TIME Television

Time Is a Round Donut: The Graze-Watching Possibilities of Simpsons World

THE SIMPSONS: Join (L-R) Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer and Bart Simpson for the 21st season premiere episode "Homer The Whopper," of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, Sept. 27 (8:00 - 8:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX. THE SIMPSONS ™ and © 2009 TCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
'The Simpsons' Fox

The addictive new Simpsons website proves that there's more than one way to binge on TV. Mmmm.... TV.

Make 550-some episodes of any TV show, and some unusual coincidences start to turn up. Tuesday, I was playing around with Simpsons World, the immersive website/app that allows cable subscribers access to every Simpsons episode ever made. The very first two episodes I watched–one randomly served for me by the site, the other chosen after I did a search on “Marvin Monroe”–both began with Homer wrecking his car after a toy got lodged under the brake pedal. As one does. (The episodes: season 21’s “Rednecks and Broomsticks” and season 15’s “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife.” You can check it for yourself.)

I mention this not to criticize The Simpsons as repetitive–again, 550-some episodes–but as an example of the different kind of experience that this new kind of TV streaming promises. Put hundreds of hours of TV programming online in a searchable, customizable form, with 25 years of TV equally accessible, and you’re going to find yourself discovering some strange connections.

One of the major influences on TV’s current cultural glory days is “binge-watching”–the marathon viewing of a show first enabled by VHS and DVD sets, which really took off after services like Netflix made it frictionless. Bingeing allowed new audiences to discover great serials like Friday Night Lights, while turning dramas like Breaking Bad from cult shows to blockbusters as they addicted viewers between seasons.

Besides bringing in viewers, bingeing helped elevate TV’s cultural status, by underscoring its similarity to the novel. If the original airing of The Wire, week by week, recalled Dickens’ publishing serial novels in English newspapers, bingeing it several episodes at a time allowed you to go through it the way we read Dickens now.

Bingeing, however, tends to confer that prestige on a particular kind of show: the ambitious serial drama, which compels you to begin the next episode after the last ends. This is one genre that has taken advantage of the TV medium’s strength for telling linear stories, which begin at a beginning and can take much more time than movies to drive forward toward an end.

But that’s not the only kind of expansive storytelling that TV’s open-endedness makes possible. Sitcoms, in particular, don’t generally drive in a straight line from a beginning to an end–not even, necessarily, more serial recent ones like The Office. Comedies, like The Simpsons, create immersive worlds rather than propulsive narratives. You can certainly binge a sitcom as much as you can a drama–Netflix, for instance, is counting on you to do that in the new year with Friends. But you don’t need, or necessarily even want, to do it in a particular order.

If a serial drama creates its effects by driving forward along a track, like a train, something like The Simpsons expands outward, like a cloud, or maybe a spiral galaxy extending from a center. You can live inside it, jumping from point to point, discovering new corners or echoing themes, skipping from season 2 to season 23 as if through a space-time wormhole.

The Simpsons World site is still incomplete; it went live Tuesday but has yet to add features like allowing people to find and share customized clips. (You’ll know when that feature is added, because they will be everywhere on the damn Internet.) Yet you can already see that this kind of format has the potential to do for this kind of TV show what binge-watching did for serials. You can search for terms, for instance–episodes involving the inanimate carbon rod, or Hans Moleman, or gambling. You can skip around and explore the series like a character inside a massively-layer online game universe.

It’s not binge-watching, exactly, though it could be just as time-suckingly immersive. Maybe we can call it graze-watching. (Or gorge-watching, for those with more Homer-like appetites).

And while it’s not every show that could take advantage of this kind of destination viewing, it could work for more than The Simpsons. If Friends hadn’t done a streaming deal with Netflix, for instance, I could easily imagine a Friends World, letting you customize clips, search for favorite quotes and skip around through every possible permutation of who’s dating whom. It doesn’t even need to be comedy-only: imagine creating a Law and Order World, with the rights to each season and spinoff of the franchise, searchable and drilled deeply for data and themes. (I’m envisioning a vast crime map of NYC with everyone murdered by L&O plotted on a block-by-block level.)

TV is still figuring out what it’s going to do with streaming and what streaming will do to it. But one thing that excites me about Simpsons World is that it suggests that different kinds of streaming can work better to show off TV’s different strengths–and thus to celebrate different kinds of TV greatness. Not all “Golden Age” TV–or whatever you want to call it–is about stories that drive in a straight line from this thing to the next thing. Some is about world-building that allows you to skip from this thing to that thing to that thing.

One of the new patron saints of serial drama, Rust Cohle, said that time was a flat circle. In Simpsons World time is, maybe, more like a round doughnut.

