Tuesday, December 7, 2010

TV Dramarama: WALKING DEAD and BOARDWALK EMPIRE Finales, FRINGE thoughts, and ... SMALLVILLE Fights Back!

It's been a big week or so for TV drama - in more ways than one. In one respect, there's been, well, a lot of drama regarding TV series. As I spoke at length about yesterday, one of TV's best series - Terriers - was cancelled by FX after only one (albeit brilliant) season on the air. Meanwhile, there was great news for AMC, as The Walking Dead's season finale scored the highest rating EVER for a scripted drama on cable in the advertiser-friendly 18-49 demo. Lesson learned: never underestimate the drawing power of zombies. But, speaking about the TV drama in terms of genre, it's been a pretty damn good couple of months for quality scripted series. Sure, there have been the usual duds on the network side and elsewhere, but personally, I've been more than happy and satiated with stellar seasons of FRINGE, THE WALKING DEAD, TERRIERS, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and, surprisingly, SMALLVILLE. I've already covered Terriers, but let me talk for a moment about the other series I just mentioned.

- Let me start with THE WALKING DEAD. To me, the success of The Walking Dead on AMC is absolutely one of the coolest things to happen to TV in a long, long time. Has the show been perfect? No, not by a longshot - we've seen some clunky dialogue, some rather questionable new characters who don't measure up to their comic book counterparts, and plotting that has on occasion been a bit all-over-the-place. But - and this is a big but - despite some flaw, The Walking Dead has been six episodes of true must-see television. Maybe it's a work in progress, but hey, after only six episode, the series is already more compelling than just about anything else out there. The caliber of talent involved in the show - from a savvy showrunner in Frank Darabount to a great lead actor in Andrew Lincoln - is still off the charts. And the story possibilities - both in terms of adapting material from Robert Kirkman's comics and for creating new stories -is nearly endless. Already, we've seen several major deviations from the comic - Shane still lives! - and that's cool. Though I'd like to see characters like Michonne and Tyreese introduced, I'm also happy that the show has found its own identity. To me, the series has recaptured that feeling from Lost where you're eager to know more about these characters and excited to see what craziness they end up in next. Again, I am continually somewhat shocked to see just how much backlash is out there, particularly online. I mean, come on guys, chill. This is a high quality zombie-apocalypse series on TV, one that in six episodes has already produced at least a couple of excellent hours of television.

In particular, I thought the finale was quite possibly the best episode since the kickass pilot. The whole CDC thing was a completely new plotline, not found in the comics, but it was handled extremely well, and served to really up the tension and set the stakes for the rest of the series. A tenant of The Walking Dead has always been that the zombie plague needs no elaborate explanation - it just is. But, the CDC plotline helped to get over that initial hump of "how did this happen" and establish that there is no true safe haven - the entire world has, as far as we know, been overrun with ravenous zombies. Basically, civilization is %#&$'ed.

Mostly, that finale was simply intense. The desperation of the survivors to escape the about-to-blow-up CDC compound was palpable, and their last-minute run for safety was truly thrilling. And man, how about Noah Emmerich, guest-starring as sole-surviving CDC employee Jenner? Simply badass - it was a shame to see him get blown to kingdom come because he would have made for an interesting addition to the show's cast of characters. As for what he whispered to Rick? There are some pretty obvious guesses, especially for fans of the books, but hey, nice little moment of mystery.

All in all, I seriously do not get how people can be hating on The Walking Dead. There is certainly room for improvement in Season 2, but man, the show has me hooked, and the possibilities for awesomeness in the season(s) ahead is huge. My take: kickass finale that left me wanting more - the wait for Season 2 is going to be tough. Luckily, I've got Volume 13 of the graphic novels sitting on my desk at home.

