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Complete Series Reviews

Game of Thrones: The Complete Series

 

What makes a “great” television drama?  “Great” is a largely meaningless term.  There are dramas that are well written, but not particularly influential.  There are dramas that are influential, but not particularly well written.  Then there is the cream of the crop, the dramas that are both well written and influential.  While it is impossible to assess how influential a show will be two days after its series finale, I’m confident that Game of Thrones will fit squarely in the category of influential, but not particularly well written.

Was it well-written at times?  Absolutely – especially when it stuck closely to its source material, George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.”  There were many times the writing was bad during the last two seasons, and there were times that the writing was as bad, if not worse, throughout the series.  Examples include Daenerys’ visit to Qarth, anything involving Ramsey Snow, violence against women that did not happen in the source material, the mustache-twirling villains of Craster’s Keep, Arya’s layover in Braavos, and Jaime’s misadventures in Dorne.  Theon Greyjoy, for instance, spent most of the series in a poorly written subplot, so his demise in the final season does not deeply resonate despite the fact that Alfie Allen has been in the main credits since the very first episode.

The rushed and sloppily written final two seasons may be the show’s most obvious writing failure at the moment, but let’s not forget that the show constantly underwhelmed in its depiction of one of the most compelling characters in the source material, Jon Snow.  While Kit Harrington’s portrayal of Snow has proven popular, the book version of Jon Snow is one of the smartest and emotionally complex characters in the entire series.  The show, on the other hand, often portrayed Snow as well-meaning, but dull and not very bright.

So yeah, Game of Thrones is flawed.  But it is also pushed the technical boundaries of the medium of television drama further than any series that came before. Game of Thrones has given us hundreds of unforgettable images, from the birth of the dragons to the knighting of Brienne of Tarth.  When I think of Game of Thrones, I won’t always think about how Daenerys’ heel turn at the end was sloppily written, but I will remember images, such as the one of Jon and Ygritte looking out from the top of The Wall.

I can reasonably predict that Game of Thrones will be more influential as a technical achievement than anything else.  The way it handled a sprawling story that took place over a decade, over two massive continents, with hundreds of characters will be a text that creators will look at when designing their own equally ambitious television series.  Game of Thrones proved that no series is “unfilmable,” and that may be its most important legacy.

I can’t quite “rank” Game of Thrones yet, but as of right now I would not put it in the same league as The Wire or Mad Men because of its inconsistent, and sometimes outright bad, writing.  A better comparison would be The West Wing.  The West Wing pushed the boundaries of technical achievement in television, not with dragons and white walkers, but by demonstrating a cinematic, “lived-in” feel that still resonates in the industry.  Like Game of Thrones, The West Wing is a rewarding show on the second or third viewing.  Also, like Game of Thrones, The West Wing suffered from poor writing, especially during its final seasons, which resulted in an ending that felt disappointing and failed to resonate as deeply as it could have.

In conclusion, Game of Thrones gets an A+ for technical achievement, but a C+ for writing.  That said, here are some of my favorite moments from Game of Thrones:

  • The Battle of Hardhome: A scene loaded with unforgettable images, not just the iconic “Night King raises the dead” scene.
  • Jon and Ygritte climb The Wall: One of the few times the show did justice to a Jon Snow plotline from the books.
  • Daenerys burns Astapor: This reads differently in retrospect – not so much a moment of triumph as an ominous harbinger of things to come.
  • The Hound eats your chicken: Game of Thrones could be really funny at times, especially when it partnered interesting characters together, like Arya and the Hound.
  • Arya reunites with Nymeria: the last two seasons were flawed, but Arya’s moment of clarity when reuniting with her lost direwolf was a highlight.
  • Tyrion’s “trial by combat” at the Vale: with great dialogue and our introduction to the Bronn/Tyrion friendship, this was an early highlight.
  • Oberyn Martell’s introduction: sometimes Game of Thrones brought in new characters slowly, sometimes it introduced them by showing you exactly who they were and what they were about.
  • “No true king ever needs to say, I am the king:” man, Charles Dance was great as Tywin Lannister, wasn’t he?
  • Battle at the Wall tracking shot: you know which one I’m talking about.
  • “And you will know the debt is paid:” anytime Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey shared a scene it was pure gold.

That’s a wrap on the final season of Game of Thrones!  Thanks for reading!

