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Binge Mode: Legends of Tomorrow (Season 1)

Thoughts on the ambitious, sloppy, heartfelt first season of The CW’s big Arrowverse spinoff.

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(With over 500 shows airing each year, it’s only natural most television watchers eventually resort to binge-watching series. In my new column Binge Mode, I’ll be periodically sharing thoughts on the shows, old and new, I’ve been marathoning. As such, the following review contains spoilers for the entire season being discussed. Duh.)

With 376 episodes aired since its debut in October 2012, The CW’s Arrowverse has become the most sprawling, network-dominating franchise this side of Law & Order universe. Over that time, all of its long-running live-action shows – Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow – have calcified their serialized formula into an impressively reliable device for dense storytelling, building out unique worlds and personalities for each show within that similar framework.

Refined by over 260 hours of produced television, the CW DC formula is painstakingly familiar at this point, for better or worse: each one has pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses, similar abilities to deliver small scale spectacles while bumbling awkwardly to pace themselves through the massive episode count each show is given (for most, 22-24 episodes, with LoT and the recent addition Black Lightning offered shorter production orders). Bad romance plots and wonderfully crafted references to the DC multiverse, great production design and laughable special effects… to love the CW’s heartfelt, melodramatic, tiresomely lengthy universe is to take the good and the bad with each new season.

Recently, I sat down and watched through the first season of the C-List Super Hero Spin Off of the Arrowverse, Legends of Tomorrow, which aired in the spring of 2016 opposite the second halves of Arrow‘s fourth season, and The Flash‘s second season. On the surface, Legends of Tomorrow seemed like a shrewd, calculated bit of programming for The CW: take a bunch of actors the network loved, but couldn’t realistically keep involved on their current shows, and mush them together in Rip Hunter’s Waverider spaceship, Guardians and the Galaxy-ing the shit outta of their C-squad of heroes – The Atom, The White Canary, Firestorm, and Lincoln Burrows and Michael Scofield with cool guns – for the sake of filling the spring schedule with even more DC-flavored television.

The first few episodes of the series feel like a victim of the network’s focus group approach I noted above: the personalities of each character clashed together without much resonance, and outside of the mystery of “what time period are they going to travel to so they can make generic references?”, there wasn’t a lot of intrigue to Rip Hunter’s quest through time to stop Vandal Savage, and Legends of Tomorrow struggled to find its way early on. It takes until the sixth episode, “Star City 2046”, for even the plot to get interesting – and that’s only because the show teases us with Diggle’s son as Green Arrow, with a bitter, one-armed Oliver Queen to boot. But with the lamest incarnation of Deathstroke in recorded history, and the wasted opportunity of taking the The Dark Knight Returns reference even farther with a truly anti-capitalist Oliver, the small teases of character we’re offered with Captain Cold and White Canary in that episode are buried under the same bullshit that plagues the five episodes preceding it.

And then “Marooned” hits, a quasi-bottle episode that in theory would congeal the show’s individual aspects into something coherent, and instead mires the show in some of the clunkiest interpersonal relationship material I’ve seen in the Arrowverse (and this is a universe where Thea Queen’s had multiple romantic story lines). Of course, I’m talking about the Ray Palmer/Kendra Saunders love story, which initially debuts as a prime example of why these series should have shorter episode orders; left to fill space, the inclination to have these people fuck and get dramatic about it is run deeps through the heart of all the series I’ve mentioned so far, and it never feels like anything but a waste of time. In “Marooned”, which introduces this as a laughable love triangle between those two and Jefferson Jackson, it destroys any sense of momentum the season had been building to that point.

However, it’s the Ray/Kendra relationship that is the catalyst for the most interesting arc of the season, beginning in episode 9’s “Left Behind”. After being stranded in 1958 for two years, Ray and Kendra are “rescued” from the life they’ve built together, and brought back to the Waverider to resume their mission. This causes tension between them, because Ray wants to stay in 1960, and Kendra desperately wants to return to the mission of taking down Savage and saving The Timeline (the single most annoyingly overused phrase in the series, I might add): slowly, what appears to be a lame romantic dispute between two wildly underdeveloped characters, gives way to the deeper exploration of the series: what does it mean to be a hero?

That seed of an idea blossoms in the tenth episode, “Progeny”, is perhaps the first real episode of the series that is firing on all cylinders. When the team travels to 2147 to stop Savage from mentoring a young tyrant-in-waiting who is destined to unleash a virus on the world in 2166, the team has to reckon with the difficult decisions of trying to save the future. They attempt to kidnap the young bastard in the hopes of affecting the time line enough, but it doesn’t matter: as the characters are fond of saying through the series, “time wants to happen”, and suddenly the team is thrust into a debate about fate vs. destiny, and how much control we have over anything. While a thoroughly pedantic trope for a science fiction series to explore, Legends of Tomorrow takes this moralistic dilemma, and cuts it down into something more powerful as the season continues, culminating in the season’s penultimate episode, “Destiny”.

I’m willing to forgive a lot of the bullshit that comes between those two episodes – Kendra’s struggle to choose between Ray, and a dude she’s banged for over 4,000 years, silly politics involving the Time Masters council – because of how strong the thread is between “Progeny” and “Destiny”, and how it represents a truer vision for the potential of the series. In “Destiny”, each member of the time traveling team has to decide what their impact on the time line is going to be: what makes our lives memorable, to ourselves and the ones we love? When our lives inevitably end (again, time really wants to happen), do we want society to remember a heroic action, or our friends to remember the smaller moments that unite us? Without a family, can one be remembered at all?

When the series began, Rip Hunter brought each character on board under the false pretense of their lives being insignificant (he really wanted to flip a middle finger to the genocidal time council that employed him, but that’s besides the point): he offered them the opportunity to be legends, to leave an impact on the entire time line of history. “Progeny” forced characters to reckon with the ambiguity of saving the world from its own future: how do you know what will make you remembered as a “good person”? Is it the one heroic action you commit, or the sum of everything you decide to do in life? Other shows like The Good Place or BoJack Horseman have very definitive answers for this question: Legends of Tomorrow doesn’t, often exploring the idea that the universe is so fucking random, there’s often no way to tell what will end up being the right or wrong decision, the heroic or the cowardly, the legendary or the dangerously misguided.

Ultimately, Legends of Tomorrow posits, is that we can try and shape our destiny however we may – but our attempts to do so dishonestly have consequences. Captain Cold is able to redeem himself as a somewhat honorable man, but does so at the cost of his life: and on the other side of the coin, Rip Hunter’s selfish parade through time guarantees he can never save his own family, blinded by his own pain and driven by egotistical notions that he, and only he, could save the time line from the powers that be. Where Legends of Tomorrow really found its stride was in those moments: propelled by those two lead stories, normally lame B-plots like Martin trying to be fatherly to Jackson have a lot more pathos, grounding their silly inter-generational bickering in something much more emotional as Martin tries to guide Jackson to being, essentially, a better version of himself.

The season finale “Legendary”, is a bit of a letdown from the high of “Destiny” – but after 17 episodes of stretching out maybe seven episodes of actual story, it’s no surprise the final episode runs on fumes until it drops its obtuse references for what’s to come in season two, in the form of a dude named Rex Tyler who can’t land a time ship worth a damn. Again, it’s emblematic of DC shows as a whole: great premieres that don’t hit second gear until halfway through, followed by a strong second act that slowly dissolves into nonsensical chaos as it barrels towards a climatic showdown, before hitting the semi-reset button and signing off for the season.

But for those five episodes where Legends of Tomorrow really hits its stride and becomes the swashbuckling time adventure it promised (save for a super lame Jonah Hex appearance in an otherwise strong hour in the Wild West), DC’s strange spin off series offers a glimpse of a series on a slightly smaller scale, with much bigger – and much more promising – ideas and worlds to explore. With its fourth season scheduled to begin in October, there’s certainly plenty of…. time for them to figure it out (yes, that’s a fucking lame way to end a review, and I’m going to own it. Set time drive to max, Gideon!)

 

Other thoughts/observations:

– I can’t get over how lame the Hawkgirl material is for pretty much the entire season. If Hawkgirl isn’t thinking about a man, she doesn’t really have much to do but spar with White Canary (inadvertently teasing a much, much more interesting potential romantic pairing).

– The dissonance between the younger and older halves of Firestorm are perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the show: Victor Garber outshines Franz Drameh in every scene of the series, something that feels both a byproduct of writing and performance for the characters of Martin and Jefferson.

– I still don’t understand the convoluted history between Hawkgirl/Hawkman and Vandal Savage, and I do not wish to.

– Caity Lotz and her stunt double run circles around everyone in this series; White Canary’s fight scenes are always more kinetic and powerful than anyone else’s (maybe because most of them rely on SFX magic, but there’s still some impressive work done by all the White Canaries on set).

– Rip Hunter fucking suuuucks, and boy, does the third act of this season realize it just in time (I gotta stop making these terrible jokes, I’m sorry).

– the costuming on this show really needs to take some direction from the Timeless production crew: the difference in the two shows and their ability to convey time periods is almost baffling.

– Hawkgirl is in her suit so little compared to the other characters on this show, it is silly.

– Heat Wave’s arc this season is all over the fucking place, but I really like the underlying dynamic of a lost soul just trying to find a home where he – in all his crazy, wildly violent ways – felt like he belonged.

– the Captain Cold/White Canary romance that suddenly appears at the end of “Destiny” is so fucking lame, it hurts.

– thanks for checking out my new, semi-regular column! I may or may not write more about Legends of Tomorrow in the future; if you have a show you think I should binge and write about, let me know!

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Katarina

    October 18, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    There’s a drastic change in tone from season 2 forward in Legends that really improves the show, IMO, so if you stick with it I’d love to hear what else you have to say!

    • Randy Dankievitch

      October 18, 2018 at 2:16 pm

      I will definitely be writing more about Legends of Tomorrow in the near future, so stay tuned!

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The Righteous Gemstones Season One Episode 5 Review: “Interlude” Is an Early Series Highlight

The Righteous Gemstones flashes back and delivers its best episode yet.

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The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

One of Peak TV’s most pervasive trends is an addiction to the flashback episode – what was once a silly device to fill episode requirements on long running comedies became essential back bones to modern dramas. Propelled by shows like LOST and Orange is the New Black, which utilized frequent, lengthy flashbacks to build out its array of characters, the last few years have seen an uptick of these “retro” episodes – from Arrow to Westworld and even Carnival Row, modern shows have a penchant for self-indulgent episodes full of wigs and retro fashion. And while “Interlude,” The Righteous Gemstones‘ best episode yet, initially feels like another one of these unnecessary digressions, by the time it reaches the stunning conclusion of its 40-minute running time, it firmly establishes itself as one of the best episodes constructed in this very specific, suddenly popular mold.

As “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes.

