TIME Television

Fake It When You Make It: The Sad Sex of The Americans

How FX's espionage drama is upending the sexy-spy-fantasy cliché.

Spoilers for The Americans, “Salang Pass,” below:

From its beginning, The Americans both fit into the tradition of sexy spies and and pushed against it. On the one hand, Elizabeth and Philip’s tradecraft always involved plenty of bedcraft: they teased, screwed and, in Philip’s case, even married targets to get favors and information. They could each rock a good-looking wig and a pair of ’80s jeans.

On the other hand, the show has always been careful not to use sex simply for glamor and wish-fulfillment. (Nor for one-sided male fantasy: Philip has to trade his body for secrets as much as Elizabeth does, and last season’s striking 69 scene between them emphasized how sexually egalitarian the show is.) And as suburban parents, the duo have much more prosaic lives than Emma Peel or James Bond.

From the get-go, it’s been clear that sex in the line of duty is work–both for him and her–and messy, complicated work at that. Targets are used sexually, killed and packed into suitcases. In the pilot, we see that Elizabeth’s initiation into the program included her brutal rape by a KGB superior. Their own marriage begins as a sexual and romantic sham, one that isn’t entirely free of acting even as they’ve grown close to each other. Sex here comes with entanglement and suspicion–as in the second season, when a jealous Elizabeth asked Philip to have sex with her the way he does with his deceived wife Martha.

But none of this approaches this season’s storyline in which Philip is expected to “cultivate” Kimberly, a 15-year-old fan of weed and Yaz whose father is a valuable CIA target. It’s disturbing, to us and to him, not just because Kimberly is underage and vulnerable, but specifically because she so recalls daughter Paige, whom the KGB also wants to develop as an operative. When he scrupled at seducing her in last week’s “Dimebag,” saying “We’ve never used someone this young before,” the double meaning was not lost on anyone.

There’s an air of corruption around the whole operation, of youth being exploited cynically by the old. (And not just by spies or the Soviets; “Dimebag” included an actual Love’s Baby Soft ad, debuted in the 1970s, that depicted a woman as a “baby that grew up sexy,” sucking a lollipop and staring vacantly at the camera. If the KGB doesn’t get the kids, capitalism will!) As Gabriel (Frank Langella) advises/cautions him, Philip has a conscience; but he must never forget that the people he deals with (has sex with, considers adopting children with…) are secondary to the mission.

With that setup, Philip’s “date” with Kimberly in “Salang Pass” is one of the most unsettling sequences so far, in a season that has already included the aforementioned suitcase-packing and a DIY tooth extraction. It’s unsettling as much for what doesn’t happen as for what almost does, if the two weren’t interrupted by someone coming home. Hanging out in front of the TV, trading bites of rocky road ice cream, having a Jiffy Pop fight in the kitchen, they could be father and daughter having fun on a weekend night.

They could, that is, be Philip and Paige. (Even Kimberly, who in her adolescent confidence is sure she knows what she wants from “James,” transparently yearns for a father, someone to hold the big rake.) Philip carrying a stoned Kimberly up to her bedroom is a positively paternal sight, until she wakes up and kisses him. And he kisses her back.

It’s disturbing. It should be. It’s disturbing because of they way she’s being used, of course, but also–even though he’s the adult here–for the way he is, by his homeland. All this is underlined later when Philip comes home to Elizabeth and brings up their “training”–specifically, in faking sexual pleasure, “making it real”–and flashes back to coupling in a spare room with women, young and old, and a man. “It’s probably different for a man,” Elizabeth says. And probably it is–we still remember her rape at the beginning of the series.

But still, “Salang Pass” shows, the strain of keeping up multiple lies–each of which involves a convincing emotional investment–has utterly drained Philip, who walks through the episode like a zombie, aching at the faint memory of authentic life. Philip and Elizabeth both have given themselves to their country. All of themselves: their bodies, their emotions, their sexual volition. And with it, they’ve given up a sense of identity, even in their most private intimate moments. “Do you have to make it real with me?” Elizabeth asks. “Sometimes,” he admits. “Not now.”

If it weren’t already clear, The Americans is no shagadelic spy fantasy. In bed or out, there is always the awareness, as Gabriel says, that the person is secondary to the mission. When the mission is done with them, will any of the person be left?

TIME Television

Parks and Recreation Watch: Find Your Team and Get to Work

Parks and Recreation - Season 7
Colleen Hayes/NBC

This finale, like the whole series, was about making the world better one small gesture at a time.

Spoilers for the series finale of Parks and Recreation follow:

“When we worked here together, we fought, scratched and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is about: small, incremental change every day. Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing.’ And I would add that what makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people that you love.”

The most prominent feature of Parks and Recreation’s finale was the flash-forwards, extending the characters’ lives as far ahead as 2048. But there was another recurring visual, smaller but at least as important. Before each character’s flash-forward begins, Leslie Knope touches them–a hug, a hand clasp, a warm pat on the shoulder.

Parks began as a much sharper-edged, satirical comedy, closer to the spinoff of The Office it was kinda-sorta conceived as. It ended as something much warmer, more expansive and optimistic–and, toward the end, became a kind of loopy near-future science fiction. But it was always, above all, about that hand.

Leslie Knope–not unlike her icon and returning Parks guest Joe Biden–was a toucher. Both in work and friendship, she believed in reaching out, prodding, getting in people’s space. In the show’s beginning, that seemed to mark her as delusional: a small-town civil servant who believed that by being proactive and positive she could actually change the world.

