Thanks For Everything, Dave.

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By R. David

This was intended to be a mere brief Facebook status.  One, as you’ll immediately see, I wasn’t even going to bother posting to begin with.  I should have known I could never sum up everything David Letterman has meant to me in a few token sentences.  I quickly found myself on a role and a legitimate appreciation column spewed out  As always, David Letterman has inspired me to do better.

I wasn’t going to bother with this because there has been plenty of media saturation – both today and over the last few weeks – but I would be remiss if David Letterman signed off tonight and I didn’t say something about the man I grew up watching every night as a night-owl kid in the late 80s, then steadily throughout high school, my 20s and to this day.

As much as any of my heroes, Letterman has been my barometer for quality, integrity, originality, and individuality. He was never particularly concerned with popularity, amongst audiences or celebrity guests. He did his show his way, ratings be damned. He was always candid and honest, peoples’ opinions of him be damned. And he never let his guests get off with easy with schmoozing, softball interviews like most of his counterparts (you should all YouTube his post-scandal Paris Hilton & Janet Jackson interviews immediately).

But more than Stupid Pet/Human Tricks, Top Ten Lists, the simple, giddy thrill of throwing things off high-rise buildings, or his surreal man-on-the-street bits (Dave Works the McDonald’s Drive-Thru, Mujibur and Sirijul, Chris Elliot “living” under the stage, Dave’s mom live from the Winter Olympics), it was always Letterman’s serious side that made for captivating, cathartic, and unforgettable television. His first show after 9/11 is one the greatest TV moments in any genre, late night or otherwise. His candid, on-air addressing of his workplace sexual exploits – rather than allow himself to be blackmailed in order to keep it quiet – is surely one of the bravest, most compelling moments in late-night talk show history. And his appreciation of the doctors who performed his quintuple bypass surgery, tearfully bringing them all on the show, speaks to the kind of classy, uncorrupted-by-celebrity guy Dave is and has managed to remain after all these years.

David Letterman is our last link to Johnny Carson and ‘classic’ Late Night television, even though he also single handedly transformed Late Night from the Carson model into a more brazen, exciting, and anything-goes affair. Letterman is the bridge between classic Late Night and the Conans and Kimmels of today.  He has been a constant for an entire generation of TV viewers.  Our Johnny Carson.  When Letterman waves his last giddy, gap-toothed goodbye from behind his desk tonight, he will take with him everything that Late Night TV once was.  It is now a much more fragmented and viral-based beast.  Flavors may one day circle back to the appeal of a slightly dorky, but absurdly unpredictable, often edgy and surprisingly honest comedian that people almost unwittingly turn to in our nation’s most profound moments.

But don’t bet on it.

Cocky, yet genial. Sarcastic, yet heartfelt. Dave is a true original. The format will never be the same again. Fitting, since it hasn’t been the same since he debuted 33 years ago. My 10-year-old self and my 36-year-old self will miss him dearly.

‪#‎ThanksDave‬

BREAKING BAD

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By R. david

There have been enough farewell pieces written on “Breaking Bad” over the last few weeks to fill an encyclopedic volume.  Vince Gilligan’s chemistry-teacher-with-cancer-turned-meth-dealer-and-drug-kingpin drama ends its six-year run tonight as such a beloved pop culture phenomenon that there is little I can say about the series that hasn’t been said a thousand times.  I could tell you how much I love the series, speculate on how the journey of Walter White will end, or sing the praises of the show’s extremely talented ensemble cast and brilliant team of writers and directors.  Indeed, even if you ignore all the breathlessly gripping drama the show has provided throughout its stellar run, looked at simply on a technical level, “Breaking Bad” has been a Master class in how to conceive a series.  Every plot point and every scene feels meticulously planned-out; every shot fussed over for maximum impact.  So, with nothing left to say that hasn’t already been said and that you don’t already know, I will simply write – share my (disorganized) thoughts on the show and bid it farewell – and see where I end up.

First and foremost I want to say that I have been watching “Breaking Bad” each week since its very first episode. I’m the kind of TV viewer who reads a bunch of reviews of a new show and typically sets my DVR based on which ones sound the most interesting and are getting the most critical kudos.  Watching a show from the very beginning is an important distinction for several reasons.  First, the wait between episodes – and between seasons – not only gives a viewer time to digest each plot development and the ramifications of the characters’ actions, but it also forces you to wait for closure from episode to episode and season to season, allowing suspense and excitement to build.

The anticipation of a favorite show’s season premiere is one of the best feelings in the world as far, as I’m concerned.

In this day and age of social media and binge-viewing though, audiences are increasingly coming into TV series several seasons into their runs, and mainly because enough of their friends have Tweeted about them or mentioned them in a Facebook status.  Then they gorge on the show, burning through every season in a matter of weeks, intent to catch up so they too can be part of the discussion.

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I’m not saying anyone who didn’t watch “Breaking Bad” (or any other series) live and from the get-go isn’t entitled to watch simply because they don’t pay attention to all the new shows coming down the pike each season, or that they can’t develop a sincere love and appreciation for a series simply because they discovered it late into its run.  But I believe it is impossible to fully grasp all the heavy themes and strategic nuances of a show like “Breaking Bad” when simply bouncing from one episode to the next.

Similarly it seems there is a large portion of this show’s fan base that is solely in it for the shocking surprises.  There are a lot of series out there that are hits and people confuse with quality drama simply because they have the ability to shock their audience.  But these shows – and their viewers – typically confuse melodrama and emotionally manipulative and exploitive theatrics with actual drama.  They lack any sort of subtlety or profundity.  These shows may feel profound because they are beating you over the head with their themes and manage to push your buttons on a visceral level – thus forcing you to take notice – but there is nothing beneath the surface of their shock tactics (“Sons of Anarchy”, I’m looking at you).

The beauty of a show like “Breaking Bad”, one which understands the true dynamics of drama and has the courage and determination to dole out its surprises sparingly so they are that much more impactful, is that it balances methodical character studies with shocking resolutions that often exceed the audiences expectations or suspected outcomes.  If you are simply staying tuned to the show for the next mind-blowing sight gag (like when half of Gus Fring’s face gets blown off), the next big shoot-out, daring escape, double cross, or waiting to see which major character will die next; you’re largely missing the point and robbing yourself of all the amazing narrative intricacies “Breaking Bad” has to offer.

