As surely as the seasons change so too do the questions in the old TV mailbag. Where there once were passionate missives begging me to check out Dexter and Sons of Anarchy, now there are passionate missives haranguing me for my failure to appreciate True Detective. (Also? A lot of people begging me to watch Dexter. You guys: It’s over! He’s a lumberjack now!1)
And while we’ll have to agree to disagree on that particular point, one thing that can’t be denied, even by skeptics like me, is True Detective’s commercial success. The numbers have been plenty good (the premiere was HBO’s highest-rated since Boardwalk Empire in 2010), but traditional metrics don’t matter all that much for prestige content farms like HBO. Equally valuable to them are less concrete concepts like “innovation” and “buzz.” And on those scores, True Detective has excelled. Though I found its content familiar, the form is unquestionably radical: It’s an eight-episode story starring two A-list movie actors (one of whom, Matthew McConaughey, is likely to win an Oscar next month), written by one man (Nic Pizzolatto) and directed by another (Cary Joji Fukunaga). The limited number of cooks allows for a creative consistency rare on American television, and the limited number of episodes allows True Detective to push past the boundaries of more traditional series. Rust Cohle and Martin Hart can go places other protagonists can’t because, for them, there’s no going back. Pizzolatto doesn’t have to leave his characters the way he found them or slip them back into their packaging at season’s end so they’ll be ready to go in Year 2. Their onscreen stories might jump around in time, but their lives, both fictional and otherwise, are headed in only one direction.
Paired with the gangbusters success of FX’s American Horror Story, True Detective offers definitive proof of the many ways the golden decade of TV storytelling has fundamentally changed audiences. Contrary to 40 years of industry dogma, there is now a large, engaged portion of the viewing public that is more excited by a limited series than an unlimited one. People want complete stories. They’re willing to accept greater risk as long as there’s the guaranteed reward of resolution waiting at season’s end. Which is a perfect segue to this mailbag’s first official piece of mail:
With the success of miniseries like Top of the Lake or anthology shows like True Detective, do you see this more condensed style becoming much more commonplace in the American television landscape, or do you think this phase has a short life span?
—Jason, New York
Absolutely the former. TV in 2014 is wildly popular and culturally omnipresent. We talk and tweet about it as much as we watch it. (Well, I do.) January now features as many eagerly anticipated debuts and returns as September. It’s unclear which is escalating faster: audiences’ insatiable desire for content or the industry’s unstoppable need to create more of it.
And yet the machinery tasked with producing all these shows is slow, wasteful, and wildly outdated. On the network side, the initial contracts are too prohibitive and too long — thus limiting the talent pool. (Actors like McConaughey and Woody Harrelson aren’t going to sign away seven years of their life. But a couple months? Sure!) I’ve written at length about how ridiculous the entire pilot-season charade is, in which millions of dollars are spent and hundreds of perfectly good ideas wasted, all in the service of a handful of shows unlikely to see a second season. And on cable, the rising ratings of shows like The Walking Dead haven’t lifted all boats — they’ve threatened to swamp them. Channels hoping to compete are now forced to shell out more money on increasingly outrageous concepts solely to justify the future cost of production. Even on the more artistically inclined networks, a show about people isn’t nearly as likely to be green-lit as a show about the things attempting to eat said people.
Limited series change all that. They allow the television business to become as nimble and responsive as the television audience. Without the fear and expenditure of long-term commitment, networks can be free to take bold chances and experiment with style and genre: What American Horror Story does for horror and True Detective for crime, the Marvel/Netflix Defenders initiative might do for capes. But why stop there? Isn’t there room for a rom-com reboot of Love, American Style? Or a medical anthology series that used each season to explore a single issue or location or event? Doctor shows, as currently constituted, inevitably become more about hearts than heart surgeons. An eight-hour series set in a hospital immediately after a terror attack or a virus outbreak could be gripping, fascinating, possibly even important television.