Where most flashback episodes fall apart is their sense of self importance; what “Interlude” understands is that it is possible to recreate a moment in the past without having to build some sense of mystery around it. “Wicked Lips” already gave us the foundation of the central conflict between Eli and Baby Billy, which means “Interlude” exists simply to give context and texture to stories and people we already understand. Billy’s opportunistic ways, Eli’s disgruntled sense of self, Judy’s strange, unappreciated uniqueness… all of these elements are well defined in the first four episodes of the series, and “Interlude” smartly doesn’t try to play coy with these long-festering conflicts.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

Centered around Aimee Leigh discovering she’s pregnant with Kelvin, “Interlude” is a careful observation of the ripple effect the news sends through the family. In doing so, The Righteous Gemstones goes through a radical emotional shift; rather than just being a black comedy about a falling evangelist empire, “Interlude” reveals a deeper, more complex emotional core to the young comedy – so much so, it almost feels like a different series, the humor of “Interlude” often taking a much subtler route than the abrasively juvenile style of the opening episodes.

But like Eli said, change takes time to understand; as “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes. And it does so across a broad spectrum of characters; Billy’s desperation to stay relevant, Eli’s slow transformation into the imposing figure he’d become, and Jesse’s misbehavin‘ ways are all given voice in “Interlude,” injecting Gemstones with some much-needed emotional depth, which helps deepen the many Biblical parallels Danny McBride and his creative team are beginning to flesh out.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

But where “Interlude” surprises the most is with the two OG Gemstone women; both Aimee Leigh and young Judy spring to life as characters in this episode, offering intriguing perspectives on the two “true” Gemstone women. It’s a tough act to nail; Aimee Leigh is essentially the God of the Gemstone kingdom, her absence the foreboding catalyst for the downfall of the evangelical empire -you only get one shot at a first introduction for asuch an important character, and “Interlude” absolutely hammers it out of the park, as dynamic a combination of writing and performance by (the eternally incredibly talented) Jennifer Nettles.

“Interlude” offers a look at so many different shades of Aimee Leigh; as the family matriarch, the famous face of the burgeoning Gemstone empire, a sister, and a woman in her 40’s facing a difficult, unexpected pregnancy. In an episode with a lot already on its plate, the most impressive part of “Interlude” is how her character is brought to life; it’s hard to make a woman who manipulates poor people with cheap platitudes and displaced righteousness, but goddamnit, “Interlude” does it with nuanced grace, a highly unexpected (but entirely welcome) turn that nonetheless helps the many plot threads of the series find their harmony.

I mentioned Judy as another highlight; perhaps this one is more personal, as a one-time contender for “child in the family with the weirdest habits,”but where “Interlude” does so well is inform Judy’s character in the present. As the Gemstone family plans the future of their family business, she’s left to sit on the stairs alone, or be admonished for her stranger habits and indulgences; of course, this leads her to lash out, in the form of being an absolute bitch to her guests, during an elaborate birthday party thrown by her parents (perhaps as some sort of compensation for how intentionally excluded she is from the normal rhythms of the family).

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

That party is the absolute highlight of the episode, the “pushing all the chips to the center of the table” moment for The Righteous Gemstones. While watching Judy piss and moan about the gifts she’s being given, Eli is admonished by his father for the people they’re turning into, tarnishing the humble legacy of their family name with extravagant gifts and exploitative practices. They talk about what Eli’s birthday used to look like (he’d usually get chores off for the day), leaving Eli to contemplate the generational chasm that inevitably forms in families, and how hard it can be to stay eternally loyal to the amorphous, irrational idea of what a family “should” be.

In typical Gemstones fashion, this leads to a drunk Jesse (thanks, Uncle Baby Billy!) getting shitfaced, puking on the hamburger grill while yelling at Eli about pissing on the face of his unborn sibling. But those moment of humor only act to illuminate the deeper conflicts The Righteous Gemstones is beginning to surface, ideas about legacy and loyalty that should illuminate characters like Kelvin, Judy, and Billy as Gemstones moves back into the present, and the temptations of power and money only continue to tear the inter generational bonds apart.

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Freaks and Geeks Episode 1 Review: “Pilot” Remains Iconic and Subversive

Our rewatch of Freaks and Geeks begins with the show’s infamous pilot episode.

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Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Even after twenty years, the opening minutes of Freaks and Geeks‘ first hour feel subversive; it opens on an overwrought confession of love between a football player and cheerleader (“I just love you so much… it scares me”) on the bleachers, only to immediately shove them off-frame to introduce us to the “freaks” hanging out below. In one beautifully-crafted shot, “Pilot” sidesteps so many of the shows of its era, from big names like Dawson’s Creek, to other fare like Hang Time or USA High (both notable as female-led series airing in the late 1990’s). This wasn’t a show about the stress of winning regionals or melodramatic love triangles; Freaks and Geeks was interested in more fundamental truths about adolescence, about those formative years of life where elements of the real world begin to seep into the sugar-coated fictions of childhood. At its very core, it is about the infancy of identity, the beginning of the lifelong struggle to figure out who we are.

Freaks and Geeks captures the poetic dichotomy of high school life: how every small personal or moral victory gained in the four years between middle school and college, is often met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience.

The first characters we meet are the male freaks – who, ironically, would be the three actors who would become the biggest stars of the show. Daniel Desario (James Franco) is telling Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogan) about the “edgy” Molly Hatchet t-shirt he wore to church. Daniel’s aghast at why the priest wouldn’t let him in: “Why not, man? It’s church; we’re supposed to forgive people there.”

