It’s summer! But don’t get too comfortable on that inflatable raft, pool boy. There’s serious TV to be watched inside. Yes, it’s true: A time that was once reserved for lazy reruns and lazier reality shows has recently been transformed into a contained hothouse — a Dome, if you will — of top-tier talent and worthwhile programming. To help navigate these choppy waters, I dipped into the trusty TV Mailbag. What I discovered there was inspiring in its passion, insane in its theorizing, and downright bizarre in its continuing obsession with Homeland.
As always, these are real questions from real readers. Except for the one that’s a real question from my boss. To have your question answered in a future mailbag, send it to GrantlandTVMailbag@gmail.com
To the bag!
Why is an actor as good as Scott Bakula stuck reheating someone else’s gumbo on NCIS: New Orleans this fall? Can’t something be done about the way CBS is hoarding top-tier talent and wasting it on midgrade product?
—Andy G., Brooklyn
Boy, am I glad I asked that question! Sorry for the blatant mailbag-stuffing, but I had to get this off my chest. Some context: Earlier this year, Bakula was brilliant on HBO’s strong freshman series Looking. Playing Lynn, a gay man of a different generation than the main cast, Bakula evinced the tough sort of tenderness possible only in those who have managed to carve out a safe place for themselves in an unpredictable world. Though the character didn’t suggest a long-term landing spot for Bakula, the performance certainly did.
This summer, I’ve been bombarded with ads for CBS’s latest cookie-cutter procedural, NCIS: New Orleans. (Consider it the quick-boil Zatarain’s to Treme’s meticulous slow food.) And right there in the thick of them is Bakula, buffed-up and plasticky, hollering hooey about doing this his way in his city. This is enormously disappointing on all sorts of levels.
A week ago, I wrote a column about movie stars taking to the small screen. Consider this rant the flip side. Just as there are few actors who can be considered outright movie stars, there are precious few who have accomplished the same thing on television. Well, it’s not the same thing exactly. A movie star is someone who can carry an entire production — good or bad, flimsy or heavy — on his or her back all the way to profitability. A true TV star is someone with whom audiences have fallen in love to the point that he or she is welcome in our homes at any time, and in practically any context. Bakula is one of those actors. From Quantum Leap to Star Trek: Enterprise to the underappreciated Men of a Certain Age, Bakula’s scuffling, ageless face has been a beacon and a constant. He’s amiable without being needy, warm without being soft. Like the late, great James Garner, Bakula makes acting look like the easiest thing in the world.
And so while I make it a point to never begrudge an actor a healthy paycheck, seeing Bakula cash it in on a spinoff of a spinoff is plenty disheartening. Especially just when things were getting so interesting! Unlike movie stars, TV stars don’t really come with expiration dates. If they’ve been beloved even once, chances are they can stay working as long as they feel like it. As an always employable actor of a certain age, Bakula had finally entered the sweet spot of his career, in which it’s possible to take parts for fun, for the challenge, for the experience. (Bakula’s pre-Looking performance was in Steven Soderbergh’s excellent Behind the Candelabra.) Anything but for money. And yet here he is, landing the sort of job a broke twentysomething dreams about: top-lining a show that will entertain millions, run for a zillion years, and inspire absolutely no one.
It’s a predicament shared by Ted Danson. With the dazzling two-step from Damages to Bored to Death, the former Sam Malone proved he was capable of tackling any sort of role under the sun. Like Bakula, he appeared ripe for a late-career resurgence or, at the very least, a healthy run of doing whatever the hell he wanted. And then CBS chief Les Moonves backed up the Brink’s truck, leaving Danson stuck tweezing corpses on the 138th season of CSI.
