Expiration dates can be a good thing. If cows didn’t gently whisper the use by date of their milk into the ears of dairy farmers, we’d regularly be pouring chunky liquid onto our Frosted Flakes. We’d never know when to throw out sour cream. We’d neglect to change the oil in our cars and destroy our engines. We’d have human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria…but I digress. While television dramas that adhere to the old school case of the week style story structure can continue in perpetuity, some dramas need expiration dates. Dexter is my go to example of this. Much of seasons 1-4 were as good as anything on television. But it was getting less and less plausible that Dexter wouldn’t be caught every minute of every episode. Had the show-runners and the network agreed that Dexter would end after season five or season six, it might have a place in the conversation about best TV shows of the 00’s. Instead, because of viewership numbers, Showtime squeezed every last bit of creative juice from Dexter’s orange and just kept squeezing until they had four more seasons of utter garbage that spoiled the first four seasons by association. In contrast, well thought of shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men set expiration dates for themselves, allowing the creators to focus their storytelling on their eventual end game. The Leftovers and The Americans have done this and produced some of their best episodes since. While it makes me sad to think that there’s only one episode of The Leftovers and one season of The Americans to go, I appreciate the decision knowing that I’ll see quality storytelling written with the end in mind.
House of Cards needs an expiration date. Don’t get me wrong. I love House of Cards. This has been said a lot about a lot of different actors, but I would actually pay money to sit and watch Kevin Spacey read the phone book in character as Frank Underwood. Robin Wright is bone-chilling as the cold and calculating Claire. Michael Kelly is creepy as hell as the ruthlessly loyal Doug Stamper. Season five, which dropped on Netflix last week, even adds Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson to the mix as a pair of DC power-brokers with ambiguous motives, and predictably, they’re fantastic. There’s a lot about season five that I really enjoyed. Unfortunately, so much of the narrative feels meandering and aimless. Thankfully, the final two episodes snap the story into focus and give me hope for a possible season six, but I can’t imagine that the Underwood’s story has much more than one season left in them if they want to remain interesting. The first three seasons of the show were so riveting as Frank and Claire schemed and lied and bribed and murdered their way into the White House that the last two, while still fun, paled in comparison. If you haven’t gotten to it yet, I’m not at all saying that season five was bad. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I just don’t know how much I’ll continue to enjoy it in the future if subsequent seasons don’t have the end in mind.
In other news…
• “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” I’ve already mentioned The Americans briefly above, but I wanted to take a moment to applaud the show on the completion of a tight, concise, riveting and gut-wrenching season. It looked like the Jennings family might be on the way out of the game, but as Phillip and Elizabeth find out, it’s not an easy game to quit. The finale was chock full of nice little character moments that I appreciate the show taking the time to recognize. Paige effectively saying her goodbyes to Pastor Tim, Martha being given the chance for some happiness in her new home, the entire montage set to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and Phillip’s moment of decision about what to do with the intel that is going to keep him from doing what he wants are all given the time they need to breathe even though there’s a lot of business to get down to. All that was missing was Oleg, whose stories haven’t always interested me but whose situation I’ve found to be quite intriguing this season. As the Jennings’ begin to hear about the cracks in their idealized homeland of 1980’s Soviet Russia, there’s something that resonates with this 2017 American too. We’re seeing with Oleg’s story that as the differences between the living conditions of the rulers and the ruled widens, the ruled are less concerned with the consequences of showing their disdain for the systems that oppress them. In the past year or so, we’ve seen the kind of change that this sort of awakening can produce. As for me though, I much more enjoy watching the Jennings family than I enjoy watching the news. At least when it comes to their homeland, I know how the story ends.
• It was hard for me to think about the series finale of Damon Lindelof’s HBO series The Leftovers without thinking about the finale of his similarly themed show, ABC’s Lost. I was a big fan of Lost until that finale, at which point I became rather annoyed that I had ever watched the show at all. The problem with Lost was that it asked lots of questions and the implication was, both in the show and through interviews with the show’s creators, that it was going to eventually provide the answers to those questions for viewers. What ended up happening was, instead of providing the answers to five seasons of questions, the sixth season simply concerned itself with asking its own questions and answering those, leaving a lot unresolved. Looking back on that finale that aired in May of 2010, it would’ve been nearly impossible to pull off a satisfying conclusion to the story because there was simply too much ground to cover. It’s an interesting contrast to The Leftovers, a show that raised a whole heck of a lot of questions but, to its credit, never promised answers to any of them. Answers were not what the show was about. What The Leftovers turned out to be was a character study about how people cope when there aren’t any answers to be found. While there’s probably plenty of intrigue that could be mined from finding the answers to the questions that would arise if 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappeared, Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (the writer on whose novel the first season was based) chose to take the route of telling smaller, more personal stories of a few of the people who were left behind. There was some really, really weird stuff going on in the post-Great Departure world. It was stuff that if I really thought about it, I’d want to have its purpose explained to me. But people do weird things when they don’t have answers to the tragedies that occur in their lives, and The Leftovers is better for deciding to be concerned with those people and not the circumstances that caused or led to the tragedy. In that way, it would’ve been almost impossible for me to be disappointed with this week’s finale, and indeed I was not. In fact, I’d consider it among the best series finales that I’ve ever seen. From the opening moments with Nora (Carrie Coon) and Matt (Christopher Eccleston) doing Mad Libs (sorry, Matt Libs) by the sea to the final comforting images of two characters assuring each other that in a world where nothing is certain, they can be certain in their belief in each other. Alan Sepinwall wrote a long, detailed and spoiler filled review of the finale and the show itself over at Uproxx. If you’re a fan of the show, I suggest checking it out.
Thanks to the people who have given me a few suggestions about some things to watch while most shows are on hiatus in July and August. I’ve almost gotten through 2 seasons of Luther this week upon the recommendation of Phillip, a loyal reader and regular participant on our Facebook page. Other shows on the docket are The Goldbergs, Halt and Catch Fire and at some point, I’m going to have to catch up with the latest season of Orphan Black that recently became available on Amazon. What am I missing? Give me your suggestions in the comments or on Facebook.
Next week we’ll cover Fargo and Better Call Saul more in depth as both have moved the pieces into place for exciting ends to their seasons.