TIME Television

Why Nothing Is Getting Canceled (Yet)

It's not quite time for last rites for Mulaney just yet. FOX

It's not that every new show is a hit. It's just harder to figure out what a hit is nowadays.

We’re a month into the official fall TV season, and the big news so far is… nothing. As in: nothing has yet been canceled. (I realize, of course, that I may shake loose the season’s first cancellation simply by typing these words.)

What’s happened? Have the broadcast networks finally perfected their art, discovering the unerring secret of delicious, addictive entertainment? No. As usual, there have been some out-of-the-box hits (How to Get Away With Murder, in particular). And there have been a few thundering disappointments (at Fox, especially, where Mulaney just had its episode order trimmed back while vultures are circling above the Utopia compound).

Yet the Reaper has been pokier this season than last year, when, for instance, Lucky 7 had already come up snake eyes by now. Part of the reason may simply be that networks had been so quick to reach for the hook over the past several years–when cancellations after two or three episodes became common–that the slightest restraint looks like mercy. And at NPR, Eric Deggans offers a few explanations–for instance, that networks have done better at protecting new shows with better scheduling.

But a big part of the explanation goes back to something you should keep in mind when following any TV-biz news today: Nobody knows what is a hit anymore. At least not right away, and maybe not for a long time.

There are different kinds of hits: shows that a lot of people watch, and shows that make a lot of money (two factors that can be, but are not automatically, related). For the purposes of cancellation, a hit means the latter. If a show makes money, or is likely to, it stays on the air.

But how a show makes money, and how can you tell, are more complicated questions than they used to be. You need to know the ratings, of course–specifically, the ratings in the age demographics that advertisers will pay for.

That’s not so easy anymore–even if Nielsen doesn’t screw up the ratings for months as it did earlier this year. With DVRs, viewers may watch a show live, or later the same night, or later that week. So you may not know how popular a show is for weeks after it airs, once you get the DVR ratings such as “live plus seven”–the number of viewers who watched a show within a week of its airing. Now advertisers don’t pay for all those viewers; generally, they pay for what they call “C3″–not the measure of viewers within three days but the measure of commercials watched within three days. (If you have any sense, you skip the ads on DVR, and if advertisers have any sense, they know that.)

And all that assumes the relatively simple world of broadcast TV. It’s even more complicated on cable (where revenues like carriage fees from cable providers factor in), pay-cable (where HBO and Showtime make money from subscriptions, not ads) and streaming (where Netflix will never tell you how many people watch its “hits”).

So we wait longer for the ratings. In the meantime, networks–to counter the impression that a show’s a bomb from its live ratings–have begun issuing “projected” time-shifting ratings, which you should no more take seriously than you would fill out an insurance form giving your “projected” blood pressure six months from now after you finally give up French fries and start going to the gym.

But wait, there’s more! TV ads are still the main way broadcast shows make money, but they’re not the only way. There’s also the smaller but growing amount of online streaming, which shows up nowhere in those DVR numbers. And besides possible future syndication, there’s also the possibility of the sale of a show to Netflix down the road–a potentially lucrative deal that can make a relatively low-rated show like New Girl stick around. DVR ratings a week later may not be worth anything for ad sales, but maybe they indicate a fanbase that can be monetized later through streaming sales, or overseas sales, or… something else someone will invent soon.

For now, we wait, deciding whether to commit to new shows, while the networks wait and parse a growing mound of data, trying to decide whether to make the same commitment. For some shows, this more complex TV business could mean a longer life, as they get a second season to prove their worth. For others, it may just mean a slower death. Bottom line, the more ways TV has to turn viewership into money, the more complicated it becomes to turn new shows into old memories.

TIME Television

Manhattan, the TV Season’s Secret Weapon

MANHATTAN
Greg Peters

This drama about the race for the atomic bomb showed in its first season that, just like in nuclear science, powerful forces can come from small things.

I cannot always pretend to understand this new age of television, with its surfeit of TV series from websites and tiny channels and online bookstores. But I am enjoying it.

Take Manhattan, the richly textured period drama about scientists trying to create the atomic bomb, in Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II. It comes from WGN America, the cable-broadcast “superstation” that’s trying to rebrand itself with original scripted dramas. (The first, the loopy supernatural serial Salem, debuted earlier this year.) It’s created little pop-culture buzz. (It’s apparently being recapped only at a few sites, chief among them Scientific American and Popular Mechanics.) It’s drawing live ratings well under a million, with its 18-49 advertising-demo audience practically a rounding error.

Yet it was recently picked up for a second season. How does this work? Is it a loss leader? Has WGN figured out, like the architects of nuclear fission, how to extract tremendous power from a tiny mass of viewers? I have no idea. But its season finale, “Perestroika,” left me very happy that somehow it’s working.

Manhattan began as one of those shows that seemed just good enough–one of the growing mass of competent cable series that I might watch regularly if I had 72 hours in a day. I would fall behind and catch up, but as it went on, it grew into something special. Like Masters of Sex, it used a fictionalized version of history to tell human stories at the same time, while dramatizing the excitement of scientific discovery.

Through the families of the scientists brought to the middle of nowhere for who-knows-what, it asked, what are the unintended costs of a culture of secrecy? Through the internecine competition of the bomb-race, it asked, where’s the line between necessary ambition and self-aggrandizement? And through the politics and paranoia of the project, it asks, how much individual sacrifice is acceptable in the name of a greater good?

“Perestroika” brought those themes to crisis while setting up the series strongly for a second season–in particular, through Frank Winter’s decision about whether to let Charlie twist in the wind, accused of espionage, rather than spill about the breach of compartmentalization. With the Thin Man project now over–and Reed fatally out of the way–his implosion program is the only game in town. He’s won, and all he needs to do to keep winning is to cut Charlie loose, one more unfortunate case of collateral damage, like Sid Liao.

Why he doesn’t, but rather arranges to be “caught” telling Liza what they’re really doing out in the desert, is an intriguing question. It may simply be human guilt. But there may be a larger recognition that once you accept the win-at-all-costs mentality and let it go unchallenged, there’s no telling whom it will claim. It’s understandable that people like Frank would develop a Messiah complex; after all, they’re being treated like messiahs, with the individual power to stop the slaughter of millions and save the free world. As Babbit (an excellent Daniel Stern) tells Frank, “It doesn’t matter that you’re a good man. Maybe a good man couldn’t have made implosion work.”

But their power is also terrifying to those who rely on them. Having to place so much faith in these inscrutable eggheads creates suspicion and resentment in the powerful, from the menacing Occam to the Secretary of War (Gerald McRaney), who bellows at Oppenheimer for selling the President “a Buck Rogers fantasy.” (In real life, after all, Oppenheimer was dogged by red-baiting accusations.) The godlike power of these physicists makes them invaluable and suspect at the same time. It may be that the prospect of unleashing such a tremendous power had led Frank to realize that win-at-all-costs is not longer a sustainable doctrine. Maybe we do still need good men.

Manhattan‘s first season hasn’t been flawless; its themes and exposition can be clumsy, and the production seems a little threadbare. But it’s been a fascinating twist on the disparate-soldiers-thrown-together-in-a-foxhole war story, following people whose wisdom doesn’t always match their intelligence. Even Frank, in his revelation to Liza, suggests a kind of sad-in-retrospect naivete, predicts that thanks to their work, “There will never be another war.” If there’s one thing Manhattan‘s first season showed us, people will always find reason to fight–even when they’re on the same side.

TIME Media

Misogynist Online Abuse Is Everyone’s Problem — Men Included

The harassment against feminist #Gamergate critics is getting attention now. But the toxicity goes much farther in our culture.

I wasn’t going to write about #Gamergate. Most of the video gaming world is outside my experience. I used to play more, when I had more time and hair, but now I only play a few tablet or iPhone games, and badly. (I get a 384 on Threes, it’s basically a national holiday.) Not my issue, I figured.

Weeks went on, and I kept seeing references to a culture war between gamers and gaming journalists, especially feminist critics of the industry, that had devolved into vile sexist harassment and death and rape threats. So I started reading, and to an outsider anyway, Gamergate led to a vast tangle of ancient grievances and offenses that seemed about as easy to unravel as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (For those interested, Todd Van Der Werff’s explainer at Vox is one of the better I’ve read.) That sounds awful, I thought. But again, not my area. Not my problem.

And then I read this terrific column by the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan that made me realize that it is totally my problem, and everyone’s. The abuse that female game critics and journalists and developers have been receiving has been extreme–specific threats to friends and family online, bomb threats, people hoping to drive women to suicide, the threat of a mass shooting at a talk video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to give. But it’s not unparalleled.

In TV criticism–in any cultural criticism now–the price of having a female byline and an opinion is getting subjected to torrents of gender-specific, grotesque, sometimes frightening and threatening abuse, which men like me, in general, do not deal with to nearly the same degree. I panned CBS’s Stalker. Mo Ryan panned CBS’s Stalker. But only she received the e-mail, quoted in her column, that told her to “shut the fuck up” because “MEN WE PREVAIL.” (Disclosure, I guess: I’m friendly with Ryan, as I am with a lot of TV critics, and I will confess to being biased against someone calling a friend a “fucking misandry freak.”)

