TIME Television

Don’t Expect Streaming to Make Your TV Bill Cheaper

HBO In cable as in HBO's Game of Thrones, the old dynasties are under attack, but that doesn't mean your wallet will be liberated.

But it could just make TV, and the experience of watching it, better.

For years, cable TV companies had a powerful sales pitch: What the hell else you gonna do? You wanted ESPN, CNN, Disney Channel, you paid the price.

Now, the cable box in your living room is suddenly under assault. Sony and Dish Network’s Sling have recently launched their own TV bundles, available over broadband. Apple reportedly plans one in the fall. In addition to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and CBS All Access, HBO is finally about to offer its service online without a cable subscription, just in time for the premiere of Game of Thrones.

Consumers, fittingly, have greeted this news like the slaves of Meereen greeted Daenerys Targaryen. Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Cutter of Cords! But in my print column in TIME this week, I suggest you not get too excited–at least if you’re hoping that the streaming revolution will mean you’ll be able to watch everything you want for less money.

For starters, you’ll still need broadband, likely from the same company who now sells you cable, and there’s no reason that bill won’t skyrocket. (Today, you often get it at a cheap introductory rate, possibly because you bundle it with cable.) The most popular offerings (sports, prestige drama) won’t be nearly as cheap as you might assume if you strip them away from the cable bundle. And none of the parties involved–telecoms, media giants, tech corporations–are sitting in their boardrooms dreaming up ways to get as little money from you as possible. (My full column is for TIME subscribers, because we too are trying to make money in the content business.)

That said, there are other reasons to be excited about streaming TV besides money. One, which I’ll write about more in the future, is that changing the way TV is delivered has the potential to change, and hopefully improve, the kind of TV you see. It already has, to an extent. The best TV show of 2014, Transparent, wasn’t on “TV” but on Amazon Prime. And the Netflix Effect on TV has had repercussions far beyond Netflix itself. It’s very likely, for instance, that a big part of the reason The X-Files is getting a second life on Fox is that it had a second life on Netflix, becoming relevant (and thus valuable) to a new generation of viewers.

But I’m also curious to see how streaming services change, and I hope improve, the experience of watching TV. Take something as simple as how you find a channel. The practice of numbering channels is a holdover from the rabbit-ears broadcast days of TV, yet it continues with cable, where you scroll through a grid of hundreds of channels through a cumbersome, lag-prone interface. (I watch TV for a living, and even for me it’s harder to find a channel I rarely watch on my cable system than it is to get driving directions to a city I’ve never been to.)

Compared with that, the interface for finding “channels” when I use Apple TV, or Roku, or even my kids’ PS4 is at least a process that feels like it belongs in the 21st century, with channel names and icons and more usable search functions. As I write in my column, I don’t expect Apple, busy rolling out a smart watch that tops out at $17,000, to make TV a bargain. But I do think it could make it elegant, intelligible and useful. If they, or someone else, can give me a genuinely better interface with my TV, at least I might not resent so much the way they interface with my wallet.

As I say, I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this in the coming months. But I’m curious to hear from you in the meantime, in the comments or on Twitter: leaving aside the size of your cable bill, what are the things about your experience of TV that you’d most like streaming TV to fix?

TIME Television

On James Corden’s Late Night Debut, It’s One More Mr. Nice Guy

James Corden steps on stage for the first episode of "The Late Late Show with James Corden," premiering Monday, March 23 (12:37 -- 1:37 AM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Monty Brinton/CBS

The English comic actor introduced himself as his own man, but his show is also a sign of how late night has been Fallonized.

In an opening video introducing The Late Late Show‘s new, very English host to Americans, James Corden learns everything that he knows about late-night hosting from Jay Leno. It’s a joke, of course, and a funny first calling card. But this very early glimpse of Corden’s new show suggests that he and his producers–and maybe late night generally–are increasingly learning from Jimmy Fallon.

This isn’t to say that Corden is himself influenced by Fallon, or that his late-night style–which, who knows what that is after one episode?–will especially resemble the Tonight host’s. (Certainly he does also have an earnest, let’s-all-have-good-fun-together vibe.)

But Corden’s hiring suggests a different direction in late night, from comedians to comic performers. Leno and David Letterman were standups; Conan O’Brien and Seth Meyers were comedy writers. But Fallon, and it seems Corden, represent a slight but significant shift: from hosts who say funny things to host who do funny things. (Letterman’s successor, Stephen Colbert, arguably has a foot in both camps, which will make it interesting to see the kind of show he builds around himself.)

It’s a broad generalization, obviously; Fallon is funny in his own right, and Corden co-wrote the British sitcom Gavin and Stacey, which he also starred in. But Fallon is a performer first, and his most memorable, viral moments–“History of Rap,” his musical imitations, his celebrity stunts and contests–have showcased his performance skills. The jokes, monologue and interviews–the talk-show part of the talk show–have been secondary. In the process, he’s made neither a talk show like Leno’s or a snarky comedy laboratory like Letterman’s, but something like a revival of the variety show.