On “Breaking Bad” the “big” moments are generally secondary to how the show and its characters arrived at them and the burning question of what will happen next.  Gilligan and has writers have been masters of confounding and exceeding expectations throughout the show’s run.  And not simply with gimmicky last-minute twists.  Full episodes and entire seasons have played out differently than anyone would have predicted based on where the previous episode left off.  The series has always been a game of chess writ large; and like chess, each episode has been composed of intricate moves and veiled motivations.

To put it more succinctly, you simply can not grasp the full, labyrinthine structure and symbolism of “Breaking Bad” if you’re blazing through the show one episode after another, or are only appreciating it as a surface-level, face-value drama.  That you certainly could still find plenty of entertainment value in the series on that basic, tenuous level is a testament to Gilligan’s genius; but (at the risk of sounding like some sort of hipster, elitist snob) you’d be missing – depriving yourself of – the big picture.

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I say all this to make the point that there are certain shows that deserve to be viewed – enjoyed – as the medium of television intended; with space between each episode to let the themes and ideas breath and resonate.  The true beauty of this series has been in the suspense generated by every decision its protagonists have made.  “Breaking Bad” recognizes there is a cause and effect for everything – every decision, every action.  The show isn’t afraid to take the time to explore this, never glossing over the ramifications of a character’s choices simply to get to the next big dramatic moment for impatient eyeballs.

The exploration of these characters’ decisions and the morality of those choices are what creates the drama, unlike many shows which create drama to give its characters motivation.

That may seem like a slight distinction, but it is what sets truly great drama – great character studies – apart from the pack.  Sure there are plenty of terrific and entertaining dramas that provide a lot of excitement and enjoyment without offering intricate or ambitious narrative structures; and they don’t have the lofty ambition to tell a contained, streamlined tale for exactly the number of episodes required to do and then ride off into the sunset victoriously.  For most series the goal is to run as long as possible and each season to find new and interesting ways to keep its characters coming back for more.  You can do that with a show like “24”, for instance.  Each season can convincingly and entertainingly offer a new threat for Jack Bauer – and for audiences, as long as their hero returns and continues to satisfyingly dole out justice and the terrorist plots continues to surprise and keep viewers on the edge of their seats, they will be happy.  The same can be said for procedurals like “Law & Order”.  They are not automatically devoid of great drama simply because they move from case to case, week to week, season to season.  But even though a show like “Law & Order” is capable of stirring emotions from time to time or creating suspense, these procedurals are by necessity less about their characters than they are about the story of the week.  You could go five seasons without a major change in the characters lives, save for the writers changing who a character is dating or giving one of them a cancer subplot or something (one of the things that made “NYPD Blue” so spectacular was that while it followed the procedural format to a degree, it was first and foremost about its characters – how their jobs effected their lives and how the choices they made in their lives effected their attitudes and decisions on the job).

But Gilligan’s goal was never to keep “Breaking Bad” on the air as long as possible, despite the fact that it became a huge success and no doubt a cash cow for all involved.  By focusing specifically on one chapter of these characters’ lives, Gilligan has been able to tell a contained tale which allows him to fully explore each character, their every motivation, their every decision and every consequence that results.  He does not have to keep a handful of them around in his back pocket in case the series runs for 10 or 15 years.  He does not have to render Walter White untouchable simply because he is the series’ star, or keep coming up with contrived ways to bring him and Jesse Pinkman back together because he knows their dynamic is a real crowd-pleaser.  By plotting out a clear and concise end game and setting a specific end date, Gilligan has afforded himself the opportunity to see his vision through the way he sees fit, developing all the angles Walter White’s choices have wrought, not skimping on symbolism or poetic parallels (see this seasons episode entitled “Ozymandias”) or even the occasional self-contained episode that serves as an window into a character’s true motivations or unraveling psyche (see “Fly”).  A more traditionally mounted or less assured drama would never make the time for these episodic journeys and details.

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All journeys must come to an end though.  But fans can go into “Breaking  Bad’s” finale confident that – however it ends – it will not only be on Gilligan’s terms, but will be satisfying in a way that no show with the goal of staying on the air as long as possible could ever hope to be.  “Breaking Bad” has not had to survive cast departures or changes in writers and creative team, thus forcing the show in different directions or away from its original vision.  Any changes or additions to this series have been purely by design. So the show exists with its initial vision intact.

Whatever fans’ opinions of tonight’s finale, they will be getting the ending the show has been steadily building to for five seasons, unmolested.  And on TV, that is a very rare and very exciting thing.

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(Images courtesy of AMC)

Random Thoughts:

– Since it is customary, I suppose, to take a crack at how a series will end in a farewell piece, I’ll offer my (rather vague) theory on how “Breaking Bad” will rap up –  but let me say I don’t have many specific thoughts on the matter, for one thing because I generally don’t like to think too much about such things and just let the episode(s) unfold; but in this case, Gilligan and his writers have constantly surprised me by going against conventions and expectations that it’s really anyone’s guess at this point how things will rap up for Walter White. Most of the theories/questions seem to center around whether or not Walt get his revenge against the latest cartel that has him under their thumb and/or his former business partners at Grey Matter, if he will get all that money to his family somehow, will he die, and if so, how?  If I had to guess, I’d say Walt (and we, the audience who has a routing interest in some sort of redemption or happy ending for him, despite knowing he deserves his comeuppance) will score a minor victory – or at least achieve some satisfaction – by taking revenge on either the cartel or his former partners or both.  But this will ultimately change nothing.  I think he will remain alienated from his family and be unable to get them the money he so desperately wanted for them – that he sold his soul for – in the beginning.  He will succumb to his cancer and die alone (or be seen limping off into exile) with tons of money but no way to spend it or to get it to his family.  Or maybe he’ll go out in a blaze of glory, or maybe Jesse will put him down.  Either way, Walter White will be dead and everyone caught up in his web will be worse off than they began when Walt received his cancer diagnosis, the complete opposite of his intentions going into all this.  And that’s the lesson.  I’m not even going to speculate on the fate of the other characters because I’m sure Gilligan will deal us a heavy blow where at least a few of them are concerned.

– Though its been said, I also just want to point out how terrific this series has been in terms of character development – overall (hell, look at Jesse Pinkman – somewhere in here is an uplifting drama about a screw-up becoming a better person and realizing his full potential; but that would be a much more traditional, predictable show) – but certainly in exploring the evolution of Walter White.  From where we first met him in season one, to his introduction to the drug trade, to his transformation into Heisenberg, to his attempts to go back to the man he was before all this, and somehow balance both sides of his personality and both his desire to hold his family together as well as succeed as a ruthless drug kingpin, Gilligan has done a miraculous job conceiving and developing this character, and of course Bryan Cranston has proven to be a revelation of dramatic intensity and fluidity in bringing the character to life.

