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Dealing With the DVR Undead

Plus the Breaking Bad spin-off, terrible HBO theme songs, and answers to the rest of your questions in this month's TV mailbag

Ah, spring, the new center of the television calendar. It’s a special time of year when the trees are blooming, Don Draper is screwing, and winter, inexorably, is coming. I can think of no better time to pour myself a mai tai, hire a nippleless slave army, and break out the TV mailbag for another go-round. (If you’d like to see your question here next month, send an e-mail to GrantlandTVMailbag@gmail.com.)

I’m thinking of starting a consulting business that would help people break up with TV shows they don’t like anymore but feel obliged to continue watching anyway, perhaps just out of habit. I’m wondering if you think this is a good idea and if so, what services the company could offer. Is shaming the most effective strategy, or something more gentle? As with other addictions, is relapse part of recovery or is cold turkey the only workable approach?

— Aubrey, New York

Aubrey, I like the way you think. Actually, I’m not sure I like it — it seems potentially cruel and rapacious. But I admire it! Those with a keen eye for financial inefficencies in the television market tend to end up rich — usually thanks to golden parachutes from the listing aircraft carrier known as NBC. So while I tend to make it my business to get people to begin watching shows, not the other way around, I have a feeling your business might end up being more profitable.

The issue in question, lingering series affective disorder (or L-SAD), is a major problem, especially these days when the idea of casual fandom seems to be following Ben Silverman’s tiger1 and Lorenzo Lamas into TV irrelevance. Increased serialization means nearly everything on the air is, like David Petraeus’s biographer, all-in. Don’t get me wrong: Completism can often be a good thing. To remove even a single episode of The Wire would be akin to playing a game of Jenga blindfolded: Everything is connected and the value of pieces is indiscernible. But completism can also be crippling. There are only so many hours in the day and even fewer hours on the DVR for underperforming shows. Every minute spent being disappointed by Season 5 of True Blood or Season 242 of Californication is time that could have been spent investing in something new and better, like The Americans or this new reality show I heard some people talking about recently, Going Outside. I can understand the desire not to miss anything and, in extremely rare cases, teetering series have been known to right themselves: Those who gave up on Friday Night Lights during Landry’s sophomore year murder spree would have missed out on three of the most graceful and focused concluding seasons in recent memory.

Even so, Friday Night Lights is the exception that proves the rule. My neighborhood in Brooklyn is relatively safe, but on Monday nights I’m haunted by the hollow cries of sunken-eyed How I Met Your Mother fans, a sad-but-sturdy group still clinging to the dream that investing in an eighth year of diminishing returns might somehow make them whole. There are some hardy souls — Malcolm Gladwell, in a different context, called them “chippers” — who are able to cut the cord of dependence without so much as breaking a sweat. Grantland editor Sean Fennessey is one such Spartan: He’s the type of cultural gadfly who refers to his DVR as “finely manicured” and thus was able to snip The Walking Dead from his rotation like a hangnail just six weeks into the third season.3 Others aren’t so lucky. You could fill a book with the sob stories of otherwise rational Americans who stuck with Entourage all the way to the bitter end, even though it was clear from the Aquaman days that the show was about as interested in change as it was in women, stakes, and jokes that were actually funny. Where was your brilliant idea then, Aubrey? There’s an entire lost generation pancaked on Queens Boulevard, innocent optimists abandoned to a shame-slicked slide into hate-watching and ennui with a baked-clam chaser.

I speak from experience. This June will mark the eighth anniversary of the debut of The Next Food Network Star, a reality cooking contest for sad, hubristic clowns. Everything about this show is a lie, from the title — outside of Season 2 champion Guy Fieri, now the world’s wealthiest mozzarella stick, not a single one of these dopes is remotely famous — to its cheap drama, manufactured more poorly than an also-ran contestant’s “knock-your-pants-off” meat loaf. And yet I watch, year after year, as another crop of grinning, deluded fameballs is flattened into “relatable,” on-brand hostbots by the preening selection committee. I don’t know why I continue to do this — the show has a season pass on my DVR! I actually brag about my killer Bob Tuschman imitation! — but I know I am powerless to stop it. And so, at long last, that’s where Aubrey’s new service comes in.