And what’s the offense here, in each case? What were the fighting words? Somebody made some videos criticizing gaming tropes as sexist. Someone said that a TV crime show was exploitative and abhorrent. Someone said, maybe don’t harass women in the video game industry. This is the threat. This is the crisis.

It’s the “War on Christmas,” essentially. (There’s an excellent piece in Deadspin drawing out the parallels between the political and the entertainment-industry culture wars.) It’s the grievance of an identity group, already superserved by the larger culture, outraged that its service has become slightly less super. Their thing used to be the main thing, the default thing, the assumption. And now, if you point out that it is no longer the only thing–as is the case, both in American society and in entertainment–why, you’re persecuting them.

I have to assume that the people making death and bomb threats are, as the saying goes, a “small but vocal minority.” But this sense of disproportionate grievance is not so small. Put simply: someone saying mean things about a thing you like is not an assault on your liberties.

So someone made you feel bad for playing a video game that you like? I’m sorry. Maybe there are valid arguments against them. Maybe you could make those arguments! But nobody is about to haul you off to the Misandrist Re-Education Camps because they caught you playing Assassin’s Creed.

Someone got all righteous about the TV shows you like? Maybe they asked why there aren’t more well-rounded women in True Detective or why there are so many dramas about brooding male antiheroes and serial killers or they said something was a rape scene that you didn’t think was a rape scene? That’s unfortunate. But guess what? HBO’s still making the second season of True Detective! Networks are still going to make all those antihero and serial killer shows! You’re still going to be on the receiving end of a multi-billion-dollar pipeline full of product tailored to your specific tastes. I think you’ll be OK!

But as a larger group, we have a problem–all of us. It’s women, online and in real life, who have to deal with the fear and the abuse and the is-it-worth-it-to-say-this, in far greater numbers. People tweet horrible things at me sometimes, but I don’t pretend writing a post like this is any kind of brave act on my part. I’ll publish it and go on my merry way. I have the Guy Shield, or maybe the Dude Invisibility Cloak. (It’s +3 against trolls!)

It’s still my problem, though. There’s a whole genre of men saying that they’ve become feminist because they have daughters. I don’t; I have two sons. Which is exactly why this kind of toxic crap in the culture is my problem, because they play games and they live in the world, and I want them to grow up to be decent guys with healthy human relationships. I don’t want them immersed in a mindset that says that throwing anonymous abuse at women is somehow retaliation in kind.

It’s my problem because I may not be a big gamer, but no part of the culture is an island. The dudebro attitude is manifest in TV comments sections and movie discussions and literary arguments–the puffing out of chests, the casual gendered insults–and it’s stifling, and it’s depressing, and it makes too many people decide it’s not worth engaging anymore.

It’s my problem because I love ideas and innovative culture and smart conversation. And every time a woman decides she needs to cancel a speech, or decides it’s not worth the risk to keep working in the creative field she loves, or decides, you know what, not today, it’s just not worth it to publish this column on this subject–it costs me and everyone else (even if it costs the women affected much more). It’s my problem if anyone’s engaging in a concerted effort to shut someone up, because I’m a writer and I’m a person and I live in a society.

This toxicity that we’re stewing in may not be All Men or All Gamers or All Anyone. That’s obvious. And it’s besides the point. What matters is that it’s all our problem.

TIME Television

It’s Not TV. And It’s Not Cable. It’s HBO, Online.

HBO's Post 2012 Golden Globe Awards Party - Inside
A view of the atmosphere at HBO's Post 2012 Golden Globe Awards Party at Circa 55 Restaurant on Jan. 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills. Jason Merritt—Getty Images

In a potentially big change, the network will give cord-cutters a way to get Game of Thrones online (and pay for it).

If you’ve been considering cutting the cord to your cable-TV subscription, HBO may have just handed you the scissors. At Time Warner’s investor meeting Wednesday, CEO Richard Plepler announced that beginning in 2015, HBO will offer a standalone online service, allowing broadband customers without cable TV to subscribe.

This move has been speculated–and by some cordcutters, fantasized–about for years. But the thinking was that it was some time off, if ever, because HBO had more to lose by ticking off cable providers than it had to gain from broadband content delivery. Apparently the balance has shifted, with 10 million U.S. households getting broadband-only service. As Plepler said:

That is a large and growing opportunity that should no longer be left untapped. It is time to remove all barriers to those who want HBO . . . We will work with our current partners. And, we will explore models with new partners. All in, there are 80 million homes that do not have HBO and we will use all means at our disposal to go after them.