- Now, sure, The Walking Dead very quickly became the king of Sunday night drama, but let's not overlook the rich, complex storylines of HBO's period gangster series, BOARDWALK EMPIRE. I haven't talked a lot about the show here on the blog, but honestly I think it's a tough show to talk about episodically. The show unfolds more like a novel than a traditional TV show, with episodes seamlessly flowing into one another, and storylines methodically progressing over the course of the entire season. That made the show feel slow at times, but to me, the build up was worth it, and paid off in a big way as the season wound down and the intensity heightened. The show has so much depth, it's staggering. Each episode is jam-packed with characters, places, historical details - you almost need a Wikipedia session after each episode to keep up. But, even if some of the details of the storylines could become a bit confusing, the characters are what ultimately made the show pop in Season 1. I mean, holy lord - what an incredible assemblage of acting talent. Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Gretchen Mol, Kelly McDonald ... the list goes on and on. All of the priciples were turning in award-worthy work throughout Season 1, to be honest. Though of course, Michael Shannon was a huge scene-stealer. His religious-zealot federal investigator character was intense as hell and ultra-disturbing.

This is the rare show on TV that feels both gripping and enriching. There's sex, violence, and intrigue but it also serves as a fascinating window into another era. Obviously, it's heightened reality and somewhat filtered through a modern lense. But, I can't remember the last time a show prompted me to do so much research about historical fact in relation to the storylines presented in each episode.

I do think Boardwalk stumbled a bit in the middle of the season, but it really regained its footing for the last five or six episodes, to the point where, each week, I was 100% absorbed with each new episode. Here's another show where there seemed to have been some backlash - perhaps because the prerelease hype was so big. Well, I think Boardwalk Empire enjoyed an incredibly successful first season - one of the most interesting, unique, high-quality shows on TV.

- And then there's FRINGE. Look, it's clear that there are a lot of great shows on the air right now - some really excellent dramas across both network and cable. But, if I had to choose my *favorite*, it'd be hard to say anything other than Fringe. Even last year, while Lost was still on the air, I felt that Fringe trumped it in almost every way. And now, with Lost gone, Fringe to me is the clear flagbearer of kickass sci-fi TV. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, Fringe has suffered in the ratings and was recently condemned by FOX to Friday night purgatory.

Now, is Friday night an instant death-sentance for Fringe? No, not necessarilly. Some genre shows - Smallville, for instance - have managed to grab solid ratings on Friday and, thanks to DVR, have maintained their core audience despite a less-than-ideal timeslot. Fringe at this point has a dedicated enough fanbase that it should be okay. But still, you can't help but worry. Fringe is a show that seems to have A LOT of life in it - I could easily see it running for several more years. A lot of that is due to how well the show's been plotted. Everything seems to be moving in a forward direction, towards a clear endgame. The show's storyarcs have been impeccably told, but at the same time, they've been incredibly ambitious.

I mean, how many shows would dare go for half-a-season with every episode alternating between two alternate universes? Fringe, this season, has just done that, taking place on "our" world, Earth 1, on even weeks, and shifting to a darker, parallel universe, "Earth 2," on odd weeks. On Earth 2, we've seen mirror-image versions of all the core characters, and that's been the catalyst for great storytelling, and also for some absolutely kickass acting from the likes of John Noble, Anna Torv, and Lance Reddick - who have each stepped up and played two versions of Walter, Olivia, and Broyles with remarkable effectiveness. It's pretty amazing - everyone remembers that when the show first started, many, including myself, singled out Anna Torv as perhaps the show's weak link. How wrong we were. Torv has positively ruled it this season and over the last couple of episodes especially. Her performance in last week's climactic episode was downright gravitas-infused. And hey, that's saying something when you're acting alongside the likes of Lance Reddick (who was also 100% badass this past week) and John Noble (who helped Walter coin yet another memorable term - "vagenda" ...!).

It's amazing though that, for several weeks now, Fringe has pulled off the delicate balancing act of presenting individual stories within the two separate worlds while also linking them all back to the big, epic, overarching plotline. Again, Fringe has very craftily paced itself this season so that we really feel like we're watching chapters of a story that is slowly building towards something huge. And there is that definitive sense that the pieces of the puzzle are slowly being revealed. It's something that Lost never really accomplished. But Fringe's mysteries are there to service the story, not just there for the sake of having mysteries - and that's what's helping to make Season 3 of Fringe serialized TV at its finest.