But as the series went on, it showed that Leslie was crazy enough to be right. She could be a quixotic politician and an exhausting friend–approaching both roles with bursting binders of research–and she didn’t win every battle she picked. But she also showed, one Harvest Festival and Pawnee Common at a time, that if you reached out to people and assumed the best of them, you really could leave them better than you found them.

“One Last Ride,” the series finale (co-written by Amy Poehler and co-creator Michael Schur), was about the sum total of all the gestures and connections Leslie made over the course of the series, and how they rippled out into the future. If, as I wrote last week, Parks’ final season was really a single finale told over thirteen episodes, then “Ride” was its coda, the final few minutes of Six Feet Under expanded into an hour.

There were tradeoffs to treating the final season as an extended finale. It allowed the last episodes to give extended sendoffs to our favorite characters and the expansive world of Pawnee without feeling rushed. But it also meant that, once the Pawnee National Park arc was resolved, there was no significant central conflict driving the story. (Not coincidentally, I think, the episode that ended that arc, “Leslie and Ron,” was the best of the season and one of the best Parks has ever done.) In its place came a lot of ever-afters and mostly happy endings; to use a comparison nerd Ben would appreciate, it was like The Return of the King, with a whole lot of postscript and goodbyes after the fall of Sauron.

Even by the standards of sitcom endings, this one was more sweet than bittersweet–at times, it hit the Sweetums a bit hard–with the characters not just finding happiness in the future but succeeding wildly in ways that were appropriate to them. Like Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard of Oz, they get the gifts that suit them: fame for Tom, coolness (despite parenthood) for April and Andy, contentment (and 51% of the Lagavulin Distillery) for Ron, and so on. The one Parkster who dies, Garry, does so on his 100th birthday, after living an essentially perfect life.

(Sidebar: are we all assuming that, by the time Ben and Leslie visit Gerry’s graveside in 2048, she’s now President? Or is he, since the Secret Service agent seems to be addressing both of them? Nice touch–assuming it was intended this way–to toss in the reveal offhandedly, in such a way that you could conclude either Ben or Leslie could be POTUS. One assumes, like Bill and Hillary, they’ll each take a shot at it in some order.)

It’s interesting, though, that while Parks gives its characters happy endings, they don’t inhabit a perfect world. Like the 2017 of the rest of the final season, “One Last Ride” is set in a kind of comedy dystopia: there are eight corporations left, the country has run out of beef, and schools don’t teach math.

MORE Read What Amy Poehler Had to Say About the First Episode of Parks and Recreation

That’s typical of Parks: it’s combines a sense of satire about the larger world with unashamed positivity about the smaller individuals in it. What makes the endings happy here is the characters’ mutual support for one another. Ben steps aside for Leslie to run for governor, as she had earlier backed his run for Congress. Tom comes up with the idea for his self-help empire by seeing each of his coworkers as a different personality model for success. April helps Donna help her husband finance his school’s fancy math-learnin’.

Maybe the sweetest, and cry-makingest, of all these is Ron coming to Leslie as she did to him years ago, asking for direction in his life, and her helping him find it, in the least objectionable sector of the federal government, the National Parks System. (Ron, after all, once said crying is acceptable two places: funerals and the Grand Canyon. With this scene, I would add a third.)

It’s friendship, of course, but there’s another concept that the finale hits repeatedly: the team. When April is wavering over having kids, Leslie says that it would be a way for the couple to expand their great team. And it’s how Gov. Leslie Knope describes public service to the students at Indiana University: “Now, go find your team and get to work.”

It’s an interesting choice of terms. On the one hand, who doesn’t love teams? On the other hand, the whole concept of team spirit–in politics, on the Internet, in the culture at large–can be divisive: blind loyalty, us vs. them, Team This and Team That.

The final gift that Leslie Knope gives us here is to reimagine that team mentality in a healthy way. In her eyes, it’s not about defensively finding a gang of people to circle the wagons with out of suspicion of the rest of the world. It’s about finding your matches, your soulmates, your Galentines. It’s not about an idea of loyalty that means you deny flaws in yourself and your friends; its about making a pact to make each other better, even if it sometimes means getting in each other’s business. It’s about–to use another term that’s become politicized–community.

And speaking of teams: I haven’t gone through the transcripts of every episode, but I’m pretty sure this finale was the first time we learned, via Leslie being approached by the DNC, that Leslie Knope is a Democrat. (In a 2012 Huffington Post interview, Schur said that “we have never said the words ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ on the show and we never will.”)

It’s not as if Leslie’s general philosophy has ever been hidden, anyway. But the spirit of Parks, captured in its beautiful final minutes, has been to express a political idea in personal, nonpolemical terms. Like Leslie, the show believes that people have an obligation to help other people; unlike Ron, it believes that government is one, imperfect means of doing that.

It believes, to return to that image that the finale returned to over and over again, in extending a hand. But not to push, or to drag someone else along. It believes in seeing the best in other people, helping them become their best selves, so that they in turn will be able to do that for someone else. (Just as April, in the foundation job she got indirectly through Leslie, was eventually able to help Donna.)

That’s what the future is, for Leslie Knope and for this finale: a chain through which one person touches another who touches another who touches another. You may, as the Parks gang discovered over and over with the citizens of Pawnee, never get thanked. But it makes the world a tiny bit better, and it makes you a tiny bit better.

