First David Letterman retired, then Jon Stewart — and now, out of the blue, E! just canceled The Soup. After December 18th, we’ll no longer get to watch Joel McHale savage the idiocy of reality-show celebrities, a vital public service he’s performed for the past 11 years. And if last week is any indication, the remaining episodes are going to be something to see; the host is already going down swinging with hilariously mean jokes about Charlie Sheen, Jared Fogle, and E! itself. Still … only four more to go? What a crummy way to end a crummy 2015.
Then again, are we convinced the show’s really going away for good? Because if there’s anything we learned from watching TV over the past seven days, it’s that nothing’s permanent — not even death. This week’s round-up dips into the raging arguments sparked by a couple of cable dramas that has been playing fast and loose with the whole “killing off beloved characters” concept. But we’ve also got two stellar new streaming series, and a pair of long-running dramas proving that they still matter. Hey, maybe it’s okay that TV executives keep taking our television pals away from us. They do keep making more.
5. The Leftovers and The Walking Dead both cheat death (HBO/AMC)
After a cliffhanger that saw The Leftovers‘ main character Kevin Garvey drink poison and apparently die, the hero came back, slugging his way home through a purgatorial dreamscape full of familiar faces and religious symbolism. It was one feverish hour of TV, packed with allusive imagery and weird ideas — up to and including the premise that in this sideways universe, our hero’s been hired to kill (!) his Guilty Remnant nemesis Patti (!!), who’s now a presidential candidate (!!!). It’s probably unwise to take anything about this episode literally except for the ending, which saw Kevin crawling out of his grave. The show teased its biggest departure yet, and then said, “Never mind” — either an incredibly nervy choice, or a total cop-out.
Coincidentally, this bait-and-switch happened during the same hour that The Walking Dead was pulling a similar stunt. After way too many weeks of irresolution, we finally learned that fan-favorite Glenn Rhee miraculously survived falling into a mosh-pit of zombies. Showrunner Scott Gimple has an interesting defense of the drawn-out uncertainty over the character’s fate, saying that he and his writers were trying to create in the audience the same confusion the heroes were going through. It’s just that this “un-twist” came after a string of episodes set more or less the same day, seen from different perspectives and locations — which made it feel a lot like the creative team was just toying with us, making us mourn for a month for no reason.
4. Scandal and The Good Wife tackle the same hot-button topic (ABC/CBS)
At its worst, the crown jewel of the Shondaland empire can feel like a sputtering plot-twist-generator, jerking characters and viewers around almost at random. But episodes like last week’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” balance out the bombast. The A-plot involved first-lady-turned-senator Mellie Grant taking revenge on her petty caucus by filibustering their anti-Planned Parenthood bill. What made that narrative so potent — beyond its contemporary relevance — was how it dovetailed with Olivia Pope’s storyline. After spending the first half of the episode trading cookie recipes and planning dinners for her boyfriend, a.k.a. the President of the United States, Scandal‘s suddenly tamed lioness discreetly got an abortion. The point was clear: Even if the senate stunt was meant as political theater, it had personal meaning for the heroine — or for anyone who’d rather not be chained to traditional roles of wife/hostess/mother if she doesn’t want to be.
The most recent Good Wife, meanwhile, addressed a different aspect of the recent Planned Parenthood hubbub. Die-hard liberal Diane Lockhart took an assignment from one of her firm’s well-heeled right-wing clients, defending their right to post hidden-camera video of an abortion provider talking about selling fetal tissue. This has been a scattered season overall, and this episode was no different. But it had ample mojo in the scenes where lawyers tossed around fast-paced arguments about free speech and biased judges, delivered in the show’s typical style—with editing so jumpy that it frequently cut people off mid-shout. If Scandal is about how private lives impact public policy, then the CBS drama is about how personal convictions get chopped to incomprehensibility by the Cuisinart of our court system.