– I will never not find it fascinating that FX passed on “Breaking Bad” because the network felt they “already had too many anti-heroes” with their series like “The Shield”, “Rescue Me”, and “Nip/Tuck”.  True enough, but they certainly had niche at the time, and what’s one more?  “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” are two of the best dramas of the last decade – perhaps of all time – “Breaking Bad would have fit snuggly in with them.

– There has been a lot of talk about whether or not “Breaking Bad” is the greatest show of all time.  This is a loaded and impossible question because not only does the answer come down to a matter of individual opinion, but there are simply too many great shows and too many variables to consider to determine such a thing.  For my money, “Breaking Bad” is certainly in the Top 10, but I don’t think it is the greatest show of all time.  Off the top of my head, “NYPD Blue”, “The Shield”, “Rescue Me”, “24” and “The Wire” give “Bad” a run for its money – all for different personal reasons.  I won’t get into them all here, because I’d be here forever, but f you’d like to hear or challenge them, take it up with me on Twitter @TheWireWriters.

DEXTER

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By R. David

As the Miami sun finally sets on Showtime’s “Dexter” tonight after eight seasons, fans of the drama are being left not with the satisfaction of a beloved series’ culmination, but rather only to ponder how such a terrific series could collapse so entirely over the course of its last few seasons.  The current, final season of “Dexter” has been a true slap in the face to not only fan expectations, but also pesky things like storytelling logic and character development.

It wasn’t always this way though.  When “Dexter” premiered in 2006, it appeared on the television landscape at a time when people were quickly realizing that cable dramas were far superior to the congested slate of rote procedurals being offered by network TV.  Not that there weren’t exceptions – certainly the networks deserve kudos for giving us the likes of “24” and “Lost” – but to this day networks routinely cancel bold – but low-rated – experimental fare and shy away from disturbing adult dramas in favor of littering their line-ups with an endless barrage of cop, lawyer, and doctor procedurals each season.  Shows like “Dexter” became the go-to antidote for TV viewers fed-up with the safe banality and predictability of the average network drama.

“Dexter” didn’t exactly blaze a trail for adult cable dramas – HBO had already been offering decidedly adult dramas for nearly a decade with shows like “The Sopranos” and “Oz”, while basic cable nets like FX (with its flagship drama “The Shield”) began churning out controversial, unflinching dramas of their own in an effort to compete with both the networks and pay-cable outfits – but it jumped on a golden bandwagon at the right time, quickly earning internet buzz and a cult fan base.  The story of the Miami Police Department blood-splatter analyst by day, serial killer by night; “Dexter” ultimately became the series that announced Showtime as a major player in the pay-cable, serialized drama market; finally pulling out from behind HBO’s shadow.  Showtime had tried with varying degrees of success to gain traction for its original dramas in the past, but no series before it drove subscribers to Showtime like “Dexter”.

“Dexter’s” first four seasons were uniformly terrific.  The show wasn’t without its share of pitfalls – from some amateurish performances and occasionally corny dialog, to the plot holes and leaps of logic that often plague these high-concept potboilers.  But other than an irritating character or two and a required suspension of disbelief, if you bought into the world “Dexter” created, the rewards of following the title character’s journey far exceeded any of those criticisms.  Credit first and foremost must go to Michael C. Hall and his tortured portrayal of Dexter Morgan who, as a toddler, saw his mother butchered by a gang of drug dealers.  Taken in and ultimately adopted by Harry Morgan (James Remar, who appears to viewers as the physical embodiment of Dexter’s subconscious), the officer who discovered him with his mother’s body, Dexter grew up suppressing a gestating urge to kill.  To keep Dexter from hurting innocent people and ending up on death row, Harry decided all he could do to protect his son was to nurture his killer instincts by teaching him a code:  Never get caught, Never Kill an innocent person, Be absolutely sure of your victim’s guilt.  Thus, Dexter will satisfy the urges of his “Dark Passenger” as well as keep society safe by hunting down serial killers where the police fail.  Working as a splatter-analyst for the police department gives Dexter the perfect cover for his crimes, as well as access to all the information he needs to hunt down his victims.

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Even with “The Code”, the character of Dexter would come off as nothing more than a vigilante – and this one more questionable than most because he is not seeking revenge on a specific person who hurt him or his loved ones, but rather simply quenching a thirst to kill – were it not for Hall’s sympathetic portrayal of a deeply wounded and confused man, wrestling with the morality of what he is doing.  If Dexter were simply a murderous monster, there would be little to sustain an audience’s rooting interest him; but because he seems capable of redemption and tries to do the right thing and protect people as much as he can, we are willing to forgive him the occasional serial killer murder.  A big part of the show has always been the question of whether or not Dexter is any better than the people he kills.  Each season offered a villain that seemed to answer that question, both for Dexter and for viewers.  Each season also offered potential redemption for Dexter.  Through it all, Hall has convincingly sold the character as someone who is worth following – worth caring about – despite his murderous appetite.

“Dexter’s” early seasons also offered some ingeniously plotted games of cat and mouse between Dexter and the killer he was tracking, as well as between Dexter and his own police department, which also happens to include his adoptive sister and best friend, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter).  One of the true pleasures of this series has been its ability to ratchet-up the suspense as Dexter’s labyrinth of secrets nearly comes crumbling down on top of him.  To protect himself – and for the show to protect its title character – Dexter has made some rather shocking decisions.  This is one of those shows where no character has ever been safe.  But for at least four seasons, “Dexter” did a terrific job of – if not always logically, at least somewhat plausibly – coming up with new ways to keep Dexter one step ahead of those on his tail, and keep the show one step ahead of its audience.

But come crumbling down it all must.  The problem with a show like “Dexter” – a show built on season after season of lies and twists – is that more often than not the process becomes routine and some of the contrivances that were forgivable early on when the series was new, fresh and exciting, eventually become glaringly obvious, stale and insulting.  The once terrifically exciting “Dexter” began to grow tenuous and forced; an overall business-as-usual feel crept in.  But it’s not simply that the series was showing its age.  A lot of shows start to feel shopworn after several seasons, an inevitability for any long-running series.  Smart show-runners have a clear endgame in sight and are willing to pull the plug on a show after a specific number of seasons, even if the show remains incredibly popular, so as not to run it into the ground and taint its legacy (“Breaking Bad”, one show that has implemented this strategy to glorious effect, is running its final episodes on the same night as “Dexter”, making “Dexter’s” swan-song season look all the more pathetic by comparison).  Over the course of “Dexter’s” last few season there has been an overwhelming feeling that the writers have simply run out of steam – like they had said all they had to say and were now clutching at straws, just trying to continue a story they no longer had the passion to tell.  Laziness crept in – a significant lack of attention to even the most obvious details, a refusal to go back to the core of what made Dexter and the show tick initially, narrative meandering and obvious foreshadowing – and a near contempt for the audience who have followed this series for eight seasons.  “Dexter” fell into this trap a while ago and was never able to climb back out.  And it’s still in free fall as we speak.