There’s definitely something Fallonized about the new Late Late Show, not necessarily in a bad way at all. To replace the dryly funny Craig Ferguson, CBS also hired a performer: a game, eager multihyphenate who can act, sing and do physical comedy. And Corden’s first hour, if not a copy of Fallon’s show, clearly looks to use his talents in the way that Fallon’s Tonight used his.

So we got that well-produced, celeb-heavy video, which did double duty both introducing Corden and showing the comic acting range that apparently interested CBS in the host, who’s so far little known in the States. It was well-written, made an asset of Corden’s Englishness (“Petrol is a liquid. It can never be gas!”) and, intentionally or not, hung a comic light on the fact that one more white guy was getting a late-night show. (When the Late Late Show succession is decided Willy Wonka style, Corden literally picks up a golden ticket dropped by Chelsea Handler.)

But the standout bit in the first hour–and the one that most shows the Fallonization of late night–paired Corden with guest Tom Hanks to run through a frenetic medley of scenes from Hanks’ movies, complete with quick costume and wig changes and creative use of green screen. Like a lot of late night in general, it was aimed at viral sharing the next morning. And it was smartly chosen to highlight Corden’s strengths as a versatile stage performer the same way Fallon’s musical sketches do. I don’t know if this will be Corden’s “History of Rap,” but that’s clearly where this was going, and I bet we’ll be seeing more like it in one form or another.

I don’t want to dwell much on the talk-show part of this talk show, since that’s the most subject to tinkering and overhaul (not to mention the greater learning curve) on any new late-night series. There were first-night nerves, which Corden showed by giggling loudly at a lot of his own lines. The device of bringing both Hanks and Mila Kunis on at once cocktail-party style is promising, but we’ll see if it works with a wider range of guests. (The first guests were prepared to make a splash, including Kunis flashing a ring to “reveal” that she may or may not have married Ashton Kutcher.)

Other elements of the show are embryonic. Musician-comedian Reggie Watts was an inspired choice for bandleader, and let’s hope the show gives him an active role; it’ll be interesting to see if his experimental comedy style can mesh with Corden’s. As for rolling out Corden’s desk chair: I’m all for having a more intimate talk, but if Corden wants to go in that direction, his producers might just want to spring for a second, more comfy chair?

Corden will probably have plenty of time to prepare; CBS has been patient with this time slot, and it can’t have instant ratings expectations considering he’ll host all summer, between Letterman and Stephen Colbert, without much of a lead-in. The first night, then, is just a declaration of principles, and Corden’s was: I’m a nice guy who likes to entertain, and I’m excited to show you a good time.

He closed his first episode, in fact, with a serenade, seated behind a piano. It was funny enough, but also a little sincere and even sentimental, inviting viewers to stick with “The Late Late Show With Me–and You.” At one point, Corden playfully raised his hands to show us that he wasn’t really playing the piano. But there was no ironic, Dave-or-Conan-style archness here in deconstructing the artifice of the moment. Corden just seemed to be telling us: this is what it means to put on a show.

TIME Television

Glee Holds On To That Feelin’, One Last Time

GLEE:  L-R: Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Rachel (Lea Michele) make a pact in a flashback to 2009 in the special two-hour "2009/Dreams Come True" Series Finale episode of GLEE airing Friday, March 20 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Mike Yarish/FOX
Mike Yarish/FOX

The emotional two-part finale was a reminder of the show's potential for greatness, and of the ways it fell short.

Spoilers from the series finale of Glee follow:

The beautiful thing about high-school TV series is that they reproduce, in accelerated form, the cycle of life. In three or four years a group of characters is “born,” grows, matures and passes from its world. If the show lasts longer than that (and isn’t continued at a conveniently located nearby college), then the story adds another generation of younger faces. The underlying premise of a high school show like Glee is that cycles repeat. Much as you think your story is unique, after you pass there will be a whole new set of stories just like it. We have always been at war with Vocal Adrenaline.

Glee’s finale, however, was for the show’s old-timers: the original cast (with the sad exception of Cory Monteith) and the fans who may or may not have stuck with the show beyond its first seasons. However many twists the show went through in its later years, the finale’s first hour, “2009,” was a reminder of where it started: as a story, equal parts hopeful and bittersweet, of small-town students and teachers wanting something more than what they had.

Making the first half of a finale essentially an alternative version of the show’s own pilot–which remains one of the best TV pilots of the last decade–was an ingenious move, sweet and nostalgic and tearjerking. We saw Rachel once again as a trying-to-hard achiever; a tentative Kurt, finding a way out of his basement; Mr. Schu, trying to back his crappy car out of the dead-end alley of his life. The reprise of “Don’t Stop Believin'” was inevitable but still devastating. We had the return of Mike O’Malley, with his grounded, complex portrayal of Burt Hummel; and seeing the embryonic friendship-rivalry between Kurt and Rachel singing “Popular” from Wicked recalled one of the series’ high points, their moving, heartbreaking sing-off on “Defying Gravity” in season one’s “Wheels.”

As someone who reviewed Glee regularly its first few seasons, and loved the show’s transcendent moments for all its inconsistencies and iTunes-driven excesses, it was a well-earned love letter. But it was also a reminder of the potential that the series once had and that it only intermittently lived up to.