Miniseries are also opportunities for skittish executives to empower creatives who don’t easily fit into preexisting boxes. This is a strategy FX is smartly pursuing with filmmakers like Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers — the upcoming Fargo, which shares a “mood” but not a plot with the beloved film, will be an interesting test case on the possibilities of adaptation — and one HBO might consider with the increasingly TV-averse David Simon or the movie-obsessed David Chase. (After The Sopranos, there’s no chance Chase would return to episodic television. But wouldn’t his labor of love Not Fade Away have been better served as a four-to-six-hour miniseries?)
Of the four traditional broadcasters, Fox has been the one to get in front of this trend. The two biggest planks in its recently announced plan to abolish pilot season entirely are Gracepoint — the American adaptation of the British series Broadchurch (one town, one murder investigation, and, to date, just one season) — and 24: Live Another Day, an “event series” that resurrects Jack Bauer. In the past, the reasons against bringing back 24 might have won out: The 24-hour format was too demanding, the concept too old, the stars too not-under-contract. But Fox boss Kevin Reilly wisely ignored all of that for the simple reason that just because things worked one way in the past doesn’t mean they have to do so in the future. These days, thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, old shows never really leave us. Cancellation may put an end to new episodes, but not new viewers. Just because 24 is no longer viable as a weekly series doesn’t mean it’s no longer viable.
Considered this way, limited series aren’t just a way to get new ideas onto our screens, they’re a brilliant way to service old ones. If Reilly’s peers and competitors started thinking more like him, just imagine the possibilities: Shows that were ahead of their times might get a second shot; shows that shot themselves in the foot might be allowed to return to the field, their initial cancellation really more of an injury timeout. Which brings me to the next question:
In the past few months, you’ve frequently used this space to report on the demise of NBC. While you’ve offered some very thoughtful prescriptions for how to fix the Peacock’s numerous ailments, I’d like to humbly offer my two cents: Bring back The West Wing!
This question went on to list five very insightful bullet points as to why The West Wing is due for a comeback (continued fandom, Scandal and House of Cards proving there’s an interest in political shows, etc.), but I was simply too excited to cut and paste them all out. Instead, Chuck, I’m just going to cut you off. You guys, this is exactly what I’m talking about! On Monday I listed some ’80s franchises that NBC ought to consider revisiting, from L.A. Law to The Golden Girls. But those are all reaches that would require complete and total revamps. Not so here: It’s borderline criminal for NBC to continue circling the drain with a franchise as popular and relevant as The West Wing sitting on the shelf. The Winter Olympics are proof that NBC can yank the programming wheel and steer all its resources into hyping a single event. And MSNBC is proof that the suits at 30 Rock know all about sucking every ounce of drama and outrage from the news cycle like leeches at a blood bank. The West Wing event series needs to happen and it needs to happen now. Here’s how:
The West Wing went off the air exactly eight years ago. Which means that, in the show’s fictional universe, the improbable two-term presidency of Matt Santos is only now coming to an end. Santos, you may recall, was explicitly based on an electrifying young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, meaning that, more than ever, The West Wing’s fiction is remarkably close to our reality. The resurrected event series would, over the course of 12 episodes, trace the dramatic ticktock of the race to succeed Santos, a figure who arrived promising hope and change and is leaving under a cloud of negativity and disappointment. And instead of veering off into Sorkinian wish fulfillment, this new West Wing — overseen, I hope, by John Wells, the man who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for keeping the ship afloat after Aaron went AWOL2 — would rip its plots from headlines like a wanton episode of Law & Order. On the Democratic side, there’d be a Hillary-like former first lady (Joan Allen) who enters primary season with the establishment wind firmly at her back. Her challengers could include a mouthy governor from New York (Bobby Cannavale), an ascendant senator from New Jersey (Keegan-Michael Key), and a long-shot senator from the Midwest (Amy Ryan). On the Republican side, things would be more unsettled and considerably more vitriolic. (Eight years of Santos and his policies — including a controversial health care law — will do that to an opposition party.) Front-runners would include a bullying Northeastern governor (Jeff Garlin), a dashing Cuban American senator (Esai Morales), and a Tea Party–backed objectivist from the Deep South (Stephen Moyer).