First off, we need a name. I’m thinking FonzieEaters LLC because the only way to stop audience support of shows that are in the process of leaping over a ferocious sea beast is to prevent them from completing the jump in the first place. Let there be no doubt: In the matter of a waterskiing Arthur Fonzarelli Jr. versus a hungry shark, this company is absolutely on the side of the shark. I think FonzieEaters would have a 24/7 emergency support line as well as rapid response teams in most major cities. I don’t think shame would work as a deterrent because not only does it tend to stiffen contrarian backbones — witness the few trolls who tried to argue the merits of 2 Broke Girls last year — but nothing could possibly be more shameful than the sight of nine hours of late-period Gossip Girl jamming up your queue, all bearing the “save until manually deleted” icon like scarlet letters of regret. I’d argue for a simple regimen that focused on Acceptance (“No one forced me to tweet about ‘flash sideways’ being a good idea”), the Making of Amends (“You were right when you said Steve Carell’s departure seemed like a natural stopping point. I see that now”), and the Suggestion of Alternatives (“We don’t need to care about Patrick Dempsey anymore. That’s what Scandal is for”).

The most controversial — and most likely effective — aspect of the service would involve an elaborate role-play in which clients are encouraged to slash-fic their own, more satisfying conclusions to the shows they abandon. “Yes, that’s right,” our trained professionals would coo into the phones, “it turns out Robin was the mother all along! Also, Zoey died in a fire.” And thus, with a contented smile on his face and a lie dancing merrily in his head, the former addict can finally change the channel in search of his next emotionally scarring long-term relationship.

You can send me my share of the profits care of this address.

Late yesterday Deadline reported that Sony TV seems to be getting more serious about spinning off a show for Breaking Bad‘s Saul Goodman. Is this a good idea? What do you think that would look like? Also, get back to work, I see you on Twitter.

— Lark Misanti, downtown Los Angeles, California

What a great and timely user-generated question! I wonder: Are you related to the Wichita Misantis? Great people. Salt of the earth. Bearded.

The most compelling question raised by this surprise headline was almost immediately expressed by Time‘s James Poniewozik on Twitter: If AMC is suddenly so desperate for more Breaking Bad, why were they in such a hurry to get it off the air just two years ago? The shorter version of that drama was that in the wake of Matthew Weiner’s exorbitant contract to continue (and, eventually, end) Mad Men, AMC had to pinch pennies everywhere else, a strategy that led to things like a Kevin Smith reality show as well as Breaking Bad‘s foreshortened final two seasons. (AMC is pretending that last year’s eight episodes link up with this year’s eight to form a supersize fifth season. Don’t believe the hype.)

Circumstances have changed slightly since then, though they haven’t necessarily loosened any purse strings. The dustup with Dish Network last year caused AMC’s stock to take a considerable hit, and while The Walking Dead continues to be massively popular it remains (a) expensive, and (b) unrepeatable. And I think that, more than anything else, speaks to this sudden change of heart regarding Albuquerque’s most amoral attorney. AMC has yet to find new series able to re-create even a fraction of the critical ecstasy engendered by Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and it’s no coincidence those remain the only two of its shows to retain their original creative voices. The Walking Dead, despite enormous success, is on its third boss; Rubicon fizzled after its creator was fired early in production; and Hell on Wheels is returning but with an entirely new producing and writing team. The network’s drama development — and its reputation — has been so poor of late that The Killing was resurrected for a waterlogged third season. If the rumors of Better Call Saul: The Series are true, staying in business with a major studio like Sony and a frontline creator like Vince Gilligan could send a message to Hollywood that AMC intends to keep its place at the big kids’ table.

Now, as to whether the show itself is a good idea, who can say? Bob Odenkirk is a delightful and willing performer and Saul Goodman is one of the best supporting characters on television. That last point is key, of course: Just because someone makes us smile every time he pops up doesn’t mean he can support an entire hour of our attention. Knowing that distinction is the difference between Frasier and Joey, and it’s one I imagine Gilligan — along with Peter Gould, the Breaking Bad writer responsible for the character’s first appearance — can navigate. Of all the characters in Breaking Bad, Saul is both the most portable and the least dependent on the machinations of Vamanos Pest. Having Saul pull up stakes and relocate his skeevy practice to, say, Las Vegas could make for a crackerjack series. It’d have the same desert-scorched desperation as Breaking Bad but with a wider range of potential clients and a little more opportunity for playful razzle-dazzle instead of grim, face-melting acid. A half-hour would probably make the most sense even though that’s not a business AMC has pursued in the past. But in the world of Breaking Bad, Saul is exactly the man you call when you want to diversify your holdings. He may be reprehensible, but he’s there when you need him.

Hey, look! My young tradition of burning up half the column on two questions continues! Let’s see if we can rip through a couple here.

Lake Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Olivia Munn, Odette Annable. Almost Brooklyn Decker. And don’t forget every hipster’s dream girl that is Zooey Deschanel. In less than two seasons of New Girl, these are just some of the girls that Jake Johnson’s Nick Miller has…you know. Is this run unprecendented in television history?