Glee began as a show about losers, outcasts, the wretched, slushie-drenched refuse of high school. As “2009” reminded us, the most important thing the New Directions got from glee club was not a trophy or a career but a sense of belonging: “We should look back on our time here and be proud of what we did and who we included.”

Inclusion was central to Glee, and that was, as much as the music, what made it of its time. Glee’s pilot aired in May 2009. The United States had just elected a black President; same-sex marriage was legal in only three states. In its top-to-bottom diversity, and especially its attention to LGBTQ characters, it was one of the emblematic shows of its time socially. It wasn’t flawless in this way more than any other; it could be offensive intentionally and unintentionally. But it spoke to the moment by being about difference. Everyone was an outsider, united by hormones, dreams and love of pop music.

One of Glee’s great themes was the power and danger of dreams. At its best, the show balanced the romantic idea of shooting for stardom with the fear of knowing that it doesn’t always work out, that you might not be good or lucky enough, that at some point you hit up against your limits. Losing Monteith to an early death in 2013 was a blow, because it cut out one of the legs from Glee’s long-running story: not just Finn and Rachel’s romance, but Finn’s fear of ending up a “Lima loser,” that high school really might have been his peak.

In any case, if the first hour of the Glee finale was a hat tip to what Glee once was, the second, “Dreams Come True,” was mostly an affirmation of what it became: a more fantastical, outsized, upbeat version of the show, which ended, for the most part with everyone getting just about everything they wanted.

So Kurt and Blaine are in New York, still together, starring in “the first LGBTQ production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and having a baby with Rachel as their surrogate. Rachel, in turn, is also in Manhattan, winning a Tony Award. (And married to Jessie St. James? OK. My congratulations to their ‘shippers, whoever you are.) Mercedes is an international recording star. Mr. Schu is not only principal but has essentially remade the American educational system. Artie is a film director and Tina his star. Sue Sylvester is, somehow, the vice president to just-re-elected Jeb Bush. (And yet closed things out with a speech praising arts education, the likes of which I do not expect to hear from the podium at next year’s RNC.)

Curiously, the one character who best captured the season-one theme of reconciling big dreams with small ones was not around for Glee’s beginning: Sam, who essentially ended up inheriting the Finn Hudson role. It’s Sam, the kid from a financially strapped family, who ends up deciding that chasing fame won’t make him happy, and who reminds his New Directions group of a philosophy that powered some of Glee’s most emotionally true episodes: “If we want to be great, we need to be able to sing about hurt and loss.”

His students’ reaction to that line is to suggest singing Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”–which is probably a shout-out to Overstreet’s father having written that song, but is also emblematic of how, in the long run, Glee went for the crowd-pleasing over the bittersweet. Obviously, Glee is not the only show to go all-in on the happy endings; see the recent finale of Parks and Recreation. And given the show’s sense of mission–toward bullied kids, outsider kids, kids without privileges–maybe it was inevitable.

But it made for a strange contrast in the show’s last moments. In her valedictory speech, Sue tells us she once thought that encouraging kids to dream was cruel and useless, because the world is full of disappointment. Which, of course, it is, even if not only disappointment. If Sue was wrong back then, it’s because there’s a value in dreaming for all of us, whether we realize those dreams or not.

That idea has been a theme of some of Glee’s best episodes. (Think of season one’s “Dream On,” in which Artie imagines escaping his wheelchair, something he must eventually realize won’t happen.) The finale of Glee made the case, emotionally and passionately, that it’s worth it to dream because–as both Rachel and Will said in so many words–“dreams come true.” It’s an important message, powerful, and–considering the young audience Glee speaks to–not one to cynically dismiss.

But what was missing was another message, which Glee also used to make powerfully: that dreams don’t all come true, and yet they’re worth having anyway. Just as the arts are good even for kids who won’t end up on Broadway, dreams expand your sense of who you can be, even if you’ll never give an acceptance speech on national TV.

Yet I’ll miss the memory of Glee no matter what. In the end, I teared up at the last performance, as it brought back characters major and minor. (Farewell, Sugar!) That’s what Glee always did: it could frustrate me with its stories, execution and cartoonishness—and then open up a firehose of musical emotion and, at least for a few minutes, everything was forgotten.

Glee began with a ton of potential. It fulfilled it occasionally, squandered it often, and every once in a while, delivered moments of transcendence. To be a Glee fan was to love its flashes of brilliance despite its stretches of disappointment. To paraphrase the final inscription on the Finn Hudson Memorial Auditorium, it was a show to appreciate for what it should be, what it could be, and at its best, for what it was.

Read next: What Glee Club Looked Like 60 Years Before Glee

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TIME Television

Review: How Empire Changed the Game

A blood-spilling, plot-twisting, hair-pulling finale proves that this phenomenon has no intention of slowing down.

Spoilers for the Empire season finale below:

The season finale of Empire was the equivalent of an entire season of most other shows. In other words, it was like every other night of Empire, but twice as much. Since January, the addictive music-biz drama has shot to number one with a bullet–several bullets, really–and it’s rocketed up there by burning a tank of 100% high-octane plot, trying on stories and throwing them off like a performer changing outfits at a video shoot.