Can’t we arrange some sort of Kickstarter to free these guys from their highly lucrative contracts? It’s not like the shows need them. The CSI and NCIS franchises don’t require faces to succeed — all they need are those magic letters in the title. And, while we’re at it, can we introduce some sort of amnesty clause for veteran actors so brilliant performers like Margo Martindale, Allison Janney, and Beau Bridges aren’t stuck playing checkers on mediocre sitcoms when they could be playing to win on The Americans and Masters of Sex? At CBS, the system is the star. So I wish the network would let its graying supernovas shine somewhere else.
The Homeland Season 4 trailer is out and the biggest thing about it is that Dana Brody is nowhere to be seen. Can we finally say farewell to the worst TV character of the decade?
—Bill S., Los Angeles
Far be it from me to disagree with my boss, but I find it hard to call Dana Brody the worst TV character of the decade — not when her brother Chris is still weakly karate-chopping somewhere just offscreen. But Dana was certainly the most problematic character in recent memory; just a glimpse of her trademark smirk is enough to send even non-CIA analysts reaching for their econo-jugs of Chablis. As much as I’m dying to know how her new life as a motel maid is working out, I can’t say I’m sorry to see her go.
But laying Homeland’s many problems on Morgan Saylor’s slender shoulders just doesn’t seem fair. As with so much of the series, it’s possible to see clever thinking behind what ultimately became frustrating viewing. For example, I think Saylor is a fine actor, particularly when her sarcastic blankness is catered to. Early on in Homeland’s run, the relationship between the lying Brody and his slowly credulous daughter was one of the high points of what was a tremendous first season. The show only ran into trouble when it started to depend on the untested Saylor to carry B-plots that, if we’re being honest, were really more like Fs: the car crash with the veep’s wayward son; the runaway road trip with her make-out pal from the psych ward. A player can have all the promise in the world, but she’s not going anywhere without a coach who sets her up in a position to succeed. Is it coincidence or confession that Dana was always stuck with awful drivers?
The thing is, there really was a worthwhile story hidden in the depths of Brody’s family: How would you react if your missing father became an American hero? And how would you feel when he was revealed to be an American villain? (There was even — if you really, really squint — a germ of a good idea in that runaway story line. Here was Dana once again uncomfortably close to a guy with a pretty warped view of suicide.) But Homeland wasn’t able to cash the opulent story checks being scribbled in the writers’ room. An engaging investigation into the moral and psychological debris thrown into the Brody household was one of the many casualties of the show’s strange detour into Carrie/Brody ’shipping. Beginning midway through the second season, all the characters who could have been compelling were reduced to spectators. It wasn’t pretty, and it also wasn’t fair. It’s how you end up with charticles like this.
So while we don’t exactly mourn Dana’s passing, we shouldn’t necessarily celebrate it, either. Because without the Brody family to serve as doormats and/or punching bags, the new season of Homeland will have to stand alone. Early signs are encouraging: The trailer is decent, the new additions to the cast strong (Corey Stoll — and bald, too, just how the good Lord made him!), and the return of writer Meredith Stiehm after a year away on The Bridge is a very good thing. I’m happy the show is finally committing to the path it probably should have taken two years ago (Carrie as actionable and intelligent, not loony and in lurrrrrrrrve), yet that alone isn’t enough to restore my trust. Dana may be in the rearview mirror. But the same folks are still driving the car.
I’m assuming you’ve seen the new trailer for Season 4 of Homeland? Can I direct you to the :34 mark where Carrie seems to be downing pills with a glass of wine (again).
This made me think … who do you got in a wine-off? Carrie Mathison or Cersei Lannister? Surely Carrie’s five seconds or less wine chug gives her a chance against the Queen Regent.
Ray, this is a terrific question. And while I long for a day when we could see it answered directly — I’m picturing Claire Danes and Lena Headey reenacting the Raiders of the Lost Ark drinking contest, but with Sauvignon Blanc in their cups and pinkies fully extended — the vagaries of contracts, competing fictional universes, and reality will never let it happen. So all we’re left to do is imagine.