The statement leaves a lot of details open–price, how much HBO programming will be available–but the upshot appears to be: you’ll be able to get pay for HBO streaming without cable or satellite service, essentially buying HBO GO or another, possibly more limited, online service. Does this makes sense for HBO? It seems to think so, aiming for a combination of tapping into new households and, maybe, monetizing some of those cable-less fans who’ve been borrowing HBO GO logins to watch Game of Thrones. (Not to mention possibly getting a competitive edge on Netflix.)

Without access to the numbers, I can only speculate on the math. HBO does risk making less money from cable carriers, since HBO’s service is worth less to the carriers if the carriers’ customers can get HBO without them. Maybe HBO plans on making up the difference in volume, or maybe the standalone package will be priced accordingly higher.

But however this particular deal works out, this is a potentially exciting development for TV viewers tired of watching their cable packages swell into bloated, gold-laden barges of tied-together offerings topping $200 a month. If big player HBO sees that it can offer a cable-free package and survive, that may lead the way for companies in other pricey TV sectors–live sports, for instance–which you’ve had to agree to buy a giant cable package to get.

It’s easier to imagine a future in which you cobble together a decent menu of entertainment with Internet service, over-the-air HD, and some combination of HBO, Netflix, Amazon and so forth. That cord-cutting, a la carte paradise isn’t here yet. But HBO may just have unleashed the dragon.

[Non-disclosure disclosure: HBO and Time Warner Cable used to be sister companies of TIME within Time Warner; Time Warner Cable and publisher Time Inc. were spun off as separate companies by Time Warner, which still owns HBO.]

TIME Television

Why The Walking Dead Is So Brutal — and So Popular

AMC's gruesome zombie drama sets another ratings record, proving that on TV, extreme is the new mainstream.

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

They just keep coming, more and more, as if rising from the very earth. Not zombies–Walking Dead viewers.

The season premiere of the, um, staggeringly popular horror drama set a new viewing record, once again: 17.3 million viewers, before we even count up DVR recordings and encores (which brought its viewership up to 28 million last season). 2.5 million more adults under 50 watched it than Sunday-night football. It may end the week the most-watched series on TV, period.

In other words: what is arguably TV’s most relentlessly disturbing and violent drama is also arguably its most popular. Extreme is the new mainstream.

It’s not as if we’ve never seen a popular horror show before. Scary stories are ingrained in our culture. The Walking Dead, though, is not just gory. It’s grim–unrelentingly, punishingly (which is not to say unentertainingly) grim. It kills beloved characters; it kills children; it gives very little reason to hope that, in the long run, any human will end up anything but a walker or meat for walkers.

And as the season 5 premiere proved, it’s morally and philosophically punishing too. When our band of survivors fought their way out of Terminus, “No Sanctuary” didn’t just give you the thrill of seeing them defeat cannibalistic monsters. It showed that those cannibals were themselves survivors, once an idealistic band who were taken captive, brutalized and systemically raped after they trusted the wrong group of refugees. The Walking Dead–TV’s most popular show by many measures–had you cheer for an escape, then revealed it as the final, if forgivable, act in an unspeakable tragedy.

It used to be, in TV, that you had mainstream entertainment and then you had edgy entertainment. Mainstream hits, generally, offered familiarity and security. They might be about terrible things–crime, or even, like M*A*S*H, war–but they would leave the audience with something to feel good about: warmth or hope or laughs. It might be violent, but good would prevail over evil, love over despair, and so on. Deep, dark, disturbing downers were a niche product at best.

The Walking Dead, on the other hand, is a nightmare–which millions of people want to visit every week. So what gives? I see a few factors:

* Nothing is really mainstream anymore. You have to look at any ratings story today in the context of shrinking audiences generally. With more entertainment choices, nothing gets as many viewers now: excepting the Super Bowl, the biggest shows today don’t get what American Idol did 10 years ago, or, hell, even a mediocre success 20 years ago. The number-one show the week ending Oct. 5, NCIS, had an 11.8 rating (almost 19 million viewers)–a figure that, in the 1994-95 season, would have put it in a solid 29th place. There are no monster hits that everyone watches now, so a huge hit among a certain group can top everything. And in that regard…

* The youngs love their zombies! If The Walking Dead is a surprisingly big hit overall, in viewers under 50–also known as the chief reason advertisers pay money for ads–it is stupendous. Among those viewers, New York magazine’s Joe Adalian notes, it had almost double the rating of the next-highest-rated scripted show last week, CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. It’s huge enough in the youth vote to top everything in an era of lower ratings. But it’s not just the young, because…