So if watching one hour of Empire can be dizzying, two of them back to back, throwing out twists to set up a second season, is like an all-nighter at the club: I hope you stayed hydrated. Blood was spilled, weaves were pulled, alliances were changed, and Lucious Lyon went from dying man to ALS-free jailbird all in one night. That’s why it doesn’t matter so much that it’s hard to keep up with the subplots twists on Empire. Chances are, they’ll change by the next commercial break anyway.

The way Empire constantly keeps the gas pedal of its Maybach floored is what makes the ride so fun, of course; it’s like a show for people who find themselves checking their watches during Scandal. I don’t want to oversell the similarities with Shonda Rhimes’ serials, because in some ways Empire is more old-fashioned, calling back to family sagas like Dallas and Dynasty. But like Shondaland’s shows, it has an aesthetic of acceleration: it doesn’t just go fast, it always feels like it’s getting faster. (Only on Empire is it not enough that Rhonda kill Vernon; she must announce she’s pregnant at the same time.)

It works so well not just because Empire is ridiculously, swaggeringly fun, but because its speed fits its subject: not just the hip-hop business, but the worlds of fashion and pop culture generally. The Lyon family is in the Next Thing business; why shouldn’t their story always be restlessly moving on? (Take Cookie and Malcolm, who consummated their flirtation, then ended it parenthetically, as he announced he was off to Washington to work in the Department of High-Level Government Job.)

The risk for any story moving at this speed that that the characters disintegrate under the G-forces of constant change. They swerve and shift, becoming whatever they need to be to keep us off-balance–as often happened on another one-time Fox phenom, Glee, which ends its run on Friday. There was some of this in the season finale; much as I pretty much bought Jamal realizing he craved Lucious’ approval, for instance, I didn’t buy him suddenly becoming a guy who would suddenly hold Sleazy Judd Nelson over a balcony.

But then the show delivers something like the terrific songwriting scene between Jamal and Lucious. Much as Jamal has stood up to his father all season, he’s still a son. And even if there’s a pure plot reason for this–setting up the reversal of making Jamal Lucious’ heir–it makes sense that there’s a part of him that still wants his dad to pull him out of that garbage can and take him back. It’ not easy, though, and their duet is charged with conflicting emotion–hostility and respect, regret and anger.

Empire is about hyperbole and excess and escapism; like the scepter Lucious passes on to Jamal, it’s a gold lion with a diamond in its teeth. But it also gets that music is about transmuting pain into beauty, and that’s what the Lyon family fortune is really based on. Lucious is terrifying and despicable, yet every awful choice he’s made is inseparable from what he’s accomplished, because it fueled his art.

Likewise Cookie’s music producing, Hakeem and Jamal’s recording, even André’s converting his feelings of musical inadequacy into his business drive. The Lyon family business is about taking bad memories and raw emotions and turning them into art. (The memories especially; the finale had so many flashback montages, it was like the show’s life was flashing before its eyes.) That’s the story of the blues, that’s the story of hip-hop. Now it’s the story of Empire.

Like many a new pop sensation, Empire is living fast. In three months’ time, the show has proven that an African American focused drama can be a mass hit (without running from its identity, as with the finale’s shout-out to Black Lives Matter). It’s revived the primetime soap and TV musical genre at the same time. And it’s established legitimacy in the very music business it depicts; it must have requests for cameos in season 2 stacked up like planes approaching JFK airport. As Hakeem would say, the show changed the game.

There’s definitely room for improvement, though. Cookie instantly became one of TV’s standout characters, but the show could use other multidimensional female characters. And you have to wonder, like any fast phenom, if Empire can sustain its heat and its burn rate over the long run.

But in the first season ender, which essentially reversed the positions of nearly every major character from where they began, it’s showing no signs of holding back or saving story for later. At one point, Lucious uses a soap villain’s favorite metaphor to explain turning on Cookie: “Sometimes you have to sacrifice your queen to win the game.” Why stop there? Empire would just as soon flip over the whole board.

Read next: Empire Showrunner: We Always Planned That Would Happen to Lucious

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TIME Television

Review: On Netflix’s Bloodline, a Family That Preys Together

Kyle Chandler (John Rayburn) and Ben Mendelsohn (Danny Rayburn) in the Netflix Original Series BLOODLINE. Photo Credit: Saeed Adyani © 2014 Netflix, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Saeed Adyani/Netflix Chandler and Mendelsohn in Bloodline.

Excellent performances abound, but this family-noir thriller in the sunny Keys may leave you chilly.

In TV, your crime dramas and your family dramas tend to be two separate genres. (The Sopranos was arguably an exception, but there crime was the family business.) It’s a strange division, given how many victims know the perpetrators, how many crimes bubble up from family rivalries and resentments. Blood may be thicker than water, but it spills just as easy.