— Andrew, Charlotte, North Carolina

Andrew, it only goes to show that you should never underestimate the power of a hooded sweatshirt and a honking Chicagoland accent. But a jealous nation salutes you for noticing that Nick Miller is in the midst of a DiMaggio-like streak when it comes to girlfriends. The notches on his unmade bedpost read like the cached Google histories of our finest universities’ most discerning dorm rooms. Nick Miller may not have money or clean sheets, but he does, apparently, use the Maxim Hot 100 as a Rolodex. Credit where credit is due.

But Nick Miller is Barney Miller compared to the original unlikely sitcom Romeo. Fictional Jerry Seinfeld was a birdlike misanthrope who ate cereal three meals a day and tucked purple turtlenecks into black jeans. And yet during his nine-year reign of pheremonal terror he ravaged the Upper West Side like Adam Duritz backstage at a taping of Friends. Just look at this laundry list of ladies: Amanda Peet, Teri Hatcher, Jami Gertz, Christine Taylor. And those are the ones that are jumping out at me! This was a player so prolific he could field a basketball team composed solely of famously attractive TV characters: Monica Geller! Grace Adler! Charlotte York! Julie Cooper! Skyler MF-ing White! Seinfeld, in his prime, was so ice-cold he kept Julia Louis-Dreyfus around like a prepper stores cans of minestrone: just in case. Sorry, Andrew. Write me again when Nick can wear a puffy shirt and still bring home Lori Loughlin.

In your last mailbag you were asked about the best opening TV theme songs of all time. What if you limited it to just HBO shows?

—Daniel, Cincinnati, Ohio

Hmmm, I dunno. Opening credits have gotten pretty slick of late, particularly those produced by HBO’s Prestige Industrial Complex. The Wire and The Sopranos are all-timers and the board game–inspired intro to Game of Thrones is getting there. (Especially when it’s turned into a synthy Safety Dance by a great band like CHVRCHES.)

I think a better question is the five worst opening credits in the network’s Emmy-slathered history. My list:

5. Dream On

It gets points for accuracy: Even at its best, this lame sitcom was basically about an adult baby inordinately amused by conveniently affordable black-and-white movie clips. But not even the amiable department store glop of the music can gloss over the fact that this show was little more than a moderately respectable delivery system for exposed breasts.4

4. Carnivàle

Spooky tarot cards and filmstrips! I never saw this show but I can only assume it was about an occult baseball fan who had questionable attitudes about race and way too much time on his hands.

3. Hung

Thomas Jane — a.k.a. the man who could’ve been Don Draper — strips his way through downtown Detroit before taking a long walk off a short pier. RIYL: urban decay, butts.

2. Arli$$

Don’t you love it when people who lionize athletes get access to them and then use that access for a series of wacky high jinks and “get a load of this guy” faces? No? You don’t? That literally sounds like the worst thing in history? Well, have I got a show for you!

1. Boardwalk Empire

HBO’s current East Coast standard-bearer will never match the creative peaks of its direct ancestor, The Sopranos, but at least it bests it in one category: terrible opening credits. Set to a Brian Jonestown Massacre song that’s longer than Prohibition, it’s a soggy stroll on an empty beach. As the camera lingers on all the signs and signifiers the show falls back on to prove its bona fides — cool suits! Perfectly rolled cigarettes! — Steve Buscemi takes in the scene with all the warmth of a wax figure. I’m 99 percent sure I’d like this show more if it started with something better or, hell, if it just started. Honestly, it’s enough to drive a man to drink.

Which zombies are more evil? The walkers from The Walking Dead or the zombies north of the wall in Game of Thrones? The ones from Game of Thrones are probably better at acting — and they can do more cool stuff like wield weapons, making them more of a challenge to fight. But from a pure I-just-wanna-eat-you-and-I’m-demon-beast-from-hell standpoint, I think TWD zombies might take the crown.

— Nick H.

I have to be honest with you. I am no zombie expert. My favorite zombie movie is the slacker comedy Shaun of the Dead and my favorite zombie TV show is The Office. I have no opinion on the merits of fast zombies vs. slow, no preference between those who retain the ability to love vs. those who love only the taste of brains. So to better answer this important question, I reached out to Grantland’s Alex Pappademas, who currently holds the endowed George A. Romero Chair for Applied Zombieology and Advanced Intestinal Consumption. (The chair is a chain saw held aloft by two baseball bats. It’s located in an abandoned shopping mall in Pennsylvania.) Take it away, Alex:

The problem with this question is the “more evil” and how you go about defining that — there’s a small but pivotal difference between “most fearsome” and “most dangerous” and neither of them are entirely synonymous with “evil.”