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Both an interesting framing device for it’s most complicated character (he’s wearing someone else’s shirt to form an identity, something we’ll see explored more later in the series) and an indictment on what the high school experience is like, writer Paul Feig’s opening lines are laser-focused on upsetting the stereotypes and expectations of what a high school story is; though many series of its ilk posited themselves as explorations of identity, few even attempted to explore the psychological (and existential) implications of high school in a way the first ten minutes of Freaks and Geeks quietly does.

From there, “Pilot” slowly begins to build out its expansive cast of characters, set against the backdrop of the first day back to school after summer vacation – one that just so happens to form a demarcation of the Weir children’s identities, as they begin to break out of the archetypal boxes placed on them by their class mates, teachers, and society as a whole. Seeking nuance where most shows would look to establish familiarity, it’s the little touches to Lindsey and Sam’s characters that flesh them out so magnificently; while there are certainly the familiar notes of “suddenly rebellious teen” and “nerd striving for more,” there’s great care built into the show’s two central protagonists. Lindsey suddenly wearing her father’s army coat, Sam’s absolute fear of any kind of emotional interaction… these notes are subtly surfaced throughout the first hour, and help establish an impressive ability to build characters, of which it would do so about a dozen times in the first hour (save for maybe Rogan’s Ken, who is just an insufferable douche in his few starring moments).

More importantly, Freaks and Geeks captures the poetic dichotomy of high school life: how every small personal or moral victory gained in the four years between middle school and college, is often met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience. Take Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and his friends, Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuk (Martin Starr, in arguably the show’s best role); they try to stop the class bully Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) from picking on them, only to endure triple the ridicule and physical intimidation from standing up to him. Sam even conjures up the nerve to ask out his biggest crush Cindy Sanders in painfully awkward fashion (Natasha Melnick), but she’s already got a date (but promises to save a dance for him, which hardly turns out the way he expects).

What remains impressive is how Feig hasn’t forgotten these moments of insecurity and struggling with self-definition, or conflated those struggles with sentimentality for the space between a child’ts life and adulthood. It explicitly rejects that approach for something more contemplative, and in its unassuming honesty, something far more layered and exploratory.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

In one of the pilot’s best scenes, her brother Sam comes to talk to her after she explodes on her father Harold (Joe Flaherty), who tries to point his daughter in the right direction by pointing out that everyone dies when they do things wrong. When Sam asks her (in Millie’s words) “why are you throwing away your life?”, Lindsey’s response is heartbreaking. She reveals she was alone with her grandmother when she died, and saw how scared she got when her grandmother saw “nothing” waiting for her as she felt herself dying.

“She was a good person – and that’s what she got,” she tells Sam, and Lindsey’s search for identity snaps into place: she’s coming face to face for the first time with the biggest existential question of them all… what the hell is the point of a life? It’s a trauma most adults can hardly contend with, forget teenagers who barely know what their life will look like six months from now; “Pilot” places Lindsey squarely in the center of that essential internal conflict – and more importantly, observes just how ill-equipped the world around her is to answer her question, the well-meaning intentions of others, like her parents or Mr. Rosso, the school counselor ultimately empty, self-serving gestures to assuage their own fears (or in Rosso’s case, trying to win the academic decathlon).

It’s a rather unconventional approach to take for a high school series, to immediately marginalize many of the events it contains – particularly those of the “geeks”, and their fear of bullies – dismissing the typical high school narratives as the vapid pieces of work they are. Like a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused (or a predecessor to Linklater’s other young adult masterpiece, Everybody Wants Some), the typical high school experience is but a lens for more meaningful explorations of character and identity, and not the other way around.

It’s even more unconventional for a high school series to center itself on a young woman, one not concerned with boys, popularity, or some strange intersection of the two: Lindsey’s conflicts are decidedly internal, rejecting the empty sense of accomplishment garnered from her intelligence and achievement in competition. She’s still young and naive – her visible crush on Daniel’s freewheeling approach to life a clear sign – but she’s both in control of her emotions, and isn’t dismissed as a superficial entity, as so many other high school shows would do with their central female characters (I’m looking at you, Gossip Girl). She’s not a cheerleader or an Ugly Betty; she’s Lindsey Weir, a complicated, confused person trying to find her way – Freaks and Geeks‘ ability to personify her, without judging or manipulating her into a stereotype, is still a fascinating thing to deconstruct.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Another reason Freaks and Geeks remains an all-time favorite of mine is how this approach is eventually applied to every character in the series,big or small. Though this isn’t necessarily conveyed effectively in the first hour (after all, it’s only 49 minutes, which leaves little room for characters like Millie or Ken to be developed), but as the series continues, Feig’s signature becomes defining a set of archetypes by breaking down and redefining the stereotypes it employs. Even the bullies like Alan and Kim Kelly (an absolutely magnificent Busy Phillips) get defined a bit: as the geek seer Harry Trinksy tells Sam and company when they’re seeking options to solve their bully problem, the reason he’s picking on them is probably because he wants a friend, and just doesn’t know how to express his feelings. It doesn’t forgive him for being as asshole (as Harry’s friend points out), but it fills out a snot-nose shithead like Alan, and make him a much more three-dimensional character than he had any right to be (and one it would further expand on, in later episodes like “Chokin’ and Tokin'”.

