Pop General

“Showtime’s series tend to hinge around their central player and frequently risk fizzling when that character runs out of yarn or when the audience fatigues of them…”

Been catching Homeland and The Leftovers on television, finished reading The Black Company: The Book of the North and completed watching the last episodes of The Wire as well as the sixth season of The League.

CarrieThis season of Homeland has been pretty good. It’s too early to say if I’m enjoying it more than the fourth season, but the writers took a bold risk in trying to divorce Carrie of the CIA, after the unexpected high of having the “good guys” effectively lose. I used to cheer for the CIA in the earlier seasons when its mission was more defensive. But as of late the agency feels too Machiavellian. There has been some shocking contrasts in how certain characters have remained true to form while others have become increasingly…


I don’t know whether this is just the plot du jour, or if Showtime is preparing for a final story arc and the series climax in the following season (maybe two.) Admittedly I hope for the latter, as Showtime has a tendency to drag on after the ecstasy of a great tale has worn off.

Like Breaking Bad, shows of this caliber should end with an exclamation point, kill their darlings and never look back.

But HBO’s The Leftovers has managed to enthrall me, and even overtake my excitement for Homeland in just two episodes (I intend to see the third tonight.) After some comparisons of how HBO and Showtime manage their television, I’ve come to realize that Showtimes tends to be very protagonist centered, while HBO breaks up their story among various characters. The LeftoversGame of Thrones, The Wire… HBO does a great job of never being too dependent on anyone cast member. But with Showtime, series like DexterUnited States of Tara, and Nurse Jackie tend to hinge around their central player and frequently risk fizzling when that character runs out of yarn or when the audience fatigues of them.

Meanwhile, The League has definitely ground down. In many ways, the show can be compared to Seinfeld; the plot tends to pick up themes early and circles around to connect them (often ironically) at the end, while the characters are deserving snobs for whom we get a schadenfreude kick from seeing punished. Unlike the show about nothing however, The League has begun to recycle its humor and isn’t really adding anything new to the formula. Sure, there were a few moments of gold in the sixth season, such as when Andre was psychologically tricked into “punishing himself” for cheating. But the completionist in me is glad the series is ending.

As if this all wasn’t enough of a mistake in the consumption of my spare time, I decided to begin another game of Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

It’s not like I don’t have enough to do as of late. Three drafts await completion as it is; a military sci-fi piece, a post-apocalyptic story and a unique historical fantasy piece that I’d been researching for a few months. There’s also a novella that will be due before the year’s end and several technical projects that need my attention.

But I’ve been pretty stressed. An hour set aside to finish anything is never enough. Sometimes people need to be reminded of what’s fun to remember why the labor is worth the effort.

Shadowrun4AI actually finished my first campaign about a month ago, with an Italian elf shaman by the name of Bianca “Luna” Panzavecchia. With an emphasis of conjuring over spirit summoning and a focus on pistols, Luna was a great work-horse character. Her conjuring aspects surprised me greatly, particularly the barrier spells which I used to powerful effect… even going so far as to cheese the final boss. However, I put my first replay aside while I waited for a few patches to reduce the sheer of bugs.

Manuel and I had been swapping some build ideas for new characters for a while. About a month ago I had a vision of a troll adept (think monk) because of a natural synergy for Strength, Body and Willpower, and an emphasis in barehanded fighting. I jokingly shook my fist at Manuel for running ahead to try my idea first, but I finally got around to trying the theory myself.

A little karma distribution later and Charlie Shen, better known as Mó Chuí (magic hammer) was born. Shen hits like a semi-truck and can soak a fair amount of damage too. Downside to most melee characters remains consistent though; he’s frequently out of cover and tends to soak up a lot of damage. 50 then 60 HP and good armor will go far towards keeping him alive, but it would be best to keep a few emergency health kits on hand.

One thing I have to respect about this title was the removal of… what we’ll call “paragon” dialogue. Basically, Mass Effect set a standard for characters where as you can be the ultimately goodie-two shoe or evil incarnate. Dragonfall offered dialogue choices which were much more “cool grey” in nature, but did give the player the option of being a total @#$hole whenever they felt like it. Hong Kong tends to be a little more mellow about that, though you can push buttons if you try hard enough. And that’s the road I’m taking Mó Chuí down.

The State of Television (Part I)

Before you read this, I suggest putting on The Heavy’s “Short Change Hero” as recommended listening.

Tonight is the premiere of the third season of The Americans, an amazing show about the espionage fought on U.S. soil during the Cold War. A recap of the last two seasons will be available at the bottom of this blog post if anyone is afraid of spoilers. But in the mean time, here are some shows that you should be watching.

Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23

donttrustthebI was told that ABC has a tendency to cancel genius shows all the time, and Nahnatchka Khan’s creation was unfortunately on that list after just two seasons. Despite this, its 26 episodes are comic gold.

Krysten Ritter of Breaking Bad fame plays the title-suggested Chloe (who is somewhat reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly), while Dreama Walker is June, the more angelic of the two. Toss in a plucky/perverted neighbor, Eric André as the boy next door and at work, and James Van Der Beek as… James, Van Der Beek and his assistant Luther (Ray Ford), and you got yourself great combinations of comedy material.

There’s a couple of a great points to mention about Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23. First, events mattered. Something that happens, even from a comedy standpoint, would be mentioned or have an impact in future episodes. The characters grow, but never so far as to totally lose sight of the show’s premise.

Second, they almost never used running gags outside an episode. They were constantly coming up with snappy dialogue and great material that never got recycled or reused. In fact, I would say the most stand out character with the best lines came from Ray Ford, especially towards the end of the series run.

