Tag Archives: fx

"Sons of Anarchy" gets back to basics in season four

Sons of Anarchy has ridden the combination of bikes, babes and bad-assery to become a favorite of both critics and fans. Entering its fourth season, it looks to get back to basics after a season-long arc that took the California outlaws all the way to Belfast.

It’s an approach that should do the show some good. The fourth season, despite a few impressive sequences, got bogged down in True IRA politics and a convoluted investigation headed by a corrupt sociopath. Left behind was the rich internal drama about the true path of SAMCRO.

When Sons of Anarchy began, it was best described as Hamlet on motorcycles. Jax’s personal struggle with the club’s methods, and therefore with his stepfather Clay, has always served as the show’s dramatic undercurrent. There was no higher point of tension than at the end of the first season, as Jax held both the truth of Donna’s murder and the message of his father’s manuscript in his hands. By the second season, Jax was ready to go nomad, until the truth of Gemma’s assault was revealed, uniting the club against a common enemy. Last season, his single-minded pursuit of Abel was another factor in the club’s coalescence. Now, as the gang finishes their 14-month stretch in the clink, Jax once again returns his focus to his family’s future, especially with a new baby in tow.

In the season premiere, Jax lays out his too-good-to-be-true plan during a predictable yet awkward proposal to Tara (“we should get married” isn’t quite “will you marry me?”). He’ll bide his time, save his money, and wait for Clay’s hands to finally give out, taking Tara, Abel and Thomas far away from the crime and destruction of the Sons. His prison time gave him new clarity on his father, as well. While he knows JT father was right about the club, and about how far it has strayed from its original purpose, he also sees his father as a coward: a man who ran off to Belfast rather than saving his children from the life he chose. Jax is determined not to make the same mistake, setting up an inevitable confrontation with Clay and Gemma.

As for the club, they quickly get back into gun-running in a major way, solidifying some alliances and destroying others. Charming law enforcement has a new face in Sheriff Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar, last seen on Terriers), and there is a strange AUSA in town, Linc Potter (Ray McKinnon), who has his sights set on a major RICO case against the Sons. In a perfect bit of casting, Danny Trejo will appear as a former Mexican military commando, hopefully with shades of Machete. For fans of The Shield, David Rees Snell (formerly Strike Team member Ronnie) and Benito Martinez (formerly David Aceveda) will make appearances as well.

Sons of Anarchy is an over-the-top cocktail of testosterone and adrenaline, and that shouldn’t change this season. But the show can be true to its character without the overwrought story lines that culminated in season three. Season four looks to right the ship and get back to the “sins of fathers” theme that has served it so well in the past. Whatever is in store for SAMCRO, it promises to be one helluva ride.

The final season of "Rescue Me" starts with a bang

Like Weeds, Rescue Me is one of the shows that defined the last decade’s television Golden Age. Also like Weeds, it hasn’t aged particularly well, the victim of the same kind of stakes-raising that has made the former a parody of itself. With the seventh and final season kicking off last night, can Rescue Me salvage its legacy?

The season premiere opens with the Gavin universe in an uneasy stasis. Tommy’s nephew Damien, rendered severely brain damaged in a firefighting accident last season, appears ready to join the rest of Tommy’s “ghosts.” Yet his is a fate worse than death, arguably – living without living, Purgatory on Earth. Predictably, Sheila is delusional and in denial about Damien’s possible recovery. Janet is pregnant (for the fifth time), and she and Tommy decide to keep the baby. The specter of their deceased son Connor still hangs heavy over their relationship, even with Wyatt (the product of Janet and Johnny’s affair) in the fold. Janet wants a normal relationship, but Tommy can’t promise that: “We are way beyond goddamn normal.”

Fast forward five months: A very pregnant Janet has formed an alliance with longtime nemesis Sheila; a friendship forged in fire at the hands of Tommy. With two women and two maturing children to tend to things, Tommy’s role as “man of the house” is in question. Complicating matters is this new dynamic with the women in his life: can he trust either one, or is this more “she said / she said?” Either way, Janet and Sheila calling Tommy “a walking hard-on with a fire helmet” is essentially his character bible.

Finally, the audience sees the firehouse. During a dry spell, fire-wise, the gang sits around making dated Jersey Shore and Flavor of Love references. Remember when these characters were the lifeblood of the show? Lovable dimwits Sean and Mike, ladies-man Franco, and salt of the Earth Lou have been run through the ringer the last few years, surviving cancer, death in the family, sexual identity crisis, baby mama drama, nuns and con artists. At this point, their banter rings hollow.