3. Adele! Springsteen! (NBC/A&E)
Adele’s third album 25 is already on-pace to go double platinum in its first week; and one day after its release, Saturday Night Live spoofed the British pop star’s ubiquity in a sketch where a family’s Thanksgiving arguments turn into a communal sing-along whenever someone puts on “Hello.” The lady herself to the stage, to belt out “Hello” and “When We Were Young” to a rapturous crowd. Maybe she’s so popular because that big voice and those sad songs can sound at once defeated and defiant, like an audio Rorschach test. Or maybe her success is just self-perpetuating: We all want to be a part of one of those increasingly rare moments in popular culture where everybody’s into the same thing at the same time.
It didn’t get as much attention — which was surprising given that it aired simultaneously on A&E, Lifetime, and The History Channel — but Friday’s multi-cast of Shining A Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America featured maybe the most moving six minutes of television all week, when it opened with a performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots).” John Legend traded verses with the Boss while Tom Morello pitched in with a fiery guitar solo, all while the callback to the 1999 police-involved shooting of Amadou Diallo served as a reminder that this song was once so controversial that the E Street Band was booed whenever they played it. It now seems like it was describing a coming pandemic.
2. The Grinder can’t stop grinding (Fox)
It’s rare for a network sitcom to find its voice and settle into steady excellence as quickly as this Fox show featuring ex-Brat Packer (and regrettable Tweeter) Rob Lowe did. It really only has one joke: What would happen if the star of a hit legal drama quit showbiz, returned to his hometown, and started hanging around his younger brother’s dinky law firm? But the deadpan earnestness of Lowe ping-pongs off the nebbish incredulity of Fred Savage, producing an effect that’s like a great operetta.
The Grinder also functions as an astute parody of television’s obsession with professional geniuses. In last week’s ‘Buckingham Malice,” when Lowe’s Dean Stewart senses he’s getting special treatment because of his celebrity, he tries — unsuccessfully — to get back to the “core principles” of being anonymously awesome. Savage keeps up a running commentary about his brother’s general ridiculousness, standing in for every viewer who ever shouted, ‘Oh, c’mon!” during some corny procedural. When he’s rolling at eyes at the way Dean litigates his way out of a traffic ticket (swaying the judge with the argument, “People make the world great”) or reminding his sibling that, “Just because you walk away after you say stuff doesn’t mean you’ve made a point.” Boom! He’s just becomes one of the sharpest TV critics working today.
1. Happy Streams-giving: The Man in the High Castle and Jessica Jones (Amazon/Netflix)
Just when we were getting used to cable channels turning spring TV into the new fall, here come the subscription streamers, treating the last two months of the year as their own version of “sweeps.” In early December, Amazon is going to drop more (superb) episodes of its award-winning Transparent; and last week the company trotted out The Man in the High Castle, writer-producer Frank Spotnitz’s mind-bending adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 alternate history novel. Over the course of its 10 hours, the series explores a world where the Japanese and Germans won WWII, carving out the United States into two occupied territories. The fantastical setting is more interesting than the slow-moving plot, though even the latter starts to get ingeniously loopy towards the end. What’s mainly compelling about this show is the way it depicts an early 1960s America that looks unnervingly normal — aside from the whole “evil has triumphed” thing.
Netflix, meanwhile, has had a killer November, first with Master of None, then W/Bob And David, and now Marvel’s Jessica Jones. A companion-piece to (and improvement on) the service’s acclaimed Daredevil, the newest addition to the MCU stars Krysten Ritter as a super-powered private eye who uses whiskey, sex, and sardonic remarks to mask some deep bruises. Unlike a lot of streaming fodder, the show breaks up well into individual episodes, built around the heroine’s cases. But it also tells one long story, about the pursuit of the oily, all-powerful villain (played by David Tennant) who damaged our antiheroine. As Ritter’s ink-black hair blends into the shadows — while she delivers lines like, ‘It’s people like you who give people like you a bad name” — this series quickly establishes itself one of the best neo-noirs in ages. Really, it was nice of these two streaming networks to release these two shows just before the holidays. They’re the TV equivalent of page-turners, meant to be watched late into the night.