TIME Television

Review: Parenthood’s Finale Brings It All Back Home

Parenthood - Season 6
Colleen Hayes/NBC

We laughed, we cried. (Mostly, we cried.) And the finale returned to the theme of how family means letting go and holding on.

Spoilers for the series finale of Parenthood below:

I’ve had Apple TV in my living room for a couple years now. The box is connected to my whole Apple ecosystem of media–music, videos, and my iPhoto library, which dates back to around when my first child was born, in 2001. When I leave it paused for a certain number of minutes, and it turns on a screensaver of random iPhoto pictures: thirteen-odd years of Halloween baby costumes, snow days, vacations, first days of school, floating down my TV screen in an endless rain of nostalgia.

I’m a sentimental sap when it comes to my kids. So it is, perhaps, not the wisest screensaver setting for me to have. One minute I’ve paused a video to make a pot of popcorn on movie night, and the next–whammo!–I’m confronted with the freaking eternal march of time, the hastening countdown toward my babies’ leaving home, the knowledge that I and everyone I love will age and one day die. Next thing I know, I have to explain why I’m wiping my eyes while watching Guardians of the Galaxy.

I should change the setting, of course. But I don’t. Because what’s the alternative? Not looking at those pictures? Not poking at those memories? Not feeling–as Don Draper put it pitching the Carousel–the pain from an old wound? Forget it.

That to me sums up the whole push-pull of watching Parenthood over six years. Fans of the show joke about how much we expect the next episode to make us cry, like competitive eaters psyching ourselves up to try the world’s hottest salsa. (Last week’s episode–which for God’s sake included a mother and daughter singing “The Circle Game” after which a dying man holds his newborn great-grandchild—was like a Cry Monster that a mad scientist would build out of things that make people cry.) Yet we go back, because whatever pain we respond to in a family drama like this one is a good pain, a necessary pain, a pain the only thing worse than which is its absence.

That is the pain that the series finale, “May God Bless and Keep You Always,” delivered expertly, employing a golf bag worth of emotional irons to do it. If, as the Shakespearean truism goes, comedies end in marriage and tragedies in death, then dramedy ends in both, and then some. So on top of Sarah’s wedding (which we knew was coming) and Zeek’s death (which Parenthood telegraphed all season), we had a passel of other life transitions: an adoption (on top of Amber’s recent childbirth), career changes, a graduation.

There was a lot to service, unsurprisingly, and “God Bless” sometimes felt like a bride at a reception, obligated to greet guest after guest without time to settle in too long at any one table. And yet it managed to feel full rather than rushed. It did this in part by returning to Zeek, who knew–as he all but admitted in his chat with Hank, as his kids knew, as we knew–that the wedding was his unofficial goodbye.

Kudos here to Craig T. Nelson, who with Bonnie Bedelia has often been overshadowed in Parenthood‘s kid-focused stories, but served as the finale’s emotional home plate, modulating the emotion behind Zeek’s reserve. The story returned to him one by one, as he gave Sarah his blessing, assured Crosby that he could run the Luncheonette, invited Amber to live with him and Camille. (That invitation was an echo of Sarah’s homecoming way back in the series’ beginning.)

The other unifying thread of the episode was Max’s photography, which both gave his Asperger’s journey some resolution–suggesting, for his his doubt and his parents’ worry, that has has an independent, fulfilled future ahead of him–and gave the episode license to follow his camera at the wedding, taking in the sweep of the stories it needed to wrap up. Above all, it suggested that he’s finding a place in the world and in the family, but on his own terms; while Kristina can’t let go of her concerns–she still wants him to “be in the picture,” socializing at the reception–his way of doing that is by being the camera. “The photographer needs to disappear,” he says, and yet that’s precisely what allows him to find a way to be comfortably present.

And it’s an important job on this show. Photographs have always been thematically important in Parenthood: they float over the titles like an iPhoto screensaver; a family portrait introduces Hank in season 4; and we’re with Camille, looking over Max’s photos, when she discovers Zeek slumped in his chair. (A beautifully staged moment; we don’t discover Zeek’s body so much as we watch her discovering it.) Photos are the perfect metaphor for Parenthood‘s sensibility: we say that they “capture moments,” but of course they’re affecting precisely because we know they don’t really capture anything. The moments keep moving at their own pace until, as for Zeek, they run out.

Zeek dies, but, to go back to the Shakespearean definition, Parenthood is not a tragedy. For all the Bravermans’ problems, what happened is precisely what’s supposed to happen: You’re born, you grow, you love some people, you help each other along, you die. Like any family drama, Parenthood tells an old story, but it’s done it with thoughtful attention to a central question: What is a family for? What is a parent’s job?

Answer, here anyway: to support but not smother; to help your children be better but allow them to be themselves; to cherish your kids while working toward goodbye. And hopefully, to leave them with a network of people who are stronger together than individually, an idea captured in Parenthood‘s final sequence, that tear-jerking yet uplifting family baseball game.

