Summer has come, which means that most TV networks have packed in their top-rated series, sealed the fates of those being canceled and started transitioning the schedule to a mix of reruns and light fare deemed unfit to run at the same time as the heavy hitters. For us at TV World, that means focusing on a few, choice series set for the summer months and, as always, the return of our recurring feature Catching Up in which we take a closer look at some shows from the past. There are a few potentially interesting premieres we're likely to cover throughout the summer and some old favorites like Futurama are slated for a return, so keep an eye out for content in addition to the items on this list. Without further ado, here's what's on the docket for summer 2011.
Adaptations are tricky. More than any other kind of TV show (or movie), they're bound to have vehement detractors because of divergences from the source material. But really, how closely an adaptation follows its source shouldn't be the ultimate goal of the production, though that's still central to its success. As much as I like the Song of Ice and Fire books (I'm now a full-on addict thanks to this show and George R.R. Martin's excellent characterization), I'm still willing to recognize that books and TV shows have different strengths. TV, at its core, is theater. Like the stage, it relies on actors and dialogue to make it interesting. TV can achieve neither the grandness of cinema nor the depth and density of literature. That's why Game of Thrones is essentially formatted as a chain of interpersonal scenes. A surprising amount of this show takes place in two-person conversations, even more so than the dialogue-heavy book. In "You Win or You Die", Game of Thrones uses this very actorly approach to storytelling to compensate for the loss of literary detail much more effectively than it did in last week's rushed-feeling episode, and without sacrificing the thrilling action of the book's back-loaded structure.
Realistically, there was only one thing I wanted out of Glee's Season 2 finale in New York. I wanted the experience to put things in sharp relief for the characters, to show them that their dramatic, teenage, high school lives in small-town Ohio aren't nearly as interesting or important as they've made them out to be. This didn't really happen, which I suppose shouldn't be a surprise. What's truly disappointing, though, is that "New York" doesn't really seem to say anything clearly. Its sentiments are all over the board and the whole thing melts into a rom-com goo by the end. There are little glimmers of meaning throughout the episode, but they all contradict one another so it's impossible to tell what it's supposed to be about.
So, here's a question for Nick Wauters and his team of genius writers for The Event: Why weren't the last two minutes of the series the first two minutes instead? Because that shit... that was awesome. That's a show I would watch (without being paid to do so). An alien planet appearing in the sky after a world-shaking burst of light? Hell yes. That's a great premise for a sci-fi thriller. It's full of possibility, it's never been done before and it's even a little terrifying. But that's not the show we got. We got the show about Sean Walker, the world's least charismatic action hero. We got a show about Vicky Roberts, the sometimes super-spy, sometimes damsel in distress who eschews established storytelling conventions like logical character motivation and tone consistency. We got a show about Leila Buchanan, kidnapping fetishist extraordinaire. We got a show so ridiculous, badly acted and frustrating that veteran character actor Hal Holbrook could only escape it with his character's nonsensical suicide. Inexplicably, as Simon reveals in the episode's final minutes, the entire first season of The Event had next to nothing to do with the thing his people call "The Event". He never reveals what that is, just that it's going to be really cool and freaky and that we'll never, ever get to see it.
These days, TV seasons are proving to be unusually short, at least in the American tradition. The only shows that still command episode orders in the 20's are the top-billed network series. Economy more than anything has inspired 12, 10 and even 6 episode seasons for even the most prestigious cable programs. Given the amount of resource, both in production and marketing, premium stations spend on their original series, it's truly no surprise that they wouldn't want to sink any more money than is necessary into new outings. Thus The Borgias leaves us a mere two months after it premiered, though it accomplished high enough viewer numbers to clinch a second season. The result is a 9-episode run that, while not without its weak points, is rather impressive in its entirety. This also necessitated a loaded season finale in "Nessuno".
I don't envy the creative staff of Game of Thrones their task of condensing George R. R. Martin's fiction into just ten hours of television. I went into this series having never read any of the Song of Ice and Fire novels, but the world was so engrossing that I couldn't resist diving into those thick volumes. Martin's books are dense and detailed, taking plenty of time to describe fight scenes, social interactions and grand set pieces. The TV adaptation has been remarkably direct, lifting the best bits of dialogue and altering practically nothing. Still, capturing the full scale of even the first novel would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, so a lot of it gets scaled back for the screen. This in itself isn't a problem, though it becomes especially pronounced when the story is forced to rush to present us with all the important plot points. "A Golden Crown" is particularly hasty and it feels like some of the impact got excised along with the superfluous content.
