Winter 2021 quick hits: Big Bang Theory, The Undoing, Dexter

Big Bang Theory

I’ve struggled with comedy shows for the longest time. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. “I’m funny,” I would say. “Why would I want to watch other people be funny?” Except my viewing habits kept proving this wrong. I loved everything about Silicon Valley, devoured The Good Place with total enjoyment and stuck with Veep all the way to that weird ending.

So I tried more. I had a brief fling with Man With a Plan, but later realized the bond I felt from attending a taping was no bond at all. 30 Rock and I carried on a summer fling that grew stale when we tried to go steady. How I Met Your Mother gave me vibes before I ghosted it, though we may find our way back to each other in the someday. Insecure’s “broken pussy” had me rolling on the floor until that, too, grew stale. 

Now I have HBO Max (for Succession) and gave Big Bang Theory a shot. Like Insecure, the first episode was fantastic and earned legitimate laughs. Sheldon, the only character I really knew about going into it, was hilarious and wonderfully acted. It was evident why this became the biggest network sitcom since Friends. 

Except after watching the first 12 episodes I couldn’t stand it…because of Sheldon. His humor didn’t so much wear out as it transitioned to outright bullying his friends on every decision they make. He’s so loathsome I flat out hate him as a person and feel sorry for his friends for being his friends. Most of the time the show indulges in how awful he is, and there’s little enjoyment when it does.

That seemed to abate in season two, as if the writers realized this guy was literally the worst and had to soften him. I also enjoy how they haven’t made Penny into a stereotypical TV doofus. For her character to work—and in a way for this early version of the show to work—Penny has to be more intelligent than the men across the hall. 

Succession is over now, so I cancelled HBO. But I’ll pickup BBT again when I have it back. 

The Undoing

Have you ever felt like a TV series is cheating? That’s how I felt watching HBO’s The Undoing. Murder mysteries are supposed to come with rules about how key facts are revealed so viewers know we are watching a legitimate piece of storytelling. Good shows play into a shared set of rules, great shows establish their own. Bad shows run on showrunner’s whim. 

The Undoing is on showrunner’s whim. There was no mystery about who dunnit after the end of the first episode, but subsequent “reveals” seemed more like outright lies meant to make viewers think there was any actual mystery here. Nicole Kidman’s talents are mostly wasted. Hugh Grant is actually decent as a bad guy. Lily Rabe dominates every scene she’s in (like always). If you like marquee actors you’ll like The Undoing. But it’ll also piss you off. 


I binged the first two seasons of Dexter a long time ago when that was all they had on Netflix. With it being on Amazon Prime now I figured I’d try reconciling. We really hit it off. Season two ended the Bay Harbor Butcher storyline, so I didn’t have to remember much besides Dexter is a serial killer and his sister hasn’t found out yet. That’s the show.

Season three’s self-contained storyline made good use of Jimmy Smits as Dexter’s first partner (in serial killing, not forensic analysis). I think that was a smart move at this point in the series because it opened a new avenue to explore its main character and sidestep the Criminal Minds “how many different ways are there to kill a guy?” Problem. It’s easy to imagine a version of Dexter that ran out of steam trying to re-run the same formula that succeeded in its first two seasons. Getting married and having a baby will bring the same fresh energy to his character in season four. I’ll get to that eventually. 

I hope Kendall Roy is dead

No offense to him personally, but I hope Kendall Roy stays underwater long enough to drown. Why would I say such a mean thing?

Because Succession’s third season has been an almost total bore. It took four episodes to get to the vote that determined who would control Waystar Royco, and only when episode five was solely devoted to the shareholder meeting did we get an episode that lived up to this show’s high standard. So did the next week when the characters decamped to a political gathering where Logan anointed the next Republican presidential candidate. Okay, Succession is back!

Wrong. The next episode brought the FTC investigation to a whimpering end. Then we got Kendall’s birthday party, which was a total bore. This week’s episode took the whole family to Tuscany for their mom’s wedding and ended with Kendall passing out in a pool. Is he really going to drown or is this just a big tease?

