Temperatures have been rising and so, I noticed, was the size of the mailbag inbox (grantlandTVmailbag AT gmail DOT com). Stuck, as we are, in the slow period known as the all-star break (that’s the time between the end of Mad Men and the return of Breaking Bad), it seemed right to turn the column over to you and your questions. Whether it was due to heatstroke, boredom, or transcendental kismet, it was fascinating to see how many readers had similar queries this time out. In fact, there was so much overlap, I think it makes sense to break down the the last couple hundred e-mails received into handy percentages:
Readers sick of television antiheroes and wondering what’s next: 35 percent
Meth heads psyched and/or nervous about the end of Breaking Bad: 20 percent
Devoted FX fanboys wondering how their network got so good: 15 percent
Murder aficionados wondering why I don’t watch Dexter: 12 percent
Non–New Yorkers accusing me of living in Williamsburg: 9 percent
Reputable-sounding Nigerian attorneys offering me cash rewards:1 8 percent
Other: 1 percent
I’ll deal with no. 2 below (FX and Dexter have been covered elsewhere). And I probably should contact Interpol about that $5,000 check I sent to Lagos. But the majority of this mailbag will deal with the “Other” category. Before we get to that, however, there is a series of questions from a certain someone that I really must address:
What are we thinking for Newsroom this season? Will we cover?
—D. Fierman, Grantland office, 5/22/13
Any thoughts on Newsroom? You can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist.
—D. Fierman, Grantland office, 6/14/13
Aaron Sorkin is a big fan of the pod (he loves Meek Mill). HA! Got you to open this e-mail. Seriously. Newsroom?
—D. Fierman, Grantland office, 7/1/13
Alan Sepinwall would never ignore my e-mails like this.
—D. Fierman, Grantland office, 7/7/13
OK, fine. What is it about The Newsroom that makes it such a popular hatewatch? Why are so many people so excited to watch and absolutely loathe this show? Wouldn’t our lives all be happier and nicer if we didn’t watch? WHY CAN’T I STOP WATCHING THIS TERRIBLE SHOW, ANDY? WHY?!?!?!??!
—D. Fierman, Grantland office, 7/15/13
You guys, just like the mainstream media with the tragedy in Darfur,2 I tried to ignore this situation but couldn’t. The Newsroom returned to HBO this weekend, and I guess I have to comment on it. But first, some housecleaning: There’s a common misperception out there that critics “had it in” for Aaron Sorkin’s new show before it even aired. But I implore you in my best Josh Lyman voice: Go back and read the reviews of Season 1: I think the sharp tone comes from outright shock and disappointment more than anything else. The Social Network — for which Sorkin received a deserved Oscar — was some of the best writing of his career. The news that he would be returning to TV after such a triumph was both surprising and intriguing, even though the subject matter (an Olbermann-y anchor doing the news the way Saint Derek Jeter plays baseball: The Right Way) seemed dodgy.
Even so, The Newsroom deserved the benefit of all our doubts. On beloved shows like Sports Night and The West Wing, Sorkin had earned a reputation as a smart guy in love with language and in love with the idea of love. His work has always been utopian — particularly on the subject of work — but that’s no crime. When done correctly, utopia is just another pleasant place to which good television can transport us.
But to me (and, yes, to a large number of my critical peers and betters), The Newsroom Season 1 was a disaster. After being challenged by both subject matter (young people, computers, avarice) and a director (David Fincher) far outside of his wheelhouse, Sorkin reached for his favorite hobbyhorses the way President Jed Bartlet once reached for soaring rhetoric. There was a putative hero, Will McAvoy (played by a sour Jeff Daniels), who leaked so much gas I’m surprised a quick-witted tycoon wasn’t tempted to frack him. The scripts were soggy with sanctimony and curlicues of self-congratulatory cleverness. There was sloppy slapstick and torrents of mansplaining. The whole thing felt like the fever dream of an aging New Yorker subscriber passed out after nibbling on some expired hazelnut biscotti. The Newsroom presented a quasi reality in which young people liked musicals, all bars in midtown Manhattan closed at 10 p.m., and the ghost of Edward Murrow stirred self-righteously in his grave.
I know many smart humans enjoyed The Newsroom. I wish I were among them, especially considering the enormous talents involved. (Demand a raise, Emily Mortimer! Fire your agent, John Gallagher! Touch your nose three times if you’re being held against your will, Alison Pill!) But not even the promise that some of the critical concerns had been addressed made me eager to revisit the show for Season 2. Because as much as Sorkin Being Sorkin bothers me these days, his overzealous typewriter isn’t the main flaw of The Newsroom. The main flaw of The Newsroom was — and remains — the central tenet of The Newsroom: its odd insistence on fixing news that has already been broken. Watching recent events (those of 2010 during the first season, Occupy Wall Street to Superstorm Sandy during the second) unfold exactly as we remember them renders the drama, such as it is, utterly inert. And no, editing voice-overs from a live control booth just isn’t as gripping as Sorkin would like it to be. And the same goes for the stern corporate shenanigans of Jane Fonda, Chris Messina, and Sam “Fuck It, Gimme Real Whisky” Waterston.