Netflix’s Bloodline (first season premieres March 20) is a drama of crime and kin, on an intimate scale. It begins with a family reunion party, and it will all end badly, as the show’s “We did a bad thing” promos have made clear. But first it must bring together the Rayburn clan, whose patriarch and matriarch Robert and Sally (Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek), run an inn in the Florida Keys. Three of their adult kids live nearby: John (Kyle Chandler), Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) and Meg (Linda Cardellini). And then there’s Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the prodigal eldest who has a bad history with drinking and with the law, riding into town on a cheap bus ticket.

There’s trouble here in Margaritaville; the rim of its glass is salted with tears. Danny’s return dredges up a lifetime of resentments and recriminations–which makes it that much more surprising when he announces that, this time, he wants to stay and work at the inn. Sally is delighted; Robert is dubious; and the three non-prodigals are uneasy about his motives. What Danny wants (money? redemption? love? revenge?), as well as the history those suspicions stem from, come slowly into focus in this grim, family-style thriller.

Bloodline comes from the producers of Damages, Todd and Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman. In structure and brooding style, it plays like a humid island cousin to that icy New York thriller: it’s like Damages Vice. (The show does use the sea, sand and swamp to gorgeous visual effect.) Like its forebear, it keeps flashing forward to violent events, then doubling back to a present-day story that keeps twisting on itself. (In this, and in its doting on simmering family resentments in a resort paradise, it’s also a little like The Affair without the affair.)

Bloodline is less about what happens or whodunit, so much as what drove them to it and who, if anyone, is the villain. Maybe everyone is, a little bit. As with Damages, there’s a gimlet-eyed skepticism of human nature here, which makes it tough to connect with any of the Rayburns, at least early on. (Netflix gave critics the first three episodes.) Its gaze is steady and cold; this may be Florida, but someone has cranked up the AC.

The biggest weakness of Bloodline is that the characters are types, straight down the line: the hardass dad, the soft-hearted mom, the peacemaker, the black sheep. And the scripts don’t do much to round them out. Where many premiere episodes suffer “pilotitis,” struggling to cram exposition into an hour, this one so repeatedly hammers home the same character traits and dynamics that it feels like it could have been edited to 30 minutes. Miss the first time someone said John feels compelled to take care of everyone? Dad repeats it while giving a toast. Didn’t notice that the explosive Kevin is a hothead? Chandler’s voiceover kicks off episode 2, “My brother Kevin is the hothead of the family.”

They’re well-played types at least. Mendelsohn is revelatory as Danny, a leathered piece of flotsam who plays as half criminal menace, half dejected boy. He keeps us off-balance exactly the way Bloodline wants to, unsure of who is more sinner and more sinned against. And he has a strong foil in Chandler (Friday Night Lights), who ably de-Coach-Taylor-izes himself, suggesting that John’s years as the family’s dutiful golden boy have hardened something in him.

The rest of the family, and a slew of local friends and bad seeds, take longer to come into focus–we don’t yet have much of a bead on Meg, for instance. But the cast does communicate a sense of history, that as long in the tooth as the Rayburns are getting, they’re still a mom and dad and kids, every decades-old hurt stinging fresh.

I give Bloodline credit for trying something different—a simmering family noir rather than an over-the-top soap—and I expect it will especially appeal to fans of the Kesslers’ and Zelman’s work on Damages. But if the Rayburns don’t evolve from the simple types they seem to be when we first visit the inn, I may check out early.

Read next: Kyle Chandler Isn’t Ready to Ditch Coach Taylor Just Yet

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TIME Television

Review: Community Comes to Yahoo, the Same But Different

Community; Season 6; Episode 601
Trae Patton/Yahoo/Sony Pudi, Alison Brie, Brewster and McHale in the new season of Community

Dan Harmon's jewel-box comedy graduates to streaming TV, but is figuring out what it wants to be next.

Last year, after NBC cancelled the oft-praised, oft-jeopardized Community after five seasons, Yahoo stepped in and saved it, because that’s what the Internet does now. But what did it save, exactly?

Like many sitcoms deep into their run, the show had seen attrition: Donald Glover had left, and Yvette Nicole Brown would soon join him (as well as recurring figures like John Oliver, now of HBO). Its premise had shifted with age, as the study group graduated, though the fifth season kept them together with the mission of rescuing Greendale Community College. The college was saved and the show was saved, but that left each with a question: what now?

The first two new episodes (premiering on Yahoo Screen March 17; here’s how to watch) still seem to be figuring it out. Community still feels very much like the same show in tone, sense of humor and production quality. The structure is more or less like the NBC version (though the second episode runs an extra-long 26-plus minutes). But what started out as an odd, emotionally charged series about motley misfits getting their lives back together is in the process of becoming… something to be determined.

The premiere, in typical Community style, is mainly about being the season premiere of a sitcom. The departure of Brown’s Shirley is explained, then dissected meta-style. “Like Troy?” demands Chang (Ken Jeong). “Do any of you white people notice what’s happening to this group?” Stepping in is Francesca “Frankie” Dart (Paget Brewster), an all-business new administrator assigned to ride herd on the committee, and soon Abed (Danny Pudi) is parsing her addition as a stand-in for the audience and critics: “I’m worried you’re not distinct enough from Annie, both in terms of physicality and purpose.”