Oddly, the part of “Pilot” Feig, Apatow and company attribute most to the early dismissal by most of the series is the presence of Eli, a mentally retarded character played very heavily by Ben Foster. I tend to disagree – Eli’s one of the more important characters of the pilot, revealing to Lindsey what a self-righteous journey her public displays of rebellion have been. When she calls out the kids who are joking around with him (in a semi-mean way, but are still being friendly), she insults Eli, who runs away and falls, breaking his arm in the process. It’s a brutal reminder to Lindsey about how honesty can be such a double-edged sword in a world like high school – and a condemnation of her attempts to appeal to other students by being his date to the dance (which later serves another purpose, when they share a dance and Freaks and Geeks reminds us just how trivial and easily solved so many dramatic high school moments can be).

Although every minute of a pilot is tough, the final sequence is really the hardest, often leading to overt platitudes, forced emotional moments, or plot set-up for a potential series: Freaks and Geeks does none of these, pushing most of the characters aside in its final minutes to focus on Lindsey and Sam at the homecoming dance. Sam finally gets the dance with Cindy he’s been dreaming about – but it’s not a slow song like he thinks, as Styx’s “Come Sail Away” goes from its slow opening chords to the moving, dreamy prog rock beat of the verses and chorus. Lindsey apologizes to Eli, and lets all the problems of her life melt away around her as they sway to the increasingly-loud backing track, finally taking off her father’s bomber jacket and enjoying the moment she’s in, and not worrying about the ones past and to follow. It’s simply a beautiful, beautiful conclusion, one that still makes any room I’m in extremely dusty when watching it.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

It really can’t be understated the use of “Come Sail Away” in this scene; as the song’s ludicrous lyrics ebb and flow through the ever-changing instrumentation, Freaks and Geeks uses its licensed music in “Pilot” as a parallel for the series to follow. So often Freaks and Geeks would take the normal, almost operatic approach to high school conflict, and re-contextualize it, immediately undercutting the expected conflicts to tug away at the deeper truths forming during those times, transforming moments we’ve seen so many times before, into uniquely moving, haunting pieces of contemplative art.

We all know the unfortunate fate of Freaks and Geeks, dismissed by NBC and America, cancelled before airing its final handful of episodes (which would show up later in the fall to little fanfare). But like many cult favorites, its cancellation was a blessing in disguise: there are few blemishes of failed story lines, and no time for controversial cast changes or the inevitable dip in quality shows see in longer runs. For 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks is near-perfect television, a depressingly poignant look at high school (and the world) in 1980, with a few hopeful moments thrown in to remind us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, a time when we can look back and remember the trials and tribulations much more fondly than we could actually living it. Even if there’s nothing waiting for us in the end, Freaks and Geeks argues that the journey of discovery is worth the trip itself, as long as we’re suffering through it all together.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Welcome to our 20th anniversary Freaks and Geeks celebration! I’m going through all my original Sound on Sight/PopOptiq reviews from back in 2013, re-examining each episode and expanding each of my original pieces on the series over the next two weeks.
  • Seriously, if you’ve never seen the closing sequence of “Pilot,” it is perhaps my favorite five-minute sequence of television. Watch it.
  • Nobody ever knows how to say Neal’s last name correctly.
  • the dodgeball scene is pure art.
  • Mr. Ross makes a great point to Lindsey about her relative privilege; her biggest concern is being sentenced by her prosperous family to attend a homecoming dance, a bit of sorely-needed perspective so many other genre counterparts willingly ignore.
  • Among other things, Nick’s drum kit has 2 gongs, 10 cowbells, 12 toms… and four kick drums, as overwrought and useless as it sounds. It’s construction does a lot to explain the comment he makes earlier about shop being the only class he can pass, though.
  • It’s difficult to watch Eli’s character through the pilot: in a series that often explores the lack of genuine support systems for its characters (and how fundamentally important it can be to healthy development), seeing Eli struggles to exist and be accepted are heart wrenching.
  • Between Freaks and Geeks and Other Space, Paul Feig is behind two of my favorite “why the fuck did they cancel these after a single season” series.
  • Bill asks Neal a poignant question about his bullying: “What’s the point of all this?” Alan doesn’t have an answer, so of course, he compensates with his aggression. We’ll learn more about where that comes from later on.
  • Sam’s “that could be good” when Cindy says she’ll save a dance for him… it is awkward perfection, a perfect showcase of how well-casted John Francis Daley is in the role.
  • Nick talks about how much disco sucks, and Bill threatens someone who makes a joke about dating his mom… even though it is only the first episode, Freaks and Geeks is smartly planting seeds for future episodes to germinate in fascinating ways.
  • Neal suggests enlisting Kim to beat up Alan after she intimidates the hell out of Sam – probably not a terrible idea.
  • Bill just wishes his mom would leave notes inside his lunch, instead of writing them in ink on the front of the bag, giving him the “Little Man” moniker he is frequently mocked with.
  • “Should I wear a cup for this?” “That’s between you and your God, Bill.”
  • I always forget how much the opening credits of this show fucking rock.
  • “For the record, I weigh 103 pounds.” Line kills me every time.
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The Righteous Gemstones Season One Episode 4 Review: “Wicked Lips” Finishes On a High Note

The terrific third act of “Wicked Lips” begins to realize The Righteous Gemstones’ abundant potential.

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The Righteous Gemstones Wicked Lips

“Wicked Lips” is akin to an amuse bouche of The Righteous Gemstones‘ deeper-seeded ideas and explorations; though one might expect that to occur in the first few episodes, there’s a lot more meat on the bones here than say, last week’s entertaining-but-gaudy “They Are Weak, He Is Strong”. More importantly, it accomplishes this by focusing on some of the show’s more shapeless characters, giving strong definition to characters like Amber and Kelvin in a rather impressive third act.