I hope he’s going to drown. 

The only redeeming quality to this season is if the purpose to everything I found boring is to drive Kendall so deep into depression that he commits suicide. Every issue I have with the show would be solved if that’s what happens:

Kendall was exposed as an empty suit. Kendall triggered the Roy family nuclear option at the end of season two, and it turned out to be all he had. When he tried to play Mr. Big Balls Businessman all he could do is spew bro cliches to a team of yes-men who didn’t fear or respect him the way people do his father. He couldn’t get the FTC to bite on an investigation and couldn’t recruit his siblings his side against Logan. He couldn’t throw an epic birthday bash and couldn’t even get his brother, Connor, to take off his coat. He couldn’t even get through a conversation with his father about disinheriting himself without Logan utterly destroying him. That’s boring as a character arc unless its purpose is to drive him to such a drastic outcome.

Logan never loses. It’s okay for Victor Newman to always come out ahead because The Young & The Restless is a daytime drama. Succession is primetime on a premium channel and should make its characters endure failure. Tom puts this into focus at the end of Kendall’s failed attempt to get him to jump ship when he tells Kendall he’s never once seen Logan Roy get fucked. It’s time for Logan to get fucked, and the only people who can do that are Kendall, Roman or Shiv. The later two are still too busy jockeying for their father’s affirmation. It has to be Kendall.

The Roys never face real consequences. The Roys are that ultra-rich family who rolls in pig shit and comes out smelling like a rose. Protect a child molester? Cover up sexual assaults on cruises? Cover up your drug-addicted son killing a waiter? Doesn’t matter. The Roys lose nothing. I want to see them deal with the fact that none of them recognized their brother’s descent into suicidal depression because they were so focused on “the firm”. I want to see them suffer the consequence of their actions for once in their miserably wealthy lives. 

What would Succession look like without Kendall? I don’t know. I’ve always thought the show was told from his perspective, so it would have to be fundamentally different. It would certainly suffer from losing Jeremy Strong’s outstanding acting. 

But this season has proven we need a new way to explore these characters. We’ve learned all we can from watching them fight for control of the company. Let’s see how they react to the irreversible outcome of Kendall’s death. 

La Brea & YOBO: You Only Broadcast Once

When a new majority takes over in congress its members fret about how hard to go after their agenda. They want to deliver what they promised their most ardent supporters but don’t want to go so far that they alienate the swing voters who decide elections. My response to this fear is “YOGO: You only govern once.” No one’s guaranteed a second term, so govern the way you want to govern and don’t hold back thinking you’ll get this chance again.

The same philosophy can apply to telling your story television. YOBO: You only broadcast once. Don’t leave a story in your pocket for a second or third season that may never air. La Brea is definitely following that mindset. It’s inaugural 10-episode run on NBC is plowing through at least two seasons worth of reveals. Here are two that stand out:

1. Finding the survivors’ camp site in present-day Los Angeles. This is such a huge thing and possibly my favourite development in the first season. Discovering where the survivors lived allowed potential rescuers to know the people who fell down the sinkhole were still alive, but more intriguingly allowed the survivors to communicate back to the present day. How cool is that? 

This reveal could have been held for the end of the season, and maybe it would have carried more of a punch if they did so. It’s certainly what Lost would have done. (Imagine if the Flight 815 survivors discovered the hatch in episode four!) La Brea’s faster pace meant it had to be established early so Gavin could find the note from Eve and save them from crashing the rescue plane. But still, investing more time building characters early on could have pushed this back to the end of season one.

A slower show could have also used this to send more messages back to the present. I would have loved to see Eve write more letters to Izzy and Gavin, or a B-story with every character writing a letter to their present-day loved ones (who, by the way, we really haven’t seen for anyone else). La Brea doesn’t seem interested in tugging that hard on our heart strings.

