Culture Crash 19-16: The End of Game of Thrones

 
Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

You’ve probably heard some rumblings over the last few weeks that Game of Thrones is back. Last Sunday, the HBO epic kicked off its eighth and final season, airing the first of just six episodes set to conclude the story.

While this may seem like just another final season of a beloved television show, it’s actually something a bit more notable. Author George R.R. Martin published the first novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series back in 1996. That book titled “A Game of Thrones” is what truly began the saga of Westeros which would be adapted into the HBO series so many of us know and love. After that publication in ‘96, Martin released three more installations in the next decade. Then, the pace slowed as the fifth book in the series took an additional six years to be completed and published back in 2011. Since then, readers of the books have been playing the waiting game. The sixth and penultimate installation, set to be titled “The Winds of Winter” has been delayed multiple times and was once expected to be released in 2016. If “The Winds of Winter” ever is published, then the plan is for it to be followed up by a final installment titled “A Dream of Spring.” There’s just no telling how long that novel may take.

Because of the delays, fans have begun to openly question whether either of those books will ever be completed at all.

And with no definitive proof that the saga Martin began publishing in 1996 will truly resolve itself, fans have turned to HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation to give them closure. The TV series has jumped ahead of where the books left off, and their stories have grown to vary significantly but the bare bones remain intact.

Many book readers don’t consider this final television season to be “the” ending to the story of the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryans, but rather “one possible” ending. Still, it is possible it could be the only ending fans ever get, so the hype around this final season comes with an awful lot of baggage. No pressure.

Game of Thrones airs Sundays on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-10: Netflix’s Russian Doll

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Streaming TV services like Netflix and Hulu have revolutionized the medium, in part, simply by expanding access. Hundreds more scripted shows are being made right now than ever have before, and this has meant more diverse writers and creators. But Netflix, in particular, is responsible for another revolutionary idea: dropping entire seasons of shows all at once. It’s become something of a signature for the company, which encourages binge-watching entire seasons of shows like Stranger Things and Ozark in a day or a weekend. With that, many creators have started to say it feels like they’re making a 10-hour movie instead of a TV show.

And that line of thinking has been a little controversial. The problem with that thinking is that, of course, it isn’t a 10-hour movie, it’s a TV show. Critic Alan Sepinwall frequently notes that the nature of TV is episodic. Even if you encourage binge-watching, some viewers will go one episode at a time and each episode needs to be entertaining in its own right.

Well, Netflix may have finally answered the bell and delivered a show that truly feels like an actual extended-length film. It’s called Russian Doll, and it comprises of eight episodes that are each roughly 23 minutes in length. This makes the entire season a little over three hours long, which makes it actually feasible for a lot of people to watch it all in one sitting. And that might be the ideal watching situation.

Russian Doll is similar to Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day, in that it focuses on someone stuck in the same moment. Star Natasha Leon plays Nadia, who keeps dying and being reborn into the same moment at her birthday party.

Russian Doll is a bit of an enigma. It’s sort of like NBC’s The Good Place in its mysterious structure and the central theme of what we can accomplish when we all help each other.

Toward the beginning of the season, I was a bit confused, unsure what exactly I was watching. But around episode 3 or 4, the story really kicks in and it sprints through the finish line. 

It is like a long movie, and it works well all at once. It also works well split in half or sure, episodically.

Russian Doll is now streaming on Netflix.

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Culture Crash 19-08: Television Shows Creating “Expanded Universes” of Their Own

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

We live in an era of expanded universes. We have Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, and so, so many others. Multiple shows and movies all connecting into one timeline has been an incredibly successful business model, especially for blockbuster movies.

But now TV shows are starting to spin their own sort of inter-connected universes, as well. One such show is the cult favorite Veronica Mars. Originally a UPN show, Veronica Mars ran two seasons before UPN and WB joined together to form The CW, where the show aired its third and seemingly final season. Season 3 ended in 2007 and the series went dormant until a 2013 Kickstarter campaign raised enough money to convince Warner Brothers to fund a movie version. In 2014, Veronica Mars the movie was released and then, emboldened by the show’s cult following, creator Rob Thomas and writer Jennifer Graham wrote two novels continuing Veronica’s story. Since then, there has been a meta-web spinoff and now, Hulu is producing another season of the show. From there, who knows? Maybe Hulu will be the end, and maybe Veronica will live to see another day. At a minimum, Veronica Mars will be a series that spanned four seasons of TV across three networks, plus a feature film and two novels. That’s not too shabby.

The other show creating a universe for itself is Breaking Bad. The show famously picked up fans over its initial run on AMC by streaming on Netflix. Breaking Bad’s first season never broke 1.5 million viewers, but by the time the show ended its run, it was regularly drawing about 5 million viewers, with the finale attracting 10 million. After its finale, Vince Gilligan expanded the story of Breaking Bad into a spin-off prequel series about the origins of everyone’s favorite shady lawyer, Saul Goodman. Now, Gilligan and co. are creating a Breaking Bad sequel movie, which will reportedly follow the story of Jessie Pinkman for debut on Netflix.