The first season is primarily spent with June trying to make rent while building a life in New York, against Chloe’s many scams and cons. In the second, June finally lands the business job she dreamed about in the private sector, while Chloe actually starts to learn about how to actually care about people, reluctantly of course. As the show came to an end, it was hinted that the third season may have focused on James Van Der Beek’s hunt to find his biological father, an element that was addressed in the last episode but not quite resolved.

In the show’s short life, you could tell that creator Khan had a knack for carefully evolving her characters without totally destroying the core premise. We’ll never know if this trend would have continued, but the approach left us with two great seasons as opposed to five to ten seasons that started great and began to decline, much like How I Met Your Mother. So if you’re looking for great laughs without a huge commitment of time, check out Don’t Trust the B on Netflix.

The League

the leagueFX’s series about a group of friends who run a fantasy football team will be coming to an end with season 7 this fall. For those who would be leery of sports comedy, the fantasy football elements are in the background, never something that overtakes the comic value of the show. Unlike Don’t Trust the B however, the show’s accumulation of running gags could fill a museum, making it somewhat difficult for the uninitiated to dive into the later seasons.

But The League is not short of acting talent by any stretch. Nick Kroll plays Ruxin, a Jewish lawyer with an uncontrollable sense of sarcasm. Mark Duplass is the smooth operator Pete. Katie Aselton plays Jenny, who is married to Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi), the league’s overly nervous commissioner and all around terrible drafter. Paul Scheer is Andre, the persistently teased chum whose success as a plastic surgeon barely makes up for his shortcomings in clothing tastes and clinginess. Jon LaJoie plays Taco… yes, that’s his name, the perpetually stoned musician and capitalist always founding a new, crazy business venture. Finally, Jason Mantzoukas plays Rafi, a hilarious sleazebag introduced as Ruxin’s brother-in-law in season 2.

There are considerable differences between how the first three seasons were executed verses the next two (I’ve seen all of season 5, and am waiting for the 6th on Netflix). The early episodes tended to have a more Seinfeld quality to them, where the jokes somehow folded into plot and contained a goes-around-comes-around quality to them. Taco also used to provide one musical piece per season that is… simply unforgettable and lyrically brilliant. You can check out one sample here, but be aware that it’s NSFW.

Seasons four and five have suffered somewhat though. While the opening and closing episodes are great, the middle of the these seasons have dried a little, with stories that don’t seem to pan out as one might hope. While incidents threaten the characters with change or growth, the circumstances often fold back on themselves and return them right where they started. On the plus side, Ruxin and Taco’s need to end each finale with incredible fanfare is a laugh fest that condones any weaknesses.

It is decided. Check out The League for great, easy laughs.

The Americans

The_Americans,_season_3So originally I was going to mention a few more shows in this blog post, such as Sherlock, Homeland and The Venture Bros, but I think I’ll save those for another time. Perhaps as part of another recap before the release of House of Cards season 3 on February 27th. I’ll flash a spoiler warning below so those who haven’t seen it know when to stop reading.

The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings. To the outside, they are a loving married couple with two teenage children and a travel agency business. But to Moscow, they are assets in the game of espionage, trying their best to steal technologies and brilliant minds from the Reagan administration. The show constantly dips into history, covering the shock waves behind the scenes of the assassination attempt against Reagan, and the ARPANET, which would one day become the internet.

The drama for the Jennings is unlimited, as their assignments vary from cultivating potential intelligence sources, to tracking and stalking to occasional high risk kidnappings. As if it wasn’t enough, their children Paige and Henry (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati) have begun to suspect something about their parents, while their neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is an FBI agent who inadvertently has been investigating them.

Spoilers to follow if you haven’t seen the last two seasons. If you haven’t seen the previous seasons, get going!

The first season was primarily a base building approach, meant to establish understanding of what and how the Jennings operate and the dynamic of their relationship. It also set the stage for Stan, who created a counter intelligence resource of his own within the Russian embassy by blackmailing Nina (Annet Mahendru). The situation eventually built itself into a circle where Stan nearly ended up capturing his own neighbors, but also shifted Nina’s loyalties there and back again after Stan killed a friend of hers from the embassy.

While the first season was very good, the second season was even better. The Jennings find themselves caught up investigating a murder that happened against another agent family, the Connors, all while pursuing a new stealth project the Americans are working. While Henry has a few acts of rebellion, it’s ultimately Paige who lashes out, wanting to join a church and growing increasingly suspicious of her parents. Nina works with the Russian embassy to turn Stan, but Moscow will either see Nina succeed, or have her punished for her earlier betrayal.

And the resolutions are chilling. An ultimatum is delivered to Stan to save Nina’s life, but Stan cannot bring himself to forsake his country. Thus, Nina is sent back to Russia for probable (though not confirmed) execution. The Jennings efforts were in vain as the stealth project was nothing more than an elaborate counter espionage operation. And if Paige’s concerns about her parents aren’t bad enough, it turns out that the murder of the Connors isn’t without comparison: The family had been executed by their son, Jared (Owen Campbell), who was being groomed as a homegrown spy for the KGB.

In the final episode, the Jenning’s handler Claudia (Margo Martindale) delivers an order and not a request. The Jennings are to begin preparing their children to become second-generation KGB agents. Because they are born in the United States, they would be eligible for secret clearance positions. The situation immediately begins to divide Phillip and Elizabeth at home as Elizabeth is unimpressed with American culture while Phillip, guilty from killing so many individuals, doesn’t want this life for his children.

The Americans airs tonight at 10 pm EST on FX.