The bar is now being run by Teddy and Johnny, who have Tommy’s daughter Colleen on the payroll. Should all these recovering alcoholics be in a bar? The bar as support system is a re-hashing of the Gavin family AA group, and audiences will remember how that turned out (tragically). When “Black Shawn” proposes to Colleen, she gets hammered; apparently Tommy’s “baptism in alcohol” didn’t stick. Tommy is furious, but rejects a drink after a meeting with his ghosts (his father, his brother, and his cousin). Instead, he breaks up the bar with a few warning shots from Teddy’s shotgun: “Party’s over, assholes.”

The party will be over soon, as the series will end on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. Frankly, it’s about time: what started as a comment on how quickly we forget our heroes became an overwrought soap opera with the macho trappings of firefighting. Here’s hoping Rescue Me shows some respect for its characters in its final episodes, so that audiences never forget this gut-wrenching journey.

Rescue Me airs Wednesdays at 10PM on FX.

From guilty pleasure to must watch: thoughts on "Justified"

When I wrote about Justified before this season, I called it a guilty pleasure. It was another procedural-serial hybrid with a main character bigger than the institution he’s a part of (a post-Wire faux pas), albeit taking place in a unique setting. But after the culmination of the show’s second go-around in Kentucky’s Eastern District, I’m reconsidering that designation.

The second season of Justified built upon the solid foundation of the first, literally picking up right where the first left off. Raylan and Boyd became further entwined, as Raylan’s Miami cartel problems became Boyd’s: a cartel member deprived Boyd the privilege of killing his father Bo. Surprisingly, this issue was cleared up rather quickly, putting to bed a storyline that began when Raylan capped Tommy Buck in the pilot.

Raylan sorts through the paperwork and testimony that results from one of his bloodbaths, getting back to marshal business, and Boyd continues life on the straight-and-narrow. Without his flock (who were summarily killed by Bo’s crew), Boyd returns to the mines, content to live a humble existence from the comfort of Ava’s attic. Neither Raylan nor the audience is sure whether Boyd has honestly turned over a new leaf or not, the type of complexity the first season offered.

The second season’s major plot line concerned the Bennetts, a local crime family that shares a “Hatfields and McCoys” relationship with the Givens clan. Matriarch Maggs Bennett is played by Margo Martindale, a true delight who has been featured on The Riches and Dexter. Maggs was infinitely more compelling than Bo as a crime boss, her relationship with her family richer and more complicated. With her three sons, corrupt sheriff Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor), wannabe gangster Dickie (Lost‘s Jeremy Davies), and the dimwitted Coover (Brad William Henke), Maggs dominates the fictional Bennett County.

Raylan is no stranger to the Bennetts, but only becomes professionally interested when state troopers need a hillbilly whisperer to track down a sex offender deep in Bennett territory. A local hustler named McCready had anonymously called in the law. Between that and encroaching on Maggs’ weed business, McCready ends up with a bellyful of poison. This leaves his daughter Loretta (the scene-stealing Kaitlyn Dever) an orphan under the protective watch of Maggs. Meanwhile, the Bennetts work towards their big plan, which ends up being a land deal with mountaintop miner Black Pike. The whole affair feels like an Appalachian Chinatown.

Meanwhile, Boyd is dragged back over to the dark side, first as the hired protection for Black Pike and then as a full fledged outlaw. Was it inevitable? Was it premeditated? Or was it the result of the constant doubts of Raylan, et al? The evolution of Boyd’s character this season was always captivating, from his solemn shots of whiskey as a coal miner to bursts of violent anger (one involving a pickup truck left me breathless).

For his part, Raylan stays busy, attempting to mend his relationship with Winona while simultaneously being a marshal and keeping tabs on Boyd and the Bennetts. He spends the entire season in the doghouse, with Art content to play the fatherly “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed” card. The writers didn’t rely on Raylan’s quick and itchy trigger finger, and the show benefited greatly from it. The show is still violent – with more blood and a higher body count that last time – without being exploitative or redundant.

The first season introduced us to the world of Justified, and the second season got to its heart. The longstanding blood feuds and the us-versus-them mentality toward outsiders give a distinct flavor to this Kentucky drama, and meditations on “the sins of the father” give it a poignant edge. This season, Justified truly surpassed itself – and its competition.

The final bell for "Lights Out"

The first and final season of Lights Out reached its conclusion last night. In the nine episodes that have aired since I last wrote about the show, Lights Out answered my critiques, and then some.