Look, I appreciate that Sorkin took time during his multiple daily showers to internalize some of the criticism lobbed at him in Year 1, but The Newsroom is built on a swamp. No one could make a good show out of this strange premise, even if he had unlimited access to the Coldplay catalogue. To answer the last of the above questions, I think the desire some have to hatewatch stems from seeing this toxic combination of smugness and earnestness try to repair reality. It’s the same douche-chill I get when I peek at Facebook after an election or — gasp — scroll through Yahoo comments after a Supreme Court decision. Big talk is therapeutic only to the one doing the talking.
OK, yes, sure — maybe there was a sliver of hope. I’d heard that the second season introduced an ACN-specific plotline, one unique to The Newsroom and thus potentially freeing the show from sonorously tracking the highs and lows of a stale news cycle. But the promising plot point — the gang falls prey to an inaccurate, Tailwind-type reporting scandal — is doomed by the exact same navel-gazing-through-20/20-hindsight conceit that sank the first season. Sunday’s episode began in a future not that far away with the cast dealing with the fallout of everything that happened. We then flashed back to begin the process of watching it all go down. Thus, the audience is instantly spoiled on the one thing it might not already know. The Newsroom, it seems, has to retroactively report even its own original scoops.
So, yeah. I’m out on this show. I tried to watch the season premiere, I really did. But to say it made my skin crawl would be an insult to ambulatory babies everywhere. Sorkin’s dialogue still yawps impressively, but the only person he’s having a conversation with is himself. (“I thought, let the chips fall where they may. You know what I think now?” one character asks another. “What?” “Chips are falling.” This doesn’t need a laugh track, it needs an editor.) I cringe at the sight of unflappable men bantering through crises while the women around them flap more wildly than a sidewalk full of agitated pigeons. Forget critical distance, The Newsroom is my bête noire, my anti-Rushmore. I hate3 this show in the same way I hate black licorice and cantaloupes. Other people love those things. And I’m sorry, but I couldn’t possibly tell you why.
Thanks to your McBain reference on your Game of Thrones recaps and my recent addiction to 30 Rock and the great Tracy Jordan (still want to see his “Jefferson” movie), what would be your Top 5 Fake Films from TV shows?
— Vance W.
Great question! Real movies can rarely live up to the ones we imagine in our heads — or, even better, the ones professional funny people like to imagine for us. (Rob Brunner wrote a really cool essay in the New York Times Magazine just the other day about a similar concept.) Here’s my list:
5. McBain (The Simpsons)
You’ve got action, you’ve got blood spatter, and you’ve got what is without a doubt the last great Rainier Wolfcastle performance before he cycled off the steroids and became governor of California.
4. The Rural Juror (30 Rock)
Out of all the adaptations of Kevin Grisham novels, this one — starring Jenna Maroney as Constance Justice — is by far the most faithful.
3. Rochelle Rochelle (Seinfeld)
2. Threat Level Midnight (The Office)
Yes, this ripping action flick about international man of intrigue (and Catherine Zeta-Jones widower) Michael Scarn was technically filmed by a ragtag group of paper salesmen back in 2011. But wouldn’t you love to see Scarn defeat Goldenface and save the NHL All-Star Game with the big budget and cast (Jason Statham, obvs) it deserves?
1. Aquaman (Entourage)
This is the Holy Grail — nay, the Cocksucker Blues — of lost imaginary movies. Can you imagine a $200 million blockbuster directed by the famously shy James Cameron and starring charisma vacuum Vinnie Chase? And then that blockbuster is about a man whose power is the ability to talk to fish? And the supporting cast is filled out by known box office magnets Mandy Moore, Ray Liotta (!), Sharon Stone (!!), and James Woods (as the villainous “Black Manta”)? Mr. Fandango, I’ll take all of the tickets if you please!
With all the expectations for the last season of Breaking Bad, where do you think the ending will rate on disappointment / satisfaction level? On a scale of Lost Finale (lowest) to The Sopranos (highest).
— Brett S.
How important is the ending of Breaking Bad from the perspective of the show’s overall quality once it has concluded?