Back when the series started in 2010, I wrote that Parenthood was in a way about “an almost utopian fantasy,” a tight-knit family, living close by one another, available for games, meals and babysitting. Over six seasons, Parenthood‘s many twisty plots, some more absorbing than others, proved that it wasn’t all that easy. But it was also unashamedly sentimental about an ideal of family as a team; each has to go to bat alone, but all are available to back each other up.

Ending Parenthood on the diamond was in retrospect the only choice that made sense, not only because Zeek loved baseball, but because it’s a game whose object is to leave home–and in the end, to come back.

Read next: The 10 Best Episodes From NBC’s ‘Parenthood’

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TIME Television

Better Call Saul: Portrait of the Con Artist as a Young(er) Man

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman - Better Call Saul _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: Ben Leuner/AMC
Ben Leuner/AMC

The makers of Breaking Bad created a great TV drama. Their challenge now: to follow it up with a pretty-good TV drama.

In this week’s print TIME, I talk to Bob Odenkirk and co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould about their Breaking Bad prequel featuring the man who would be Walter White’s lawyer—Better Call Saul (premieres on AMC Feb. 8)—and review the new show. The article is for TIME subscribers, so I can only share so much of it pro bono. But I will say that I was skeptical of the idea—as I say in the article, it had shades of 2001’s The Lone Gunmen, the superfluous, dark-comic X-Files spinoff that Gilligan also ran—yet after three episodes, I have to say it’s… pretty good.

And in fact, “pretty good” might be the right ambition for this series, even if it necessarily risks unflattering comparison to the grand sweep and ambitions of Breaking Bad. On its face, Saul is a similar show with a similar arc: Jimmy McGill (Saul, before he adopted his nom de bus bench) is a struggling but essentially law-abiding guy who, we know, will slip-slide the crooked path to criminality, or, at least, criminality-enabling. (The reverse, ironically, of the redemption and name-changing of the New Testament’s Saul.)

What distinguishes it in the early going is precisely that it has different aims–it takes the character seriously, but it’s more of an entertainment, more picaresque. And ultimately, it’s about a different kind of figure:

But we’ve seen enough brooding bush-league Walter Whites in cable antihero dramas that that’s a good thing. Saul is in the same universe but a different tradition, that of the irresistible trickster. It’s a monument to malarkey. There is something in people that loves a BS artist–the rogue, the flimflam man who carries no gun but gets by on his words, on what he makes, literally, out of thin air.

Jimmy McGill has elements of James Garner’s TV rascals (Bret Maverick, Jim Rockford) but filtered through Odenkirk’s ah-jeez Midwestern appeal. (Like Odenkirk, Jimmy hails from Chicagoland.) You may not admire him or his clients, but he embodies a certain human spirit of ingenuity. “I love that he’s indefatigable,” Odenkirk says. “You can’t stop him. It’s funny to see him dig a hole as he tries to dig himself out of a hole.” Or as a scary character puts it after Jimmy tap-dances his way out of a threatening situation, “You got a mouth on you.”

I don’t want to claim to have Better Call Saul entirely figured out after three episodes; Breaking Bad, after all, was itself a more comic show in its early going, making more of the absurdity of a chemistry teacher in his tighty whities figuring out how to become a meth dealer. (OK, to the extent that you can consider a show that involves dissolving a dead body in acid to be comic.) It changed its tone and aesthetic as Walter White evolved, and maybe its prequel will also. Or maybe it won’t, and maybe it will simply remain a diverting, well-executed lagniappe–not one of the greatest series on TV, but that’s certainly no crime.

For now, I simply tried to measure Saul by the yardstick: would I want to watch this show if I knew none of the references, none of the characters’ back stories? I was a doubter. But for now, Saul, or should I say Jimmy, has fast-talked me into believing.

TIME Television

Review: The Americans Puts Mother (and Father) Russia to the Test

One of TV's best dramas returns, focusing on an unusual parenting challenge.

Throughout its spectacular second season, The Americans (FX, Wednesdays) built on its theme of marriage as a working partnership, and as work. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, KGB agents posing as a travel-agency-owning couple in 1980s Virginia, just happen to have a more challenging family business than most.

In that season’s gut-punch of a finale, the Jenningses handlers proposed expanding the family business. They were interested, as part of a larger KGB operation, in recruiting daughter Paige as a “second-generation illegal”: new agents, born as citizens in the United States to operatives, who could pass in the country with even greater ease and less suspicion.

Beyond the initial shock of the state claiming a child like the god of Abraham, the proposal drove into a long-existing fault line between Elizabeth and Philip. She, the more ideologically dedicated of the two, thought the idea was worth considering–after all, Paige was already becoming politically active on her own. He, the more assimilated, wanted Paige kept safe and separate from her parents’ bloody work (and any knowledge of it).

As season 3 debuts, it becomes plain that the question is not going to go away–not least because the KGB won’t let it. In the season premiere, the Jenningses meet with KGB handler Gabriel (Frank Langella, stepping into the space left by Margo Martindale), an avuncular old friend who assures them he understands their concerns–but that “this is time to start laying the ground work” anyway.