2. Gavin is Isiah. This does way more than reveal Gavin’s visions are actually memories. It establishes someone, or at least Gavin, can be alive in both timelines—at different ages. That’s a huge shift in the foundation of the story because now we aren’t “just” dealing with a mystery time portal. We’re in a world where there are two Gavins. Actually, we might not be in “a” world at all and instead be dealing with a multiverse. (Fringe!)

Or they could just be playing with what time travel means in La Brea’s universe. I hope not, and they should have established that better by now with a “Whatever Happened, Happened” kind of episode. The closest they’ve come is showing that preventing the rescue plane from trying to take off in 10k BC magically removed its wreckage from the present-day dig site. Maybe that was it the explainer episode, actually. It didn’t really land that way for me (pun…intended) though they have two more episodes in season one to sort it out.

There have been other reveals I consider softer, or more character based: Ty’s terminal illness, Veronica being Lily’s kidnapper instead of her sister, Marybeth saving Lucas from his dad’s plan to rat him out to the feds, and Eve and Levi having a romantic past. I probably sound like a hypocrite for discounting character reveals after writing so much about the show glossing over character development. I’m okay with that. The emotional resonance of these reveals was lighter than it could have been.

La Brea’s speed is probably dictated by only having 10 episodes. If it had 23 the way Lost did maybe it would be letting things unfold more slowly. Given the business reality of broadcast television now, I’d be surprised if we ever see a primetime serial get 23 episodes in its first season ever gain. So be it.

With all this in mind, it’s time for an accountability session.

My La Brea pilot review laid out four reasons why the show would fail. But NBC announced a second season, so clearly the show isn’t failing. Let’s see how my original thoughts have held up and explore what the show has done to improve.

NBC’s new fall drama La Brea shares [the possibility to be “the next Lost” label] as well. Which is why after watching the pilot twice I am so frustrated. Like so many other failed network dramas, La Brea runs right past its characters and into the arms of what it thinks is a tremendous mystery. That gets the formula backwards. Any show looking to be TNL has to embrace its characters and let them walk us to the mystery.

I still think this is mainly true but like I said earlier, with 10 episodes there’s really no time to settle in and tell stories.

This shows up most in the episode ending in Gavin trying to fly a drone into the sinkhole with two fighter jets ready to shoot him down. Were you scared for Gavin? Even though we know the show isn’t killing him we should at least feel tension. I didn’t. To do so I would have to either love him so much I can’t bear the thought of him dying or hate him so much I hope he does.

Other characters are getting better treatment. Ty’s terminal illness makes him sympathetic, Rohan’s comic relief is timely and informative, and Marybeth’s strained maternal relationship with Lucas all make for characters we want to latch onto. So that’s good. But Eve, Gavin, Izzy and Josh aren’t interesting at all. It’s like the show settled on one main family but only wanted to give depth to the supporting characters. Weird.

An almost laughable reveal about the hole’s location. Eve is standing by the ambulance and happens to notice the outline of the Hollywood hills painted on its back door exactly matches the hills she’s staring at. Putting two and two together she tells Ty and Sam she thinks they’re still in Los Angeles. To my previous point, the show could have had the characters spend their first day in the hole facing a drama/adventure/obstacle that led to them realizing where they are in a heart-stopping way. That would have been compelling.

That was still bad, but it’s doing better at its reveals.The woman on her death bed telling Eve about Gavin/Isiah is a good example. It wasn’t jaw-dropping but it was at least not so ridiculous.

The hole wasn’t a character. For a show set in an alternate world to be compelling, the world itself has to be its own character. It has to have the same presence the lead characters have. It has to be put under a microscope and revealed the same way a character is. No sign we’re going to get that here.

This is getting a little better. The hole’s main role in the story should be putting the characters’ lives in danger or placing a challenge between them and what they want. Both will give them something to react to over the course of an episode. The first several episodes overlooked this, but since then the mysterious hole closed and a snowstorm blew through (a weak snow storm anyway). I hope to see more of that during the rest of this season.