But I’m voting White Walkers all the way, whether we’re talking “evil” or “fearsome” or “dangerous.” They’re more evil because they seem to be actively bent on the genocidal extermination of South-of-the-Wall man as opposed to just biologically driven to eat people. They’re more fearsome because they can look you in the eye and swing an ax at your head and strike a Frank Frazetta pose and ride off on a half-dead horse, whereas the WD walkers are your usual insensate/outrun-able staggering-town-drunk kind of zombies. And they’re more dangerous for three reasons:

1. They move like an army rather than a herd; they seem to be organized into at least a guys-on-horseback vs. guys-on-foot hierarchy, which means that as a group they’re capable of non-instinctual decision-making.

2. I haven’t read the books but I’m assuming there’s some explicitly magical element to their resurrection, that they’re less like Romero zombies and more like Black Cauldron5 zombies, and therefore they may not be bound by all the physical laws that traditionally apply to dead things, the way the WD zombies generally seem to be, except for the walking.

3. And this is the big one, for me: We don’t know for sure who or what the White Walkers used to be before they died. The zombies in WD were just regular Americans; the White Walkers are, at minimum, a bunch of cold-blooded Wildlings, so basically we’re looking at an army of semi-sentient zombie soldiers from the same environment that produced a guy like Lord O’Bones. It’s like they’re a bunch of undead Conans. Even if they retain one-tenth of their ability to fight and reason (and they seem to have more than that, since they can stop to chop off people’s heads and stuff), they’re serious. Plus, now that we’ve learned that the racial breakdown beyond the wall includes giants, doesn’t it make sense that an army o’darkness that’s moved across that countryside, swelling its ranks with the newly dead as it moves, probably includes some ZOMBIE GIANTS? Doesn’t the version of that scene in the books include a description of a giant zombie spider? It’s just a stronger, more biodiverse and potentially deadly ghoul-population.

Running out of space! Time for a Sunday-night show lightning round:

Which characters from Mad Men could live in Westeros? And besides Tyrion, who from Game of Thrones could you see at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce?

— Spencer W.

I think any number of Westerosi would do fine on Madison Avenue since most of them are fantastic liars. Varys would do very well in marketing but might face a surprise, Sal-like exit should a randy cigarette executive ever try to steal a peek under his robes. Arya Stark cuts about as well with her sword as Sally Draper does with her sarcasm, so they’d be fast friends. Jaime Lannister has the look of a master salesman, but in the ’60s he’d never be allowed to put love for family above his work. It wouldn’t even matter how literally he took it. You know what? Maybe I’ve gone loopy with flower power but I’m going to say Shae. Her transformation from foreign-born prostitute to influential ladies’ maid makes Peggy Olson’s journey from secretary to boss look like a beach vacation in Dorne. Swap her King’s Landing drapery for a form-fitting power suit and Shae would be running accounts in no time.

The reverse commute is harder. Don’s certainly got the liver — and the happy hands — for life in the Seven Kingdoms. But as we know from Jon Snow, a tortured backstory tends to lead people, even extremely handsome people, into dangerous situations. Paul Kinsey might try to hack it with the Hill People for a while but pretty soon he’d come crawling back to Flea Bottom in search of spare gold and better ideas for spec scripts. I wish I could name one of Mad Men‘s powerful ladies, but I don’t hold out much hope for their survival unless Joan can use that pen for stabbing or the baby Peggy gave up in the first season was actually a dragon. Pete Campbell could definitely hang for a while at court where being a professional weasel is a feature, not a bug. But a face that punchable wouldn’t survive long in a feudal society where everyone is carrying weapons. I think the only possible answer here is equally unconventional: Bobby Draper. This kid has the rare, Jaqen-like ability to remake himself into an entirely different person, seemingly at will. Besides, when’s the last time you even noticed Bobby Draper? On a show as violent as Game of Thrones the best bet for survival is often to make the smallest impression possible.

Over/Under 2.5 women bedded by Don Draper this season?

— Damon, Huron, Ohio

Are you kidding? He almost cleared that in the season premiere! Gotta take the over. There are 11 hours left, it’s 1968, and did you see the way his secretary was looking at him?

Are we supposed to like Don? I can’t tell.

— Brock A.

Exactly?

Why can’t more television be good?

— David V.

Exactly!

Please shorten your answers and get to more questions. You can get long winded on your answers.

— Greg R.

Exactly.

Filed Under: TV

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald

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