You’d think there could be nothing more terrifying than watching Bozo the Clown or seeing the Chicago Cubs lose year after year after year. But WGN America, the relatively new offshoot of Chicago’s beloved “superstation,” is nonetheless trying to conjure up something even creepier. For its first effort in an intriguing slate of new original dramas, it’s reached into its cauldron and drawn forth Salem, a drama that adds one clever twist to the infamous Colonial-era witch trials: The witches are real — and they’re in charge of the trials.
In World War II, Bletchley Park was Great Britain’s codebreaking command center. In absolute secrecy, the Allies’ brightest mathematical minds worked together to decrypt Axis codes. And while some of the computing power involved was mechanical, many of the “computers” doing the brute-force math were actually young women. The Bletchley Circle, returning to PBS for a second season April 13, springboards from a simple but intriguing question: What did those women do after the war?
We react to David Letterman announcing his retirement and speculate about where late-night comedy goes from here. Also, why are we all wearing togas? With Jason Snell, Andy Ihnatko, and David Loehr.
That we have Seth MacFarlane, TV’s woeful king of crass and soulless comedy, to thank for a series as amazing, intelligent, and genuinely stirring as the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, seems as brain-bendingly improbable as the vastness of the universe itself. It’s a bit odd to find oneself feeling grateful to the guy who unleashed Peter Griffin on an unsuspecting universe. But he’s more than repaid any karmic debt by reviving Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a brisk and literally spectacular voyage into the wonders of the world around us.
Sometimes you just need a little time off to shake out the cobwebs, regain your mojo, and start doing your best work again. As of Dec. 31, 2013, ABC’s Agents of SHIELD was a promising show struggling with a lot of problems, and NBC’s Community was limping back into the TV listings after a rudderless fourth year whose bright spots were few and far between. But seven days into the new year, both have come roaring back to life.
I don’t have cable, much less HBO or Showtime. And I’ve never seen an episode of Breaking Bad. So you won’t find any of the usual suspects — or a whole bunch of other worthy series — in this year-end roundup. I simply wanted to highlight things I saw this year that stuck with me; that may not have gotten a lot of attention from TV critics; and that definitely deserve your time and viewing.
Agents of SHIELD didn’t kill your dog.
Agents of SHIELD didn’t ruin your childhood, attack your family, or set your house on fire. At the very worst, it’s a big-budget, highly hyped disappointment that’s improving more slowly than it probably should. (So, sort of like the Healthcare.gov web site.) But you wouldn’t know that from the vitriolic reception it’s gotten in some quarters of fandom.
At this point, you can’t swing a LOLcat on the Internet without hitting eleventy billion “How to Fix Agents of SHIELD" essays. And, well, this is another one, sort of. Agents of SHIELD has real problems — just like seasons four, six, seven, and (arguably) one of Buffy.
Or seasons one and four of Angel.
Or the first few (and some of the last few) episodes of Firefly.
Or whopping chunks of Dollhouse.
Or the first 20 minutes of The Avengers.
But (also like Healthcare.gov, oddly enough) these flaws don’t mean the whole thing’s worthless and should be scrapped. Should the flaws have been there in the first place? In the comfort of hindsight, from all us folks not involved in actually making the damn thing, probably not. But things are getting better. Some things have actually been good all along, and just get overshadowed by the problems.
And with a little time, patience, and luck, there’s every reason to believe that showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, and Jeffrey Bell, and undoubtedly stressed-out and sleepy overlord Joss Whedon, can turn Agents of SHIELD from something that’s merely “pretty good and fun” into the towering, ass-kicking bundle of awesomeness we were all dreaming of since the show was announced.
So let’s talk about what’s been holding Agents of SHIELD back thus far — and just as importantly, what it’s already getting right.
What if you took a nail-biting, twist-packed thriller — then replaced its supercompetent badass protagonist with two ordinary, well-meaning schlubs way, way out of their depth? That’s the sly premise behind the BBC/Hulu co-production The Wrong Mans, a fresh, funny, impressively executed twist on the classic Hitchcockian mistaken identity story.
For all the justified accolades heaped on Pixar since the original Toy Story in 1995, there’s been one lingering critique: Most of their movies are, well, boy stories. Sure, they’ve created tons of terrific and memorable female characters — even when, like Ellie in Up, they only actually appear in the film’s first ten minutes. But the bulk of their narratives center on the concerns and tribulations of men and boys. Or, uh, guy-bots. Or man-cars. Or he-fish.
Brave is a happy exception, exploring the complexities of mother-daughter relationships in ways few major films ever bother to tackle. But Pixar infamously parted ways with original director Brenda Chapman halfway through the movie. And if you’ve ever seen Chapman, with her Merida-esque giant shock of frizzy red hair, you can guess that the project had a fair bit of personal significance for her.
Even The Incredibles, my favorite Pixar film, pays slightly more attention to Mr. Incredible and Dash than Elastigirl or Violet. (Although in fairness, Bob’s arc during the film is to become more like his awesome wife, and fully engage in family life instead of leaving all the domestic stuff to her.)
In that light, last night’s Toy Story of Terror special on ABC — which doesn’t seem to be available anywhere on streaming, most likely because Disney really, really enjoys money — is a huge step forward for Pixar.