I’m not sure what exactly went wrong, but there seemed to be a turning of the tide somewhere around “Dexter’s” fifth season.  Going into that season, “Dexter” was coming off what many consider the show’s apex: Season 4 featuring John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer and its shocking season finale.  Obviously, hopes were high for the follow-up season, which many fans regard as a relative disappointment.  While I agree Season 5 was something of a missed opportunity considering all the directions the show and character could have gone in given the fourth season’s ending, I am nonetheless among those who actually really liked the fifth season.  It wasn’t without its problems (then again, no season of “Dexter” has been perfect), but I liked the idea of paring Dexter with a damaged, would-be victim (Julia Styles), and I thought Dexter facing off against a murderous self-help guru (Johnny Lee Miller) made for a lot of palpable character drama.  Most of all though, the writing was still strong – there were still nooks and crannies of Dexter’s psyche that seemed yet untapped by the show and worth exploring; there was still suspense in what was unknown about the character, his motivations, and how far he might go to protect his identity – and the writers still seemed to have a firm grasp on where the show was going and how to pull ideas and plot threads through an entire season.

But I did notice during this season – more than any other before – a good deal of lulls starting to creep in.  I have had issues with some of the characters, story arcs, or momentum on “Dexter” in the past, but this was the first time the show started to feel tired; like it was in need of some new ideas, some new direction, and some shaking up. I think Season 5 ultimately survives these lulls, but it’s something that comes back to haunt the show immediately in Season 6 and only continues to fester into the fiber of the show until it completely eats away at it (Season 7) and picks its bones clean (This Season).

At a certain point, the writers seemed to have simply given up.  Some will point to the famously maligned “Nebraska” episode from Season 6 as the moment where “Dexter” reached the point of no return.  In the episode, Dexter leaves Miami to track a killer to Nebraska, never mind the fact that it leaves his entire plot completely exposed for Deb and anyone else who might be looking, but also, Dexter chooses to ignore his code here, the episode cheapens Dexter’s subconscious bond with his father, and it’s simply a plodding, silly episode that strains credibility and has Dexter making decisions and mistakes the character (and writers) never have made in earlier seasons.  “Nebraska” set the tone for many of the silly, contrived, meandering and illogical missteps that would become the show’s frustrating stock in trade throughout its final three seasons; each of which had a tendency to begin strong, but quickly fall apart, as if none of the writers have any idea what else to do with these characters.

When a show starts to show its age or its writers are unable to come up with grounded ways to keep the stories moving forward, typically the series turns to surprise gotcha! moments and new characters (Masuka’s daughter this season, anyone?) in hopes of shaking things up and keeping everyone interested, no matter if these revelations make a lick of sense.  (SEASON 6 SPOILER ALERT!) In Season 6 Deb revealed that she was in love with Dexter.  While this idea turned-off most fans, it was the kind of grab-you-by-the-collar reveal that makes audiences sit up and take notice.  In that very same season, Deb caught Dexter dispatching a victim for the first time.  Both of these would-be game-changing moments that should have moved the show in a new direction.  Instead, after a few episodes of Deb wrestling with her feelings, everything was back to business as usual.  (SEASON 7 SPOILER!) In Season 7, Deb catches Dexter about to kill their Lieutenant, so instead, she kills her.  Again, Deb wrestles with the guilt of this for a while, but a few therapy sessions later, brother and sister are back to helping each other out of convoluted scrapes (END SPOILERS).  So much of the writing throughout this final season of the show has been at this sort of bring-it-up-then-immediately-drop-it caliber.  Nothing feels organic or fully realized and no one displays anything resembling genuine character motivations.  It literally feels like we are watching actors being moved around by words on a page that have no context or bearing on anything.  As a result, it’s damn hard to feel invested in any of this.

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For his part, the character of Dexter has also changed dramatically over the years.  At the beginning of the series, Dexter doesn’t think he is capable of showing emotion and worries constantly that people will see through his façade of normalcy.  He has to work constantly to fit in.  He initially took up with Rita (Julie Benz) – who he eventually married and had a son, Harrison, with – because she was a victim of domestic abuse who was emotionally fragile and didn’t know how to interact romantically.  She was the ideal companion for Dexter, a man who couldn’t communicate or show emotion like normal people.  Dexter trying to navigate how to fit in to societal norms was one of the most interesting aspects of the character and the show in general in its early seasons.  But somewhere along the line Dexter transformed into something closer to The Friendly Neighborhood Serial Killer than a tormented man constantly working to suppress his homicidal rage.  Yes, much of the series has been about Dexter’s evolution and how he has grown as a person and where he has found love and faith and feelings of normalcy. But nowadays, he jokes around with people, shows up at parties, goes out on dates, and, for a lost soul, he has managed to find a kindred spirit of some sort each season.  The writers are still careful to make sure they include some mention of Dexter feeling conflicted, homicidal, and like an outsider in his voice-over narration, which used to provide the audience a conduit into Dexter’s psyche, but now feels like a crutch for the writers to simply explain anything that isn’t clear about the plot and remind us that Dexter still has his dark desires, because Lord knows you wouldn’t get any of that from the evidence supplied on screen.

Also to that end, in the beginning it was really exciting to see the various ways in which Dexter was smarter than all the cops and other analysts at a crime scene, and how he was able to keep them off his trail through complicated scientific methods and top notch police work.  Lately though, the writers haven’t even bothered to make Dexter look all that smart; rather, they just make all the cops look completely moronic.  Nobody asks the appropriate or most obvious questions of Dexter, and none of the cops question Dexter’s mounting connections to his victims or his sloppy alibis.  Watching Dexter weasel out from under the eye of suspicion was part of the fun of the early episodes, but there are only so many coincidences and last minute escapes a show can convincingly throw at its audience before it all starts to smell like slapdash contrivance.  The series never found Dexter another Miami PD opponent on the level of Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), who was always suspicious of Dexter and always asked questions.  The writers replaced him with Detective Douchebag – er, I mean – Quinn (Desmond Herrington) who made a half-hearted pass at suspecting Dexter was up to no good, but he was too busy pining for Deb to follow through.  Similarly, Deb started out steely and hard but as of late seems to be a caricature of her former self, now doing ridiculous things she never would have done just a few seasons back.