The harder “Wicked Lips” tugs at the most damning ironies contained inside its protagonists, the more tantalizing the climatic potential of these stories becomes.

There’s still a bit of tonal chicanery for The Righteous Gemstones to figure out, but “Wicked Lips” is a step in the right direction, the episode recalculating its own formula on the fly. What begins as severely dated comedy (cyber goth dancing!) eventually gives way to something much more ominous, as Danny McBride and his writing team begin to pull on the many, many loose threads left in the wake of the Gemstone empire. Baby Billy’s desperation to be integrated back into the business, Gideon and Scotty’s burgeoning plan to rip off the family, Chad’s inability to delete his emails… these stories all begin to percolate during “Wicked Lips,” a build up of anxiety personified by Keefe’s extremely uncomfortable attempts to avoid the trappings of his former life.

The Righteous Gemstones Wicked Lips

Quietly, the theme of “Wicked Lips” becomes about salvation, and what motivates and defines it for those in the gravitational pull of the Gemstone empire. Like anything else in capitalism, salvation is a commodity to be bought, traded and sold, one that can be shaped into anything, from vengeance to desperation, all the way to outright authoritarianism, seen best when Kelvin invades a young woman’s room, all because her rich parents think she’s being tempted by Satan and her shitty boyfriend.

Most importantly, “Wicked Lips” asks the question of what we are willing to sacrifice to “save” ourselves, and how easily that can be taken advantage of. Kelvin doesn’t want to help Dot for her own good; he’s doing it to prove a point to his father, just as Gideon is silently trying to do to his family (by robbing them blind). The Righteous Gemstones is a world full of people who are far less than pure of heart; seeing that manifest in a multitude of different ways, particularly those outside the bounds of “evangelists being rich sure is weird!,” is fascinating, especially when it builds out a bit of depth for some of its weaker characters, like Kelvin and Amber.

It all builds to a rather terrific final sequence, when Jesse nearly kills his son trying to exact his revenge on the ominous red van that tried to black mail him – excuse me, “doing a car prank”. In an episode whose visual influences range from Goodfellas to Step Up (seriously; Kelvin’s gymnastics sequence just needed a Gabrielle Union cameo), it is the car chase at the end that shines brightest. Watching Jesse chase Scotty’s van down a dark, empty road serves an exciting visual metaphor the scene builds on with each shot, from the bright lights of Jesse’s SUV lighting up the inside of the van, to the milk-white pistol Jesse draws once the van violently crashes in the middle of the road.

The Righteous Gemstones Wicked Lips

Jesse doesn’t need to actually hit the van for it to flip; after all, Psalms teaches the followers of Christianity that the wicked will undo themselves, their wicked and twisted ways eventually becoming their undoing. Though it fits the moment for Gideon and Scotty, it’s really an ominous sign for Jesse and every other member of the Gemstone family; the faster they go and the harder they chase their Godless indulgences, the more dangerous their tunnel vision of temptation will lead them to an inevitable downfall.

“Wicked Lips” leans hard into that, whether it’s Keefe resisting the Satanist temptations of his old life, or Jesse trying to hide the fallout from the activities his world would define as Satanist; the juxtaposition is rich, and although it does take “Wicked Lips” some time to push those parallels together in a meaningful way, it is magical to watch it unfold across the last eight minutes of the episode.

Though next week’s flashback episode is titled “Interlude,” the final act of “Wicked Lips” really feels like the turning point for its first season, slowly bringing some of the season’s bigger ideas and turns to the surface. It is most certainly a half hour of percolating material; nothing is particularly explosive, but the harder “Wicked Lips” tugs at the most damning ironies contained inside its protagonists, the more tantalizing the climatic potential of these stories becomes.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • The Righteous Gemstones was renewed for a second season today, ensuring that the unholy misadventures of the Gemstone family will live into 2020.
  • I know the costuming of this show is meant to be overwrought and stage-y, but it still feels like Kelvin’s outfits and hairdo are out of sync with the show’s actual tone. In a way, it’s too much of a caricature.
  • It serves its narrative purpose well, but Dot suddenly deciding to join youth group seems… an unearned moment? I’m willing to give The Righteous Gemstones the benefit of the doubt, for the time being.
  • “I got the power of God in me, son…. and I will fuck you up.”
  • Billy’s unguarded enthusiasm to do anything that involves him making money is the kind of naked desperation McBride always spins comedy gold out of. I can’t wait to see this show unwind Billy’s strange cardboard persona as the season continues.
  • One simply can’t deny the wet drops emoji is not a cum reference; what else could you actually use it for???
  • Though it seems hard to believe the money laundering going on at the Gemstone church – trust me, people give away crazy amounts of money to these people. I mean, Jim Bakker went to fuckin’ prison, and that dude’s still got a career.
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‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’: Hulu’s Latest Doesn’t Bring the Ruckus

Hulu’s latest series is part rose-eyed biopic and part cliche gangster drama, neither of which are particularly effective.

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Wu-Tang: An American Saga is one of 2019’s stranger creations; presenting itself as a semi-autobiographical retelling of the legendary Staten Island rap collective’s origins, Wu-Tang: An American Saga is really an urban melodrama in the vein of Power or The Wire, albeit one without the understanding of self the aforementioned shows pertain. Like the super group whose story it is fictionalizing, Hulu’s latest drama is a mess of contrasting styles, ideas, and approaches as maddeningly inconsistent as the Wu catalog. Equally earnest and self-righteous, Wu-Tang: An American Saga‘s best moments are often its quietest, haunting interludes between musical sequences and trite gangster story lines; unfortunately, those moments are spread too thin across its first three episodes to hold the whole experiment together.