I'm usually not a fan of TV shows airing their episodes out of order, even if there's very little serialization. That has a tendency to break the progress of the show's tone as its creative staff figures out what works and what doesn't. More often than not, shuffled episode orders are driven by business rather than narrative, with certain episodes being positioned to take advantage of seasonal topics or avoid some kind of unforeseen controversy. That in mind, I've been a little worried about Bob's Burgers because it has experienced a fair amount of shuffling while also showing marked improvements in the episodes that come later in the original order. I can definitely see why "Torpedo" was placed as the season finale, though. "Lobsterfest" was far from the season's strongest episode and it's all-around less likely to be what gets viewers interested in a second season. "Torpedo" is a great showcase for Bob's Burgers's strengths, perhaps a better sampler than any other episode. It doesn't hit the beautiful insanity of "Art Crawl", the season's definite high point, but it's still the season's most accessible half-hour.
Outside the universe, the Doctor finds what he's been searching for since the day he ended the Time War. Are things too good to be true? Of course they are, but what he finds may be just as important for him. Neil Gaiman comes to Doctor Who with an episode title that surely caused a crack in time and space when it was first announced. And true to all things Doctor Who these days, nothing is as it seems.
As my tribute to Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney progresses, we come to Season 8 of the classic series of Doctor Who. Caroline John makes way for Katy Manning as new companion Jo Grant, but all eyes were on the first appearance of the Master, played by Roger Delgado. With Manning, Delgado, Jon Pertwee and Courtney as Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, Doctor Who was about to establish itself as a show for all time.
It didn't occur to me until "Search Committee" that The Office, unlike just about every other show on TV, isn't big on cliffhangers. The show has definitely had some big moments and some shocking endings (to episodes and seasons alike) but it has never really asked viewers to hang on for the next, big reveal. Of course, the show has rarely had any plot points that could be reasonably turned into cliffhangers. Every marriage proposal, for instance, has either been a foregone conclusion or a clearly absurd joke. Likewise, there have never been any life-or-death situations or ticking timebombs. Even when Dunder-Mifflin got bought out, we didn't have to wait an entire summer to find out what the new owners were like. So, with this entire season finale dedicated to the Scranton branch finding its new manager, it's almost surprising that we don't know who it's going to be already.
Glee doesn't have a whole lot of lead time. They only film two or three months in advance for the most part, so this has lent the show the ability to act on its obvious self-awareness. Ever since the second half of Season 1, Glee's scripts have commented directly on meta-issues within the show, from the way certain characters get marginalized to some of the hammier music selections (re: all the Journey). By now, the end of Season 2, Glee has become so self-referential that it takes the eye of an especially dedicated viewer to even know what's going on. That's fine with me because Glee desperately needs to be more cohesive, so a little (or perhaps too much) serialization and reference serves to make the show less chaotic. "Funeral" seems to acknowledge that Season 2 has been something of a mess and it goes to great lengths to remind us of just why we love (and love/hate) the show.
I can't help but wonder whether Nick Wauters and his writers were hedging their bets when they came up with this episode's title. The Event was on thin ice at midseason thanks to plummeting ratings and critical panning, so it's conceivable that the showrunners knew there was a better than average chance that The Event would be canceled, which it officially was late last week. So, tonight's episode really is the beginning of the end, the penultimate episode of a show that is nothing if not one, big cliffhanger. There's already been talk of The Event moving to another network, specifically a cable station that doesn't mind lower viewer numbers and hacky genre shows, but while such a move isn't unprecedented, those shows that tend to get picked up by another network after cancellation have more going for them than The Event. They have vocal supporters and niche audiences, like Monk had when it relocated to the comedy/detective friendly USA and Futurama had when its cult revived it on Comedy Central. The Event's viewers, who number around 1 million nationwide, can best be described as "nothing else is on" viewers, the few people who are going to watch something but don't like reality TV like Dancing with the Stars and somehow aren't enamored with Two and a Half Men reruns or police procedurals. That's hardly a powerful base for a sales pitch to cable networks.
You know the kind of show that probably was never supposed to be on TV. It had the non-white families, the gays, the fatter-than-a-size-six-leading lady. Networks thought they were supposed to flop, so they never even gave them the chance to. Ugly Betty was the exception, at least for a while, combining all of these elements for four seasons of madcap and groundbreaking television.
The French Involvement is one of those rare historical blank spots that make dramatization so easy. There's precious little on the record about how exactly Rodrigo Borgia convinced the French army to not sack Rome or depose him as pope. There are a few mentions of Borgia conversing with certain individuals who were influential in the French court and some clear records of France being granted some nominal Italian land, but all of that still begs the question of why the unstoppable French army didn't just steamroll over the papal forces and take everything. All that's clear is that something major happened behind the scenes, one of those inexplicable and likely emotional turns that have influenced significant political sweeps in completely unpredictable directions. So, if The Borgias wants to suggest that it was some kind of family-wide trait of luck and manipulation that kept the French at bay, that's as good a guess as any.