Throughout the show, Patrick “Lights” Leary is torn between two families, pitting the needs of his wife and kids against the needs of his siblings and parents. It’s a complicated dynamic that doesn’t quite run parallel to the tension between Lights’ desire to do things the right way versus the necessary way. Stacey Keach was a constant bright spot in the cast, even if a late-season appearance by Lights’ mother played out predictably. As the season progressed, Johnny (Pablo Schreiber) became more sympathetic, more damaged than malicious, while their sister Margaret (Elizabeth Marvel) moved in the other direction. The only shortfall continued to be the weakly characterized children, but there is only so much you can do in 40 minutes chunks.

Lights fought his way back from the street to the ring to challenge “Death Row” Reynolds. Along the way, he helped train a loser, took out the vicious Javier ‘El Diablo’ Morales, and survived various underworld diversions. The shady world of boxing promotion was on full display. Neither the characters nor the audience could pin down Hal Brennan or Barry Word, thanks to nuanced performances from character actors Bill Corwin and Reg E. Cathey. The excellent David Morse showed up as a punch drunk boxer (and cautionary tale). Eamonn Walker was mesmerizing as headcase trainer Ed Romeo. Unfortunately, he played the role of Magical Negro, coming out of nowhere to offer a new perspective on life and boxing to our white hero, before returning to whence he came.

The central dramatic issue of the show was how far Lights would go for the championship belt. As far as morality, Lights was not without fault; he was a button man and a cage fighter; he’d get someone to intimidate a witness. Yet the physical cost of fighting, and the threat of Pugilistic Dementia, loomed larger than any prison time. By the end of the show, Lights got what he wanted, but at what cost?

After a season of declining ratings, the decision not to renew Lights Out was an easy one for FX. And unlike a show like Terriers, the end feels natural. Where else could the writers take this show and these characters? Lights’ narrative is complete, recasting the show as a 13-episode, 9-hour miniseries. In a backwards sort of way, FX is crafting shows in the British style: short runs that tell self-contained stories. Lights Out proves that not every show needs to go 12 rounds to be a knockout.

Still not watching "Archer?" Here's your chance.

Looking for the funniest show on television? Forget NBC’s resuscitation of Thursday night “Must See TV” or ABC’s ensemble gem Modern Family – turn to basic cable.

FX’s Archer, for the uninitiated, is an animated show from the mind behind cult classics Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo, Adam Reed. The title refers to main character Sterling Archer (the impeccable H. Jon Benjamin), a narcissistic, hedonistic secret agent at the dysfunctional spy agency ISIS.

If James Bond has been done to death, so has the spy parody (Get Smart, Austin Powers). Yet week after week, Archer manages to find new targets of ridicule, from double agents to the honeypot. And when the trappings of the spy genre aren’t in its sights, the show skewers ISIS itself for an absurd workplace comedy.

The world of Archer is intentionally anachronistic, with the style of the 60s (think Mad Men), the politics of the Cold War, and the culture and vernacular of the modern day. With Reed’s signature brand of vulgar black comedy and rapid-fire dialogue, Archer tailors Frisky Dingo into a more mainstream package.

The characters are well-drawn, both literally and figuratively. Archer’s relationship with his mother – and boss – Malory (voiced by and designed for Jessica Walter) would give Freud headaches. Complicating matters is his ex-girlfriend Lana (Aisha Tyler), another ISIS spy, and her (in)significant other Cyril (Chris Parnell), who doubles as ISIS bean counter.

Midway into its second season, Archer keeps getting stronger, building up running jokes and delving deeper into twisted secondary characters. The interplay between the inappropriate Pam and the clueless (and asphixiation-obsessed) Cheryl is a highlight, as is the show’s Q-like Dr. Krieger. In particular, Krieger gets funnier as the jokes get sicker. A brief rundown of Krieger’s antics: dosing interns, videotaping something “…darker” than bumfights, making his own breastmilk, and a brief affair with Cheryl that involved a mechanical claw and “slacking off.”

Archer is on a 30-day delay on Hulu, so the second season is just available now (the pilot will disappear in a few days). Stay tuned for the third episode this season, “Blood Test,” which is the show’s strongest offering yet. In a testament to the writing, the script weaves in references to both Of Mice and Men and William Burroughs, while Archer attempts to determine the paternity of a baby a prostitute says is his. (Spoiler alert: the baby appears in a later episode and the possibilities open up even more inappropriate humor.)

Catching up on "Justified"

Justified was last year’s finest example of guilty pleasure television. The FX drama follows in the footsteps of predecessors The Shield and 24, featuring a protagonist who Breaks the Rules but Gets Results, a phrase that might actually be trademarked by the cable network. Thankfully, it returns tomorrow for a second season.