Equally earnest and self-righteous, Wu-Tang: An American Saga‘s best moments are often its quietest – unfortunately, those moments are spread too thin across its first three episodes to hold the whole experiment together.

Co-created by the RZA (him and Method Man also serve as executive producers, with most members of Wu-Tang Clan noted as “Consulting Producers”) with Alex Tse (whose previous credits include co-writing 2009’s Watchmen film), Wu-Tang: An American Saga centers its story around a young Bobby Diggs, stuck between the drug world that keeps the family bills paid, and the music world he so desperately wants to break into. Played by Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders, the character of young RZA forms the foundation of the series, positing young Bobby as the connective thread between the many different characters and happenings in Wu-Tang‘s fictionalized version of 1991 Staten Island.

Problem is, so many of those characters and situations feel like echoes of 30 years of material from New Jack City to Empire; though there’s an undeniable understanding of the show’s fictional versions of Bobby, Sha, Dennis, Cliff, Ason, and company, Wu-Tang insists on drawing out their origin story from the same blueprint as its obvious cinematic influences. Which in a way, feels a bit self-aggrandizing; in its attempts to feel gritty and realistic, the influence of the show’s subjects on their portrayals seeps through the material, which at times, places its characters inside genre cliches in strange, self-glorifying moments.

That lack of separation from subject to screen is impossible to ignore; it only feels like half the conversation is being had, so reluctant to observe its subjects rather than deify them through cliched material. Take the character of Ason (aka a young Ol’ Dirty Bastard): Wu-Tang‘s first three episodes effectively portray Ason as the unhinged, lovable radical with crazy dreads that was his public image around fans; TJ Atom’s performance is wonderful, capturing the freewheeling joy that was the foundation of Ason’s unusual creativity and personality. But Ason was also a serial abuser, a rampant alcoholic and drug addict, and most likely suffered from undiagnosed mental illnesses (plus other traumas, like the time NYC cops took shots at him for effectively no good reason) that eventually led to his death in the middle of Wu-Tang’s New York studio.

Though Wu-Tang: An American Saga has every right not to engage with that part of his story, there’s a feeling of massaging ODB’s legacy through this show that I feel with every character, refusing to explore even the ideas of inner conflict and morality that makes the exercise feel… well, a bit masturbatory at times. Having the foreknowledge of their success, and their well-known influence on American culture is baked right into the series, an unspoken framing of every scene that allows its creators to not really engage with their own legacy on an interesting level.

Wu-Tang An American Saga

For better or worse, it feels like a Wu-Tang album; one that straddles the line between honest storytelling and reinforcing its own worst habits, one willing to go on strange diatribes (the second episode has some strange, randomly inserted animated bits) and unsatisfying diversions, all in what feels like cherry-picked personifications of its characters. The most frustrating of these isn’t even Ason – it’s Shameik Moore’s Sha, an absolute miscalculation of performance and character that drags down the entire Wu-Tang affair.

Quite frankly, the way Raekwon comes off in Wu-Tang is dumb: in their attempts to paint him with shades of gray, the series simply leaves him as a big blank. Considering how integral he is to one of the show’s central mysteries – the first episode begins with him spraying bullets through the windows of a young Ghostface’s home, before stashing the gun at RZA’s family home – Wu-Tang‘s inability to explore Sha in three dimensions sells many of its big dramas short. Sha is meant to be conflicted, torn between his job, his dreams, and his childhood friends – but the show, and its audience, already know how the story ends, and Wu-Tang takes no chances at trying to define Sha beyond his actions, which just make him an empty vessel for the show’s lesser, more stereotypical elements.

When Wu-Tang is able to divorce itself from the friendly self-authorship of its story, there are signs Wu-Tang can find its voice at the strange intersection between 90’s gangster epic and musical biopic; sequences with Bobby’s attempts to buy a drum machine, coupled with Dennis’s hidden relationship with his boss’s sister are genuine attempts to bridge the gap between humans and legends, rare side plots that give Wu-Tang some sense of identity beyond simply mythologizing their origin story.

Wu-Tang An American Saga

I just wish there was more of that, and less of the show’s attempts to emulate so many of its cinematic influences (or in the case of Method Man, shows he’s already been on), in order to build empty melodramatics around its characters, themselves largely a collection of archetypes Wu-Tang doesn’t want to add any unique, or unflattering, shades to. People simply are who they are because of their environment, Wu-Tang argues, at times even suggesting Bobby is the only one with a vision beyond the ghetto, beyond the short life spans and long jail sentences that have plagued generations of young black people (though in the rare moments where Wu-Tang does lean heavy into those sociopolitical elements, it does have a bit of spark), and nearly consumed the lives of the Wu-Tang Clan before they made it.

