It’s not every week that a generation’s best-known political pundit signs off for the last time, which is why most of the TV-related headlines over the past several days have been about Jon Stewart: his social legacy, his style of humor and what he might do next. But The Daily Show wasn’t the only institution bidding adieu. If you’re a fan of goodbyes, you’ve been in clover lately, watching both prestige dramas and breakout series take their last bows for the summer. It’s not an easy thing to do well, exiting both gracefully and memorably.
So in this latest installment of Rolling Stone‘s weekly nod to television’s best, we say our own see-you-laters to a few of the programs that have been dominating the cultural conversation – some for just over a month, and one for over a decade. We also give a hearty welcome back to one of cable’s most underrated comedies, and marvel at how two very different shows are routinely proving that creepy can be beautiful.
5. UnREAL and True Detective represent the highs and lows of season finales (Lifetime/HBO)
Remember just a few months ago, when Sunday nights on HBO meant two solid hours of Game of Thrones, Veep and Silicon Valley – three of 2015’s best? Since then, there’s been a depressingly steep drop in quality, from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and T.J. Miller to Ballers and The Brink. The final few hours of the TV weekend ought to be something to savor, but any programming slate anchored by True Detective‘s second season is bound to be as much fun as a Monday morning commute. And sure enough, last night’s True Detective finale “Omega Station” was overlong, excessively grim and laboring under the common delusion that “serious drama” demands hushed, halting conversations in dimly lit rooms. The episode mostly consisted of exposition and stylish shootouts – like a video game that’s all cut-scenes and boss-battles.
The main virtue of True Detective‘s season two though (beyond reminding Hollywood casting directors to hire Rachel McAdams more) is that it’s gotten TV critics and live-tweeters talking more about what we really expect out of an ambitious cable series. Is merely “heavy” enough, or does there need to be more wit, more personal passion and a keener awareness of the real world?
What we should want are more UnREALs. Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s searing drama – set behind the scenes at a reality dating competition – also tried to squeeze too much set-up and too many climaxes into last week’s finale, “Future.” But the episode also had energy to spare, and ultimately served its two fascinating lead characters: the ruthless producer Quinn (played by Constance Zimmer), and her mentally unstable protégée Rachel (Shiri Appleby). A lot was written throughout this first season about how UnREAL mocks and exposes The Bachelor, but the show’s really about how television fakery reflects the values of those who do it, putting their own shallow dreams and thirst for danger onto the screen. In the finale, Quinn and Rachel supervise a trainwreck of their own making, because that’s who they are. It’s going to be interesting next year to see how they regroup, and mount another disaster.
4. Reba strokes a man-eating beast, Hannibal (NBC)
Given that Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon has already been adapted twice into movies, it initially seemed superfluous for NBC to take another stab at it. (So to speak.) But so far the TV version of the book has had its own vibe, derived from Hannibal‘s usual fascination with the finer things: high art, haute cuisine, sophisticated music and beautifully abstract patterns of blood-spatter. In last week’s episode “And the Woman Clothed in Sun,” serial killer Francis “The Tooth Fairy” Dolarhyde (played by Richard Armitage) took his blind girlfriend Reba McClane (Rutina Wesley) on a trip to the zoo, where he arranged for her to pet a sedated tiger. As her dark hands rubbed across bright orange fur, edging closer and closer to the animal’s teeth, her psychotic lover cringed.
The scene reveals a lot about the killer’s character, and his fear that the woman he loves will discover his own sharp edges. It’s also just a gorgeous five minutes of TV, both to look at and to listen to. What it’s depicting is horrifying, but to quote Reba, the moment is “a very elegant gesture… eloquent, too.” Here, Hannibal mashes up poetic dialogue, dreamy visuals and abstract music into a moment of tension and wonder that aims directly for the viewer’s subconscious.