Well, I asked for more action and it seems the people behind Game of Thrones saw the same need in their story's pacing. "The Wolf and the Lion" really ramps up the pressure in every thread of the series so far, filling around half of the episode with swordplay and the other with heavy intrigue. Really, this episode is like a showcase of everything Game of Thrones can do. As long as you can keep up with the massive cast, it's a thrilling ride.
There's an unspoken rule about comedy: If a comedy is "about" something, it's most entertaining when it ignores that something. Bob's Burgers, for example, is about a family of misfits who struggle to keep their small hamburger restaurant afloat despite the whole world seeming to be against them. Yet this show works best when the plot doesn't revolve around the business of beef. It's better when Bob is going crazy about a local art fair or when the kids are goofing around in a mortuary. This is nothing new. After all, wasn't Fawlty Towers funniest when it was only ostensibly about hotel management? Heck, even commedia dell'arte, the foundation of all modern comedy, was only truly memorable when its more outlandish background characters hijacked the formulaic love story of the script. The core of this principle is unpredictability. Laughs come easiest when we can't prepare ourselves for them. So, while "Lobsterfest" had its fun moments, its predictability paled in comparison to the more freeform weirdness of the best Bob's Burgers episodes.
I'll say this: Though I didn't really like this episode beyond a few good laughs, I'm glad it happened. Dwight becoming the office manager was never anything but a terrible idea, both in the context of the show and from a storytelling perspective. Unlike Michael, Dwight has never had much of a sympathetic side. He's a broad character, a collection of quirks that serve as little more than setups for jokes. Making him the center of attention always turns The Office into a cartoon. At the same time, this needed to happen. We needed to see what Dwight's rule at Dunder-Mifflin Scranton would look like. It's not a surprise that the office turns into an oppressive atmosphere of absurdity and latent danger. It's not a surprise that Jim would rebel against it. It's also not a surprise that it ended within the space of an episode. Dwight has committed so many fireable offenses that it's merely story convenience that keeps him around. It's only because this is a TV show that he wasn't just arrested at the end of tonight's episode. So, from a purely academic point of view, this bizarre fever dream needed to happen because the unique circumstances surrounding Michael's departure demanded it. Now, I'm just glad it's over.
With the entire series in full relief, Stargate Universe ends its run as one of the greatest coulda-been's in TV history. The second half of Season 2 was almost uniformly excellent, the kind of sci-fi show the world really needs. It was emotionally stirring, thoughtful and even fun in some unexpected ways. Best of all, it made better use of the Stargate mythos than any other show or movie in the franchise. Unfortunately, the first season and a half of SGU was kind of a mess. It couldn't settle on a tone and it invested way too much time in go-nowhere plots and storytelling experiments it hadn't really earned. Given a better channel, an AMC or an HBO, this series could have been the pinnacle of science fiction on TV, overshadowing even the great but uneven Battlestar Galactica. As it stands, SGU is a half-baked series that found its voice way too late in the process. At the very least, it gave us a good ending.
Glee's writers aren't afraid of cliche. In fact, I think they thrive on it. The problem is that they seem to believe their show is impervious to the way cliche diminishes a story. Maybe if Glee completely embraced camp it'd be able to dive into an hour of prom stories without seeming rote, but it vacillates between shameless camp and self-seriousness often enough to lose its balance in the big moments. This is especially problematic because high school is nothing if not a long chain of cliches, double that when increasingly, unintentionally postmodern exercises like prom roll around. These days, prom is more of a collection of artifacts from the wider cultural consciousness about proms past than some kind of meaningful milestone. High schools have prom because everyone, from the kids to their teachers and parents, grew up with iconic pop culture images of prom. In this atmosphere, it's hard to believe that any group of modern kids, even those in a small Ohio town, could approach the event with anything other than irony.
I've had a mind to conduct TV experiments lately. Just like I wanted to show last week's first Carell-free episode of The Office to someone who had never seen the series to see if they could tell the difference, I'd really be interested to find out what a viewer would think of The Event if they only saw the episodes of the show that are tight and fairly coherent, as tonight's was. "One Will Live" is basically an action/suspense show by the numbers, but that isn't really a problem. That's what The Event was supposed to be from the very beginning. It only stumbled because it attempted to implement Lost-level mythology from the very beginning instead of letting the show's complexity build over time. It seems like The Event has been pruning unnecessary components for the entire second half of the season, from excising the majority of the CCI/Sentinels plot that never even came close to making sense, to uniting the two factions of aliens, to basically boiling Sophia's mercurial character down to a clear but still fairly deep villain. What today's The Event lacks in creativity and ambition it (sometimes) makes up in serviceable entertainment.