And all that, in a nutshell, is the real problem with “Dexter” as it limps to an end:  These are hardly the same characters we were introduced to back in 2006, especially Dexter himself who has devolved into a convoluted shell of his former personality.  I assume Dexter’s writers would argue he has grown and changed throughout the series, as have the other characters.  This would be fine if they grew in convincing and (most importantly) satisfying ways.  As it is, Dexter – the character and the show – has simply gone soft.  Nothing about the series or its characters feels as though it has any connection to the show that drew us in and captivated us for the first four or five years of its run.

As the show readies its final episode, Dexter is on the trail of his latest Big Bad, a serial killer called the Brain Surgeon who has a tenuous connection to Dexter. The hunt has been less than thrilling and the sense of closure being brought to all the relationships of the cast has been less than convincing or satisfying.  Dexter plans to run off to Argentina with his son and his fugitive love interest; who he helped put in prison last season, but has now realized is his soul mate and the one person (again) who understands him and can finally rid him of his “dark passenger” (again).  Deb and Quinn (easily the “Dexter’s” worst long-running character) seem to be getting back together, but the fact that they are even still doing this dance so late in the game shows just how disorganized and clumsy “Dexter” has become.  Why would the writer’s structure this show’s final season like any other; simply putting us through all the same paces of Dexter hunting down another killer and yet another who-gives-a-fuck will –they or won’t-they subplot between Deb and Quinn?  Not only would this be the time to bring the show back to its roots from a quality standpoint, but it is certainly the time to avoid rehashing the same stuff we’ve seen for three or more seasons now.

I saw a “leaked” version of the supposed script for “Dexter’s” final episode a few weeks ago.  Let me just say this; if that is indeed what tonight’s finale will look like, it is firmly in keeping with how far this show has fallen from grace.  It makes every wrongheaded mistake the series has been guilty of for years, and especially in this, it’s unfortunate final season.  What was on display in that script were just more silly contrivances followed by an ending (that the writers have said they have been working to for years – could have fooled me) that not only doesn’t rid the show of the one character who deserves to go, but promotes him to Dexter 2.0 status, seemingly out of nowhere.  The writers have not properly laid the ground work for any of this and the show does not earn this ending.  It’s a completely laughable and unsatisfying conclusion to a once-superb series.  Unfortunately, that would be in keeping with its track record as of late.

So, goodbye, “Dexter”.  Thank you for five great seasons. (No, that’s not a typo.)  Now it’s finally time to dismember your corpse, wrap it up in plastic, and pitch it into the ocean.  Consider it a mercy killing.  Sleep well, my former friend.

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(photos courtesy of Showtime)

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

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By R. David

Netflix has been doing all it can to announce itself as a major player in the TV landscape.  And why not?  After all, the general consensus lately seems to be that TV – not movies – is where you go to find really great drama and original ideas.  Granted, revamping a British show for American audiences (“House of Cards”) and giving one of TVs most-loved-if-least-watched comedies a new home (“Arrested Development”) doesn’t quite smack of uber-originality; but the quality is in the execution and, minus a relative stumble with the misguided horror-soap “Hemlock Grove”, Netflix has been doing a bang-up job in the quality department.  Their latest series offering, “Orange Is the New Black”, is no exception.

Created by “Weeds’” Jenji Kohan, “Orange” is the tale of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a recently engaged, upper-middle-class small business owner who is sent to prison for her role in a drug trafficking ring a decade ago.  The show almost immediately puts to rest fears that this will be some sort of over-heated women-in-prison soft-core drama.  As if to get it out of the way as quickly as possible, 90% of the nudity that occurs across the show’s 13 episodes happens in the pilot.  “Orange’s” aim is clearly to be a more realistic and frank depiction of what life and relationships must look like in the average women’s prison, not some sensationalized, navel-gazing piece of pulp exploitation.  There are no half-baked attempts at “Oz”-like violent scenarios thrown in simply to ramp up the drama.  And while conflict, intimidation and danger abound, none of it is played for cheap thrills.  Like any confined institution, the prison population is a community – its own society within society.  Piper being thrust into this sort of structured, fragmented environment – especially when her previous life couldn’t have been further removed from the personalities and attitudes that are proudly displayed by the more confident and assimilated inmates – makes for a fascinating character study.

But “Orange Is the New Black” isn’t just about the struggles of a privileged white girl dumped into a scary cultural melting pot.  The show could have simply churned out stereotype after stereotype, either played for mocking laughter as Piper butts heads with a bunch of obnoxious, uneducated people she – and the show- clearly feels are beneath her, or simplistic drama as all the dangerous gang member, drug dealer and corrupt guard types threaten and abuse her.  To be sure, “Orange” does have its share of these characters, but they are all fully fleshed-out and explored; given backstories and motivations that humanize them and their actions.  The same can be said of Piper.  She is not simply some spoiled, lilywhite cliché.  The writers largely resist the urge to have her say silly and inappropriate things for the sake of easy laughs or to spark unearned conflict.  Too often movies and TV shows will have their characters say the stupidest things at the most inopportune moments while the audience thinks, “Who would do/say something so stupid?”  Nobody.  It’s simply a lazy writing tactic to move the story and character relationships from beat A to C without having to come up with a sensible B.  Piper doesn’t always think before she speaks or take the time to consider all the possible ramifications of her actions, but her blunders are mostly plausible and authentic; indicative of someone who is perhaps privileged and sheltered, but she doesn’t interact with people who aren’t exactly like her as if she just landed on another planet and has no concept of what might be a stupid thing to say or do.

“Orange Is the New Black” gives its supporting cast the same credit.  The show fills in the other inmates’ backstories via flashback creating a sense of intrigue that, as much as any of the writing or performances, encourages viewers to stay tuned.  It helps of course that these characters have stories worth telling.  Rather than simply presenting “Gang Member No. 1” and “Drug Dealer No. 2”, “Orange” gives us a full array of complex lost souls – women who were destined to be chewed up by society and fall through the cracks of the judicial system.  There’s the former firefighter (Laverne Cox) who ended up in prison because he was stealing to pay for his sex-change operation; the Russian immigrant cook (Kate Mulgrew) who’s husband’s shady business associates and their catty wives led her down a desperate path; the meth-head religious fundamentalist (Taryn Manning); the sniping mother and daughter drug dealers (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Dasha Polanco) both in prison thanks to the same guy; and the rebellious, rich-kid addict (Natasha Lyonne); among many others.  The show doesn’t make any excuses for why these women have landed in prison, but it reveals them to be so much more than just the sum of the crimes.  Even when “Orange” presents one of the women as a villain, it is sympathetic to their madness and attempts to explore their behavior.  It’s the sort of show where adversaries can become friends and people do indeed grow and change, which is a refreshing change of pace from the typical black and white/good and bad archetypes TV generally trades in.  Sure most shows typically explore a complex, conflicted central character or two; but “Orange” gives all of its characters a rich portrayal, which is no easy feat given its large and varied cast.