Which is something I am very happy to do! This strikes me as an interesting matchup from the start, not only because it’s a battle between two made-up characters who are equally implausible. (I’ll tell you this: History has a lot more cold, calculating, incestuous royals than it does brilliant, bipolar spies who continually fail upward despite a constant cloud of antipsychotics, tequila, and resentment.)
Cersei is a marathon wine drinker. From the moment she wakes up (in bed with her brother) to the moment she finally closes her eyes (in bed with her brother), she’s drinking. It’s a slow, steady pour of the red stuff — not something that’s easily chugged. Carrie, by contrast, is a high-intensity/high-volume drinker. I could class it up and suggest that she prefers a crisp, bone-dry white because she works and lives in a city built on a swamp or because she knows that white wines are better for whetting the appetite and for pairing with most food — but then again, she lives on a diet of expired yogurt and tears, so none of that is important. If she were to face off against Cersei in a well-stocked jazz bar just off Dupont Circle, Carrie would easily take the early lead. (I could see her using the Coravin like a straw.) But as the bassist grooved his way into a third solo, I could envision things getting a little blurry for the super spy. She’s both too impatient and too riddled with metabolism-affecting pills to keep it together for long. That’s why Cersei is your winner here. If she could outlast this guy, she can outlast anybody. Cersei will still be smugly sipping long after Carrie has gone deep undercover. If you come at the Queen, you best not miss.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming AMC series Better Call Saul?
Ryan, can I be honest with you? We’ve only known each other for two sentences, but I feel like there is a circle of trust between us. I’m going to share something with you about Better Call Saul, something that I’ve been thinking for a very long time but have never expressed publicly. Are you ready? Here it goes:
I am dreading this show and I think it’s an awful idea.
OK, OK. Breathe. All the usual caveats apply. It’s impossible to form an accurate opinion of a show that won’t even premiere until next year. If anyone in television has earned the benefit of our doubt over the past decade, it’s Vince Gilligan. Bob Odenkirk just spent 10 weeks on Fargo proving he’s able to play deep as well as broad. Television is rife with lawyer shows and crime shows — a series about a crooked lawyer is long overdue. And as the president and founder of the TV Dramas Need to Be Funnier Society, Better Call Saul is, on paper, just the sort of thing I’ve been campaigning for.
But I can only hold up the happy face for so long. The truth is, I’m a big believer in endings. And Breaking Bad finished its run on an unparalleled two-year tear that lifted the series first to pantheon status and then straight into the stratosphere. There’s something to be said about leaving well enough alone, and that thing is this: You should totally do it! The memory of After MASH faded in time; no one brings up Joey when discussing Friends. But Breaking Bad is unique in that it was obsessively beloved by everyone who watched it and, small quibbles aside, its legacy is almost completely without criticism. (I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing. It’s just a thing that has happened. Whatever wrongs Gilligan & Co. committed along the way have, through the blue meth–colored glasses of history, been reversed.) Yes, a good scientist would be honor-bound to try to repeat the results of a successful experiment. But TV brilliance isn’t science. It’s a spooky combination of alchemy, luck, and magic. Going back to the scene of the crime reeks of hubris and/or foolishness. Probably both.
I’ve never met the man, but I believe Gilligan when he says, as he did last week at TCA, that “anything worth doing is worth risking abject humiliating failure over.” He and Better Caul Saul creator Peter Gould seem legitimately jazzed about the possibilities of opening up the character’s grimy, funny little world. But what I really think he’s excited about is returning to a world he only recently left behind. Gilligan’s reputation as an incredibly nice person seems to be earned; in interviews he appears to be as proud of the employment opportunities Breaking Bad created in Albuquerque as he is of the show itself. When desperate AMC offered him a sweetheart deal to keep the lights on for the hundreds of people who might otherwise be out of work, I think it was their stories that caused Gilligan to say yes more than Saul Goodman’s. This is enormously kind and admirable, but that kindness won’t show up in the finished product. The show needs to be worthy of Emmys, not civic commendations.