Sprinkled into the mix would be all our old favorites from the Bartlett years. Yes, stalwarts like Rob Lowe and Bradley Whitford have day jobs, but here’s where the beauty of the limited-series format comes into play: It’s not too great a commitment for them to at least drop by. Those with more free time would be welcome to join the staffs of the various candidates: Maybe Dulé Hill’s Charlie Young is serving as a senior adviser to Santos when he gets the call to work for Ryan’s long shot? And wouldn’t it be great to see Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler and Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg in their post–White House lives and witness firsthand how the allure of power and influence keeps dragging them back to D.C.? Jimmy Smits would be around, of course, making the awkward transition from leader of the free world to figurehead, not to mention the welcome presence of Alan Alda as that rare and beautiful RINO, Arnold Vinick.
Scripted TV is traditionally a responsive medium. It often takes years for outsize events to filter from reality into our entertainment, a process that can lead to some fascinating art (the way Lost took 9/11 fears about civilization and “others” and added polar bears) and some unfortunate, draggy groupthink (the way nearly every network drama from 2005–08 had to shoehorn in both terrorism and some sort of vast conspiracy). Why can’t TV lead instead of follow? In two years, the presidential election will be the biggest thing on the air. Here’s a chance for NBC to get a jump on it. If done right — and done quickly — a return to The West Wing could end up being the best (and, strangely, the most forward-thinking) thing NBC’s done in years.
If you could pick a pairing of any two A-list actors for Season 2 of True Detective, whom would you choose?
Man, for a show I don’t like, True Detective really has a way of driving conversation! Other than wondering if Rust Cohle will ever stop talking or if the two present-day cops will (a) ever be given names, or (b) ever be given something more to do than raise their eyebrows at something Rust Cohle said about the nature of the universe, there is no question more exciting right now than this one. Just because I don’t love this iteration of True Detective doesn’t mean I won’t love the next one. Especially when the possibilities for casting are so vast. It could literally be anyone, even a classic Hollywood pairing. Think Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari, or Cameron Diaz and that Ferrari! The only thing we do know for sure is that HBO will target the biggest names possible. And given how this first season has been received — present company excluded, of course — I have to believe a good portion of those names will listen.
Though I hold out hope for a season featuring, say, Emily Blunt and Alison Pill, I’m willing to accept that as long as Nic Pizzolatto is writing the show, it will have a decidedly masculine slant. Even so, think of the possibilities once you consider actors who aren’t blond and roughly the same age. John Goodman and Oscar Isaac were remarkable onscreen together in Inside Llewyn Davis — what about the two of them as grizzled veteran and mysterious rookie? Or perhaps taking an established dramatic heavy like Ciarán Hinds or Ray Winstone and pairing him with a lively performer better known for comedy like Danny McBride (who started out playing it straight) or Bill Hader (the talk of Sundance for his solemn turn in The Skeleton Twins)?
Ultimately, I decided on a pair of actors who fit the following criteria:
1. Established film career
2. Past evidence of interesting acting ability
3. A career trajectory that suggests an opportunity like this would be welcome
My preferred duo? Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie. The two were dynamite in The Hurt Locker: The then-unknown Renner was revelatory, a ticking time bomb, while Mackie crackled and popped like a lit fuse. Since then, Renner has been slowly pushed through the celebrity mill, grinding out all texture in the process, while Mackie has been forced to play third fiddle in easy-to-digest fare like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The two share not only frustration, but the sort of talent that, when indulged, sets off sparks — half illuminating, half dangerous. Given the chance, I imagine they’d take to their tortured-cop roles like starving men to a steak dinner or, better, Rust Cohle to an overwrought metaphor.3
In search of a broader perspective, I reached out to some of my Grantland culture colleagues for their Season 2 dream teams. Their replies (with my comments in parentheses):
Bill Simmons: Jason Priestley and Luke Perry
(I’m only onboard with this if the season is also divided between the early ’90s and the present day. Forcing Brandon Walsh and Dylan McKay to confront their future, balding selves would be a lot more horrific than that creepy dude in the gas mask and twice as tragic.)