“Orange Is the New Black” doesn’t skimp on complex characters who are not inmates either.  Michael Harney (also late of “Weeds”) gives a terrific performance as the sympathetic-on-the-outside warden who seems to be harboring a lot of resentment towards anyone he suspects might be a lesbian.  Pablo Schreiber (“The Wire”) slowly crafts one of TVs best and funniest villains as George ‘Pornstache’ Mendez, a guard who might have been one big abusive jailhouse cliché, but is so smartly written and pitch-perfectly performed by Schreiber that he transcends the trope he is saddled with on paper.  Jason Biggs (“American Pie”) plays Piper’s fiancé, Larry.  Initially he seems to possess “Orange’s” weakest, most obvious material; but the writers nurture and grow his character throughout the season until he becomes something more than simply the waiting/supportive/conflicted boyfriend.

One development that ups the ante for Biggs’ character (and Piper’s as well) is the reveal that Alex (Laura Prepon), the woman who may have landed Piper in jail – and is her former lover, has just been sentenced to the same prison.  Biggs is aware of what Piper calls her lesbian fling (which she swears she has gotten out of her system), but it’s clear her relationship with Alex was no fling.  They were very much in love.  “Orange Is the New Black” is smart and brave in the way that it treats Piper’s sexual confusion and its exploration of the conflicted mechanics of what it means to be bisexual.  The show doesn’t portray Piper’s sexual plight – or homosexuality and bisexuality at large – as something in need of fixing; or that could be fixed by either the right guy or right gal coming along.  Where most shows would simply have Piper tally up the pros and cons of each option – as if sexuality is dictated by whichever sex presents the better companion or the happier ending for the audience – “Orange” takes sexuality largely out of the equation and instead shows Piper trapped in a double-blind:  Who Piper loves, who she is attracted to, who is good for her, and who she wants to be with are often at odds; and just as often overlap.

Piper’s storyline alone would have provided plenty of material for “Orange Is the New Black” to explore over an entire season.  That the show so deftly handles her material, as well as that of a dozen other cast members is a testament to Kohan’s sure hand.  I was a big fan of “Weeds” in its first few seasons, before it collapsed into stagnation and self-parody.  “Orange Is the New Black” lacks the snarky bite and wild concept that made “Weeds” feel like such a breath of fresh air initially, but it’s a much more astute, structured and deep dramady.  In “Weeds’” defense, by its very nature, it was never meant to be taken completely seriously.  It was a potboiler (no pun intended) – a generally entertaining, well-written and performed one – but by design it had to keep pushing its protagonists from one outlandish scrape to the next.  “Orange Is the New Black”, while no less entertaining, is a far more relaxed and realistic effort.  It mostly takes place in one enclosed location and makes great use of the claustrophobia prison forces upon its inmates.  The prison itself is just as vividly realized as much of a character as the inmates. These women can do little but live, relate and interact.  The isolation and banal daily rituals of prison also force Kohan to turn her focus and writing talents toward exploring real human drama, not the fabricated interactions that inevitably come from writing high-concept satire.  The season ends with cliffhangers and several characters left to explore.  I can’t wait to see where “Orange Is the New Black” goes from here.

“The Killing”, Following Season 3: What Now?

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I found AMC’s “The Killing” somewhat by happy automated incidence.  I had just finished watching the first season of “American Horror Story”, and Netflix suggested “The Killing”, which is based on the Danish series “Forbrydelsen” (or “The Crime”).  I decided to give it a try, and after a sluggish first episode, I was into it.  The bleak and rainy Seattle atmosphere reminded me of “Twin Peaks”, and the show seemed to have genuine interest in fleshing out the characters rather than stamping them as archetypes and calling it a day.  Homicide detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) were an unlikely pair in a ‘police procedural’, with Linden small in stature and big on following her own emotional cues as well as her intellectual ones, and Holder a recovering addict with a penchant for being “pretty fly for a white guy”.  I was not overly upset at the conclusion of the first season, when young Rosie Larsen’s killer was not revealed, because I had no preconceived notions that the case would be wrapped up in that first season, however tidy and satisfying that might have been.  I wanted to see the show continue, to follow Linden and Holder as they got to true bottom of the personal, social and political crises that had arisen out of the chaos surrounding Rosie’s much-publicized murder. 

That said, I breezed through the first two seasons of “The Killing” on Netflix in a matter of weeks, because soon after I watched the first season, the second season became available.  This chain of events left me keen to catch on to the live airing of Season 3, which began in June, in order to experience it like the weekly serial I’d been missing since “The Walking Dead” ended.  As Season 3 began, I was drawn into the world of the new characters, especially the lives of the young men and women who dwell in the shadowy world of drugs, prostitution and homelessness.  Would the street-hardened Bullet (Bex Taylor-Klaus) succeed in finding her friend Kallie before it became too late?  It was nice to shed the Rosie Larsen story in Season 3, and the season began with several pronounced scenes, with the disappearance of Kallie, the death row sentence of Ray Seward (Peter Sarsgaard) and the discovery of 17 dead bodies at a swampy dumping ground in the woods.  Ever since Adrian Seward’s drawing of an area with trees and rocks began appearing repeatedly in previous seasons, I’d assumed a new layer of complexity and discovery was waiting in Season 3.  When the 17 bodies were discovered so early on in the season, I was excited about what Linden and Holder would find lurking in the dark.  After all, it seemed that Adrian’s drawing had nearly driven Linden insane in the previous season. 

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Much has been said about showrunner Veena Sud and the writers’ love of red herrings in the plot of “The Killing”.  As with the Rosie Larsen case, Season 3 subjected the audience to many potential suspects throughout the season but many avenues come up useless.  In fact, by the time this season rolled around, many fans of the show had practically been trained to expect false suspects throughout the season’s run.  How could Pastor Mike (Ben Cotton) be guilty when there are still four episodes left?  Certainly, it’s difficult to create a show like “The Killing” with all its moving parts and potential endings without including some implausibility in the writing.  At times during Season 3, it did appear that Linden and Holder were chasing the latest carrot with little real analysis of the evidence at hand. 