In the end, what Parks and Recreation thinks about friendship is what it thinks about public service. It’s not a handout. It’s a hand up.

Now for a final hail of bullets:

* Another nice thing about the final days of Parks and Recreation is how, though Leslie and Ben had triplets, it avoided falling into the sitcom trap of focusing on how Kids Change Everything. All that said, I was happy that we got to meet Burt Snakehole Ludgate Karate Dracula Macklin Demon Jack-o-Lantern Dwyer, and glad that April and Andy wrestled with the decision to become parents in the most April and Andy way: “Yes, I would love all the awesome stuff my body would go through…”

* Don’t ask me why, but Craig and Typhoon’s flash-forward to their vacation on a transparent airplane reminded me of Six Feet Under‘s Rico collapsing on the futuristic cruise ship in his own flash forward. It’s amazing the things your brain stores in a life of TV-watching.

* “Gameplay magazine called it ‘punishingly intricate’!”

* I’m still trying to work out the timeline on that possible Ben-Leslie Presidential succession timeline. Maybe she ran in 2036 and 2040 (her “new unknown challenge” after leaving as governor in 2035), and he ran in 2044? Am I overthinking this? I’m overthinking this.

* I know that the episode could only flash so far forward but I do hope that Gerry’s passing meant that Brandi Maxxxx got her shot at the mayor’s office at long last.

* I have so much respect for Ronald Ulysses Swanson that I will even forgive him his casual swipe at my Michigan Wolverines. But just barely.

* OK, allow me one tiny quibble: I had always thought that, given how important the Pit was to the first season and to getting so many of these characters together, that the finale might have built toward some kind of closing storyline involving Pawnee Common. Fixing the slide, I guess, sort of paralleled that first project, but did anyone else miss it?

* Speaking of which: if I were a better organized person, I’d have been keeping a list this last season of which Pawnee personages and landmarks the show managed shout-outs to. Is there anything you noticed the final season leaving out?

* “Don’t get emotional, Von, you’re embarrassing yourself.” You and me both, Von. You and me both.

Read next: Twitter Gave Parks and Recreation a Very Sweet Send-Off

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TIME Media

Bill O’Reilly and the Truthiness Defense

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 22
Paul Drinwater—NBC/Getty Images Talk show host Bill O'Reilly on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' on Nov. 18, 2013.

For the Fox host, his most important difference with Brian Williams may be what his audience expects of him.

From the sound of things, Bill O’Reilly’s enforcers are going to have a busy time. When David Corn first made the case, in Mother Jones, that O’Reilly had inflated his war-correspondent record–implying that he’d seen combat “in the Falklands” when he covered it for CBS from Buenos Aires–O’Reilly said that Corn deserved to end up “in the kill zone.” When a New York Times reporter did a follow-up on the story, he told her that if he didn’t like what she reported, “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take that as a threat.”

What that threat constitutes from O’Reilly is unclear, though in the past his producer has tracked down and camera-ambushed a string of journalists who’d dared criticize Bill-O. And Fox News in general has a not-so-secret reputation of strong-arming reporters who cover the media, as the late David Carr chronicled in 2008, when Fox and Friends aired altered photographs of two New York Times staffers in payback for unflattering coverage.

Maybe the threats will scare journalists off O’Reilly’s trail; or maybe making them so brazenly will rally more reporters to the story. Either way, if O’Reilly is not likely to suffer Brian Williams’ fate, it has less to do with the difference in their stories and more to do with the fact that O’Reilly is not Brian Williams: he’s an entirely different kind of journalist. His audience has a different relationship with him, based not on veracity but loyalty, not information but identification.

Like Williams, O’Reilly told stories about his reporting exploits that seemed to imply they were more dangerous than they were. There were differences in the particulars and the aftermath, though. Williams apologized for saying he was traveling in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG in Iraq when it was not. O’Reilly doubled down on his statements. In his telling, it became a matter of whether you think having reported “in the Falklands” is naturally assumed as meaning “in Buenos Aires at the time of the Falkland Islands war” and whether a violent protest equals a “combat situation.”

And that kind of argument–a debate over interpretation, spin, the motives of his critics–is the friendliest of grounds for O’Reilly to argue in front of his audience. Hell, it’s precisely what you watch O’Reilly for: not for news headlines but for a worldview, not for what happened but what it means–and what it means that your ideological adversaries see it as something else.

It’s no accident that O’Reilly was a chief inspiration for Stephen Colbert’s character on The Colbert Report, for whom he invented the concept of “truthiness”: that what your gut tells you is more important than what the literal facts say, that how the news feels is more important than what the news is.

Once you’re inside that No-Spin Zone, all arguments become political arguments. And any argument can be considered, and attacked, with the tactics of political ones: ad hominems, consider-the-source rebuttals, somebody-else-did-something-bad-once-too rebuttals, appeals to loyalty and the sense of persecution.

Like so: the original claim against O’Reilly came from Mother Jones. Mother Jones is a liberal magazine; therefore its argument is invalid and we don’t even need to consider it further. If anyone follows up on the report–CNN, the New York Times–they’re also liberal, because all the media outside Fox is liberal, therefore we can disregard them too. If anyone else joins in, they are by definition also liberal because they’re attacking Bill-O, QED.

The fact that charges exist becomes the best defense against the charges. Not only that, they only reinforce that O’Reilly is right: he has the right enemies, he must be on the right side. The liberal media claims Bill lied about being in a war zone? Well, what is a “war zone” anyway? Look at the footage he showed of demonstrators in the streets! That’s combat enough for me! Case closed.