Dan Fierman: Frances McDormand and Anthony Mackie
(One thing I really would like to see is for Season 2 to introduce cops who differ from each other in ways that go beyond metaphysical musings on the nature of man. Also, for a relatively obscure actor, Anthony Mackie certainly came up a lot!)
Emily Yoshida: Catherine Keener and Gaby Hoffmann
(We are drifting pretty far from the “A-list” here, but I do love the idea of Keener as a grizzled cop. It’d make a nice change of pace from the grizzled boho suburbanites she’s been playing for a decade.)
Sean Fennessey: Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer
(Here is an undated photo of Sean Fennessey.)
Sean Fennessey: Actual answer: Jude Law and Ewan McGregor
(OK, I forgive you. This would be tremendous, especially if it were set in the English Midlands during 1988’s acid house–drenched Summer of Love. But since Pizzolatto’s work rarely makes it farther west than Texas, it wouldn’t be. So I qualify my enthusiasm.)
Chris Ryan: Michael Peña and Ben Foster
(Phenomenal idea! Not really A-list, but you could do a whole lot worse than giving meaty, scenery-chewing cop roles to two of the more electric and eclectic working actors under the age of 40.)
Mark Lisanti: Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac
(Ding ding ding! This is my favorite idea of the bunch.)
Rembert Browne: Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay OR Vin Diesel and Kristen Bell
(Here is an undated photo of Rembert Browne.)
Alex Pappademas: Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt
Wesley Morris: Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter OR Michael B. Jordan and Anthony Mackie
(What I love about both of these isn’t just the obvious diversity: It’s the disparity in ages. A Weaver-Hunter pairing would be about women facing the wind-down of their careers. Jordan and Mackie would be about young men on the rise.)
Bill Simmons: In all seriousness, my answer is Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer.
(In all seriousness: They would totally do this. Wouldn’t they? What could they possibly have to lose?)
During the first season of The Bridge, I devoured Charles Bowden’s Murder City (on your very astute recommendation) and so I was wondering what novel/work of nonfiction might pair well with the upcoming second season of The Americans? For context, I am about to begin Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston, which I hope pairs well with True Detective. In the past, I barreled through the A Song of Ice and Fire series and two of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan novels for Game of Thrones and Justified, respectively, so I’m eager to hear your take on the issue of book/TV pairings.
— Jack B., Arlington, Texas
What a great question! Reading and TV don’t have to be enemies — often they can be the best of friends, particularly when it comes to filling in the gaps between seasons or between the stories that are told and the larger fictional world left unexplored. I fully support all the choices you’ve listed above and would reiterate that Pizzolatto’s Galveston not only goes well with True Detective, it also actually suggests all the ways the show could — and hopefully will — be better. (For a similarly swampy view of Louisiana, I highly recommend the work of James Lee Burke. Start with The Neon Rain.)
The Americans is a show deeply indebted to spy fiction — something its creator, Joe Weisberg, is all too happy to admit. Though it’s not set in the 1980s, Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn is the single best Cold War–era spy book I’ve ever read — it tells the secret, global history of the JFK assassination through the eyes of one overly dedicated agent. (The sequel, The Last Supper, is probably the second best.) John le Carré is probably the greatest single influence on the show — my podcast partner Chris Ryan is forever touting the virtues of le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. There’s a great trilogy — actually, if you stick with it, a trilogy of trilogies — by Len Deighton about the long, quiet struggle against the KGB and the toll it took on one man in particular. The place to start there is with Berlin Game. And if you’re interested in the KGB side of things, check out the Arkady Renko books by Martin Cruz Smith.