© 2019 D.G. McCabe

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Complete Series Reviews

The Americans: The Complete Series

“When a person is born, he can embark on only one of three roads of life. If you go right, the wolves will eat you. If you go left, you will eat the wolves. If you go straight, you will eat yourself.”

-Anton Chekhov, 1878

We’ve become accustomed to television series that end in ultimate victory, ultimate defeat, or some combination.   Most of the time, this takes the form of tying up loose ends in a clearly defined and satisfying manner.  The Americans does not end neatly.  It was never about tying up loose ends.  It was about the lies the characters tell themselves and each other.

The Americans has one of the strongest pilots and series finales of any great television drama. The pilot works because it sets up everything that the show will become best known for: suspense, car chases, 80’s musical cues, and tensions within and without the Jennings household. The pilot sets up a world and makes the viewer want to keep visiting it.

Right now, its last episode feels like the best conclusion of all time, although I’m sure some of that luster will fade as time goes by.  Or maybe not.  Philip and Elizabeth escape, but lose their children, and part of their souls, in the process.  We, the viewers, might seek justice for all of the horrible things these two have done in the name of Mother Russia, but dishing out cosmic punishment was never The Americans’ game.  No, the real enemy was never the KGB or the FBI.  The real enemy was always the enemy within.

Elizabeth was ever the zealot, and at times, purely evil.  She may have done one good thing by icing Tatiana, but does that make up for everything else she has done?  There is a brief dream sequence in the finale that serves the purpose of showing that, in the end, Elizabeth has given up on and destroyed herself in service of a lost cause. She ends the series alive, but filled with regret.

Philip was never as committed to the spy game as Elizabeth.  He seemed to fall into the life by inertia – it gave him an outlet for his violent anger and an excuse to leave a bleak future in Russia.   He experiences more character growth, and with it growing guilt, than any other character on the show. The guilt may come crashing down on Elizabeth in the very last episodes of the series, for for Philip, there hasn’t been anything else for a long time.

Stan is a more sympathetic character, but far from perfect.  After all, he killed a Russian agent in cold blood back in the first season amd destroyed the lives of both Nina and Oleg.  In the end, he’s left with the guilt of not finding out about the Jenningses sooner, and suspicion that his wife might not be who she says she is.

The Jennings children fare better in the end, especially Henry, who by all accounts will be able to move on with his life if he chooses to do so.  Paige may have a harder time, but there’s not proof that she knows much of anything or that she was training to be a spy herself.  All Stan knows is that she knows, he doesn’t know the extent of her actions.

The Americans wasn’t a perfect series. Like most dramas, it had its weak points. Season five was a let down, although it certainly wasn’t bad. Indeed, almost every great drama has a weak season or two, oftentimes the second to last one.

Still, by dwelling in the dark corners and avoiding spy versus spy clichés, The Americans started and finished better than arguably any other show. The show had its share of climaxes and showdowns, but not at the end of the day. No, in the end The Americans wasn’t about the wolves eating or being eaten. It was about the wolves eating themselves.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

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Complete Series Reviews

New Girl: The Complete Series

Wanted: a new fun show to watch. Must be loaded with silly jokes and funny actors creating memorable characters. High drama and misanthropy need not apply.

In 2011, Fox answered this ad, although they didn’t realize it at first. When they landed a show starring Zooey Deschanel, they figured they were getting some version of the role she had been typecast in for most of her career (“adorkable”). What they didn’t bargain for was that Deschanel would become one of the best comedic “straight-men/women” in television. She would be a new Mary Tyler Moore, but instead of a newsroom in Minneapolis, she would have a loft in Los Angeles.

In a era where even television comedies got serious, New Girl stood apart. It wasn’t quite a Seinfeld-esque show about nothing, but it certainly wasn’t a show with deep themes or innovative storytelling. It was simply a show about a group of misfits slowly growing enough in confidence in themselves to evolve into adults.

New Girl was mostly about the jokes, but the jokes were sustained by the growth of the characters. Jess, Nick, Schmidt, Winston, and Cece shed insecurities, but none of them lost the silly quirks that made them fun to hang out with every Tuesday.

Television comedies often find success with misanthropy and sarcasm (Seinfeld, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) or satire (The Simpsons, 30 Rock). It seems rarer that a successful television comedy is centered on character growth and being fun to spend time with. New Girl rightfully joined shows like Parks and Recreation in this latter category.

Now, we must never forget, there is but one rule. Floor is lava.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe