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Entries in TV (14)


2014 Year in Review: The Legacy of The Colbert Report

I can still remember the night the Colbert Report premiered.  

It was the fall of my sophomore year in College.  Nightly viewings of The Daily Show had become something of a ritual for myself a few other denizens of the 2nd floor Aquinas dorm.  We had come to terms with another for years of George W. and I was likely consuming a bottle of coke with a pair of pop tarts.  As Jon Stewart signed off are gaze did not waiver from the tv for starting that night, the ritual no longer ended at 11:30.  The screen split as Jon traded banter with a sarcastic Stephen and moments later, The Colbert Report began.

The rest is history.

Truthiness, Papa Bear, Colbert Super Pac, Stephen Colbert rode a pitch perfect right-wing conservative wave of satire for 1447 glorious episodes.



He didn't start there.  I do remember distinctly thinking the Daily Show was the more entertaining and interesting of the two programs early on.  Colbert was clever but felt one dimensional and his mostly intellectual guests didn't quite know what to make of the character of "Stephen Colbert".

The great leap forward (at least for me) came with the writer's strike.  Dozens of shows on television went dark when the writer's strike hit in 2007.  Late night programming tried to remain on, at the benefit of the crews that worked on the show.  Many of these shows, such as Letterman and Late Night with Conan O'Brien clearly suffered from the absence of it's writing staff.  In truth, most of the shows that stayed on were borderline unwatchable, save for two: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

In this setting Colbert didn't just stay the course he was made stronger, sharper.  Perhaps without a group of writers he was forced to look to himself, explore what made his character the way he was, ask what it was his character would think about anything and everything going on in the world.  Whatever it was, Colbert found a second gear that hadn't been there before.  The result was a flood of wit and innuendo that turned the horrifying into the absurd and the absurd into the familiar.

Possibly the greatest talent of Colbert was his ability to conceal common sense and then reveal it again like a magician.  The number of tricks and gags Colbert had hiding up his sleeves was endless, and you never saw them coming no matter how closely he let you look.

Colbert with his character explored the very edges of cultural satire.  It was something he did so well that it earned him the respect of celebrities and politicians across the ideological spectrum.  It was something he was so dedicated to he often fooled those he was mocking into thinking he was fighting the good fight on their behalf.

It might be unfair to give the crown of "Show of the Year" to The Colbert Report, but as Colbert himself might have said "The rules exist to benefit me."  The Colbert Report wasn't just the best show of 2014, it was the best thing on television the last nine years.  (Nearly) Every night.  From start to finish.  It was all Colbert.




The Walking Dead. The Show Vs. The Game


The Walking Dead premiered this past Sunday in spectacularly gruesome fashion (soylent greenburgers anyone?) and it is safe to say it got the strong reaction it was looking for.

Chaotic action sequences have always been Dead's forte and the latest episode, "No Sanctuary", was basically one whole episode of just that.  I have to admit, as someone that is not a fan of the show, when The Walking Dead does what it does best, it makes for compelling television.  It's the when it handles the people who survive those action sequences that the show falters.

Rick Grimes knows how to use a big gun, its when he has to use his words he runs into trouble.

The Walking Dead has more than one problem, but one of its biggest is the perpetual feeling that no matter what happens the group of heroes will survive.  Of the primary cast (cast members that have been given "star" billing) a mere seven out of twenty four - including major antagonist "The Governor" - have been killed off in four seasons.  Keep in mind, this is a show in which every single character is in near constant danger of being killed.

The Walking Dead loves killing people, just not people that the audience has any sort of emotional attachment with.  Case in point: the oh-so-convenient disease that swept through the prison community early in season four and killed just about every single character with the exception of anyone in the primary group.  I have trouble believing that in such a violent postapocalyptic world, there would be so much continuity.  It all feels highly contrived.

As Arya Stark said, "Anyone can be killed."  Unless apparently you've been with Rick Grimes for more than one season, then you're probably good.

An incarnation of The Walking Dead that actually takes Arya's words to heart is the TellTale Games series The Walking Dead.

The game, which takes place in the same universe as the show (and comics) but follows different characters, does an impeccable job of capturing the stress and danger of the world that is The Walking Dead.  Characters are constantly at each other's throats, there are no easy (or even good) solutions, and people die... lots of people.

After establishing what feels like a pretty solid group of survivors early on, the game immediately sets to dwindling the numbers.  Some people leave, some are left behind, most are killed.  It is in having the courage to do this - get rid of interesting characters just as you get to know them - that the game keeps the story moving.  It feels more true to the world of Walking Dead.

No one is safe.  This leads to a point about halfway through the story onwards where you really feel like things are getting dire.  Will anyone make it?  Then, just as you ask yourself... two more people die.

