Monday Morning Critic: A Look Back at the Week That Was
Growing up, I loved Sunday mornings. Why? Because I could open up The Boston Globe, find the Sports section, and turn immediately to Peter Gammons’ seminal Baseball Notes column. It took up an entire page of the newspaper, and was filled top to bottom with a mixture of long-form analysis, quick-hit takes, and stray observations. The only limit was the physical constraints of the page itself, and Gammons usually saw fit to stretch that to its limit.
I always thought that was a fascinating way to discuss the broad topic of baseball: Rather than write about one thing, Gammons wrote about all things, and the format allowed him to shift things around on a weekly basis as the season itself changed. It seems like a fine approach to appropriate here with this, the inaugural edition of the Monday Morning Critic. I’ve long wanted to adopt Gammons’ approach and turn it towards television. One could argue the lifecycle of certain discussion points is more and more finite as the sheer amount of good TV increases and insta-analysis of Twitter renders episodes moot a mere hour after initial airing. But I’m hoping that’s not the case, and that we can all meet here each Monday to look back at the week that was.
While the format is inspired by Gammons, I won’t pretend this will have the depth nor quality of his Globe writing. What I can promise is that everything I accumulate during the week will pour forth here, which frees me up from specific word counts and lets me say as much or as little as I feel is necessary. The Monday Morning Critic will evolve over time, and I welcome all feedback as I get this project off the ground.
Since Fall (and the Fall TV season) is right around the corner, it’s high time to talk about the best drama and comedy of this past summer. There were nights in which it seemed as if all one could watch were reality TV and dramas involving motorcycle-driving doctors, but there was also a deep bench of quality programming to be found if you knew where to look. And there were two shows that had surprisingly life-affirming underpinnings despite their outward appearances that really stood out this summer.
Most people didn’t know to look at 'Rectify,' judging by the series’ paltry ratings. But SundanceTV greenlit a third season anyways, and thank God for that. Not only was this the best hour-long drama on any network this summer, but it might have been the best show period to air all year. It’s dangerous to make such proclamations so close to the season finale, when one is likely to jump atop a metaphorical mountain and make silly, hyperbolic proclamations. But this is damn good TV, one that moves with a slow but purposeful pace, one that took its expanded episode order (from six in season one to ten in season two) as an opportunity rather than a burden, and casually produced the most deeply humanist work you’ll see on the small screen.
To speak of its plot–a man returns home after years of incarceration after DNA evidence suggests he may not have committed the murder than landed him in prison–is not to speak of its story. The plot of a TV show is what happens. The story is what that means. And the story of 'Rectify' touches on the hope of redemption in the face of all-too-human frailties. From series lead Aden Young on down, this cast will pull at your heartstrings and make you pray for their success even while they fail again and again. But each failure is met with a chance to try again, which makes this show stand out in a TV landscape in which “nihilism” is a supposed signifier for “quality.” Given me the measured, spiritual, transcendent 'Rectify' over those other supposedly superior dramas any day.
I have something called “The DVR Test” that helps me realize when I truly start caring about a show. Some programs I love right off the bat, and others I loathe just as equally. Most fall somewhere in between, which means I’ll watch as many episodes as I can when I can, without worrying too much about how close I watch them based on initial airing. Shows that sneak up on me pass The DVR Test when I flip on my TV, see a host of available options, and almost always pick a certain show out of the crop. And right now, FX’s comedy 'You’re The Worst' is straight killing my DVR test on a weekly basis.
(“If you like it so much, why don’t you watch it when it airs?” cries the masses. One: I’m old, and this show airs at 10:30 pm on Thursdays. Two: FX doesn’t care about overnight ratings, so I’m not shooting this show in the foot.)
Admittedly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the first two episodes, which seems to telegraph its narrative based on its premise. But a “will they/won’t they” promise quickly turned into “Why shouldn’t we?”, as primary characters Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) slowly realize that their plan for a meaningless physical relationship crumbles in the face of their incredible compatibility. While a nominally snarky show on the surface, “You’re The Worst” is incredibly sweet under its exterior crudeness, and the process through which the central pair continually choose “yes” when they historically chose “no” in their ongoing relationship is a complete pleasure.
To be honest, however, what really pushed the show from good to great lay in the program’s work in developing ancillary characters Edgar (Desmin Borges) and Lindsay (Kether Donahue), two people that realize they are the sidekicks in the Jimmy/Gretchen drama but still have goals and issues of their own. In Edgar, TV has a second great example of a PSTD military figure that goes against the normal, histrionic grain. (The other was Pete Hill in the late, lamented “Enlisted.”) In Lindsay, 'You’re The Worst' has a figure akin to Karen Walker on 'Will & Grace,' but with a sweet pathos underneath the brash exterior.
Comparing 'You’re The Worst' to 'Will & Grace' might sound like an insult to some. But that speaks to the sitcom tradition in which 'You’re The Worst' is deeply steeped, all outward trappings to the contrary. Rather than that being a flaw, it’s actually a strength, and suggested that breaking the mold in television isn’t necessarily as important as realizing what has always worked and simply adding a bit more to the puzzle. The show is one part rom-com, one part subtweet, one part YOLO, and all parts addictive. The season ends next week, so you still have time to catch up on it before the finale airs on September 18.
A few quick hits before signing off for the week...
- There are few shows I enjoy more than 'Masters Of Sex' when Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are acting against one another, and few shows that are more of a chore than 'Masters Of Sex' when the two aren’t onscreen simultaneously. I’m dangerously near the point of giving up on that show. If 'You’re The Worst' consistently passes the DVR Test, 'Masters' consistently fails it.
- STARZ’s 'Outlander' will probably last longer than I will on this planet, and while I haven’t quite locked into its rhythms yet, there’s enough intriguing elements to keep me watching at this point. If nothing else, this along with 'Game Of Thrones' and 'Vikings' has convinced me that I need to develop a second screen app called, “Oh Man, Who’s THIS Bearded Guy Again?”
- While I’d love to say all my tastes in TV are high brow, I’ll definitely confess that I’ve watched every episode of 'Big Brother' this summer. After last season’s hate-filled summer, replete with racism and homophobia on the part of its players, I loathed tuning in this past June. But lo, there really wasn’t much on, the concept is inherently addictive to those susceptible to its premise, and Derrick Levasseur has been playing one hell of a game this summer. The only downside I see: If Caleb Reynolds wins, then really this entire season was just one long prequel to 'Stalker.'
- Again: I’ll be here each and every Monday on ScreenCrush. Hope you make this part of your weekly TV diet!