It’s almost magic.

This is a perfect example, really, of the difference between a news host whose reputation is based on objectivity and one whose reputation is based on subjectivity. You can argue what Williams or O’Reilly deserves, but in the end NBC and Fox alike operate first out of practicality and self-preservation. And where it was devastating for Williams to have his veracity challenged in public, for O’Reilly to have this battle is branding.

That’s not to say O’Reilly can’t be harmed by future developments. You don’t make threats if you’re not concerned about something.

But as it stands, Bill O’Reilly’s audience is his best line of defense. When people watch you because they want to believe, they’ll do most of the work for you.

TIME movies

Review: An Oscars Telecast Saved by the Music

87th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Kevin Winter—Getty Images Lady Gaga performs onstage during the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California.

Stellar performances from John Legend, Lady Gaga and others injected excitement into an often moribund show

It’s not as if the Oscars didn’t have material to work with. In many ways, 2014 was an interesting and vital year in movies — not just artistically, but in terms of engaging viewers and giving them things to talk about. The end of the year in particular saw movies like American Sniper, Selma — even The Interview — that spurred conversations and controversies and reminded us that movies can have effects beyond their running times. (The same was true of the nominations and omissions.)

The 2015 Oscars broadcast, though, had a hard time capturing that excitement — or anything else. It certainly had a big enough net: the show was 3 hours and 40 minutes long. But as a TV broadcast, it struggled not just with length but tone, trying alternately to be light entertainment and a meaningful statement. Sometimes it was delightfully one, sometimes it was affectingly the other. But often the two collided painfully.

There were high hopes from the beginning, because of host Neil Patrick Harris, generally a delightful stage performer who’s done a reliably terrific job hosting the Tony Awards. And he started off in fine form. His first joke immediately addressed the white elephant in the room: the dearth of minority nominees for this year’s awards: “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — sorry, brightest.” Then he ditched a traditional monologue to do his thing: musical comedy, a rapid-fire, playful celebration of “moving pictures” that was both sweet and funny: “Check out the glamor and glitter/ People tweeting on the Twitter / And no one’s drunk and bitter yet ’cause no one’s lost.”

Sometimes, though, the organism that is the Oscars is bigger than the host, and Harris seemed to lose his grip on it, thanks largely to some badly written material. Several jokes razzing celebs in the audience fell flat, including one that involved getting Selma star David Oyelowo to trash the remake of Annie, which Oyelowo reacted to with a memorable “meh” gesture.

Harris is nothing if not game, but he often seemed disconnected from the limp material. He followed up one winner’s story of her son’s suicide with a dissonant joke about the puffy orbs on her gown: “Takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that!” (though it’s not clear if he caught the suicide reference before making the joke). But when he had the chance, he rallied, romping through the wings onto the stage in his tighty-whities in a bit that recalled Oscar winner Birdman, and reviving when he had the right material. (“Benedict Cumberbatch,” he said, was “the sound you get when you ask John Travolta to introduce Ben Affleck.”) But then there was the running gag, about Harris’ Oscar predictions having been locked in a box onstage, that ran so long and with so little payoff it could have been redeemed only if the box contained a $10 million check made out in my name.

When the scripted material falters, you hope for the unscripted moments to deliver, and the acceptance speeches often did. It was a year of earnestness, inspiration and exhortation. Patricia Arquette of Boyhood urged pay equality for women. Best Song winner John Legend insisted that “Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now.” Best Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore — for The Imitation Game, about British cryptography genius Alan Turing who was persecuted for being gay — recalled considering suicide at age 16, and offered hope to young people feeling the same way. “Stay weird,” he said. “Stay different.”

Fittingly for an Oscars that began with a song, it was often the music that salvaged this one. Tegan and Sara with The Lonely Island delivered a joyous, hallucinatory “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie (the performers handing out Lego statuettes that several guests clutched through the ceremony). Lady Gaga performed an incendiary medley from The Sound of Music — seemed like a strange idea, but totally worked — ending with a salute from Julie Andrews, who pronounced “Lady Gaga” as though it were a royal title. And Legend’s performance of “Glory” with Common was the rare Oscar musical number that — with a recreation of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — managed to reproduce the emotion of the movie onstage.

MORE Watch Common and John Legend Perform ‘Glory’ at the Oscars

But Selma was largely outside of the major Oscar running, as was the much-talked-about American Sniper. Much of the night involved jockeying between boutique films like Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel — which is no fault of the broadcast but may not have helped with mass viewer engagement. There was also a general lack of momentum to the night — exemplified by staid choices, like having the Best Animated Film nominees represented by still drawings, as opposed to something, well, animated.

In the end, this Oscars was neither brilliant or a disaster; like many Hollywood productions, it was just a long thing that felt put together by committee. There were moving moments and tedious moments — but there were also just tons and tons of moments (and yet, somehow, there wasn’t room in the In Memoriam reel for comedian, actress, writer-director and red-carpet fixture Joan Rivers).

That said, I’d be glad to see the very musical Harris get another shot at hosting the Academy Awards. And there’s nothing wrong with a telecast that plays up all the incredible music that gets written for the movies. But the music was never the problem. This year, it was the orchestration that left something to be desired.