Whenever you’re dealing with Heisenberg, there’s bound to be uncertainty. But for now, Better Call Saul feels as shaky to me as Kaylee Ehrmantraut’s college fund.
You know how your boss has the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars? Can you get some traction going for the Chris Brody All-Stars? Obviously, the team would consist of forgotten sons on great TV shows. Who would be the starting five? I’d like to nominate Bobby Draper for the point guard position.
Man, Homeland isn’t back on the air for three months and you guys are already in midseason snark mode. Respect!
I love the premise but take issue with the name. While Chris Brody only excels at two things — practicing sports and being forgotten — he’s far from the most egregiously ignored son in television history. That dubious honor goes to the one and only Frederick Crane, a child Frasier loved so much that he moved across the country to get as far away from him as humanly possible without having to use his passport. Isn’t this an eternal knock against one of TV’s all-time most beloved comic characters? Yes, Frasier was a pompous, deluded buffoon (and those were his good qualities), but he was also a deadbeat dad of the first order! And when you take into account the psychological trauma of being raised by Lilith, shouldn’t there be an even worse order to put him in? Sure, Frederick made a few cursory guest appearances now and again, but since Frasier ran for a decade it’s no surprise the writers were occasionally forced to exhume him. The treatment of Frederick ought to be a cautionary tale for any sitcom writer who thinks kids are an easy way to patch up a tattered, aging show — not to mention for anyone thinking of procreating with a scatting psychiatrist.
So, then, here are my starting five for the Frederick Crane All-Stars:
C Chuck Cunningham (Happy Days)
PF Bobby Draper (Mad Men)
A different player every night — or at least every few years or so.
SF Gene Draper (Mad Men)
Tons of upside. Mainly because we’ve yet to see any other side.
SG Rickon Stark (Game of Thrones)
Be honest: You forgot this kid even existed.
PG Frederick Crane (Frasier)
Less missed in Seattle than Courtney Love.
Bench: Chris Brody (Homeland)
According to Wikipedia, Jack Bauer was born in the 1960s to Phillip Bauer.
The Americans takes place in the 1980s, and the Jenningses have been married for about 20 years. In Season 1 we learn Phillip had an illegitimate son with Irina. That son was probably born in the early 1960s or late 1950s.
Imagine an alternate reality where Phillip Jennings’s illegitimate son grows up to be Jack Bauer.
Jack Bauer: KGB love child/American Hero.
That mushroom cloud over the Kremlin was my brain exploding.
Many new shows for the upcoming TV season have comic/graphic novel origins ( Gotham, The Flash, Constantine). With networks’ increased interest in these adaptations, Brian K. Vaughan’s recent success as a writer for Lost and Under the Dome, and the rights of Y: The Last Man reverting back to the creators sometime this year, is there a high possibility of this comic being adapted into a television show? Or is the fact that the cast would be over 90 percent women something that would make too many networks squeamish?
I hope they make it! It would seem like a no-brainer at this point. Y — the story of a mysterious plague that wipes out every male on the planet except for a plucky amateur magician named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand — looks to me like exactly the sort of project most networks are looking for these days. Forget the comic-book part; what’s truly valuable here is the built-in fan base and the reined-in story. Are you noticing the way The Strain’s producers are happily telling everyone that their just-launched maybe-hit show is going to run at most for five years? Now that shows are just as valuable in their afterlives as in their initial run (if not more so), networks are increasingly looking at finite stories.1
A story with a set ending also adds value to said afterlife — I wonder how many potential Lost fans have been scared away from starting it up on Netflix because of the persistent negative chatter about the finale.
A well-built vehicle will still draw attention, but a final destination is a lot more important.