As for other book-show pairings? Any fan of The Wire ought to check out David Simon’s two nonfiction books. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was the basis for the NBC series, and The Corner led to the acclaimed HBO miniseries of the same name. Breaking Bad fans clamoring for their next fix might want to check out Tony D’Souza’s Mule, about an ordinary Joe drawn into the highly specific, exceedingly dangerous drug trade. And Boardwalk Empire enthusiasts ought to put down their teacup of hooch immediately and purchase Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night. It’s a Prohibition-set crime thriller so expansive, so enveloping that it shines an unintentional, unflattering spotlight on all Boardwalk’s flaws, from its uncompelling protagonist to its overreliance on historical figures. That’s probably why Lehane was brought in to consult on this past, improved season (all the story lines in Tampa were his). Oh, and if you’re a fan of Dads, I think I have an old coloring book I can lend you.
Now that Richard Belzer’s “John Munch” has retired, what actor/character would you like to see continue for years and years across all kinds of TV shows? I nominate Jonathan Banks’s “Mike Ehrmantraut” and plan on pretending he is playing Mike when he appears on Community.
Good plan! Because it certainly seems as if Community’s writers were pretending that, too! (They did a similar thing when they cast Michael Kenneth Williams as Professor Omar, basically.) Also, a good choice in Mike: With this week’s announcement that Jonathan Banks would be playing Kaylee’s grandpa in the upcoming Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, Mike is well on his way to Munch-ville.
In keeping with Munch’s profession and original city of origin, I think my choice would be Wendell Pierce as Detective Bunk Moreland. He was good enough at his job to make his show-hopping plausible and delightful enough to make audiences eager to see him, no matter the situation. The test for this ought to be: Think of any show, any show at all. Does Bunk make this show better? Whether you chose Low Winter Sun or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the answer is always a hearty, drunken “yes.”
Some other possibilities: Andre Royo as Bubbles could work in everything from hard-hitting dramas to light comedies to home improvement shows. (He knows where to find a great deal on copper wiring!) I’d like to see Creed Bratton from The Office lurking in the background of just about anything, particularly shows set in wildly divergent time periods like Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human. I think I speak for most Friday Night Lights fans when I say I just assume that Connie Britton is playing Mrs. Coach at all times — she’s impressive enough to maintain her workload at Braemore College while pursuing her lucrative singing career. And wouldn’t nearly any show be improved — OK, maybe not improved, but certainly shaken up — if Gaby Hoffmann appeared in full mufti as Caroline Sackler?
In previous podcasts, you have discussed your enjoyment of shows like The Wire, The Returned, Breaking Bad — specifically, that they film in the actual location the story is set in. For financial reasons, this doesn’t happen more often, but if it could, what shows would you like to see in underused locations?
Oh, man. I’ve long hoped for a show that captured the eerie weirdness — part Southern, part Caribbean — that lurks in South Florida, just behind the glitzy deco facades. (I’m hoping FX’s upcoming Hoke — based on the excellent novels of Charles Willeford – will finally give me my fix.) There’s a similar secret strangeness to Las Vegas, particularly the “authentic” parts away from the Strip that always struck me as more surreal than real. I love New Orleans and think it could support a show with more whimsy and wonder than the doggedly reverential Treme. Mexico City is one of my favorite places in the world; I only wish someone would bankroll a series that attempted to capture its complicated beauty. (At the very least, I wish The Bridge were able to move its production from Southern California to the actual border of Texas and Mexico.) Every screenwriter in L.A. should watch the Parts Unknown episode set in Detroit and immediately challenge themselves to come up with a fiction that could do justice to such a proud and impossible reality.