Read next: The Oscars Were a Night of Mild Surprises, Including Neil Patrick Harris

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TIME Television

The Problem With the New Emmy Category Rules

Orange is the New Black
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Many of the best shows are neither wholly drama nor comedy — and that's what makes them so good

Is Orange Is the New Black a comedy or a drama? Is True Detective a drama or a miniseries? It depends whom you ask. At the Emmy Awards, the procedure had generally been to ask the people who make the show, as a result of which the same show will compete as comedy and drama in different awards competitions, and shows with the same structure (say, Fargo and True Detective) will compete in entirely different categories.

Call it category gaming or the ambiguous nature of art. It’s both really, but the Emmys is trying to introduce some order into the process with new rules defining categories. Some of them are simple common sense and provide welcome clarity: for instance, if a drama tells one self-contained story over a season, it’s a “limited series,” period. If you’re in most of the episodes of a series, then come on, you are not a “guest actor.”

But the biggest change is also the least satisfying. From now on, any hourlong series will be assumed to be a drama, and a half-hour series assumed to be a comedy. Makers of a show can petition to appear in a different category than assigned, but that will be the basis.

Again, the intent here is to compare apples with apples and oranges with oranges. But no matter which shows end up where, it won’t get around the real reason for the complexity: the orchard that is TV today grows a lot more than apples and oranges.

Many of the best TV shows right now—Transparent, Orange Is the New Black, Jane the Virgin, Better Call Saul—are neither wholly drama nor comedy. (Nor are they all necessarily what we call “dramedies.”) In fact, you could argue that exploring the boundaries between genres is precisely what defines the great TV of today. A more traditional drama like The Good Wife is nonetheless among the funniest shows on TV. Any given week, Girls or Louie can be one of TV’s most affecting dramas.

Some people like that, some people don’t. Whatever—you still have to put these shows somewhere, and the reductive categories of “drama” (makes you cry!) and “comedy” (makes you laugh!) still won’t cleanly work. And it will still involve filling binary categories based on highly subjective (if not strategic) judgments.

I’m not really convinced the category fuzziness was a great problem for the awards to begin with—save for the producers of some shows that might like easier competition. But if the intent is really to keep hourlong shows like OITNB from competing against half-hours like Modern Family, better to simply split the categories that way: call them “longform” and “shortform.”

Aesthetically, it won’t be any more apples to apples than what we have now. But at least we’d have an objective way of testing which kind of fruit is which.

TIME Television

Review: Two and a Half Men Stays True to Its Wicked Heart

Michael Yarish/CBS

CBS's raunchy, long-lived sitcom went out not with a "Farewell, old friend" but with a "See you in hell!"

Spoilers for the series finale of Two and a Half Men follow:

A disclosure: I wasn’t much of a fan of Two and a Half Men most of the 12 seasons it ran. So reviewing its finale is a bit like giving the eulogy at the funeral for somebody who was not actually a friend.

Then again, that seems exactly in the spirit of Two and a Half Men, which killed off Charlie Harper in 2011 (or as it turns out, “killed” him), then threw him a funeral full of speeches from people he screwed over, or simply screwed, and left with bitter memories and venereal diseases.

But as it turns out, I don’t need to speak ill of the dead, or at least of Two and a Half Men‘s dying. Because taken as an hour in itself, its bawdy, sentimentality-free goodbye was a funny and deeply weird hour of score-setlling, fourth-wall-breaking, hugs-and-tears-denying TV.

It may be that the finale worked better for me precisely because I wasn’t that invested in the sitcom, hadn’t been a regular viewer for years, didn’t have a dog in the fight between Charlie Sheen and Chuck Lorre nor much burning desire to see Sheen come back. Probably anticipating a fair number of lookie-loos and onetime viewers returning just for the ending, the finale did a lot of recapping and self-referencing. (“You mean from the pilot?” asked Melanie Lynskey’s Rose when asked to update us on her history with Charlie since she reported him dead years ago.)

Maybe a more dedicated fan–especially a dedicated Charlie Harper/Sheen fan–might have been more bothered by the comedy thumbing its cocaine-smeared nose at its longtime lead character. But the finale was a rare thing in TV land. Often even the most hardboiled of series feel obligated to trowel on the sap as they come to an end–whatever the characters have done over the years, the actors, crew and audience have an emotional history with the show.

Not Two and a Half Men, which went out dark and weird. It filled in Charlie and Rose’s history with a bizarre animated sequence which found the two in Paris, where Charlie nose-Hoovered up a table of spilled sucre and ended up in a menage-a-chevre involving a goat. It ran down the characters’ prodigious sex history. (“You slept with my mom!” “That was just a handie in a hotel bar. I am a gentleman!”) And it addressed, over and over, knocks against the show from critics and fans, bringing on Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare, “This whole thing has been going on waaaaay too long.”

The whole business captured a strange paradox of CBS sitcoms, of which Two and a Half Men was the most brazen example. They’re the most retro comedies on TV in terms of format–see the revival of The Odd Couple–and yet they’re also often broadcast TV’s most adventurous comedies in terms of both raw content and tone. Even critical darlings like Parks and Recreation hew close to the mandates of likeability and warmth. To find anything like Two and a Half Men‘s commitment to mercenary, misanthropic meanness, you have to go to a cable sitcom like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

For years, Sheen’s Charlie Harper was the dark coal that fueled the show. And maybe inevitably, the finale recognized that the sitcoms was always his, for better or worse, even after he left it. Lorre could have just chosen to forget Charlie Harper–to move on as the show itself largely had during the Ashton Kutcher years. For most of the rest of the world, after all, Sheen’s meltdown and departure from the show is just a bizarre pop cultural memory.