3. A dude pulls a thread through his eye, Penn & Teller: Fool Us (The CW)
Last summer, The CW repackaged footage from Penn & Teller’s 2011 British magic contest Fool Us into new episodes, and drew enough American viewers to revive the concept in full this year. A fresh set of contestants have been angling each week to perform tricks that the venerable Vegas illusionists have never seen before, though on last week’s “Mission Impossi-Ball,” Matthew Holtzclaw – a shock-magician weaned on P&T – didn’t really play the game. Instead, he worked a couple of variations on well-known routines. In one, he tore up a piece of string and put it back together, seamlessly. In the other, he swallowed a thread and forced it up through his sinuses before pulling it out of his own eye-socket. (All together now: Ewwwwww.)
That bit has everything Fool Us fans love. It’s bizarre and amazing, yet classical in its way – hearkening back to circus sideshows and Indian fakirs. Disgusting? Undoubtedly. But also unforgettable, and unlike anything else on television. When Holtzclaw finished, his boyhood idols told him they loved his performance, even though (or perhaps because) they knew exactly how he did it. Genuine appreciation for showmanship and craft is rare in reality competitions, but it’s become a staple of this weekly celebration of weird entertainment.
2. Playing House plays on (USA)
Playing House co-creators/stars Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair have been ubiquitous comic character actresses for years, but they’re known more by face than by name. That, combined with their show’s not-that-grabby premise – which is about two childhood friends, Maggie and Emma, moving in together to help raise a baby – probably explains why last year’s season one lacked both viewers and buzz. That’s not really Parham and St. Clair’s fault, though. They have the best chemistry and timing of any duo on TV outside of maybe Broad City‘s Abbi and Ilana; and thanks in part to a special deal with Comcast Xfinity’s VOD service, USA Network has given them a much-deserved second season, which kicked off last week with back-to-back episodes.
What’s it going to take to get people to watch this thing? Ordinarily, it’d help to quote some of the jokes, like the long bit in this season’s second episode where Maggie recounts a sex dream she had about a pair of HGTV hosts, concluding, euphemistically, “Who doesn’t want to be measured from different angles by the Property Brothers?” But on the page it’s impossible to capture the stars’ rapid give-and-take, or the special inflection they put on lines like, “We can explain everything, we just need you to stop screaming like a bird.” So many cable sitcoms are about how awful people can be, but Playing House doesn’t seem to think that amiability and comedy are incompatible, so long as the performers know how to sell it. That’s a good enough reason to catch this show while it’s still on the air.
1. The Daily Show alumni give Jon Stewart a teary sendoff (Comedy Central)
Didn’t it seem like the final four Jon Stewart Daily Shows crept up unexpectedly? While the Internet was dense with think-pieces last week, the hoopla’s been fairly minimal in the month or so leading up to the big finish – especially when compared to David Letterman’s recent retirement. When the countdown began in earnest seven days ago, it inspired a reaction along the lines of, “Wait, that’s happening now? Well, crud.” And it didn’t help that aside from a few maudlin and/or reflective moments here or there during the week’s Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday episodes, The Daily Show was all business. Stewart served up one last takedown of Fox News, one last bit of bro-banter with frequent guest Denis Leary, one last Arby’s joke…and then goodnight. He even introduced his penultimate show as “the one that everyone will probably forget,” underscoring the whole week’s big shrug.
Then came Thursday’s actual #JonVoyage, with its clever Goodfellas-style salute to the behind-the-scenes crew, and its touching reunion of past correspondents (including the recently critical Wyatt Cenac). The finale felt awkward and rushed at times, but really began to find its groove when Daily Show grad Stephen Colbert offered a few spontaneous words of appreciation for his former boss’s lessons on “how to do a show with intention.” Stewart teared up, and stayed visibly shaken for most of the rest of the episode, even as he gave one final speech about staying vigilant against “bullshit” before throwing it over to Bruce Springsteen for the ultimate “moment of zen.”
Colbert’s tribute was such a magnificent moment of television because it came just as his friend was trying to go to a commercial. Whenever any long-running program concludes, there’s a sense of time ticking by too quickly. Each “We’ll be right back” brings us closer to the credits, and the end. When Colbert literally stopped the show for a minute, he gave all the unprepared fans a chance to catch a breath, and prepare for a proper goodbye.