Justified follows US Marshal Raylan Givens as he reluctantly returns home to eastern Kentucky, Stetson and fastest-gun-alive in tow. Givens is an Old West sheriff born in the wrong century, so it’s fitting that he’s played by Timothy Olyphant, whose last major TV role was as Deadwood’s Sheriff Seth Bullock. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, the show has the author’s sharp-tongued wit and well-drawn characters. Apart from the dialogue, the show benefits from a premise that is both episodic and serial. Week to week, Givens fulfils his duties as a marshal: hunting for fugitives, protecting judges, and negotiating with hostage takers, among other things. He also is the featured player in a love triangle that includes his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and Ava (Joelle Carter), the woman he loves and the woman who loves him, respectively.

More intriguing is the overarching plot line that pits Givens against Boyd Crowder (The Shield’s Walton Coggins, aka Shane Vendrell aka Cletus Van Damme), a white separatist / cult leader / explosives-wielding criminal. Childhood friends on opposite sides of the law, Givens takes Crowder out of commission in the pilot; the bullet doesn’t kill him, but Crowder (allegedly) changes his ways, finds Jesus, and moves to a commune in the woods. Crowder is more svengali than supremacist, and Coggins gives the role more nuance than he did with his character on The Shield. The question of Crowder’s true intentions is all shades of gray and makes for an intriguing plot line.

Over the first season, the show highlighted the episodic content over the serialized, but finished strong. The romantic subplot is a bit predictable, but it integrates with the other stories organically enough. Overall, the performances, dialogue and unique setting make this show one to watch.

Watch Justified on FX, at 10pm on Wednesdays.

Is “Lights Out” a true contender?

From the earliest teaser trailer of FX’s Lights Out, the premise looked like a winner. A boxer on the downturn of his career, trying to be a husband and father, with a career path that forks at “one last chance before dementia” and “low-level enforcer.” The high concept log line would be The Fighter meets The Sopranos.

After four episodes, the show has flirted with the lofty promise of that premise. Unfortunately, its success has been in fits and starts. While each episode has been compelling in its own way, it feels like the potential isn’t being met. Still, we’re only four episodes in to the first season, and the show has a lot to offer.

Lights Out opens with Patrick “Lights” Leary (Holt McCallany), bloodied and unconscious on a metal table, bathed in a harsh halogen glow; it might as well be a morgue. He’s just lost his career defining match: losing his belt to “Death Row” Reynolds. His wife Theresa (Catherine McCormack) snaps the smelling salts, stiches him up (she’s in medical school), and hands him an ultimatum: fighting or family, but not both.

Lights hangs up his gloves, and five years pass. He tries his best to piece together the money needed to keep his family in the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to: med school for his wife, private school for his kids. It’s a tenuous ploy, and he leaves it in the hands of his brother/manager Johnny.

Johnny, played by The Wire’s Pablo Schreiber, has sunk Lights’ funds into a stalled development project, The Landing, reminiscent of the Soprano-Lupertazzi joint venture, the Esplanade. He’s also trying to keep his father’s gym up and running. As if that wasn’t enough, Johnny is a total degenerate, fucking anything that moves and always looking for an angle. Each broken promise and bad deal begets another lie, as he digs a deeper hole for himself, and in turn, his family. Predictably, Lights does whatever it takes to bail out his brother. After four episodes of this, it’s already a tired act.

Johnny connects Lights with local gangster Hal Brennan (the icy Bill Irwin). A collection here, a delivery there, and Lights is that much closer to being a button man. It’s not a role he relishes, but the bingo games and local commercials aren’t paying the bills. His connection to Brennan is the most intriguing subplot the show has simmering.

The show has flaws beyond its genre cliches (the same cliches found in The Fighter). Thus far, the venerable Stacey Keach has been criminally underutilized (the fourth episode finally gives him some extended screen time). Also, Lights’ children are two-dimensional objects of his devotion. The difficult teenage girl, the precocious pre-teen, and the adorable innocent are stereotypes we’ve seen before in shows like Rescue Me and Brotherhood. Furthermore, the show often loses the battle between episodic plot lines and legitimate development of overarching subplots and themes. Still, there’s time for these characters and plots to become more richly drawn, as Lights Out comes into focus.

The crucial scene of the pilot intercuts Lights in his three roles (father, fighter, enforcer) and serves as a microcosm for the series. He’s just beaten up a cocky barfly for a fistful of dollars, and broken a delinquent gambler’s arm for the promise of a few more. He consoles his youngest daughter over ice cream, after she’s seen old fight footage: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you safe.” In his own way, he’s trying to do just that. Lights’ footwork, as he attempts to walk that path, is what keeps me watching, despite the show’s cuts and bruises.

Lights Out airs on FX, Tuesdays at 10PM.