But regardless of the occasional inconsistencies or leaps of faith that must be tolerated, “The Killing” is at heart a dark drama about the characters of Linden and Holder and the desperate lives they live.  Linden has lost her son to the boy’s father in Chicago.  She works around the clock, gets little sleep, lives alone and has few human connections other than her partner.  Holder is similar: an ex-addict struggling to live in a new reality that’s not much brighter than that of world-blotting drugs from which he emerged sober.  He has a tenuous relationship with a woman, Caroline (Jewel Staite), and must rely on her accommodating kindness for their fledgling pairing to survive.  Perhaps it’s that magnetism around which the show successfully revolves: Linden and Holder are birds of a feather in a small flock, and they need each other to remain coherent and functional people.  They share their passion for finding those responsible for grisly murders, they share their ever-waking hours in the middle of the night, laughter and tears, share their cigarettes.  They see the world in similar ways and gravitate toward each other because few other law enforcement personnel are shown to possess the depth of their empathy for the missing, dead or grieving.       

Season 3 had many strong characters and a story that shone powerfully in many areas.  I was hoping for more overall, but the discovery of the dumping site for the bodies was very startling.  It was gripping to watch Kallie’s mom, Danette (Amy Seimetz), realize the consequences of her daughter’s disappearance, and the role her savage lover may have played.  At first I was skeptical of the Ray Seward plot, but I came to enjoy the tantalizing mix of humanity and inhumanity of both Seward and the prison guards who were his last accomplices.  The implication of James Skinner (Elias Koteas) was, yes, disappointingly simple.  When I watch a show like “The Killing”, I want it to complement the fact that I am an intellectual, acute observer.  I want to be surprised, to find discovery, rather than be served with an ending that appeared to be both lazy and convenient.  It was almost as if they wanted to wrap things up in the most miserable way possible. 

That said, I want “The Killing” back again next year.  I forgive the writers’ fallacies.  The acting and cast on the show is very solid.  The core of Linden and Holder is fun enough, rare enough, to continue with this story.  I want to investigate how Linden recovered from the end of THE CASE, if she recovered at all.  I want to see how the events of Season 3 affected the relationship between Linden and Holder.  Holder, for all his brashness, is a cool and funny guy and it’s very enjoyable to watch him stick it to people who deserve his wrath.  Linden, with her flights of fancy as well as her extremely sharp intuition, is a fascinating character because she makes plenty of mistakes and while she may not ever recover from some of them, she is a broken person, just like the rest of us.  She marches on and doesn’t give up even if the world wants to silence her.  The viewer is tied to the struggles of this pair and despite what may happen around them, their characters are a legitimate reason to carry on.  I want Linden and Holder next year, and a new case to unravel. 

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COMMUNITY

NBC, Thursday, 8/7 PM

By R. David

Published December 8, 2011

SAVE THIS SHOW Alert!

Call it “Arrested Development Syndrome”:  Every year or two there is some great, original show that for whatever reason (poor network scheduling/promotion, audiences too lazy or dumb to grasp the nuanced humor) gets cancelled while uber drek that appeals to the lowest common denominator (Keeping Up With The Kardashians, for instance) somehow not only gets a pass, but continues to capture the national media spotlight.

Like the dearly-departed Arrested Development, Community is admittedly an odd duck and therefore a tough sell to mass mainstream audiences.  The show prides itself on its “meta” humor and in-jokes that are often too inside to allow for new viewers or appeal to anyone who doesn’t have a fairly large knowledge (or memory) of classic film and TV, as well as more recent pop culture staples.  It probably also doesn’t help that the show clearly never set out to make any friends, as it shifts jarringly from abrasive humor, scathing satire, referential parody and  sentimental whimsy.  And there is no laugh track to tell viewers what is funny and many of the best lines are thrown off in such a fashion that anyone who is not paying close attention will miss many of the best, most clever moments.

Yes, the show requires some attention to dialog and detail.  But it is never a challenge or ‘work’ to keep up with Community; and viewers who make the necessary investment will reap significant rewards (also as with AD these rewards include one of televisions great ensemble casts).

The show goes on a winter hiatus after tonight’s exceptional holiday-themed outing (a Glee parody that embodies all that is great – and apparently wrong where gaining viewers is concerned – about this extremely clever – perhaps too clever – series) with its future in doubt thanks to low ratings.  If Community returns in the spring, please people, start watching so we don’t get another Happy Endings, Whitney, or some other generic, predictable, witless, and lazy POS to take its place.

HOMELAND

Showtime, Sundays, 10/9p.m.

By R. David

“Homeland”, Showtime’s complex and provocative new weekly series (and a terrific companion to the network’s equally excellent “Dexter”), is the rare densely-plotted drama that will – presumably – spend an entire season building towards the revelation of a central question where each episode is chalk full of enough tension and plot-thickening development to suggest the journey may prove to be more fascinating than the destination.

Expertly acted, written and paced, “Homeland” is the story of Nicholas Brody (“Dreamcatcher’s” Damien Lewis), an American POW who returns home from Baghdad after 8 years of imprisonment and torture.  His assimilation back into the American society and his family after 8 years, dealing with the newfound celebrity that has been thrust upon him, as well as his emotional and physical scaring, would yield enough drama for any series to explore.  “Homeland” doesn’t short change these elements of its story, but the series adds a layer of paranoia, and asks the audience to consider that Brody may have been turned by al-Qaeda and may be returning home as a terrorist threat.  Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a CIA agent convinced that an elusive al-Qaeda terrorist is planning an imminent attack on American soil, believes Brody has been allowed to return home as a double agent who will facilitate the attack.

Mathison, who is already concealing the fact that she suffers from bipolar disorder, becomes obsessed with her suspicions of Brody, to the extent that she illegally bugs his home, lies to her superiors, and generally lets her investigation of him consume her life and endanger her career.  While we witness Brody trying to put the pieces of his life back together, cope with his emotional demons and learn how to interact with his family and friends once again; we watch as Mathison’s life and career increasingly unravel as she hangs all of her bets on the notion that Brody is a national threat.