We live in an age of streaming TV and on-demand movies. It has never been more lucrative to continue an existing franchise, and I don’t expect Veronica Mars or Breaking Bad to be the last shows to try to keep spinning new yarns across various formats and media. Expanded universes aren’t just for comic books anymore.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-06: Missing Gems in the Deluge of ‘Peak TV’

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Vulture reported that 495 scripted television shows were broadcast and streamed for the first time in 2018. That’s up from the 216 series that aired less than a decade ago, back in 2010.

With such a boom in the sheer volume of the medium, thanks largely to the growth of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video… it can be easy to lose track of everything you’ve been meaning to watch.

Case in point for me is the Showtime limited series, Escape at Dannemora. The show began airing just a few months back in November, but in TV time, that’s eons ago. Anyway, I meant to watch the show when it was coming out but forgot all about it until the show began hitting the awards circuit. Patricia Arquette specifically has won both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Award for her turn in the series, and that was what finally reminded me to give the show a try.

Boy, am I glad I did. Escape at Dannemora is based on a real 2015 prison break in upstate New York and stars Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro as two prison inmates, and Patricia Arquette as a prison employee who becomes tangled up in their web. All seven episodes of the series were directed by Ben Stiller, but make no mistake: this show is a dramatic thriller, not a whimsical comedy. It’s really good and now streaming on Showtime’s various web apps.

But Escape at Dannemora isn’t the only shows I missed in the waterfall of TV content.

High on my to-watch list are AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl, based on the John le Carre novel of the same name and Netflix’s Bodyguard, which is a hugely successful political thriller that originally aired on BBC One. Of course, at some point I may need some comedic relief, in which case I’ll turn to, maybe Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Netflix’s American Vandal, two shows I’ve started but have not finished.

The reservoir of TV content is very, very deep. Sometimes, that can be daunting. And sometimes, that can mean stumbling back on something that dominated the zeitgeist for a few fleeting moments several months ago, and having a blast discovering those things for yourself.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-02: True Detective

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Tonight marks the long-awaited, sometimes excitedly and sometimes with dread, but long-awaited, return of True Detective. The TV phenomenon of 2014 and possibly the biggest letdown of 2015 is back for its third season, and the early reviews suggest this should be more like the incredible first season and not like the dud of a season two.

Still gone is season one directing wonder Cary Fukanaga, but back is writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto, who has been attached to the show all along. This time he’s sharing the directorial duties with Jeremy Saulnier, the acclaimed director of Blue Ruin and Green Room, and Daniel Sackheim, an Emmy nominee with credits on Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, Ozark, and many other shows and movies. Even in his writing, Pizzolatto has sought some help from Graham Gordy and TV legend David Milch, who both co-write separate episodes of season 3.

Back on season 2, Pizzolatto faced a tough turnaround time, scrambling to make a second season that debuted just over a year after the first season finished. The end product seemed rushed, poorly plotted, and was generally hard to follow, even compared to the labyrinth first season. This time, Pizzolatto and co. have had more than three years to write a new season, that can hopefully recapture the old magic.

This go-around will be headed by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali and takes place over three time periods in the Ozarks. The details are being mostly withheld, but it appears it will once again delve into a complex investigation of deeply macabre and disturbing crimes.

True Detective was a marquee hit for HBO back in 2014, and despite its stumble in 2015, it still represents a huge name-brand show for a network that will see its biggest hit, Game of Thrones, come to an end this summer. This is a show that matters for a network that still carries weight. For tonight, and the next seven Sunday’s, all eyes will be on HBO and True Detective. Let’s hope it rights this ship and enthralls us once again.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 18-34: The Joys of ‘Junk Food TV’

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture. What’s new and old in books, film, and entertainment.

When people talk about television, there’s generally a skew toward prestige TV. We discuss the achievements of Breaking Bad, LOST and Orange is the New Black, we marveled at the talent of Sterling K. Brown and Elisabeth Moss… and deservedly so! Those shows and actors are incredible and they have entertained many of us for hours on end with their high concepts and thoughtfulness. But there’s another brand of TV that’s easy to overlook, what I call junk food TV. In this comparison, those prestige shows are your nice dinners out: they’re prepared with care by professionals. This junk food TV is what you reach for when you just need something easy and fast and delicious.

For me, it’s MTV’s The Challenge. I’ve watched it for years- I know the running resentments and simmering dramas. I enjoy the athletic challenges, the backstabbing of the votes. It’s pure entertainment. For others, this is the role that Riverdale, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, or heck, even Family Feud hold.

Lately, my wife has come home and decompressed from hectic days by watching Nailed It on Netflix. Nailed It is a show where home bakers try imitating complicated recipes made by professionals, who make decadent desserts look easy. They typically fail spectacularly, and everyone has fun laughing and commiserating with each other. It’s fun, it’s light, it’s enjoyable.

Not every day can be a day when I feel up to the emotional weight of watching an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Leftovers. Sometimes, I need to relax by flipping on The Challenge and watching 30-somethings try to race across platforms 20 feet over water and then vote their friends into elimination challenges. That’s just the way it is.

Junk food TV rarely wins awards or gets celebrated, but sometimes it’s what allows us to relax on a Tuesday night, and that’s worth appreciating.

I’m Evan Rook.