This is partly made possible by the fact that the game follows one character's struggle, rather than trying to have multiple lead characters that have to be the hero of their own story.  All of the characters are important, but they all move the story, not the other way around.

Lee keeps his shit together.

The game's hero, Lee Everett, shares a great many similarities with the show's primary hero, Rick.  Both are reluctant leaders, both have a child to care for, both are good men who have been forced to do terrible things, both struggle with the balance of doing the right thing and keeping everyone in line.  Where Lee surpasses Rick, is that he doesn't ever get bogged down in his self wallowing.  He struggles but he doesn't cry about it.  Even for this, he is constantly forced to doubt himself and his choices.  And even his survival is no guarantee.

This sense of constant peril really makes the experience all the more exciting.  Everything, happens with the conclusion in mind.  Just like in a game of chess, any and all pieces are expendable to achieve the final goal.

And the audience are the winners


The Return of The Walking Dead and The Half-Life of Modern TV Dramas

For those loyal and rabid fans, there are few sights sweeter than the massive banner at comic-con NYC this week reminding them:  the fifth season of The Walking Dead is nigh.

AMC has touted The Walking Dead as "the most popular show on television" for a while now (It has broken records in tv ratings for a cable show) and this Sunday's premiere figures to once again be a ratings bonanza for the network.

I was a late comer to The Walking Dead, I started watching it on rerun marathons shortly before the start of season three.  From the start it had an overly dramatic soap opera-like quality.  Even for a show dealing with a post apocalyptic near future featuring flesh eating zombies, the show could get pretty silly.  Still, its pulpy goodness was a lot of fun.  AMC has made a network on pulp.  Hell, the network's best show was about a high school teacher who became a meth cook.  Pulp is a great starting place for a tv drama.  The hard part is having the writers and cast to keep it afloat once the new car smell fades.

The Walking Dead has always suffered from a slew of unlikable and/or annoying characters, but in the first few seasons, the premise was still fresh and the relationships between the characters were dynamic enough to keep people watching.  Three seasons down the line the show has become contrived, dreary, and tired.  But ratings are as strong as ever.

I can't tell you how many times there are elongated fire fights in this show and no one gets shot.  Or how many times whole groups of people get overrun and wiped out by a zombie hoard... except, of course, for the plucky heroes.  Characters introduced for the sole purpose of being killed off in few hours.  Sitting watching the screen wanting to scream, "Just kill name of frustratingly stupid character already!". But ratings are as strong as ever.

All of this before we even get into the fact that AMC is a major believer in the "half season" programming structure which slows plot developments to the speed of molasses.  

Fans had grown sick of the insufferable "hero", Andrea. long before she was finally killed off.

Even most fans of the show will admit that the show has flaws.  Obnoxious "heroes", extremely convenient plot twists, entire story lines that you'd love to be able to fast forward through.  Their defense: almost any show suffers from the same problems and The Walking Dead has enough redeeming qualities to make up for all its faults.

It is true that many shows, even televisions most popular, suffer from similar- issues.  The crowned jewel of television at present, Game of Thrones, is often criticized for its scatterbrain storytelling and complex plot network.  What Game of Thrones also has, however, is mass critical acclaim for the things it does right:  the breath taking special effects and set work, its complex and relatable characters, award winning acting.  The major disconnect for The Walking Dead is its complete and utter lack of praise (particularly in recent seasons) from critics and sparse award collection.

But ratings are as strong as ever.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon of television.  Shows today can last for years thanks to a strong start.     True Blood lasted for lasted for seven seasons, despite only really putting out one great season (it's first) and barely even being watchable by its third.  Boardwalk Empire made it to season five despite being DOA after Season 2.  Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, the slow dimming of the lights for small screen dramas is all too ordinary.  As much as anything, it draws attention to how incredible shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad were.

If you were the main character of a show that gave you 6 glorious seasons, you'd have a smug smile on your face too.

The reason is simple, people are too invested to bring themselves to change the channel.  All that time on the couch simply to see how something is gonna end.  It is amazing how many people will continue to giving a show hours of their lives for something they could just read in 15 minutes on a website.  Who dies?  How?  Why?  Who wins?  Okay.  Time to eat a sandwich.

There are worse things you can watch than The Walking Dead.  I watched the entire first season of Arrow (and kind of liked it), so I know what I'm talking about.  People not willing to watch serialized dramas is the reason why network tv is full of sitcoms and reality television.  Still, its hard not to roll your eyes at people getting all excited for something that hasn't been good since 2012.

The Walking Dead, you may not be going away anytime soon, but you're overrated.