* America loves dark. Yes, The Walking Dead may have the most video-game splatter of anything on TV. But all those CBS dramas with their audiences, um, of a certain age? They’re murder central, and not quaint Angela Lansbury-style mysteries but–in shows like Criminal Minds and Stalker–truly ugly stories of sadistic, often sexually charged violence that imply we all live in a sick, sad world filled with predators. Gone are the days when Grandma and Grandpa warmed up with wholesome entertainments like The Waltons; family dramas like Parenthood are essentially niche entertainments now. After all…

* These are dark times. Look, I resist over-psychoanalyzing the American public on the basis of one hit TV show or two. I don’t think that “the zeitgeist” anticipated years ago that, say, there would be an ebola outbreak in 2014 and prepared The Walking Dead to resonate with it. But: if there is no such thing as a time without bad news, there’s a specific cast to the bad news of today. Often, it’s about systemic collapse, or the threat of it: pandemics, global financial crises, climate change and rising sea levels, the threat of mass-casualty terrorist events. In one way or another, we’re constantly asked to envision how we and our own would thrive if everything went to hell and we lost all our societal supports. It’s disturbing; in some way it all comes down to generating fear by selling fear. But it does sell. In the same way that cop shows like Starsky and Hutch or SWAT let viewers vicariously experience urban crime in the 1970s, an apocalyptic drama lets us face the end of the world once a week and live. But not just any apocalyptic drama, because…

* Authenticity pays off. If it were as easy as slapping up one end-of-the-world drama after another–and TV has done that lately–the Nielsen top 10 would be full of apocalypse serials and Revolution would be enjoying a long life on NBC. But a lot of these efforts, especially on broadcast networks, have felt sanitized and tentative. I haven’t always loved The Walking Dead as a drama–its characters can be one-note, and its ambitions as a character drama can get lost amid the kill-quotient-of-the-week. But I will say this for it: it freaking commits. It’s dedicated to showing the raw implications of its premise, right down to the splattering of heads and gobbling of guts. (See also its fellow cable hit, Game of Thrones.) Sure, it allows us the distance of knowing that most of its “kills” are walkers, who are already dead; but its living suffer too, often horribly.

And that matters in an era where entertainment is no longer massaged to be palatable to audiences of every age and taste, as it was in the three-channel days of the 20th century. In a niche-ified era, every niche can be more, and more extremely, itself. If I can see unvarnished darkness in the world of video games, or movies, or novels, I expect to be able to see it in TV too.

It was, maybe, another dark, brutal, popular cable drama–Breaking Bad–that put this modern mindset best. In an age of extremes, no one wants to settle for half-measures.

Read next: Everything You Need to Know Before Season 5 of The Walking Dead

TIME Television

The Good Wife Watch: The So-Bad-She’s-Good Wife

"Oppo Research"
Jeff Neumann/CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

As Alicia's political ambition grows, a show that started out saying that it's no easy thing to be a wife is now exploring how it's no simple thing to be good.

Brief spoilers for Sunday’s The Good Wife follow:

The Good Wife began its run, just over five years ago, as a political legal drama that dealt heavily with the “Wife” half of its title: would Alicia Florrick stand by her ambitious politician husband, about to mount a return run for state’s attorney, after he’d been disgraced in a sex scandal? The show has covered a lot of ground since then, but with “Oppo Research,” the best episode yet of the young new season, it’s come around to being a different kind of political drama, concerned with whether Alicia can stand her own run for state’s attorney.

And even more fascinating, it’s increasingly interested in investigating the “Good” half of its title.

The Good Wife has long been a morally complex series, dealing with the ethical gymnastics of characters we identify with but can’t always completely support. But the spectacular opening act of “Oppo,” with Alicia’s known and unknown secrets laid out by Steven Pasquale’s consultant, framed this in a new way. First, it asked, going point by point: how would Alicia’s personal and professional life look as viewed, not by sympathetic fans who have followed her story for years, but by an outside audience of voters?

Paced at the show’s typical double-time–with Grace’s friends singing Jesus hymns in the background–the interrogation crisply ran down Alicia’s political vulnerabilities, some she knew about (but maybe underestimated), some she was clueless of. (Say, Zach’s girlfriend’s abortion. Oh, that’s right: The Good Wife just dropped a teen-abortion storyline right into a primetime network drama, like it wasn’t even a thing.) And then of course there are the many professional conflicts we’re aware of, starting with Lemond Bishop, still very much a factor in this season.

The public, we’re told, sees her as “Saint Alicia.” And we the audience–maybe “Saint” is too strong a word, but the perspective of the show pushes us to empathize with her, to see her decisions in a better light. The first thing the oppo scene did was to shock us into a sense of perspective, to remind us that, all along, we’ve been watching the story of a complicated woman who’s motivated by power and security at least as much as by ideals.