Whatever doubts you’ve had about the changes, Community has already pre-doubted them. But the first thing that matters is if the latest reboot still has the comedy goods, and it does. A decade ago, Brewster was an MVP on the similarly eccentric Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and she’s custom-fit for Community‘s fast pace and commitment to absurdity. The second new episode is especially funny, combining two favorite Community modes–period pop-culture parody and outrageous visual gambits–as Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) becomes obsessed with a dated virtual-reality system created by an inventor (Keith David) in the 1990s.

What’s missing–and to be fair, what requires more than two episodes to judge–is a sense of mission regarding the characters. The original gang has evolved from where they were at the beginning; Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has gone from misanthropic disgraced lawyer to slightly jerky teacher, for instance.

Beyond the show’s astonishing inventiveness and world-building, Community‘s emotional power–what made it not just funny but gorgeous and great–came from Dan Harmon’s melancholic, lovely story about a boxful of broken toys trying to fix one another. No one ever becomes perfect, of course, but by the end of five seasons, they largely succeeded. They saved themselves, and they saved Greendale (again, imperfectly). Without a similar project, the two new episodes are very funny–the best bits, of course, I’m clamming up about so you can be surprised by them–but we’ll have to see if the show can be as emotionally involving again.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be. Maybe it’s enough for Community, free of the ratings pressures of NBC, to live its second life free to be weird and playful and experimental. Maybe the sixth season (if not the movie) will move this project forward, having each character negotiate new challenges of post-college adulthood. Maybe the former study group can be fixed but still funny.

But you have to wonder, as Jeff puts it in an argument with Frankie in the season premiere, “How much can you improve Greendale before it stops being Greendale?” As always, leave it to Community to be its own best critic.

Read next: How to Watch the New Season of Community

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‘There It Is. You’re Caught.’ The Jinx Gets Its Man

However it plays in court, the gobsmacking HBO true-crime finale was a once-in-a-lifetime stunner.

Spoilers for the finale of HBO’s The Jinx follow:

“There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Folks, I ain’t no fancy city lawyer. I can’t tell you what Robert Durst did or did not mean by every line of the hot-mike men’s room aria that closed The Jinx. I don’t know how a team of well-paid lawyers could spin it in court. (This is, as we’ve learned, a man who hacked his neighbor in Texas to pieces and got off on self-defense.) I cannot prognosticate what will happen with the murder charge on which, with synergistic timing, Durst was arrested the day the finale aired.

But I can, beyond reasonable doubt, pronounce The Jinx‘s finale guilty of killing me with tension and of aggravated sticking of the landing.

I would not have thought that HBO could deliver another cut-to-black to compete with the one Tony Soprano went out on. But holy hell, I have never seen anything like this on television, and I could say that for each of The Jinx‘s final three episodes. At this point, my gob is numb from being repeatedly smacked.

The final episode, though slotted for an hour, was a brief 40 minutes, an efficient drill targeted at one end, the final interview. Having discovered, in the previous episode, an envelope from Durst matching the handwriting and misspelling (“BEVERLEY”) of a note sent to police after the murder of his friend Susan Berman, Andrew Jarecki tries to cajole Durst into one more talk to spring the discovery on him. (Their banter is dissonantly friendly–“Bob” chatting with “Jarecki,” who learns Durst has lied to him about a vacation to Spain and seems to be putting off an interview.) Then–the percussive soundtrack steadily pumping up our collective blood pressure–he and producers huddle about how to structure the interview.

But as simple as it was, there was a lot going on here. We saw how the making of the documentary became a factor in the documentary itself. When Durst was arrested for trespassing in 2013–for violating an order to stay away from his brother Douglas’ home–his attorneys needed access to footage of him, which, Jarecki said, gave them “a lot of leverage.” We saw Jarecki’s admission that, after all he’d seen, he wondered if he should be afraid to confront Durst.

And then there was that bathroom soliloquy itself. Forget the legal implications, how it might play in court. It was just a stunning glimpse inside Durst’s head. The wheels turning, the recrimination, the playing back the tape and analyzing his fumbles. (“And the burping.”) The apparent attempts to game out more answers (“I’m having difficulty with the question.”) It was, structurally, a perfect, diamond-honed internal monologue. It was James Joyce, it was Pinter, it was Mamet. But it was real.

And in the court of TV at least, it was roll credits, game over. What The Jinx couldn’t answer, what may be beyond human ken, is: why? Why the hell did Robert Durst talk? Here’s a remote, cold man who does not seem to give much of a damn what people think of him. Why try to give his side at all? Hubris? Anger? Ego? His own lawyer, he noted, had warned him: “You can’t help yourself.” Maybe that’s what he meant by “He was right. I was wrong.”

It was an amazing ending, made more so by the meta-assist of Durst’s real-life arrest. HBO and Jarecki busted open a cold case that several jurisdictions had been unable to make. But there will be plenty of questions to come about how they did it, what they shared with police and what they withheld, and how that will affect the investigation.

A long New York Times story gets at some of this. The producers’ lawyers feared that bringing the letter to police too soon would damage its admissibility, but they got in contact with authorities in 2013. Had they co-operated beyond a point, they might be treated as law-enforcement agents in court. And–and I’m not quite sure how this could happen–it was ages before producers even found the bathroom audio. (The current version of the Times story says “more than two years,” but Durst’s trespassing arrest was in August 2013. In general, The Jinx could have made its own timeline clearer.)

The events all raise more questions than I claim the legal background to unravel: At what point should Jarecki and company gone to the cops? Would it have compromised the police investigation? The documentary? What exactly was the timeline here? Were the producers motivated not to blow what was looking (correctly) like a documentary gift from God? Was this a kind of documentary citizen’s arrest, or vigilante action? Would that be a bad thing, given that proper legal authorities failed to make a case against Durst repeatedly?

(Oh, and when did Durst or the producers discover he was still wearing his mike? That’s the kind of thing you notice eventually, right?)

Much of The Jinx‘s unfinished business will have to be hashed out in a court of law. But judged as riveting crime TV, The Jinx is a slam-dunk. Jarecki and company took a cold case, already investigated with great publicity, and seemingly impossibly, found explosive evidence and built a compelling theory.

That itself would have been a hell of a show. But as Jarecki’s fictional forebear Colombo used to say, there was just one more thing. Their confident, hubristic quarry (who after all, came to them) turned out to be their best partner. He got himself to wear a wire, slipped off to the men’s room and–just possibly–as we listened flabbergasted, flushed his defense straight down the toilet.

Read next: How Robert Durst Was Acquitted of Murder Years Before The Jinx

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Television

Review: The Ridiculous Royals Puts the Nasty in Dynasty

The Royals - Season 1
Paul Blundell/E! Entertainment

But it's neither good enough, nor so-bad-it's-good enough, to keep up with the Kardashians.

One of the benefits of American independence is being able to take a tourist’s-eye view of the British royal family. We can follow their foibles, gawk at their weddings, or coo over their babies without the burden of feeling invested in a national tradition. We get to visit the ball without paying the bill. So it’s a little odd that, amid our soap operas about oil dynasties and political dynasties and hip-hop dynasties, we don’t have a Dynasty about a dynasty.

On March 15, E! aims to remedy that with The Royals, about a scandal-plagued, wealth-corrupted, TMZ-in-the-UK clan who may be Britain’s last ruling family ever. But it ends up with a wan, chintzy soap that can’t compete with reality–either Britain’s or E!’s.

The unnamed royal house in The Royals isn’t really a fictionalization of the Windsors, who have upped their p.r. game in the Kate Middleton era, but it begins with a Princess-Di-like tragedy: the noble, popular Crown Prince Robert, has died in an accident. The family he leaves behind are a much less palatable bunch. Queen Helena (Elizabeth Hurley) is a vicious, status-besotted Royal Housewife of London. Princess Eleanor (Alexandra Park) flashed the paparazzi while dancing sans panties in a Paris nightclub. Playboy Prince Liam (William Mosely) has scandalized his family by bedding Ophelia (Merritt Patterson), the American daughter of the palace head of security. Throw in a polymorphously pervy royal uncle, Cyrus (Jake Maskall), and various Anglotrash cousins, and the whole debauched scene has so demoralized King Simon (Vincent Regan), that he is planning to ask Parliament to abolish the monarchy. (One advantage of fiction: better names.)

There are a lot of ways you could go with this setup, and a big problem with The Royals is that it tries to go every way. (I’ve seen five episodes, not all in order.) It’s at its worst when it tries to be on its best behavior, as when, with King Simon, it wants to make serious statements about nobility, honor and duty. (As the ramrod-straight king, Regan feels like he took a wrong turn on the set of Downton Abbey.) Other times, it’s a mushy, sentimental young-adult drama (creator Mark Schwahn produced teen soap One Tree Hill) focused on the star-crossed, high-and-lowborn romance of Liam and Ophelia, who have all the chemistry of two cold noodles on a plate. (Oddly, given that it’s not even our monarchy, it’s this streak of sincerity that makes The Royals feel most American.)

The best version of The Royals is also not good, but it can be entertainingly bad: a filthy, blackhearted dissection of the 0.0001%. This is a family of spoiled cats, fattened on the rich milk of inheritance, and when Simon threatens to take the saucer away, the claws come out. Sharpest are those on Cyrus and especially Helena, who infights viciously to protect her status and to separate Ophelia and her son. Hurley’s performance isn’t nuanced, but she has fun with it. (In later episodes, Joan Collins turns up as Helena’s mum, in a sort of passing of the soap-villainess torch.)

Mostly, The Royals is bespoke trash; like the artfully ripped Sex Pistols shirt Eleanor wears in one episode, it feels deliberately distressed, trying too hard. But it knows how to get your attention with its ripe raunchiness. One moment, Helena walks into her daughter’s quarters, wrinkle her nose and announce, accurately, “Smells of sex in here;” another, she sniffs Liam and says, “I smell supermodel.” The whole family has an aroma about them, as when they’re herded together in a bunker beneath the palace in an emergency, and they turn on one another like the “zoo animals” King Simon describes them as.

But underneath its racy dialogue (“And I’d prefer it if your daughter weren’t blowing my son. We can’t always get what we want, can we?”), The Royals is a dated primetime soap, not fresh enough to justify the uneven tone, awful dialogue or rampant overacting. Ultimately it becomes a dirty-but-moralistic story, straight out of an ’80s soap, of sibling rivalry and a battle between the family’s rottenness and the attempts of Liam, Eleanor and Ophelia to discover their deeper good.

There is a glimmer of an idea behind it, though: social media, and how it’s depreciated the old currency of status. In The Royals’ palace, nobles carry smartphones like Shakespeare’s carried rapiers; they have “social media advisers” in place of valets; the abbreviation “FML” comes up more often than “HRH.” But all this means that the royal family is just one more set of boldface names vying for the public’s attention with all the media-enabled commoners out there. They’re hustling on the same ground as entertainers and reality stars. One episode, for instance, finds Helena and Eleanor putting on rival fashion shows, as if they were Lucious and Cookie throwing competing parties on Empire.

I suppose the success of Empire means there may be room on the public’s social calendar for a raw but throwback soap like this one. E! certainly seems to think so, having already picked it up for a second season before the first debuted. It’s ironic, though, that an old-school scripted soap opera about old-world status would come from a channel that has created exactly the kind of celebrity-reality shows that have superseded it.

E!, after all, already has a hit serial about a royal family navigating the pressures of fame in the social media era. The hour before The Royals’ March 15 debut, it’s airing the tenth-season premiere of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

TIME Television

This Charmless Man: The Anti-Antihero of The Jinx

HBO's true-crime profile of Robert Durst is a far cry from the overused type of the suave, refined supervillain.

My column in the print TIME this week is about HBO’s true crime documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. If you haven’t seen the show, don’t read it–catch up on the series (only five episodes so far) and experience it for yourself first. If you have seen the show, don’t worry about spoilers in my review; I haven’t seen the finale, and will be watching anxiously on Sunday right along with you.

In the column, I write about how the show–along with the inevitable comparison, the Serial podcast–uses the tools of crime-show storytelling, but at the same time it rebuts many of the expectations those shows create. It’s not just that The Jinx and Serial don’t promise neat answer by the time they finish. (Although the latest episode of The Jinx produced a genuine bombshell, a letter that appeared to connect real-estate scion Robert Durst to an unsolved 2000 murder.) They also show that the actual process of investigation and trial are much more messy and complicated in real life; memories prove fuzzy, evidence can be inconclusive, and trials can come down to chance and bad legal strategies.

Another aspect of The Jinx that I didn’t have room to discuss in the column is how it contrasts with a TV-drama type that’s become overfamiliar lately: the charming, brilliant villain.

We see him everywhere lately (and it’s usually him): the suave, cerebral, disarming, witty antagonist on Hannibal, The Following and The Blacklist (whose Red may be a charming villain who’s made himself useful to the good guys, but fits the type nonetheless). We see it in the hypercompetent, murderous antiheroes of Breaking Bad and Dexter. We see it in supporting characters like The Good Wife‘s Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker), the decadent sexual sadist represented by Alicia Florrick’s firm, who like Durst has been suspected, but thanks to a crack legal defense never convicted, of killing his wife. (His latest appearance, in fact, involved a lawsuit against a fictional TV show that based a character on him.)

It’s an idea as old as Lucifer in Paradise Lost. The bad guys may be loathsome, they may be corrupt, they may be terrifying, but they are also somehow more evolved. In their refinement, charm and genius, they are simply fascinating.

Durst, on the other hand, is a striking character, but mostly for his utter charmlessness. He’s brusque, he’s blunt, he’s cold and irritable. He may be wealthy, but he’s not in the least debonair; he seems to lack the tools for smoothing over human interaction or for even feigning empathy. He remains unconvicted of the allegations against him, but what he does admit to–hitting his wife Kathleen, for instance–is the work of a bully, not a mastermind. His peevishness is open and unguarded–which may well be a masterstroke in itself, making him seem more authentic. Then again, the fact that he seems to feel no need to even playact the same niceties that the little people do is that much more unsettling.

The Jinx shows other sides to Durst. In the most recent episode, for instance, he seems less terrifying than pathetic as he and filmmaker Andrew Jarecki try to chase down the brother who took over the family business in his place. But always the interviews return to that cold absence in Durst’s core. When he describes hacking apart the body of his friend, whom he says he killed in self-defense, he’s weirdly matter-of-fact, as if describing doing some home repair–“primarily with the axe but some with the bow saw and another saw.”

We’ll see after Sunday where The Jinx‘s investigation ends up, and whether it has any real-world effect, as suggested by the reported reopening of the Susan Berman murder case. But one thing The Jinx hasn’t done, refreshingly, is to glamorize its subject. It makes him not a superhuman, but simply a human–flawed, deficient and chilling. The Jinx may or may not end up revealing Robert Durst as a devil. But he is not a smooth-talking one.

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