’s death in last year’s mid-season finale, mortality is ever more present. Business goes on at the office–the sale to McCann, unsurprisingly, has not meant the end of problems–but there’s also a sense among the principals of taking stock, looking back at the lives they didn’t lead while they were at their desks, relationships they didn’t establish, risks they didn’t take. More than once, there are references to characters missing airplane flights, metaphorical and literal. Some possibilities have flown, and our SC&P friends can no longer assume they can simply catch the next one.

But even as time flies like a TWA jet, the episode also has a haunting sense of time’s fluidity. Don, in particular, seems to be in a kind of waking dream state, seeing faces and images that vaguely remind him of his past. (There are even a couple of different, contradictory cues as to the date in the premiere, which I would shrug off as meaningless in a show less careful.) Maybe it’s age; maybe it’s all the intimations of mortality in the show lately. Late in the premiere, Don has a conversation with a diner waitress (Elizabeth Reaser)–she reminds him of someone, but who? where?–about an unsettling dream he had. The more he thinks about it, the less he’s certain when he dreamed it–everything’s gone a little fuzzy. “When people die,” she tells him, “everything gets mixed up.” Don exists in the same present as the rest of the characters, but he’s not all there.

It’s a bit sci-fi, as if Don has become unstuck in time like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim. (Early in the show’s run, Weiner described Mad Men as science fiction set in the past–meaning that it uses its setting, like sci-fi might use the future, to reflect on our own world. And what is the biggest subject of science fiction if not time?) It makes for a slow but haunting last beginning. The final overture is well-orchestrated by Weiner, who wrote Tony Soprano’s extended dream in The Sopranos‘ “The Test Dream” and has always explored the spectrum of consciousness: how dreams and hallucinations can be lucid and waking life can pass like a dream.

So what time is it, when Mad Men returns for the last time? It’s today. It’s the past. It’s the past of the past. It’s the beginning of the end, and everyone is trying to figure out what time it is, before their time is finally up.

TIME Television

Review: Wolf Hall Gives Us an Antihero for All Seasons

Wolf HallSundays, April 5 - May 10, 2015 on MASTERPIECE on PBSPart OneSunday, April 5, 2015 at 10pm ETHaving failed to secure the annulment of the King’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon,Cardinal Wolsey is stripped of his powers. His hopes of returning to the King’s favor lie inthe ever-loyal Thomas Cromwell.Shown: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell(C) Giles Keyte/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBCThis image may be used only in the direct promotion of MASTERPIECE. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only.
Giles Keyte

Hilary Mantel's novels become a miniseries (plus a stage production) that retells a royal story from a commoner's vantage.

It’s a Tudor Revival: within days of each other, the BBC TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, set in the court of Henry VIII, premieres on PBS (April 5) and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage version opens on Broadway (April 9). I’ve seen both, and my print story in this week’s TIME (subscription required) looks at their captivating retelling of a familiar story.

The story of how the king threw over Catherine of Aragon (and the Catholic Church) to wed then behead Anne Boleyn has been told and retold, from Shakespeare to A Man for All Seasons to Showtime’s The Tudors, with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ swaggering rock star Henry. (The miniseries also opts for a hot Henry over the turkey-leg chewing behemoth of popular imagination, with Damien Lewis as the king.) What distinguishes Wolf Hall is that the protagonist is neither the king nor any of his series of queens but Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer, financial wizard and all-around political fixer Henry relied on to rewrite laws, break church ties and destroy enemies.

As Mantel painted him, Cromwell is a classic 21st-century TV antihero 500 years before his time: both ruthless and thoughtful, conniving yet loyal, he’s a little Frank Underwood, a little Olivia Pope, a little Littlefinger. And, as I write in the piece, he comes to embody some provocative ideas about the times he lived in:

Like the cheerier British import Downton Abbey, Wolf Hall is, under its gilded surface, a story about change: ideological and technological shifts most of the characters are only vaguely aware are coming. Cromwell is modernity in a black hat, a commoner who rose to unprecedented levels and understands that the locus of power has moved. The printing press is the Internet of its time, a disrupting force. Cromwell is active in the movement to distribute an English Bible, forbidden by the church, which is terrified of the little people reading (and interpreting) it for themselves. Commerce is becoming global, hierarchies are falling, which means trouble–and opportunity.

I’m guessing you’re more likely to see the PBS broadcast, and I recommend it heartily: Mark Rylance is spectacular as Cromwell, bringing subtlety and melancholy to a man who was more of a bulldog in real life (as Hans Holbein the Younger painted him), but conveying the terrifying efficiency of his mind all the same. (The stage version, which I saw in previews, is a more spare adapation, with broader performances, but it also captures the tone set by Mantel, who consulted closely on it.)

My headline for the print article is “Game of Thrones,” because Thrones references are what we do nowadays. But in seriousness the six-part Wolf Hall makes a good viewing companion to HBO’s series (which returns a week later). Both are realpolitik stories beneath the lush, sexy trappings of royal desires and ambitions.

Though I don’t think it’s a spoiler to point out the historical fact of what Anne Boleyn notoriously discovered: in this game of thrones, sometimes you win and you die.

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