Whether the events of Wu-Tang: An American Saga are factual, are irrelevant: what matters is how those stories are adapted to the screen, and how the clear influence of its subjects colors their on-screen portrayals. Unfortunately, most of Wu-Tang‘s first three hours are too consumed by that thought to have anything interesting to say on its own; it’s rather happy to indulge itself in the habits and rhythms of other fiction, with the strange undercurrent of never letting its characters exude any kind of real, inner conflict about their inherent destinies. With time, maybe Wu-Tang will find that; but there’s little sign this series is more than a handful of evocative rhyming sessions, a few revelatory moments of discovery, and a whole lot of cliched storytelling and one-dimensional characterizations, in what amounts to an underwhelming adaptation of a quintessential American story.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Dave East co-stars as a young Method Man, and holy shit, does he do a great Method imitation.
  • There’s so much dichotomy between the show’s performances: where as Sanders’ RZA is so artfully constructed with subtle looks and physical performance, Siddiq Saunderson’s Dennis (aka Ghostface) feels like a gangster caricature, showy and large in all the wrong ways.
  • There’s a speech given in a flashback about the “light” and the “dark” that is so laughably amateurish, one of a couple examples of Tse and RZA flimsily opining to the audience.
  • another subplot introduces and disposes of a flashy character in the span of an hour, a cheap dramatic cash-in I really wish the show would’ve avoided, because it falls flat and swallows most of the third episode whole.
  • Ultimately, these first three episodes are not very good – but I’m going to be sticking with the first season, because I’m curious if those few elements of promise can be drawn out into something powerful. I’ll check back in after the season finale.

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The Righteous Gemstones Season One Episode 3 Review: “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” Springs to Life

The Righteous Gemstones deepens its world with the fascinating introduction of Baby Billy Freeman.

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It’s no surprise the arrival of Walton Goggins to the world of The Righteous Gemstones completely changes the tenor of the young comedy; as Baby Billy Freeman, Goggins’ committed performance leans hard into the absurdist elements, while also building out the more melancholic emotional foundation of the series. There are times his magnetic presence threatens to swallow the entire series whole, but the balance “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” ultimately finds with Billy’s arrival is impressive, in a strong display of The Righteous Gemstones‘ burgeoning versatility.

Though “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” will be rightly remembered for Goggins’ powerhouse introduction to The Righteous Gemstones‘ world, it should also be recognized for what a powerful half hour of character work it is.

“Your world is about to get a whole lot larger,” Billy tells his wife Valyn Hall at the onset of “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong,” an ominous phrase immediately catalyzed when Billy is revealed as Aimee Leigh’s younger brother – and therefore, brother-in-law to an increasingly agitated Eli. As often is the case in Danny McBride’s work, the outlandish gives way to devastating: Billy is both cartoonish and well-defined, a presence whose comedic value only enhances his emotional presence, as “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” builds out its story of hard truths and difficult reconciliations.

The Righteous Gemstones They Are Weak But He Is Strong

Smartly, there’s a neat parallel drawn between Billy and Gideon, characters who are polar opposites only on the surface. As Billy prepares to open a new megachurch inside a mall (inhabiting an old Sears location, to be specific), Gideon tries to figure out how he’s going to get the money Scotty’s demanding from him. In the almighty name of the holy dollar, both Billy and Gideon prepare to sacrifice their personal pride for financial gain – though Billy doesn’t go around writing down the value of every item in the Gemstone household, he’s similarly looking to cash in as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

It all goes about as well as expected; Jesse blames Gideon for Pontius’ increasingly volatile behavior, and Eli admonishes Billy as a heartless con man trying to cash in on his familial connections. These are played to comedic effect, of course, but they also take time to explore the show’s unexpected heart, finding emotional resonance in the complicated personas of its awful protagonists. It would be easy for The Righteous Gemstones to just laugh at the vulgar behavior of Pontius, or self-righteously revel in Eli’s thunderous anger – instead, “They Are Weak” offers a more complicated, nuanced take on its collection of schemers and self-indulgers, in a way that’s neither judgmental or forgiving – a difficult balance for a black comedy such as Gemstones to find so early in its life.

Threading a needle between acerbic comedy and ruminative drama is a tall task, but the Eli/Billy conflict displays a rather effortless integration of both – and as “They Are Weak, He Is Strong” expands the shared self delusions to every main character, examining the strengths (and weaknesses) of absolute conviction, holy or otherwise, it only gets more potent. Belief is a rather powerful thing, after all – and as Gideon convinces himself he can be a false prophet, and Billy pontificates about his own relevance (with his dick out in the morning sun, no less), The Righteous Gemstones‘ third episode finds its voice as both a damning examination of evangelical hypocrisy, and as a satisfying family drama of Biblical proportions.

The Righteous Gemstones They Are Weak But He Is Strong

Though “They Are Weak, He Is Strong” isn’t exactly a propulsive episode of the series – it really just re-contextualizes each running story, with Billy as a new added element – it is rather effective at completing that task, using his presence as a catalyst for its deeper ruminations on loss, family, and power. And it smartly does so in a way that separates it from network counterpart Succession; it’s a bit less brutal and sharp than the tale of the Roy family, which ultimately makes it all feel a bit more flexible and thematically fluid, at least in the early going.

That distinction is important: it’s why Jesse’s frustrations with Gideon don’t feel completely self-righteous, and why someone like Baby Billy can feel compelling, and not completely asinine. Succession is great at what it does, but The Righteous Gemstones, at least in its early days, feels deeper, less operatic but arguably more emotionally potent – just look at Eli’s face when he first arrives at the mall to reconcile with Billy, to see the nimble, unexpected depth that can be found in its characters. Though “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” will be rightly remembered for Goggins’ powerhouse introduction to the Gemstone world, it should also be recognized for what a powerful half hour of character work it is, as reflective as it is hilarious, peeling back unseen layers of its world to reveal a particularly compelling (if grim) core I can’t wait to see explored further.

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