So when and if the rights revert back to Vaughan and his cocreator, artist Pia Guerra, I certainly hope the two of them start taking meetings with every cable network and streaming service in town. Apocalyptic plagues are all the rage these days. (You can currently find high- and lowbrow versions of them every Sunday.) Yet I think there’s room for one more, particularly one with the totally unique gender breakdown. I think you’re onto something when you suggest that Y’s cast list might raise a few eyebrows and reduce some options. (Orange Is the New Black is primarily female, but it still has a handful of prominent male characters.) But I hope a smart executive2 will be able to see past his own – and it’s likely to be his — prejudices and outdated fears and give the show a chance. Despite all of TV’s creative gains, the roles and opportunities available for women are still painfully lacking. Y, the series, could single-handedly start to make up that deficit. It’d be the rare show without wives and hookers. Instead, actresses would be tasked with filling out a devastated world: as soldiers, as victims, as opportunists, and, most of all, as fully considered people. That’s worth a watch no matter how you may feel about pet monkeys.
The first meeting I would set up would be with Showtime’s David Nevins. Not only is he the rare exec without an apocalypse show currently on the air, he has shown a strong commitment to female voices in his few years at the top. Ray Donovan, Masters of Sex, and the upcoming The Affair all have female showrunners. With the notable exception of Girls, all of HBO’s shows, by contrast, are run by men.
Every year there are coaches who are supposedly on the hot seat. Couldn’t, or possibly shouldn’t, showrunners be on the hot seat? Which showrunners would currently be on a hot seat?
Yesssssss! The entertainment industry and sports are basically covered the same way online, with arcane stats and offseason transactions garnering nearly as many clicks as the ostensible product. This sort of wildly destabilizing rumormongering would take things to the next step — and be a boon to the already thriving Southern California psychiatric industry. Can you imagine if, during Homeland’s rough third season, Showtime boss David Nevins was photographed having a clandestine lunch with Carlton Cuse? Or if it was reported that Parks and Rec head man Mike Schur was quietly making calls gauging actors’ interest in committing to a “reimagined” Modern Family? The what-ifs alone would be better than most series. Not to mention the opportunities for proven legends like David Chase and David Simon (the Phil Jackson and Larry Brown of TV — one above the fray, the other constantly yammering about the mess) to burnish their reputations and bank accounts through a steady flow of eyebrow-raising no-comments.
Going into the fall of ’14, I think the hottest seats are the ones burning beneath Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, the husband-and-wife team in charge of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show was projected to be a game-changer, for both the struggling network (which, like Grantland, is owned by the Walt Disney Company) and the ever-expanding Marvel Fictional Universe. But instead, the first season wound up curiously playing out the string — a leaden show about the uncharismatic Zeligs of comic-book history. Things began to turn around as the story line synched up with the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But to me the series still feels like a missed opportunity. If I were ABC president Paul Lee, I’d be quietly putting out feelers to clever genre-jugglers like Chuck’s Chris Fedak, Game of Thrones vet Vanessa Taylor, and the eternally star-crossed Kyle Killen. Sometimes the only way to get the best work out of someone on the hot seat is to light another fire.
I just watched a blonde queen ingest a human heart in a scene that lasted, like, forever. Then she helped give birth to three baby dragons in a fire.
Why should I keep watching this show?
—Zach L., New York
That’s fair, Grantland’s Zach Lowe! But I’ll answer your question with a question of my own:
I just watched a professional basketball team trade its best player for a haircut with a busted knee and then proceed to play an entire season with the express goal of losing as many games as possible. Said team then lost out on the no. 1 pick in the draft and walked away with another seriously injured 7-footer who won’t play for months. The rest of their reward for all that tanking appears to be half the population of greater Zagreb. This fall, a second straight season will begin as an exercise in tossing baby dragons directly into a fire just to see what happens. Tell me: Why should I keep watching this sport?
What I’m preaching here, Zach Lowe, is patience. Insane things have a way of paying off in the end.
Also, it was a horse heart. So.
Illustration by Elias Stein.