Instead, this was a final hour built around an actor who wasn’t even there (though in a title card at the end, Lorre said he’d tried to get Sheen to return in person for his piano drop). The gonzo final storyline involved an unseen Harper’s maniacal breakdown, complete with “tiger blood” reference. And toward the end of the hour, Alan mused on his former roomie’s future in a way that left little doubt which Charlie he was really talking about: “He’ll sober up, reflect on his past mistakes, apologize to everyone, and then do something worse.”

Lorre’s one gesture of generosity was to have himself crushed by a grand piano too, moments after uttering Sheen’s catchphrase, “#Winning.” It was self-referential and self-indulgent, but a nice gesture in its own, blackhearted way: the show went out not with a “Farewell, old friend” but with a “See you in hell!”

Was it appropriate? Classy? I just know I laughed. Great TV or no, Two and a Half Men ended its many lucrative years in a way true to its nature: going for the punchlines, laughing at death, as expensive objects rained from the sky.

Read next: ‘Two and a Half Men’ Producer Explains That Weird Final Episode

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TIME Television

Review: More Power, More Problems in House of Cards

Netflix's D.C. drama isn't great TV. But the sudsy new season at least gives POTUS Frank Underwood greater headaches.

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The greatest trick Frank Underwood ever pulled was convincing the world that he was Tony Soprano. House of Cards arrived on Netflix two years ago with the fanfare of being TV’s next Big Ambitious Drama, with a big star, a big budget, a big director (David Fincher) and big themes.

What it was missing was the small stuff–the nuances, shadings and complications that distinguish the HBO series that it challenged. As Underwood, Kevin Spacey was lustily mendacious, but his villainy had no layers; it was demons all the way down. He was surrounded by self-serving political operators, distinguished only by their levels of competence or weakness. Its worldview was cynical and popular in a nonpartisan way–they’re all bastards in Washington!–but what it wasn’t was surprising. Its sensibility was summed up by the title sequence, whose scenes of the capital were glossy, thrumming with activity, but devoid of actual people. The show had chess pieces, not characters; it had blood but no pulse.

If House of Cards was not a great TV drama, it had potential as a not-great TV drama–a brassy potboiler with a strong cast, full of twists and delicious betrayals, fully committed to cruel spectacle. Seen that way, season 1 was a good time, a high-class laundry-folder made for bingeing, simple and meaty as a plate of the juicy barbecue that then-Congressman Underwood favored. But as Underwood connived his way to the Vice Presidency, it ran into trouble–namely, that Frank didn’t run into enough meaningful trouble. His inexorable march to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was more like a saunter. His triumphs in season 2 came too easy, as he flattened obstacles and adversaries like that Metro train flattened poor Zoe Barnes.

Season 3, in the six episodes I’ve seen (the full season goes online Feb. 27), does not give Frank better enemies or challenges than season 2 did. But it gives him a lot more of them, and that helps.

They say in politics that becoming President is the easy part; it’s being President that’s the killer. As we rejoin Frank, it’s been six months since he engineered the resignation of President Walker. Unemployment is raging, his poll numbers diving. His ambitious jobs bill is languishing in Congress. The Russian president, Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen, in a deft Putin near-imitation), is frustrating his international efforts. A sharp new reporter on the White House beat (Kim Dickens) is scoring damaging leaks. His own Democratic party, sensing a rout in 2016, is rebelling. And his attempts to set up First Lady Claire (Robin Wright) to eventually continue the dynasty are thwarted.

(On the bright side: It’s spring 2015 but Stephen Colbert is still on The Colbert Report in this universe–it’s one of scads of media-star cameos in the season–so the Underwood Administration is doing something right!)

Somehow it turns out more effective to have Underwood nibbled by ducks than to have him slash through a succession of paper tigers. It makes House of Cards a bit of a different show, much more process-oriented, and maybe some fans will wish for the old days, when Frank was pushing people in front of trains, not pushing around FEMA appropriations.

But the series needed a change-up and season 3 provides one, a bit; Frank is not fighting to get somewhere but to stay where he is, and his enemy is not so much a single Big Bad as it is the processes of government and diplomacy. When he’s off-balance, we are, and that makes the plot turns more interesting.

Other things haven’t changed: the series’ long arc–the coverup of Underwood’s murder of Peter Russo during his rise to power–is still rolling slowly along. And the show is still self-serious, didactic and risibly melodramatic. The first scene of the new season has Frank visiting his father’s grave; he hated the old man, Frank tells us in a trademark aside to the camera, but “you have to be a little human when you’re the president.” Then, in case that was too subtle, he urinates on the headstone–underlining the point, as it were, with his Presidential pen. (Later, there’s an even more goofily histrionic church scene, which plays like The West Wing‘s “Two Cathedrals” episode if President Bartlet were possessed by the devil.)

But there’s something new mixed in among the mustache-twirling and predictable iconoclasm: a strain of earnestness, especially as the storyline becomes more involved in real-world issues like the persecution of gay Russians. It’s not always a good fit, and it results in some draggy, speechy storylines. But it’s a change, and that’s something House of Cards can use. Frank finds himself genuinely weighed down by the responsibilities of the office, and as Claire takes a prominent foreign policy role, she begins to feel a call to do good for people not surnamed Underwood, which brings her in conflict with her own husband. (Wright continues to be the show’s MVP, giving her character more shading than House of Cards‘ limited set of charcoals usually permits.)

