Other TV 19 - 25 April

Spartacus Blood and Sand - 113 - Kill Them All

As expected this was a very satisfying finale. The moment when Spartacus leapt off Crixus' shield to start the rebellion was pure comic book freeze frame. But as in keeping with the strength of the show that moment of beautiful cinematography was also part of excellent storytelling. After eleven episodes of build-up within the ludus suddenly the slaves stood over their masters and exacted revenge.

Until the end Lucretia and Batiatus remained well rounded characters, showing favour to some slaves and friends, sharing a deep affection for one another and of course being deeply greedy and immoral as well. They very much sowed the seeds of their own downfall all season but specifically by messing with Ilithyia and Crixus here they caused their own downfall. Other highlights were the disturbing fury of Varro's widow Aurelia and Crixus finally putting his ego aside and acknowledging Spartacus' worth.

I wish I had time to review every episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand it deserves it. But sadly I don't. I do want to end on two notes though. One is to say to other shows that they should learn from what made this season so strong. The three specific reasons were:

1. Episodic Television
So many complicated dramas forget the power of an episode focussed on a single event or single character. Of course multiple plot strands need to be weaved along the way but Spartacus showed the way here by building each episode around one event. The show was so successful and memorable because each episode felt like an event, important in itself and worthy of a viewers full attention. The build-up to the battle with Theocoles, the twist endings with Ilithyia's sexual encounter with Spartacus and then Varro's death will all stick with me as superb moments amongst others.

2. Characterisation
My favourite moment of the whole season was (no joking) Lucretia agreeing not to give Crixus a blowjob. He was her property, she ordered him to do something, he had no right to obey. Yet because she genuinely loved him she was more than happy to grant his request for more rest in the hopes that he might go on living. It was a touching moment and showed off the deep emotions being stirred up by his impending showdown with Theocoles. All season the masters and slaves showed each other relatable human affection. Lucretia loved Crixus, appreciated Naevia, had deep affection and loyalty toward Batiatus and at one stage a genuine friendship with Ilithyia. Similarly Batiatus had great respect for Doctore and Spartacus and something bordering on admiration for Ashur. On and on down the list each character had believable and understandable friendships with other slaves, masters and gladiators. Never did I think a character was being written in a simplistic fashion. It was an object lesson in how to make characters seem real.

3. Creating their own universe
Just as important as those friendships was the sense that this Roman world was real and appreciably different to our own. The way Doctore and Crixus, right till the end, continued to find honour in this world was fascinating. They were slaves forced to do battle for sport and entertainment. Their fickle masters and supporters cared little for their actual well being, yet these men created a code of honour to imbue their actions with meaning and significance. Similarly upstairs Batiatus had to always play within the confines of acceptable behaviour when guests were coming round. He put his slaves back in their place, paraded them around and sometimes had to order them to do humiliating things. This despite the relationships which he developed with them when no one else was around. It all fitted together to paint the picture of the stratified Roman society and the convincing fury at those who broke convention was consistently portrayed. I could of course go into greater detail but the consistency of the portrayal of life at the ludus built the foundation upon which the drama launched off from.

The second of my points is a warning about the future. Rome and Prison Break both had successful first seasons which they were unable to sustain. Rome like Spartacus portrayed historical events and once Julius Caesar was dead the story became much more complicated to tell. Season two therefore lacked the focus and intensity of the first. Meanwhile on Prison Break, Michael Schofield and company were in a situation very similar to Spartacus. In a world with strict rules and boundaries each action that breaches those rules has immediate consequences. Once they left the prison those rules were no longer in place to keep the drama grounded and season two was a sprawling mess.

As Spartacus leads the slaves out into the Roman countryside the show's producers will have to work hard to maintain the strength of storytelling they have kept up so far. I don't want to spoil anyone who doesn't know the historical story but of course there will be large battles in the show's future. It will be hard to keep the same level of intensity that was possible with one-on-one fights. Sadly Andy Whitfield (Spartacus) has been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma so there is an outside chance that Spartacus may not come back for a second season. I don't know any more details so beyond wishing him all the best I won't comment further. I will just say that Season One was a huge success and proof that you shouldn't judge a TV show by its pilot.

Breaking Bad - 305 - Mas

I don't want to harp on it because I spent the last post talking about it a lot. But one weakness of Breaking Bad is that I don't think it can pull off humour. Here Walt stands up from his closet hiding place and the tiny chair he was sitting on sticks to his butt and then falls off. It was a fun moment but I couldn't laugh. The show is so dark now that (for me) humour just bounces off it, unable to penetrate the seriousness of what is going on. I thought this was emphasised by the strip club flashback. It reminded you of a time when the show had a sense of hope to it. A sense that maybe Jesse and Walt might find some happiness from their partnership. Now it seems like there is no hope left.