So is she right?  If you want easy answers wrapped up in a tidy package by an episode’s end, you’d do better to stick with “NCIS”.  What makes “Homeland” so compelling is that it does not tackle good and evil and right and wrong with broad strokes.  Brody is clearly damaged and hiding something; but a terrorist threat?  Mathison is so concerned with hiding her own secrets and proving her theory correct that she may simply be seeing what she wants to see in Brody.  Unlike most series which establish a clear hero and villain, and the hero has to fight against all the bureaucratic nonsense and red tape to bring the villain to justice, it is not clear where “Homeland” is headed; and that is the show’s greatest asset.    Brody could indeed be a terrorist, or he could be the tragic hero; while Mathison could be the only one who sees him for the danger he represents or she could be a total head-case.  The thrill of “Homeland” is, at this point, either scenario seems equally possible.

But the show can’t keep us on the hook forever, constantly tricking the audience or dragging the story out.  So far the writers have done a great job of revealing small but satisfying and important bits of each character’s persona as well as the bigger puzzle in each episode.  Though it’s to “Homeland’s” credit that the show is just as captivating when exploring the issues of Brody’s home life as it is when focusing on the espionage stuff.

“Homeland” never feels too talky or complicated despite being complex and challenging.  Danes (who I’ve admittedly never been a real fan of) and Lewis both give Emmy-ready performances, and the supporting cast – which includes Mandy Patinkin as Mathison’s mentor and “V’s” Morena Baccrain as Brody’s (beautiful) wife – is equally impeccable.

“Homeland” was adapted by “24’s” Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa from an Israeli series.  Gordon brings the best of “24” to this project, namely the often muddled line between good and evil and the question of when is it acceptable to break the laws of the country – or even society – for the greater good; and who has the right to make that determination.  But “Homeland” is not “24” 2.0.  Though I am of the opinion that every show could benefit from a Jack Bauer, this is a much more cerebral approach to the idea of fighting a terrorist threat from within.  Yet, somehow, it is no less thrilling.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY

FX, Wednesdays, 10/9p.m.

By R.  David

Three episodes in and American Horror Story just keeps getting better.  And crazier.

The pilot was an attention-getter, with its gothic setting, arresting visuals, and ominous textures.  But as with any television show, the series must prove itself to be more than a one-trick pony.  Viewers need a reason to return week after week.  This isn’t an easy task for any show, but especially one in the horror genre.  What was scary once, is not going to continue to deliver chills if recycled week after week.  Going in I was a bit trepidations about AHS for this very reason.  An old fashioned haunted house tale mixed with the FX network’s penchant for button and boundary-pushing drama (The Shield, Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck) guaranteed that I would watch, but I would quickly lose interest in a show that simply aimed to scare by having different creepy-looking things pop out of closets week after week.

Oh me of little faith.

Though still in its infancy, it seems the writers have already figured out a few ways to keep AHS from lapsing into traditional spook-house fare.  Each episode has begun with a flashback of sorts to one of the many nasty bits from the damned home’s history.  These opening scenes, a prelude of sorts to the show proper, set the tone and theme for the rest of the episode as well as providing valuable backstory and pieces to the larger puzzle that AHS seems to be crafting.  With each outing, the show looks more and more to be a overarching mystery.  There are little clues, red herrings, and questions sprinkled throughout each episode, leading the viewer to believe this may prove to be a show where attention to detail will be rewarded, ala something like Lost.

These openers also go a long toward fulfilling the “Horror” promise of the title.  The main characters in the show (so far, at least) don’t typically run afoul of the ghosts who haunt the house in obvious and straightforward ways.  The haunting is subtle, leaving them to questioning if what they are seeing is real.  The ghosts get in these peoples’ heads and mess around.  Already suspicious and resentful of each other, they turn on their family, friends, and employees when given even the slightest reason; and the characters can’t decide if it’s all real or a manifestation of their own guilt and rage.

This approach, as opposed to non-stop shock and awe, is necessary of course because otherwise all you would have week after week is bloody ghost battle after bloody ghost battle, until the show would inevitably – and quickly – become more comical than Ghostbusters.  The characters must continue to question what is going on both in their home and their heads in order for the show to remain intriguing for the long haul and create a mounting sense of dread.

But the flashback sequences are anything-goes affairs where each week the writers can think up whatever crazy, horrific, bloody scenario they want to see thrown up on the screen.  There needn’t be any rules here because the outcome doesn’t affect the main story and, frankly, the crazier and more horrific the past instances, the more we care about these characters who must shoulder the weight and consequences of those past events in the present.

If you aren’t yet familiar with the AHS, Dylan McDermott stars as Ben, a Psychiatrist who’s wife, Vivien (Connie Brighton), caught him having affair shortly after she lost their second pregnancy.  He blamed the trauma of the miscarriage and her coping by retreating inward as his reason for straying.  They agree to work on salvaging their marriage, but away from the distractions and temptations of city life.  With their teenage daughter, they retreat to a sprawling colonial-era mansion on the outskirts of L.A.  There they meet a host of creepy types – a cold and calculating next door neighbor (Jessica Lange, in a brava performance), an elderly maid who appears to Ben as a young and sexy temptress, a badly burned convicted murderer and former owner of the home, Ben’s newest patient, a teenager with murderous fantasies who sets his sights on Ben’s daughter – and their basement and attic each house a treasure trove of disturbing objects and buried secrets.  And that hardly scratches the surface of all that unfolds in this wildly inventive, unhinged and entertaining new series.

I could go on for pages with the specifics of each character, theories on what’s really going on and where the show is headed; and explain all the frightful craziness that has already taken place in just the first few episodes, but I’d rather you watch it for yourself because so far AHS has proved to be one of the best shows of the new television season.  It was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, the guys who brought us the equally twisted and audacious “Nip/Tuck”.  It is a genuine concern that “Nip/Tuck” jumped the shark pretty quickly after a stellar first season.  The seasons that followed got more crazy and outlandish but seemed to sacrifice any connection to reality in the bargain.  It also became completely devoid of surprises, suspense and anything resembling the breath of fresh it air that it was when it first premiered.  Plots were recycled repeatedly and the show seemed to lose all direction and ambition.  The characters that we should have grown to care more about with each season instead grew increasingly tiresome, pathetic and off-putting.  By the end there was no one to care about or root for (a similar fate seems to be befalling their other current TV hit, Glee, now only in season 3).

AHS could very easily fall into the same trap.  Any show that is based on a gimmick or embraces style over substance has to work extra hard to keep itself fresh and exciting.  But if Murphy and Falcheck can continue to find ways to keep the drama and scares fresh, the events grounded in some sort of reality so what these people are going through actually means something to the viewer, and the show from lapsing into self-parody and soapy melodrama, American Horror Story might just be crazy enough to work.