All this suggests a potentially potent enemy for Frank Underwood: conscience. Three seasons in, I can binge on the plot of House of Cards while recognizing the show doesn’t have the stuff of greatness. But it could at least keep things interesting by giving Frank a brush with goodness.

TIME Television

Parks and Recreation Watch: Chopped!

This show started with turning a pit into a park, but its next-to-last night reminded us that everyone is a work in progress.

Spoilers for the penultimate night of Parks and Recreation follow:

As satisfying as much of the final season of Parks and Recreation has been, its structure puzzled me. It started off with a Leslie-vs.-Ron storyline that seemed like it would carry through the season, then resolved the arc in the fourth episode. The remaining episodes have had the throughline of Ben’s run for Congress, but they’ve often felt like an epilogue–funny, heartfelt epilogue, but epilogue nonetheless.

But the last two episodes before the finale changed my thinking in a couple ways. First, if it means getting an entire episode of the Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show, who the hell cares? (Seriously, except for casting issues and the occasional bit of dangerous advice to children, there’s no reason you could not produce the show tomorrow as one of the best kids’ programs on TV.)

Second, the unusual structure in retrospect seems to be a clever bit of problem-solving. Any long-running sitcom has a lot of unfinished business to take care of in the finale: characters to send off, history to nod to, segments of the fan base to service. Take a show that’s built as expansive a universe as Parks & Rec and you’re looking at a very, very crowded finale–a situation which can often make final sitcom episodes into weird, hurried affairs.

The solution: make most of the final season into a kind of extended finale, one episode at a time, one character at a time.

The brilliant first half-hour of Tuesday’s double-shot focused, of course, on Andy. Thanks to Chris Pratt’s eager-puppy performance, he’s served up some of the show’s most reliably outsized comedy, but as the episode reminded us, he also has a thematic role in the series. As Leslie points out in his sendoff, it was Andy–originally Ann’s loutish boyfriend in the show’s early days–who helped set the whole story in motion through the Pit project.

But more than that, Andy was a project in himself. Over the years he evolved from a hapless slacker with unrealistic dreams to a caring adult with unrealistic dreams (some of which–like becoming Burt Macklin, even in fictional form–he achieved). He was able to channel his oversized-kid energy into a career as an oversized kid, but also developed enough awareness of other people to give up his local fame to move with April to Washington.

(This, by the way, continues the parallels between Parks and its touchstone Friday Night Lights, whose finale also turned on Eric Taylor’s agreeing to move to Philadelphia for Tami’s career–the importance of partnership in a relationship is a big theme of Parks, and not just when it comes to Ben and Leslie.)

The theme extended to the second half-hour, “Two Funerals”–with the long-awaited guest appearance of Bill Murray as the late Mayor Gunderson–which put a cap on Tom Haverford’s evolution from playerhood, as Leslie helped him find a typically dramatic, Haverfordian way to put a ring on it. (The episode’s focus was a little broader than “Johnny Karate,” as it also gave Garry/Jerry/&c a little respect–but not too much!–by making him Pawnee’s interim mayor.) Like Andy, Tom began as a much rawer-edged version of the character we now know, and he’s found a way to mature without denying what makes him himself.

Along the way, the episodes included too many callbacks and references to list (let alone the Johnny Karate legal disclaimer). But above all, they were reminders that Parks and Rec has always been about more than just public-works projects. Each character–even sufficient-unto-himself Ron–is a project, a lot with potential for improvement, just as we all are. The way to complete those projects, the show suggests with Andy and Tom, is not to become another person but to become the best version of yourself. It can take some digging and several years, Parks and Rec suggests, but with effort and a little belief in the ridiculous, you can turn a pit into a person.

TIME Television

Review: CBS’s The Odd Couple Is a Revival Without a Reason

Sonja Flemming/CBS

Stellar casting can't save this regrettable retro reboot.

In The Odd Couple, CBS’s re–OK, hold on a minute. What kind of “re-” is this new Odd Couple (actually the second new Odd Couple, not counting a 1975 cartoon), anyway?

A reboot? That seems too lofty for a sitcom that doesn’t really do much tinkering with the 1970-75 comedy, based on the 1965 Neil Simon play (by way of a 1968 movie), beyond updating the technology and some of the pop-culture references. A reimagining? There have been too many variations on the “opposites forced to live together” theme over the decades for that to count–currently, for instance, CBS’s Two Broke Girls, not to mention Two and a Half Men, the bitter-single-guys sitcom before whose finale this bitter-single-guys sitcom premieres (Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET).

This Odd Couple is really something more like a revival–in the Broadway sense of staging a nostalgic reproduction of a show like Guys and Dolls: come see the stars of today singing your beloved favorites of yesteryear! The characters are the same. The premise is the same. The theme song is essentially the same. (If anything, the new version feels somehow more retro than the original, played over a Saul Bass-like title sequence.) Many of the gags play as if unearthed from a time capsule (there’s a bookie joke in the first minute of the pilot). The unimaginative result is less a sitcom than a cover band performance, mostly competent but entirely unnecessary.