As the pressure rises, The Americans, already one of TV’s most astute shows about marriage, also becomes more and more a show about parenting and how parents invest themselves in their children. Yes, there’s still a split between Philip and Elizabeth, which gets more intense as he begins to suspect her of being secretly eager to recruit Paige, and she suspects him of insufficient committment.

But it becomes clear it’s about more than that: Paige is a teenager now, she’ll be an adult soon, and each parent is concerned about losing her, not just physically but emotionally. Paige is growing and becoming her own person–she’s still involved in her church group, which neither parent likes–and both Philip and Elizabeth are going through the uncomfortable process of seeing themselves in her while also seeing what she chooses to keep and reject of them. As the new episodes unfold, they’re jockeying for influence–her appealing to Paige’s idealism, he to Paige’s Americanness–but they’re not competing with each other so much as each is simply fighting not to lose her.

Indeed, as the new plots and subplots unfold–the season’s larger thriller story involves the increasingly disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan–The Americans keeps its story complex by showing that it’s not becoming an Elizabeth-vs.-Philip story. They disagree, yes, but as partners and colleagues, and they’re also fiercely dedicated to each other. (There’s a scene in episode 3 in which Philip has to give Elizabeth an improvised medical treatment, and it’s both gruesome and deeply, even romantically intimate.)

That’s one irony of the Jenningses’ double life: as dangerous, compromised, and ruthless as it is, the side effect is that it gives them one of the most intensely connected marriages on TV. Even Paige picks up on this, noting that, unlike many parents (on TV and real life) their relationship hasn’t become solely about their kids. ““You guys look out for each other, you and dad. More than us,” she says, and when Elizabeth looks stricken at this, Paige reassures her: “It’s a good thing.”

A good thing, maybe, but a hard thing too. As in The Americans‘ earlier seasons, the conflict here is a heightened version of one in many families: being torn between wanting your child to be secure and wanting her to fulfill her identity, which may not be the same thing. This comes out as the two argue in the second new episode: “What do you want, Philip?” Elizabeth asks. “A guarantee that life’s always going to be easy?” “For my daughter?” he replies. “Yeah.”

It’s an easy comeback, but The Americans suggests there’s no easy answer here; both parents believe they’re acting in Paige’s best interest. For Elizabeth in particular, the decision brings up difficult memories of her own mother, who lived through the WWII era of Soviet sacrifice and encouraged Elizabeth to go into service, not only out of duty but out of love. (The early episodes of this season focus more on Elizabeth’s history than Philip’s–maybe because his resistance to a dangerous KGB life for his daughter is more naturally sympathetic to an American audience.)

As the season unfolds, the tension in the Jennings household echoes in the espionage stories, which in various ways also involve parents and children, the choice between security and idealism, between loyalty to family and loyalty to the larger cause. In its melancholy way, The Americans seems to be speaking to today’s America and its generation of helicopter parents, who often find out that as hard as it is to take care of children, it can be even harder to let them find their own way.

So it is across generations, across oceans, across ideologies. “Parents are always trying to understand our children better, to do what’s best for them,” a new character says in the second episode. “It’s our great misfortune.”

TIME Television

Review: Playing House; or, The Repeat Offenses of Backstrom

Sergei Bachlakov/FOX

Fox's latest Brilliant Jerk procedural gives us a cop acting like a doctor who acted like a cop.

If someone says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money. If someone says it’s not about sex, it’s about sex. And if a network says a new show is not a clone of something, it’s–well, starting Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox, it’s Backstrom, with Rainn Wilson as a cranky, insult-spewing cop imitating the House formula with diminishing results.

Backstrom is directly based on the work of Swedish novelist Leif G.W. Persson, but he’s also in the tradition of TV’s Brilliant Jerks–the caustic, abrasive antiheroes we grow to love, or at least love to watch, because their antisocial tics directly relate to their success on the job. In the case of House M.D., what made that work was not just Hugh Laurie’s brilliant performance but the show’s theme and idea: that its doctor approached diagnosis using not just medical but forensic principles, beginning with the dictum that “all patients lie.” House took a cop formula and applied it to medicine, and for a long time it made that formula feel fresh again.

As rendered by Fox, Wilson and showrunner Hart Hanson (Bones), Backstrom simply takes that formula and applies it right back to a cop show, where it’s therefore not nearly as interesting. In order to distinguish itself, the series amps up its protagonist’s obnoxiousness to distracting levels. In particular, Portland investigator Everett Backstrom is “politically incorrect,” which is to say pretty much straight-up racist: to a doctor of South Asian ancestry (Rizwan Manji), he describes some Native American murder victims as “Not tandoori Indians like you, but you know, the–woo-woo-woo-woo!” A “black African American” suspect in a crowd of white people, he says, “stands out like a raisin in a bowl of buttered popcorn.”

Now, the show doesn’t endorse Backstrom’s attitudes, despite its “Oh, no, he went there” presentation. He has plenty of colleagues to roll their eyes at him, including Dennis Haysbert as a level-headed veteran. And the series rationalizes this character choice by gradually making it clear that Backstrom, as they say, “hates everyone,” not least himself–he’s happily eating and drinking himself into an early grave–and has a troubled history. Still, given the police-news events of recent months, you have to wonder if it’s the most opportune time to premiere a show about a hilariously bigoted cop.