The strip club flashback was really well written. Most viewers needed the reminder of who Combo was and how his story now connected Hank back to Jesse. Hank is now going through the stage which Walt was going through in season two. He is so determined to complete his work that he has stopped communicating with those around him. The story of Walt's life is such a compelling reality check. Thanks to him Hank's career and marriage are being badly damaged. Now Skyler is becoming corrupted by the money. We have seen her twice now have to think about what Walt has been through and momentarily wonder if maybe he had some kind of reasonable justification (here it is Marie talking about how seeing death had changed Hank). Now with Walt moving out perhaps she will begin to forgive him.

Of course that forgiveness will keep her fatally close to him as the net closes in. Gus Frings offer to give Walt his own meth lab was a beautiful thing. All through the early parts of the season Walt was a sympathetic figure. He was dying of cancer and just wanted to provide for his family. The one question always hanging over him was why he was "just" a teacher. It was never made clear why Walt didn't take his skills and ambition and make a better career for himself (after leaving his partnership at Grey Matter). Whether it was stubbornness or his own failings wasn't entirely clear but his frustration with that situation was.

Frings offer was built around Walt's desire to provide for his children. But the subtext was just as fascinating. Finally someone was offering Walt a job which conferred status upon him. Finally someone had put down resources just to secure his talent. Even in this most grubby of professions Walt was being recognised as a man of great skill. It was pure seduction and Walt fell for it. Now he has three months to live. Presumably Frings will learn his formula and then the cousins will move in for the kill.

The show is about to get more intense and even darker. 

Community - 121 - Contemporary American Poultry

Community is hands down the most innovative and fun comedy to watch on TV right now. I didn't say the funniest, but definitely the most fun. It's the one show that I really wish I could have reviewed in full this year because it has been trying so many new things each week. Lots of comedies go in for parodies and my consistent complaint is that they don't take it far enough. So many shows do a half hearted parody, enough so you will get the reference but not so much that they really entertain you.

I have no such complaints about this episode. The writers took the Goodfellas and Godfather style mafia parody all the way through Greendale and to a conclusion all about Abed's character. The detail work was excellent making chicken into the drug which propelled the gang to new levels of greed. The writing made use of all the smaller characters and didn't let up on the parody until the final scene. It was a daring idea, executed with real confidence and once more I marvel at Abed, a comedy character who allows for the flexibility needed to make these crazy plots seem just about believable.

On the other hand there is a downside to this. The parody was so detailed that it moved too fast. Abed's first act as fry cook was to exchange chicken for a bump in grades for the whole study group. That is behavior which could get them all into deep trouble and yet Britta, Annie and Shirley all go along with when it seems like something which would instantly set off their moral codes. As the parody develops this gets worse of course, to the point where the gang fawn over Abed in a way which though conforming to the parody doesn't seem like believable behavior. Finally the conclusion to the plot which tries to tie Jeff and Abed's characters together and expose something meaningful about both just didn't have time to develop properly. It didn't help that we just had a plot about Jeff's issues (119) and about Abed's inability to relate to others (117).

Community is being so clever each week that it feels stupid to tell them to slow down. But to be the best comedy ever I would want them to slow down, focus on believable character stories and try and draw out the big laughs rather than cramming in so many little moments. But if they did that maybe the show wouldn't be so much fun to watch?

Party Down - 201 - Jackal Onassis Backstage Party

I haven't written about Party Down before but I did watch all of season one, enjoyed it a bit and saw the other critics heaping praise on it. The show has taken the ultra real approach to comedy and gone for a somewhat negative and downbeat tone. It's a world of people who wish they weren't doing the job they are doing and serving others who are equally miserable. It was always going to be tough for the show to please me, someone who likes my comedy to uplift me. But I appreciate a well structured joke as much as anyone and am still watching, so it must be doing something right.

The thing which I dislike most about the show is hapless ex-boss Ron. It's a credit to how much goodness and hope he injects into the role that I find it so unpleasant to see him get constantly humiliated. It would seem that the show intends to put the band back together and we will presumably end up with Ron working for Henry which might be a fun dynamic. I found the show was always solid at setting up a good episodic plot but not always great at delivering on jokes.

That basic feeling stuck with me here as Jackal Onassis (essentially Marilyn Manson) swaps places with Roman for the night. I didn't think Jackal was very convincing in the role and that brought the whole episode down a notch in believability. He was just too nice and too normal at times that it felt contrived. But the basic premise of Roman still being unable to impress any women despite being dressed as a huge star was a fun idea. The tension between Henry and Casey was always going to be the major running story and as ever they played their parts well.

We'll see how well Megan Mullally fits in and whether the show sticks rigidly to its formula or goes somewhere different.

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