As a big Archer fan, I love this year’s transition into Archer Vice as much as you do. What other TV shows do you think could be improved by making a similar shift in theme and direction?
So many possibilities! With the caveat that none of these could ever happen, mainly because no flesh-and-blood show has the self-immolating freedom of a cartoon, here are some ideas:
The Mindy Project
Mindy leaves the practice and New York entirely for a teaching gig at Dartmouth. This solves numerous problems: It removes the work aspect of the show, which has long been the weak link. (Though, if necessary, I suppose Adam Pally and Chris Messina could occasionally road-trip up to New Hampshire.) It gives Mindy (the character) a chance to play off of young people, which has proved to be consistently fertile terrain, and it provides Mindy (the writer/real-life Dartmouth grad) a chance to satirize the liberal, artsy piety that runs amok in college towns. Best of all, it would fill the university-size void currently plaguing our TV schedule — and provide a perfect pairing with the Tina Fey–produced Cabot College arriving on Fox this fall.
I get the idea here. Having the rough-and-tumble Donovans scrapping out their family issues under the hot glare of the Hollywood sun is interesting, like mixing The Departed with Entourage. In practice, though? It’s as bad as that sounds. Why not just ship the Donovans back east? For as much as Boston dominates the multiplex, it’s weirdly underrepresented on the small screen. I think this crime drama could be salvaged if it focused more on the crime and less on the wink-wink insider drama. What I wouldn’t give to see Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight prowling the streets where everyone knows your name — provided your name is Sully and you have a Daniel Nava shirsey hanging in your closet.
Sick of the soapy swamp this once-promising show has sunk into of late? Then you’ll love Nashville: Austin which basically airlifts all the parts that are working (Rayna, Deacon, Juliette, the music, the accents) to Austin, Texas, and jettisons everything else.
After five seasons, it’s starting to feel as if Raylan Givens has put a bullet into nearly every interesting part of Kentucky. Why not hit refresh and send him straight back to where it all began? Prior to this season’s welcome return to the Sunshine State, it had felt like ages since Raylan was a slick Miami lawman running up against white-collar mobsters against the glittering backdrop of Biscayne Bay. Let’s double down on the show’s recent activity and send Raylan and Boyd to Florida permanently! It’d basically be like Cocaine Cowboys, only — get this — with real cowboys. Call it Justified: Vice and thank me in the morning.
Imagine how good this show could be again if they just moved on from the Brody psychodrama, changed Saul from the ultimate insider to a shadowy outsider, made Carrie good at her job, and moved her to, I don’t know, let’s say Istanbul? What’s that? That’s exactly what they’re doing? Great! Carry on.
Parks and Recreation
It’s borderline sacrilege to say it, but after years of threatening us with leaving too soon, is Parks — recently renewed for a seventh season — now in danger of overstaying its welcome? I’m not saying the last few episodes have been any less delightful, but they have been somehow less fulfilling, as if Pawnee may now be as limiting for the show as it turned out to be for the soon-to-depart Chris and Ann.4 Maybe the best thing — maybe the only thing? — remaining for a series so devoted to personal and professional change is to transform itself.
I would love to see Leslie and Ben move on from the petty frustrations of candy oligarchies and intra-office flatulence and take brave, new steps in their professional careers. I’m not sure quite what this would entail, but it’s hard not to read Jennifer Barkley’s expensive advice as a warning: After being recalled by the voters, why would Leslie limit herself, and her monolithic ambition, to Pawnee? A corresponding shake-up now feels inevitable. Does this mean moving the characters (and the show) to Indianapolis? Or Washington, D.C.? Or possibly the Hague? (Note: It definitely does not mean moving the show to the Hague.) We might not like it, but I bet we’d learn to love it. Besides, Ron Swanson would still come visit, even it meant wading into Foggy Bottom. Bacon isn’t illegal on the East Coast. At least not yet.