These are just a sampling of the dozens of similarly stressy questions I received regarding Breaking Bad‘s upcoming final half-season. I get the concern: Vince Gilligan has been so masterful in detailing Walter White’s reckless rise that the pressure to get his inevitable downfall right is enormous. Like, Huell enormous. In fact, Breaking Bad is so meticulous in its storytelling that I would say the stakes for Gilligan here, in terms of legacy, are much higher than they were for David Chase with The Sopranos or David Simon with The Wire. Unlike its Golden Age peers, Breaking Bad has only ever been about one thing, from start to finish. So Mad Men could conceivably biff on the ending without tarnishing all that came before — mainly because there have been so many different things that came before. If Walter White winds up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette or we discover that Heisenberg’s entire criminal operation was just something a deluded Walter Jr. imagined at the bottom of a bowl of Wheaties, well, there will be more than hell to pay. Supervillains, after all, are remembered much more for how they died than how they lived.
But I wouldn’t worry. Gilligan is as focused as Skinny Pete after a blast of the blue. He’s been planning this for a while, and the fact that Season 5 began with a flash-forward suggests that there’s something more concrete than monsters lurking at the edge of his series map. It’s brash — and I’ll write about this more in advance of the August 11 premiere — but I’m actually expecting one of the greatest and most rewarding television finales of all time. The trick, I think, is that we all kind of know how the show is going to end: with Walt’s death. We just don’t know any of the whys or the whats. That’s a challenging but not impossible needle to thread, and I think Gilligan will pull it off like he’s been sewing his entire life. My prediction? There’ll be a cut to black — only this time the slapping will be directed at our faces after we’ve passed out, not the cable box.
If you told me there was a new comedy starring Will Arnett, Margo Martindale, and JB Smoove, I would be 100% in. If you then told me it would be on CBS, I’m never going to watch it. [Editor's note: It is and you probably shouldn't.] How fair are prejudices for and against new shows based on their network/cable channel/website? And how would you rank channels from “I’ll give anything they put out the benefit of the doubt” to “I am dreading this pilot solely because it comes on before Two and a Half Men“? — Kevin M.
After Parks and Rec ends, will I laugh at a comedy from NBC, ABC, or CBS for the rest of my life?
I put these two questions together because John and Kevin seem to suffer from Short Attention Span Theater. All networks dream of stability and consistency, but very few are ever able to achieve it — and even fewer manage to sustain it for long. This is particularly true with the broadcast networks, which, in the fading glow of their financially solvent twilight, tend to swap identities with the glee — and peril — of Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black.4 Fox was the network for brash young men until it became the network for adorkable young women. (This fall, in an attempt to get those brash young men back, it will debut Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a cop comedy starring Andy Samberg. Those responsible include Parks and Rec‘s Mike Schur and Dan Goor, which means there’s a good chance it will make John laugh.) Every few years ABC tries to get away from its roots as a soap factory and then, when its entire fall slate crashes and burns, it thanks Shonda Rhimes and God (in that order) that its roots are still showing — and that they’re still profitable. NBC, those crazy knuckleheads, are on year 10 of throwing everything at the wall in the hopes that something sticks; when it does, boom, there’s the strategy.
CBS is an exception. Under Les Moonves, its comedy and drama development departments have been buffed and polished with Germanic precision. The former produces wildly successful multicamera sitcoms with broad concepts, raucous laugh tracks, and close to zero appeal to humor snobs. The latter produces wildly successful procedurals with initials in the titles, a bad guy in handcuffs every week, and close to zero appeal to drama snobs. So I can see why Kevin would be prejudiced here. I kind of am myself. But cracks are already starting to appear. After experiencing a completely out-of-character autumn last year — out of four new shows, only one, Elementary, survived — this fall, CBS will debut both the Fox-y Hostages and not one but two single-cam sitcoms, although one stars Robin Williams and the other stars Jerry O’Connell, so adjust your expectations accordingly. In general, it’s best to think of networks as you would sports teams: They go through phases, eras, and personalities. At a certain point, you’re just rooting for the logo.
But in terms of channels that have earned the right to have even casual TV fans check out everything they put on, I’d put the current leaderboard5 as:
From Louie to The Americans and now The Bridge, just an incredible, DiMaggio-like hit streak.
The wily veterans. Think of them as the Yankees: always attracting top talent thanks to past glories and a big pocketbook. (Can anyone prove that John From Cincinnati, Tell Me You Love Me, and Hideki Irabu actually happened?) Sure, The Newsroom sucks, but Game of Thrones is Game of Thrones. The more impressive work has been on the comedy side, where the channel has rebounded from a Ricky Gervais–dependent low to now featuring the likes of Girls, Veep, and Family Tree.
3. Sundance Channel/BBC America
The feisty rookies. Both networks have clear POVs, good bloodlines, and a willingness to spend on splashy ideas.
Earned a lot of good will with Homeland. Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex have me concerned about the long haul. (Note: Vatican, starring Coach Taylor as an archbishop, could either reverse or accelerate this slide.)
Because when you see smoke and sirens on the side of the road, you slow down, too.