The least interesting ending you can imagine. A saber-toothed tiger (or something like it) emerges from the jungle. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

This is getting better in tandem with the improved reveals. I’m curious how they’ll end the season finale. I’m sure it will have a cliffy.

So there it is. La Brea has given us a lot of twists and turns through its first eight episodes, and it’s holding up better than I thought it would. I’m interested to see how they bring season one home.

Quick thoughts on HBO’s Hacks

I struggle with shows like Hacks where what seems like the main thing is really just the car for the main thing to ride in. Hacks’ main thing is the relationship between a Las Vegas comedy legend, Deborah Vance, who’s resisting the end of her career and a young comedy writer trying to save hers after being canceled over a Twitter post. Their relationship plays out in the course of the writer, Ava, being thrust into the role of Deborah’s first writing partner. Ava’s job is the car in my tortured analogy.

It’s not that I don’t like shows setup this way. I actually do. But it takes a while for me to get there, and that’s the bumpy part. After the characters come together in Las Vegas (Ava begins in Los Angeles) and Deborah accedes to having a writer for the first time in her 40-year career, I’m expecting Hacks to be an office comedy with plots driven by what they need to do during the course of their work. Deborah’s got a show tonight? Something weird happens to Ava and they work it into the act.

Hacks could probably do good at being that show. The writing is sharp and there’s enough chemistry between the two actors to make it enjoyable. Instead it moves the work into the background so the relationship can take center stage. Because of that, it shines.

One episode has the pair going to a spa retreat for Deborah to get a touchup on her eyelids, only for Ava to end up in the hospital with an exploded cyst. By the time the episode ends they are no closer to refreshing Deborah’s act or saving the weekend gigs keeping her career alive, but their bond is stronger through the shared experience. I complain a lot about shows that sacrifice character for plot—La Brea cough cough—so I was delighted to see Hacks be all about its two lead characters.

If I had any bone to pick it would be that Ava doesn’t seem to be a very good comedy writer. She is funny. Her and Deborah have thoroughly enjoyable fights with each insult eclipsing the last. But when Ava has to write for Deborah she can’t come up with anything, and we don’t see much of Deborah’s act at all so we don’t get a real sense for if Ava is actually helping her. I’m fine with that not being in the show’s background but I would like to see that Ava’s hope for a career in comedy is at least somewhat justified. The joke that got her canceled wasn’t even that funny. In fact the first episode closes with her and Deborah spitballing on what offensive jokes would have been better.

That said, Hacks is an easy watch and I recommend it as a show that can fill your pre-bedtime streaming slot.

Succession season three needs to move on

The first two seasons of Succession were fantastic. But it needs to move on. It’s at that tipping point a lot of TV shows seem to arrive at when their initial story is exhausted and it’s time to transition to something else. That’s when we find out if a show has staying power. 

Take Lost for an example. Live Together, Die Alone really marked the demarcation between the survivors of Flight 815 finding ways to live on a deserted island and a more expansive universe of characters, timelines and conflicts. And,yeah, millions of viewers checked out as the story got increasingly hard to follow. But that transition is what earned Lost—and most long-running TV shows—the later half of its run. Without hatches and flash forwards the characters on Lost would have had nothing to do, and you can only discover so many things in one jungle before we all wish they would have just drowned on Michael’s boat. 

I fear we’ll have the same wish for Succession if they don’t resolve the battle for the top job at Waystar Royco soon. We had two tremendous seasons of the Roy family’s C-suite tug-of-war. Kendall’s atom bomb of a press conference to close season two set up perfectly to resolve the fight at the start of season three and transition the show to what comes next. 

Instead it’s slowing down. So far this season we have one entire episode telling the immediate aftermath of Kendall’s presser and another focused on the four Roy siblings arguing in a bedroom. This is boring. It’s time for the story to give us something else so the show can take us to a point in the future when we say “Remember when Succession was just about which of the kids would take over the company?” 

We’ve seen all there is to see of these characters in that framework. If they don’t get to a new storyline fast we’re going to get bored and this wonderful show is going to fall off the map.