The casting, at least, is right. Matthew Perry fits right into the lived-in clothing of Jack Klugman’s Oscar Madison, now upgraded from sportswriter to a sports-radio jock, broadcasting from his slovenly post-divorce pad, complete with long-suffering assistant (Yvette Nicole Brown) and a video all with a sports ticker. But it’s Thomas Lennon who is the inspired choice as the new Felix Unger. who shows up–nasal honking and all–on Oscar’s threshold after a breakup with his wife. Lennon plays Felix’s raw loneliness and crisp fussiness without ever seeming like he’s doing a Tony Randall impression (those nasal sounds notwithstanding).

The new pilot plays out as you’d expect; Felix upends Oscar’s comfortable pantsless life, Oscar comes to see that he may need Felix more than he suspects. But there’s a sourness to the whole enterprise, partly because of the script’s Unfrozen Caveman Bachelor sensibility. There was at least something mildly of-the-moment about the original sitcom in the early ’70s: two casualties of the divorce era, reassessing their place in a post-Ward-and-June-Cleaver world. But now this show just seems clunkily updated, yet distractingly more dated than the series it remakes.

This is, in 2015, a sitcom built on jokes about how a fastidious man who cooks must be gay, in which Oscar hosts a poker night for his married buddies who commiserate about the emasculating ball-and-chains they have to go home to. (One, played by Dave Foley–so much great talent wasted here!–answers a question about his health habits with, “You’ve met my wife. Why would I want to live longer?”) When the pilot introduces a female supporting character into this den of Old Spice and misery, it’s eccentric sad-sack neighbor Emily (Lindsay Sloane), who we’re supposed to accept is the insecure ugly-duckling sister to Casey (guest star Leslie Bibb) because–I don’t know, she’s a brunette or something.

Who is this new Odd Couple for, exactly? To fans of Two and a Half Men not versed in the original, it will probably just seem like a stodgier version of the same concept. Other viewers may love the terrific cast members from their earlier work, but shows like CBS’s The Millers–and pretty much Matthew Perry’s entire post-Friends career–prove that that affection will only get you so far. And viewers who loved the original series can surely get their grandkids to show them how to stream the archives on Hulu. Call it re-creation or reboot, rerun or retread, the first episode of The Odd Couple offers little reason to return.

TIME Media

Remembering David Carr, Media Critic and Media Lover

The New York Times columnist, who died at age 58, was journalism's finest watchdog and its best advertisement.

I didn’t know David Carr well. I’ll say that first, because if you are going to write about the operator of journalism’s most finely attuned b.s. detector, you’d best dispense with the b.s. up front.

I met Carr, the New York Times media columnist who died suddenly Thursday at age 58, only a few times professionally. I never worked with him. But I worked with him in my head. If you were on the media beat, you knew that whatever you were doing, Carr would be on it, and his take would be fast, witty, deeply reported and sweepingly analytical. He would pierce the target, and you would hope to lob something within the same ten-block radius. If you covered media in any way, it was malpractice not to keep a small David Carr on retainer somewhere in your consciousness. All the more so if you did anything else in media.

My first encounters with Carr were virtual. When he was editor of the Washington City Paper and I was a wet-eared beginner, he threw a couple kind words my way unnecessarily, the kind of thing that fuels a young writer through long stretches of self-doubt. One of the first things people will mention about Carr is his generosity; as an editor and then at the Times, he helped bring up talents like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jake Tapper and Brian Stelter. He enjoyed spotting talent (he happened, incidentally, to be the first major journalist to spotlight Lena Dunham in her debut visit to the SXSW film festival). Journalism will remember him not just for his works but for his children.

Later, when Carr took over the Times media beat, he called on me while making his rounds and getting the lay of the media landscape in New York. You do not forget talking to David Carr: his voice sounded like rocks being shaken in a tumbler, and he himself described his weatherbeaten appearance best: “I have a face that looks like it could have been carved out of mashed potatoes.” But there was also the vigor of his questioning, the persistence, curiosity and relish of a guy who loved the taste of news.

The David Carr in my head says I’m starting to romanticize him. Guilty–it was hard to meet him in person or in print and not feel that he was the genuine journalistic article, of whom the rest of us were fifth-generation photocopies. But Carr was his own best de-mythologizer, most notably in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, in which he reported out his past as a drug addict and concluded, “We all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end soon.” When Brian Williams was brought low over his war stories, Carr had a sharp, nuanced, and personally earned take on the nature of memory. “Stories tend to grow over time and, if they are told often enough, they harden into a kind of new truth for the teller.”

Carr was such a character, such a presence, that it would be easy to paint him as a caricature of the old-school, shoe-leather reporter. (Many of his remembrances will no doubt quote his memorable takedown of Vice Media and defense of the Gray Lady in the documentary Page One.) But he was lustily new-school too: he was a natural on Twitter, at ease in online video, and perceptive on how technology was changing the business he practiced, consumed and covered. He loved new media and old, but both without illusion.

After Carr, there will be other fine media critics, reporters and analysts, but no one so adept at all three. He was a one-man bureau, equally capable of reporting a massive indictment of the Tribune Company, covering the Oscar race and impressionistically reflecting on his life as a suburban media consumer. He’d have done much more had he lived, and he would have enjoyed the hell out of it.

I don’t say that because I knew him; I say it because I read him. That was the best thing about reading David Carr: there was no easy cynicism to him. However tough a critic he was, however bad the times he chronicled in the business, he always conveyed that we are lucky to live in a time of such polymorphous media, luckier still if we have some small role in producing it. David Carr was not simply his profession’s finest watchdog. He was its best advertisement. RIP.

(READ MORE: David Carr’s Grand Caper.)

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