What’s your opinion on shows that have an opening set piece before the opening credits? (Is it called a tag?) When did this start? I remember Cheers always having one.
—Mark, Madison, WI
I love ‘em! When done well, the little bit of comedy before the opening credits can be a treasure trove of character beats, clever asides, and weirdo gags that set the tone for what’s to come. Think of them as the amusing-bouche before a great meal and then forgive me for making that pun. Of current shows, I think Parks and Recreation does it best, but the greatest of all time is probably Cheers. The moments before the song started were almost always enough to remind you that you were in a place where everybody knew your name.
With that in mind, I reached out to former Cheers (and M*A*S*H and Frasier and Wings) writer Ken Levine for some historical context.
Ken, who maintains an invaluable — and hilarious — TV-related blog of his own, wanted to be clear that what comes before the credits is a “teaser,”6 and they exist to hook viewers in a way that a theme song — even one as memorable as Cheers‘s — never could. A “tag” is actually what comes at the end. And, according to Ken:
“Tags” began early in the ’50s and served a specific purpose. They often incorporated the sponsor into the scene. Burns & Allen would enjoy Carnation Milk, Danny Thomas would relax with a cup of Maxwell House Coffee, etc.
When the sponsorship ended, the practice continued because the networks liked the idea of being able to add another commercial break between the end of act two and the end of the show.
So there you go, Mark. Like most funny things in life, this one was brought to you by the good folks at Maxwell House Coffee.
If you could choose to adapt any three books into TV shows what would they be?
A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin.
But seriously, folks. This is almost impossible to answer, so I’m just going to go with the first three off the top of my head.
1. The Travis McGee novels, by John D. MacDonald
Over the span of 21 novels (and 21 years), Travis McGee — a hulking, kindhearted Lothario and “salvage consultant” — fought bad guys, bedded ladies, and waxed poetic about the changing social dynamics of his home base of South Florida and the country as a whole. From the deck of his houseboat (The Busted Flush; he won it in a card game), Travis could observe and interact with all manner of life, both low and otherwise. Some might argue that this has more or less already been a series — it was called The Rockford Files and it was great. But there’s a reason why NBC keeps trying to reboot Rockford and why everyone from Oliver Stone to Leonardo DiCaprio keeps trying to bring the first McGee book, The Deep Blue Good-by, to the big screen.
I think a contemporary Travis belongs on TV and, with the right casting both for the lead and for Meyer, McGee’s trusted economist pal, this could be a bedrock show for — yes — NBC. It has the light procedural elements that print money for USA but could be grounded with the bigger budgets and occasionally darker ideas of the once-mighty Peacock. Done right, it would “feel” like an NBC show but also suggest a future for a network that, as of late, hasn’t really had one.
2. Storms: My Life With Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac, by Carol Ann Harris
I’ve long thought the epic soap opera of Fleetwood Mac — band falls in love with each other, breaks up, creates some of the greatest albums of all time in the process — would make for an amazing TV series. And that’s without considering all the coke-dusted period details and excess. But what the Behind the Music episode about Rumours lacks is a POV character: someone to take us into the decadent world of the band, someone to be enchanted and, eventually, disgusted by all that goes on. This juicy — like, the Kool-Aid Man sprung a leak juicy — memoir by Lindsey Buckingham’s former girlfriend provides just such a character and more. Obviously, this would need to be lightly fictionalized. But no matter what names an ambitious network (Showtime?) decides to use, the all-night hangs at Eric Clapton’s house alone could redefine “binge watching” for an entire generation.
3. Miami Blues, by Charles Willeford
This was already a pretty good movie starring Fred Ward and a carb-free Alec Baldwin, but I think it could work even better on the small screen. Willeford wrote about Miami in the ’80s with encyclopedic detail and milk-curdling cynicism. His quasi hero, a sad-sack cop named Hoke Moseley, trundled through a dilapidated neon landscape overrun with crime and inertia. Hoke’s Miami Beach has all the Art Deco buildings but none of the charm and not a drop of swag: It’s a seedy ghost town abandoned to pimps, thieves, drug dealers, and, eventually, the ocean. There’s a lighter version of this that could work as a procedural on CBS, but come on: If we’re going to revisit Miami in the ’80s, let’s do what Crockett and Tubbs couldn’t: get dirty.
FX doesn’t need a show like this — though it would crush it. Maybe AMC could get itself right by once again breaking a little bad?
And now, the lightning round:
Do you think that we will see a Mad Men character falling out of a window in the final season?
— Brady M.
Has anyone ever told you that you look like Adam Levine’s goofy little brother? That’s only partially an insult.
— Sam W., Greenville, NC
Thoughts on the rumored Alf reboot?
— Jason, Orange County, CA
Oh dear god, no.