But if it’s not fair to blame Backstrom for its timing, Wilson’s performance would seem showy and affected any year. Wilson’s a strong dramatic actor; he was quirkily poignant as uptight Arthur on Six Feet Under, and he could give Dwight Schrute real pathos on The Office when called on. But his Backstrom is more a prod than a person, built to provoke reactions from his co-stars and the audience. He seems most like a character when he’s inhabiting the mind of other characters–something he does repeatedly in the show’s gimmick, which has him role-play suspects in the first person: “I’m a senator burying my son the dope dealer…”

Whether this show means to remind you of House or not, here’s where it fails: it was interesting, and revelatory of character, to build a show around a doctor who is able to help people by assuming the worst of them. To do the same in Backstrom, no matter how hard everyone works to pour quirk into its title character, is nothing more than returning to the scene of the crime drama.

TIME Television

Parks and Recreation Watch: We Didn’t Start the Fire

Parks and Recreation - Season 7
Ben Cohen/NBC

The sweet, pitch-perfect "Leslie and Ron" was the perfect antidote to State of the Union night.

Tuesday night, you could have watched the State of the Union address. You could have sat through the statements and zingers and counterstatements and counterzingers, all wrapped up with hours of punditry analyzing each party’s positioning and long game before concluding that, in the end, not a whole lot was likely to happen.

Or you could have watched two episodes of Parks and Recreation, on which two ideological opposites got locked in a room until they admitted that they cared about each other.

“Leslie and Ron,” sweet as a Pawnee waffle without being syrupy, showcased an advantage of the accelerated final season; we got the conclusion to this two-parter immediately after the more slight “William Henry Harrison.” (An episode whose chief appeal was working in the story of America’s briefest presidency, a true story that actually sounds like someone would have made it up for Parks and Recreation.) In the process, just as the season sped forward to 2017 (when Game of Thrones‘ Khaleesi –spoiler alert!–is marrying Jack Sparrow), it sped the resolution to, and explanation of, Leslie and Ron’s falling out.

In the process, it was a stellar example of how a final-season episode of a show like Parks does double duty: it took us backward on a nostalgia trip of callbacks to the early days of the series (including the pit, which is now officially Pawnee Common) and its characters’ relationships, while also advancing those relationships forward. As productive as the political differences between Leslie and Ron have been for comedy, so have their personality differences: Leslie’s effusiveness and paramilitary-level gift-giving rubs up against taciturn Ron, who winces through gestures of affection as if he were getting a root canal covered by Obamacare. That they’re able to connect despite all that’s gone between them, and despite their differences in style, is at least as important as their looking past their differences in politics.

Speaking of which, it’s significant here that “Leslie and Ron” didn’t choose to wrap up the two friends’ conflict over the Newport land at the same time as they cleared the air over Morningstar and April. Parks is a genial enough sitcom that I suspect it will split the difference on that eventually. But first it re-made its biggest point: that deeply held beliefs don’t have to get in the way of decency. And damn, did Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler sell that argument, wringing all the heart-tugging comedy out of the episode’s tightly written bottle-episode format. It was one of politics’ oldest conflicts (private vs. public) meets one of sitcoms’ oldest premises (the locked-in-a-room episode).

Eventually, before the season is over, Leslie will win or Ron will win or they’ll figure out some sort of win-win. But not before this half-hour, one of the series’ finest, made the corny but well-earned argument that those differences shouldn’t get in the way of important things, like human connection, or waffles and bacon. Why don’t more folks realize that? On a night of partisan theater, Parks and Recreation echoed a quote from its second season in answer: “People are idiots.”

TIME Television

Larry Wilmore’s First Nightly Show: The Underdog As Top Dog

COMEDY CENTRAL

Comedy Central's new show has a mission to offer a different perspective, starting with the map.

When Larry Wilmore’s new Comedy Central show had to change its title from The Minority Report to The Nightly Show, the comedian told me it was a good thing. He wanted his news-comedy show to focus on the underdog, and he didn’t want people making assumptions just because he’d been The Daily Show‘s “senior black correspondent”: “At least they won’t have that expectation,” he said. “Why’s he not talking about black today? What’s going on?”

Nobody gave the news cycle that memo. Even though Wilmore joked that he’d started a year late–“All the good bad-race-stuff happened already!”–he came on the air with plenty of material, from the Oscars’ snubbing of Selma to the Eric Garner non-indictment, that showed how, yeah, it’s actually useful to have a late night host of color around to comment on it. There was enough in the zeitgeist already that the timing of the debut wasn’t more than an aside: “A brother finally gets a show on late night TV! But of course he’s got to work on Martin Luther King Day.” (There wasn’t even time to work in Bill Cosby! That’s for night two.)

The first Nightly Show opened with a Wilmore monologue, somewhere between The Daily Show‘s headlines approach and John Oliver’s lengthy video essays: an extended standup arc that weaved in news items and built as it moved along.

Not surprisingly, from a performer who’s honed his acerbic commentary over years alongside Jon Stewart, this was the most solid, assured part of the first episode. Wilmore and his writers sketched the routine as one piece, starting from the Selma uproar, detouring to the state of black protest and Al Sharpton (“You don’t have to respond to every black emergency! You’re not black Batman!”), and working up to a chilling news item–police using mug shots of black men for target practice–that led to a searing final joke about police shootings that landed like an uppercut: “I’m not surprised when Kobe hits a jumper. That dude practices.”

The rest of the show, as advertised, was a Politically Incorrect-style panel: Sen. Cory Booker, comedian Bill Burr, rapper Talib Kweli and corrrespondent Shenaz Treasury following up on the opening monologue’s themes led by Wilmore. With the necessary caveat that it’s fruitless to “review” a late-night show after one night–they’re houses that we move into while the wiring is still exposed–this is the segment that will need the most work. It’s one thing to get your monologue tight, another to get a group of guests to be both funny and seriously engaged, all while maintaining the show’s energy and comic rhythm. Wilmore was ready with good questions–“Do you feel you’re just a hoodie away from being face-down in the pavement?” he asked Booker–but felt more tentative in the back-and-forth.

But the panel also may be the part of The Nightly Show with the most upside, the way for Wilmore’s show to really distinguish itself from Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s. (And for that matter, from Bill Maher’s and every other panel-format talk show.) No doubt the show will try a lot of bits, keep some, ditch some: night one, it was “Keep It 100,” where Wilmore challenged each guest to answer a question 100% honestly or be charged with a “weak tea” answer.

The bit was shaky–partly because it depended on the audience’s verdict, and talk-show audiences clap regardless, because that’s what they do–but Wilmore salvaged the end by playfully pelleting Booker with weak-tea bags for his canned answer on whether he wanted to be President. (Afterward, his staff gave him a pop question–“What’s the last racist thought you had?”–to which he said he’d wondered if a white woman thought he was going to steal her purse. Which, eh, Earl Grey maybe?)

Maybe the most important first impression from a talk show’s first night is simply point-of-view: does the show know what it is, and why it is? Here The Nightly Show really has something going for it. It opens like we’ve come to expect a fake-news show to, with the host at a desk in front of a map, but then you notice something different: the world map is oriented with the south on top. The impulse is to say the map is “upside down,” but of course it’s not–there is no up and down in space, only the orientation you assign as the standard if your culture happens to originate in the northern half of the planet.

That may be the guiding principle for The Nightly Show: to approach issues by questioning why we’re used to seeing them from a certain angle. It’s a philosophy that fits Wilmore, whose comic identity is as a free thinker, dryly funny, not ideologically predictable, a guy with the questions rather than the answers. He seems suspicious of overconfident blowhards, which may be why he seemed reluctant to take too heavy a hand running the panel, and it’ll take time to work out that balance.

But he shouldn’t worry about making himself too big a presence on The Nightly Show. If his show’s a success, after all, it won’t matter what title it ended up with. We’ll just call it “Larry Wilmore.”

TIME Television

Review: The Best and Worst of the New Amazon Pilot Season

The_Man_in_the_High_Castle_Pilot_5903.NEF
Amazon Prime Video's The Man in the High Castle David Berg / Amazon

No Transparent here, but could I interest you in a Nazi-occupied 1962 America?

Following up its Golden Globes coup with Transparent–and whatever exactly it’s going to be doing with Woody Allen–on Thursday Amazon Video released its latest crop of pilots for viewers to watch and rate: 13 adult and kids’ shows in all.

This doesn’t entirely kill the old system of network (or in this case e-commerce) executives ordering a bunch of pilots and choosing which will live or die. The viewer vote isn’t binding–and good thing it isn’t, since voters last year gave Transparent the lowest rating of any show in its group. But it does mean that you now have a voice in the process just like idiot critics like me.

That said, you may not to want to spend several hours of your day helping pick new product for Jeff Bezos, so I watched the pilots for you. (Or rather, everything except the kids’ shows–I do this for a living and even I don’t have that much time on my hands.) In alphabetical order:

* Cocked. This family drama, about brothers reuniting to save a troubled family gun business, plays very, very broad. (One sibling is played by Jason Lee, with only a little more subtlety than he gave his character in My Name Is Earl.) But I’m intrigued by the exploration of the gun subculture and the dynamic of the liberal black sheep (Sam Trammell) being drawn back into a family and life he rejected. Done right, it could be a kind of .44-caliber Big Love.

* Down Dog. My love for Paget Brewster is vocal and enduring, but she’s only a supporting player in this comedy about a handsome dimwit yoga instructor (Josh Casaubon), who, after breaking up with his partner/girlfriend (Brewster), must learn to run the business himself. It feels a little like HBO’s Hung with pigeon poses instead of prostitution, and the pilot didn’t do much to make me care what happens to the protagonist.

* Mad Dogs. Based on a successful British series and produced by The Shield‘s Shawn Ryan–with a cast including Ben Chaplin, Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco, Steve Zahn, and Billy Zane–this dark-comic hour about a group of middle-aged friends running into underworld trouble in Belize looked great. But its midlife-crisis themes are tired, uninvolving and depressing. It’s tense and well-executed, though; the pilot did everything right except make me watch more.

* The Man in the High Castle. This alternate-history drama from The X-Files‘ Frank Spotnitz (based on a Philip K. Dick novel) imagines a year 1962 in which the Axis won WWII, and the U.S. is partitioned between Germany and Japan. The dialogue and war-movie-villain types run to cliché, and the production looks less like premium cable than a Syfy show. But the idea is gripping, there’s already the sense that the creators have thoroughly imagined a dystopian world, and scenes in the pilot are genuinely chilling. With improved execution, this could become a must-watch.

* The New Yorker Presents. This mostly-nonfiction series anthologizes short films based on the work of the storied magazine, and, it’s well, anthological. A Shouts-and-Murmurs-y short written by Simon Rich works better than most of the fantasies in Rich’s Man Seeking Woman. An interview with artist Marina Abramovic by Ariel Levy is thoought provoking (but could use a little more Abramovic and a little less Levy). There’s a smart, playful Jonathan Demme documentary on biologist Tyrone Hayes. And there are cartoons, which are–they’re cartoons, and don’t gain much from translation to a new medium. A poem is read. Cool jazz plays over the credits. A little precious but nicely made, and it will probably make you feel smarter.

* Point of Honor. This Civil War drama, from Lost‘s Carlton Cuse and Randall Wallace, was originally developed for ABC. And you can see why it didn’t get any farther: it has ambitions of subtlety and historical sweep–a wealthy Virginia family frees its slaves, yet vows to defend the Confederacy–but the clumsy pilot mainly offers cotton-pickin’ melodrama.

* Salem Rogers. I wanted to like this one, if only because it’s the only pilot of this class that aims at being flat-out, in-your-face, ha-ha funny. (Not to mention the only one built around a female star.) But Salem–starring Leslie Bibb as a former supermodel fresh out of rehab but totally unrepentant (and unrehabbed)–chased me off. Full of insult humor and acting out, it plays a little like a Ryan Murphy comedy, except–I can’t believe I’m saying this–Ryan Murphy would have made this more sophisticated.

In part, the question here is not how much you like these shows, but what are they worth to you? The decision on a streaming series is a different one than for a broadcast or basic-cable show. There, you’re just deciding whether to flip the dial to a channel you already have and spend a few minutes of your time. As with Netflix, watching Amazon’s shows requires paying up for a subscription ($99 a year for Prime, though the pilots are free), so cold economics suggest a higher bar. (It’s also comparable to premium cable, as is the content–in particular, there are nude female bodies splayed all over these pilots. Again, not the kids’ pilots.)

Transparent was a pilot that I would have bought a subscription to watch off the bat. None of these are yet, though The Man in the High Castle, and maybe Cocked, could become one. But you can watch the current pilot season for yourself. As Amazon has proven, it’s a big market, and no two customers are alike.

TIME Television

Parks and Recreation Watch: In the Year 2017

Parks and Recreation - Season 7
Colleen Hayes/NBC

The show's much-welcome return sets up a final return to its theme: what is government good for?

Spoilers for last night’s season premiere of Parks and Recreation follow:

As the title “2017” suggested, the first half hour of Parks and Recreation‘s premiere returned us to the near-future it teased at the end of the previous season. Parks is not suddenly going to become a science-fiction show in its final run of episodes, but as we saw in “2017” and “Ron and Jammy,” it’s relying on the trusty dystopian principle that the future will be like today, except shinier and dumber.

It’s in the details, like the ubiquitous translucent Gryzzl tablets, with their sketchy AI interface (“I love your skin. GIVE ME YOUR SKIN!”). But it’s also in the people: Parks has built up a vast, Simpsons-like array of supporting players, and the hour spent some time catching us up with them (which will clearly be a tall order for the abbreviated final season). Besides re-assembling the office team, introducing a creepily homespun Werner Herzog and bringing back Councilman Jamm and Tammy (and unleashing Amy Poehler’s killer Megan Mullally imitation), it updated us on folks like Joan Calamezzo, whose résumé now includes the memoir Game of Joans.

But the most intriguing development for the final season was a bit of a return to Parks and Rec‘s earliest days and themes: Leslie and Ron are enemies.

Now, I don’t want to make too much of this; clearly there’s too much affection between them for this to keep going long, entertaining as it is to watch them force hostility toward each other. (“I’ve never known what bangs are and I don’t intend to learn!” “In my experience with butt-faces, you are one.”) And not an hour had passed before they were setting their differences aside to free Jamm from Tammy’s spell. I don’t think anyone is too worried that they won’t patch things up by series’ end.

But setting them against each other on the park project does give some heft to the show’s themes about government, which have always been as much personal as political. Ron and Leslie are great friends, but they’re also philosophical opposites: he’s a committed anti-government libertarian, and she’s a die-hard believer in government’s ability to help people. That difference was more pronounced in the show’s early episodes; later, as Ron and Leslie became besties, their differences came up mostly in the context of setting them aside.

Now, they’re on opposing sides of the series’ final battle between private and public: whether a significant chunk of land from the Newport estate will become a national park or a corporate campus for Gryzzl. Parks is a sweet, funny show at heart, but in its way it is genuinely about a political question: is government good for anything? Generally Parks has settled this question on Leslie’s terms, with Ron gruffly supporting his friend against her enemies. Having someone we like–Ron, who genuinely believes in the market over the public sector–as Leslie’s rival should give this last arc a little more heft.

The season premiere already sowed the seeds for how I’m guessing this will resolve: Ron will realize that the Gryzzl guys he’s working for are techno-douchebags. Friendship, I’m guessing, will triumph and Leslie will get some kind of win. But by at least giving an airing to Ron and Leslie’s real differences, I’m hoping that Parks will be able to do justice to another one of its longrunning themes: that decent people can disagree, that not everyone opposed to your causes is necessarily “the human equivalent of gas station sushi.”

Showing that a group of sincerely disagreeing people can believe that in America may be this 2017’s most outlandish sci-fi premise of all.

TIME Television

Review: On HBO’s Togetherness, Love Is Hard Work

Melissa Moseley/HBO

Like a lot of marriage-and-relationship stories, you've heard this one before. But this coming-of-middle-age dramedy retells it well.

Midway through Togetherness‘ first season, Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle Pierson (Melanie Lynskey) find themselves with some unexpected free time on their hands. What, she asks him, would he do with the afternoon if he could do anything? “Barnes and Noble,” he says. “Third floor. Green leather chair. I’d get a peppermint tea and an original copy of Dune, and nobody would know where to find me. I’d be all by myself.”

There’s a pause. “Your dream,” Michelle says, “is to go to Barnes and Noble by yourself.”

You can understand her pique (the two, it turns out, have just come out of couples’ therapy). But you can also understand his desire. Alone time is a rare thing for the Piersons right now. They have a preschooler and a new baby and, now, two long-term houseguests: Michelle’s single older sister Tina (Amanda Peet), a transplant from Texas trying to get her life together, and Brett’s high-school friend Alex (Steve Zissis), an actor on the verge of leaving L.A. after getting perma-typecast as the “chubby best friend.”

The kind-of-comedy Togetherness (HBO, Sundays)–from Duplass and his filmmaking partner and brother Jay (Transparent), with Zissis as co-creator–gives us four characters at the testing point of middle age’s threshold. Separately, each has to decide whether they want to commit to something (marriage, career, art) or cut and run. Collectively, they need to figure out they’re a mutual support or a burden–if togetherness is better for them than the alternative. (A recurring element is “beach day,” the family’s weekend trip to the beach that, with kids, is just less an ordeal than the Normandy landing–but provides just enough fleeting, transcendent moments to keep them coming back.)

None of this is groundbreaking, and that’s Togetherness‘ biggest weakness. (Well, that and the question of how a couple with this much freely available babysitting can have troubles.) TV lately has had more exhausted, stress-full and sex-free new parents than at a Yo Gabba Gabba Live! concert (e.g., FX’s Married, NBC’s Up All Night). We’ve seen the husband mourning his pre-kids, pre-responsibility life, the wife exhausted, sour and stewing. The opening scene, with Brett trying to wake a sleep-deprived Michelle for sex, is straight out of the playbook.

And if you guessed that Alex would develop a crush on Tina–a staple, after all, of the chubby-best-friend genre–you guessed right. The Duplasses have an indie-film sensibility, but the setups and story beats here are familiar from sitcoms, romcoms and bromances. (In episode 3, Brett and Alex bond by air-drumming to Rush’s Tom Sawyer; it’s a lovely moment, nicely choreographed, but also reminiscent of the Tom Sawyer male-bonding sequence in I Love You, Man.)

But Togetherness improves as it goes, on its excellent performances, well-observed writing and–a strength of all HBO’s best shows–specificity, both of setting (quasi-suburban Eagle Rock) and of personality. It turns out that it’s not only Brett who’s sexually frustrated–Michelle, for reasons she can’t quite name, feels bored and out of sync with him, and as she pours her energy into a drive to found a local charter school, she finds herself drawn to the divorced dad (John Ortiz) leading the group. She’s not—in the language of cable TV—Skyler White, fretting over her husband’s restlessness; she’s Walter White, wanting to feel alive again. (One striking thing here is how his-and-hers this marital crisis is.)

Brett’s midlife crisis, meanwhile, is not the sports-car-and-trophy-wife kind. He’s a bit of an oddball and socially awkward–he works as a movie sound designer, which requires long solitary walks to “collect” noises–and seems to be working out whether marriage with Michelle, or anyone, works for him. Late in the season, he strikes up a friendship with a New Ager (Mary Steenburgen) whose consciousness-quest he finds strangely compelling. It’s neither a physical affair or an emotional one, but it is a kind of spiritual one. Brett and Michelle’s struggles are sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking, in part because Togetherness so deftly avoids blame and diagnosis: they know they have something worth saving, they’re trying, and it simply may not be enough.

Lynskey is particularly engaging in what could be a cliché role; she somehow manages to show both how Michelle resents being stuck in her life and how she resents and resists becoming that woman. And though Alex and Tina’s friendship-turned-awkward is the weaker story, Peet and especially Zissis are excellent. Zissis has great screen presence; Alex doesn’t see himself as a second banana, and by taking his character seriously Zissis makes him somehow more funny as well as more sympathetic. (He also has good rapport with Duplass, who may surprise fans of his from The League with the un-bro-ishness of his character.)

Peet, meanwhile, gives a mature performance as a woman who’s been rewarded for being shallow and flirty, trying to decide if she can grow into a self-sufficient adult, and if it’s worth doing so. (Peter Gallagher has an appealing supporting role as a movie producer and potential sugar daddy to Tina who also strikes a professional connection with Alex.) Everyone in this show is a type. What distinguishes them is that they know they’re types, can feel themselves becoming types, and need to decide whether and how to avoid it.

Togetherness is a comedy, though like many of its HBO siblings it becomes more dramatic–even uncomfortable–as the season goes on. (Only in the spring, with Silicon Valley and Veep, does HBO indulge itself with comedies that are flat-out funny.)

But dramedy feels age-appropriate here. In the language of TV, relationships are comedy in your 20s and 30s, drama in your 40s and beyond, and Togetherness is right on the cusp. It forms a kind of natural progression with its returning partners, Girls (about single twentysomethings in Brooklyn) and Looking (about gay men in San Francisco, averaging in their thirties of varying degrees of sexual freedom). Togetherness is about getting older, realizing that you have some opportunities left but you don’t have every opportunity anymore. You still have dreams. But some of them are about Barnes and Noble.

This is an old story, no getting around it, and Togetherness doesn’t always transcend that. But at its best, the series shows that–as with marriage, parenthood, friendship and all those other eternal, hackneyed tales–if you put your head down and just commit, it can still work.

TIME Television

Review: A Swaggering Empire Remixes the Primetime Soap

Empire
'Empire' Chuck Hodes—Fox

The challenge for this histrionic hip-hopera will be to give us just enough of too much.

Primetime TV has had many variations on the genre, widely defined, of soap opera: oil-biz operas, law operas, cop operas, glee-club operas. With Fox’s Empire (debuting Jan. 7), from director Lee Daniels, it now has a hip-hopera. And while the busy first hour scarcely has time to set a premise and lay down a beat, it promises all the glitter and heightened emotion its genre mashup implies, if it can keep its pathos from sliding into parody.

Empire‘s base story is older than soaps: rapper-turned-recording mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is diagnosed with ALS, forcing him to consider which of his three sons will inherit his business, Empire Entertainment. “We King Lear now?” asks middle child Jamal (Jussie Smollett), proving that he has an ear for literary references as well as music, but Lucious has always dismissed his most artistically gifted son because Jamal is gay. His eye is on his youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), whom Lucious is so determined to see as a young version of himself that he’s blind to his limitations. There’s also the eldest, André (Trai Byers), who has a mind for business but, Lucious fears, lacks the soul for this business.

Into this charged setup walks–nay, swaggers, nay, steamrolls–Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), fresh out of jail for a crime that launched Lucious’ career 17 years ago and demanding a piece of the company. Lucious doesn’t have a piece to give–his stake has been diluted and the company is about to go public. So instead she takes management of Jamal, promising to “show you a faggot really can run this company.” With that, the exes begin to circle each other, Lyon vs. lioness, and Henson signals with immediate fierceness that this Cookie will not so easily crumble.

Maybe the best example of Empire‘s dual missions of hip-hop authenticity and primetime-serial melodrama is the music itself. The original songs performed by characters, written by top producer Timbaland, are good, but more important, they’re convincing–they’re credible examples of commercial genres from R&B ballads to rap to singer-songwriter soul, which goes a long way toward Empire‘s world-building. The incidental score, on the other hand, is so luridly dramatic it sounds like it was lifted from an ’80s soap; I half expect the ghost of Larry Hagman to walk on-screen.

No doubt Daniels and writer Danny Strong, who collaborated on The Butler, want us to know they’re serving up high-proof melodrama. But the soundtrack doesn’t need to triple-underline that when it’s obvious enough from performances like Henson’s gleeful star turn–and sometimes it undercuts them, making Howard’s low-key calculation and hubris sometimes play like ’30s-movie-matinée villainy.

Set in the business of excess, Empire flirts with being too much–we haven’t even gotten to the histrionic flashbacks, the blackmail or the gunshots. But the first hour can be most interesting when it holds back, especially with the relationships among the three brothers, who rather than being pulled into their parents’ acrimony have a kind of survivors’ bond.

Their story gives ballast to the High-Dynasty conflict between Cookie and Lucious, and that may help the show strike a better balance than its country cousin Nashville, which has lurched from earnest to outlandish. Empire has an entertaining future ahead, if it can hold its balance atop Cookie’s high heels, simultaneously keeping it real and keeping it just unreal enough.

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