The second thing it does is set in motion the rest of the episode, in which Alicia, now taking her potential run seriously, looks to set her house in order. It’s not pretty: her phone call with Zach goes from understandable anger to a brutal cutting-off, and her managing the situation with her brother may be practical, but it’s also callous. None of her actions are totally without justification, nor are they out of character; we’ve seen Alicia turn cold and massage the truth when she needs to in her legal work.

But “Oppo Research” suggests that politics may push her to be even more baldly Machiavellian–to do ugly things for the right reasons, or kinda-ugly things for the kinda-right reasons. To preserve the viability of Saint Alicia, she may need to unleash Sinner Alicia, even if we know that neither is the full picture of her.

A show that started out saying that it’s no easy thing to be a wife is now exploring how it’s no simple thing to be good. And that could just make it better than ever.

Now a quick hail of bullets:

* It’s hard to discuss the antiheroine aspects of The Good Wife without mentioning the return of the Darkness at Noon parody show-within-a-show. I’m probably in a minority among Good Wife fans, but I’ve never been a fan of them. The parody of the widely panned Low Winter Sun by one of TV’s best dramas is punching down, and like most Emperor’s New Clothes arguments–here, the Emperor’s New Dark Antihero Cable Drama–it feels self-congratulatory. But I can’t lie: I laughed at the Talking Dead parody (complete with cameo from The Americans‘ producer Joe Weisberg) and especially the Mystical Elk. Sometimes funny is its own best argument.

* The oppo-research opening scene was so structurally playful and captivating that I originally thought it would take up the entire hour, bottle-episode style–and not to knock the rest of the episode at all, but I kind of wish it had.

* Mrs. Tuned In and I know the casting patterns of The Good Wife well enough by now that, before Eli opened the door to introduce Alicia’s potential campaign manager, we played a quick round of: “What NYC stage actor will it be?” Sure enough, though you and I might know Pasquale better from Rescue Me (or, sadly, Do No Harm), he’s a Broadway veteran, most recently of The Bridges of Madison County.

* With Homeland and The Good Wife both on the air is fall, both the white- and red-wine protagonist contingents are well-represented. If Madame Secretary wants to stand out, it should give Tea Leoni’s character a taste for rosé.

TIME remembrance

RIP, Jan Hooks: There’s No I in SNL

Saturday Night Live
Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton, Jan Hooks as Hillary Clinton during the 'Nightline' skit on September 26, 1992. NBC—NBC via Getty Images

Hooks didn't barrel into your consciousness with catchphrases.

From the beginning, Saturday Night Live has been a vehicle for launching stars—Radner, Belushi, Ferrell, Wiig—on the strength of outsized, memorable, repeatable characters. Jan Hooks, who died Thursday at age 57, wasn’t one of the stars who summons up half a dozen trademarked characters when her name comes to mind (though fans who watched her 1986-1991 run will remember her as one half of the Sweeney sisters).

But that’s really the measure of what Hooks did so well. She didn’t barrel into your consciousness with catchphrases. Instead, with one character role and spot-on celebrity impression after another, she was a team player who helped make SNL bigger than the sum of its cast list, by being week in and week out one of its best comic actresses ever.

I’ve been thinking, with SNL coming up on its 40th anniversary, that lately I’ve been much more interested in sketch shows like Key & Peele, Portlandia and Inside Amy Schumer—taped shows, focused on one or two performers, with a more specific point of view and range of themes. There feels more energy right now in these shows with particular aims, not trying to be everything for everyone.

Someone like Hooks, though, is a reminder of what SNL could be at its best—a live show capable of becoming and taking on anything, depending on what the week calls for. And for that, you need players like Hooks: versatile, game live performers who can disappear into a role. Performers like her are a kind of human special effect, creating the canvas on which the show replicates the world.

Hooks could turn herself into celebrities from Sinead O’Connor to Tammy Faye Bakker to Diane Sawyer. Born in Atlanta (where she had an early role on TBS’s Bill Tush Show), she had a special knack for channeling brassy Southern women. (Her late-era “Put That Down!” sketch is one that’s always stuck with me: “BOBBY IS SELLING HIS EL CAMINO, MOTHER!”) But her characters, even the celeb parodies, weren’t just caricatures. She could put a kind of pathos into her Tammy Wynette or even Kathy Lee Gifford serenading a monkey (“Both of us come from God / But I… don’t… come… from you!”).

Much of Hooks’ career involved being memorable in projects that showcased other people. (The best non-Pee-Wee line in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is her chipper, pitying “There’s no basement at the Alamo!”) Jan Hooks was a star, and a terrible premature loss. But if it took you a while when you heard the news to recollect all the roles you knew her from, that’s all right. It means she did her job. RIP.