Suffice it to say, the story of the two Olivias swapping places - with the "real" Olivia trapped and brainwashed on Earth 2, and the faux-Olivia ("Fauxlivia") impersonating her on Earth 1 in order to carry out the Walter of her world's nefarious agenda -- well, it's been one hell of a sci-fi epic, the likes of which we've rarely seen pulled off so well on TV. There's been action, humor, and a real sense of intellectualism. Fringe never fails to make you think. It never fails to stretch your imagination. It's been on a roll, and it's quite possibly been the best thing on TV. If nothing else, it possesses that old "must-see" feeling that shows like Lost and 24 and The X-Files once had. This is the show where you have to put aside everything else, turn down the lights, and get comfortable in order to fully enjoy. But if you're not onboard - what are you waiting for? Catch up on DVD, on Hulu, whatever. If you're not watching, you're seriously missing out.

- Finally, I do want to mention SMALLVILLE. Don't call it a comeback, but ... okay, call it a comeback. Because yes, I'm as shocked as anyone, but Smallville has actually been building some serious momentum in recent weeks. As the clock ticks down on the show's final season, lo and behold, the show is actually starting to fire on all cylinders. It's enough to bring a smile to this hardened Superman fanboy's face.

I'm not sure exactly what's responsible for the uptick in quality on Smallville. The writing seems a bit sharper, for one thing. So often, this show has relied on the same, tired cliches in every episode ... Someone is possessed by someone else, misunderstandings and altercations ensue. Clark doubts himself, goes emo, and broods for a while. A cheesy villain of the week appears, and Clark conveniently deals with them without anyone ever suspecting that he and The Blur are one and the same. But thanks to an intriguing mix of ongoing storylines and villains, Smallville's actually been a bit - dare I say it? - unpredictable as of late. We've got the all sorts of anti-vigilante stuff going on, with the Suicide Squad, General Lane, and Slade Wilson. We've got the looming threat of Darkseid and his Fourth World minions. And the slow-build towards the return of Lex Luthor, who we recently found out is, in fact, the half sister of one recently-deputized Tess Mercer. The existence of a couple of compelling serialized storylines has helped Smallville mix things up this season, no question - there are some cool storyarcs that can rotate around a bit, so there's not the early burnout we got from neverending arcs like the Doomsday thing from a while back. Meanwhile, as a longtime comics fan, I'm definitely getting a kick out of seeing the likes of Deathstroke and Deadshot on TV. I mean, I never ever thought I'd see out-there Jack Kirby characters like Darkseid, Desaad, Granny Goodness, and The Female Furies on primetime television ... and yet, here they are.

Perhaps the most noticeable factor in Smallville's current hot-streak, however, is the suddenly-clicking relationship between Lois and Clark. Now that Lois FINALLY knows all of Clark's secrets, the show has been free to really deepen their relationship and make it, well, fun. Not solely based around angst and secrets and lies anymore, the Lois & Clark moments on the show have really popped as of late. And I'll say this: Erica Durance has really stepped it up, doing some of her best acting to date on the show and really starting to embody the Lois Lane character. Durance has always had the basic ingredients to make for a great Lois, but of late she's really added a new depth and weight to the character. All of a sudden, I'm finding myself really liking and rooting for Lois, and really believing in this show's Lois and Clark relationship. Kudos to Durance, who has really become an iconic Lois Lane - not an easy feat.

Meanwhile, this past week's episode was particularly fun, if only for the much-appreciated return of Jonathan Glover as Lionel Luthor - who was the show's best villain for much of its run. Thanks to some alternate universe shenanigans, Lionel was able to appear despite being dead on the show thanks to Lex. Not only that, but the writers cleverly found a way to bring this alternate Lionel back into the show's main universe. It was awesome seeing Glover back in fine form as the ruthless and maniacal Lionel - he had some truly sadistic scenes with Tom Welling's Clark, including a brutal belt-beatdown of a depowered Clark that had me smiling gleefully at its sheer over-the-top evil-factor.

In any case, it feels good to say that after years of inconsistency, Smallville has pulled itself up, scraped itself off, and delivered a string of several near-Super episodes in a row, a rarity in the show's ten-year history. In fact, Smallville might be the most consistently enjoyable right now that its ever been. Who woulda thunk it? It's nice to see though. Even amidst the rough patches (and there have been some very rough patches), I've always rooted for Smallville, because its shown itself capable - when it is at its best - of delivering great moments worthy of the Superman legend. It's cool to see the show fighting the good fight and, let's hope, on its way to going out with a bang.

- That's all for now - once more, Happy Hanukkah!

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