TIME review

Review: The Affair: More Than Meets the “I”

Craig Blankenhorn/Showtime

In this fascinating adultery thriller, everyone's story changes the closer you look at it.

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

Meet Noah Solloway (Dominic West), a terrific, terrific guy. We first meet him swimming laps in a pool, which he’s gotten up at the crack of dawn to do–no doubt it’s one reason this middle-aged Brooklynite has maintained his rockin’ bod. That’s not lost on a young woman who flirts with him after his workout–but nope! See that ring on his finger? Noah’s married and loyal, headed home to his wife Helen (Maura Tierney), whom he’s going to wake with a mug of steaming coffee and a round of steamy lovin’.

Did I mention he lives in a fantastic, expensive-looking brownstone? Did I mention that he’s a published novelist? Did I mention that he’s an involved, attentive father? Would you doubt, as he describes it himself later in the pilot, that his life is “pretty fucking perfect”?

You would? Well, you are correct, as you’d soon begin to see even if you didn’t take note of the title of Showtime’s captivating, slow-burn emotional mystery The Affair (first episode premieres Sunday, Oct. 12, though it’s already streaming online).

As Noah and Helen pack up the kids for a summer trip at her father’s house in the Hamptons, we see that he barely has a handle on his kids, especially his pouty teen son and daughter. His novel was middlingly successful–reviews called it “derivative”–and Noah didn’t buy that townhouse on his public school teacher’s salary. It comes courtesy of his father-in-law Bruce (John Doman), a famous author whose books regularly become movies and who doesn’t miss a chance to lord his success over Noah. “Everybody has one novel in them,” Bruce casually tells him. “Almost nobody has two.”

Oh, and we know all about this because he’s telling this story to the police.

Why? We don’t know–there’s much we don’t know yet. But Noah’s tense family getaway takes a turn when the Solloway clan, cranky from the road, drag themselves into a diner and are served by local waitress Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson). After Noah’s daughter nearly chokes–he saves her with quick-thinking action–he and Alison share a moment of connection, which flames into something more that night, when he runs into her during a walk alone on the beach. She’s playful, spunky and flirtatious; Noah’s family-man resolve is starting to crumble. It’s only the beginning of summer, but you can feel the mercury steadily rising.

Then the story takes a turn–one that’s essential to the appeal of this fascinating pilot, but that you might want to be surprised by. I knew about it going in, and had no regrets, but I’m the spoiler-friendly type; I’ll leave the choice up to you (or come back and read this after you’ve watched):

There’s a cut to black, and the word “Alison” on the screen. We’re with her the same morning, in bed with her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson). It’s the same Alison we met, but different: moody, pensive, meek. It’s a special day for her: what would have been the birthday of her son, who died as a toddler under yet-unknown circumstances. Whatever happened, it seems to have damaged her marriage in ways she and Cole are still trying, flailingly, to fix.

Then we’re in the diner as the Solloways pull in. She still takes their order; the little girl still chokes. But it plays differently in telling ways. Noah and Helen squabble frantically as the girl gasps for air–“Helen, I need your help!”–until Alison steps in and saves her.

It’s different, and not just because we now see why nearly watching a girl die, on her own child’s birthday, is devastating to her. The Noah here is different too–still handsome, but more self-involved, less noble. When they meet on the beach, events play out as in Noah’s version, more or less, but he’s the assertive one, coming off pretentious, shady, even a touch stalkery. That is, if her version is the truth. Maybe his is. Maybe neither is, or both in some combination. Despite the infidelity and (apparent) crime, this doesn’t seem like Gone Girl, where the second half of the Rashomon upends the lie created by the first, so much as a recognition that each of us is the hero or heroine of our own story.

The Affair is created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who worked together on HBO’s therapy drama In Treatment. Like that drama, The Affair is a story in which much of the action takes place in conversation; it’s minutely attuned to how the inflections and back-and-forth of a conversation can sketch character, suggest entire relationship histories and create productive doubt in the viewer. And the camera is just as perceptive, belying Noah’s family-man front by sharing his furtive gazes at Alison’s hips and thighs.

The first episode (all critics have seen, unfortunately) is mostly talk, yet that talk is its own kind of action. It helps that the cast is up to this fine-scalpel work. West’s brownstone intellectual is as convincing as his rowhouse detective McNulty on The Wire; Wilson, meanwhile, covers tremendous emotional ground in one hour as Alison’s backstory unfolds. (Tierney and Joshua Jackson as Alison’s husband have less to do in the first hour, but their roles are promising.)

The Affair may become absorbing as a detective story. It may be titillating as an adultery story. But its theme is already compelling: The more you know about people, the more complicated their truth becomes. And sometimes the more you know about people, the less you find that you actually know them.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser