Ask Matt: X Factor, Smash, Homeland, Boardwalk, Dexter and More!
Happy 2012! This week, we take care of some unfinished business from the first half of the TV season while looking ahead to some midseason hopefuls. Keep sending your questions and opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter!
Question: With the fall season now behind us, I'm curious to hear your final thoughts on The X Factor and its long-term future as part of Fox's fall schedule. There are issues I have with the show that I hope can be retooled for next year (key among them replacing Steve Jones, whose impersonal, charmless hosting always stalled the show for me), but the bigger problems I have with The X Factor make it what it is and I doubt can (or will) be fixed: the big concert stage, strobing lights, backup dancers, and deafening audience was so overproduced ad nauseum, and the four-category mentoring premise itself not only seemed to lead to a mixed bag of talent, it also made the judging and eliminations often predictable or aggravating, since the judges ended up defending their own contestants with nothing but glowing platitudes while failing to man up when it came to making tough decisions.
I personally preferred the quieter showcase of musical talent on NBC's a capella competition The Sing-Off, the other singing reality show from this fall, which unfortunately few saw. It was less showy, but more creatively satisfying with fun, unique challenges that depended on groups having strong harmonies and arrangements that couldn't hide behind blasting music tracks. There was a focus on the talent and not the judges (who were actually watchable and offered informed critiques), and a genuine sense of camaraderie that The X Factor seemed to lack. Maybe it's just a matter of taste, and The Sing-Off is more my style, but I think The X Factor still needs to prove itself. So how do you think it will fare next fall? And, for that matter, the upcoming season of American Idol? I thought I'd be burnt out, but I'm actually looking forward to Idol, whose simpler pleasures I can appreciate more now in comparison. — Brodie
Matt Roush: Couldn't agree more with all of your points. The X Factor was so horribly overblown, so out of proportion with the actual impact it was having on a mostly annoyed audience (who if they were smart watched the show on half-volume and put it on mute whenever the judges spoke). I imagine when it returns next season the hype will be greeted with much more skepticism, but don't expect much humility from the people involved. That's not their style. There may be some cosmetic changes, no doubt focusing on the host's role ("impersonal" and "charmless" pretty well nail it) and possibly one of the judges (toodles, Nicole), and they should also re-evaluate the "groups" idea, since that obviously didn't catch on — and which may work against The Sing-Off to some extent, though that's more a case of poorly scheduling a show that might be better suited to a short holiday or off-season run. I agree that the "mentoring" premise fell flat; NBC's The Voice (which, like Idol, I'm somehow actually looking forward to) was much better at showing the bond that formed between the celebrity and contestant, and on The X Factor, it absolutely made the judging segments excruciatingly predictable. But those elements for now appear to be built into the premise, along with the arena-size production values and sound overamplification. As you said, maybe it really is just a matter of taste, but they're going to have to deliver a show with an actual "X" factor of its own next time to get some of us to commit that many precious hours of our fall viewing again.
Question: Smash is a show that sounds like something I would be interested in, but why on earth is NBC pitting it against not one, but two hit shows (Castle and Hawaii Five-O, respectively)? Shouldn't they try to cultivate an audience on a softer night? It just seems like another example of why NBC has fallen so far from what it used to be. — Dan
Matt Roush: Hey, they've got to put it somewhere, and from NBC's perspective, using one of its few hit franchises (The Voice) as a logically compatible (as in musical) lead-in is about as good as Smash could hope. Getting massive promotion throughout the Super Bowl the night before its premiere isn't going to hurt, either. But there really is no such thing as a safe time period anymore, and any show on NBC is going to face an uphill battle to break out of the pack. I hope Smash succeeds, obviously, and while Castle and Hawaii are formidable competition, neither show is a runaway NCIS-level smash, and being from the same crime genre (although very different in tone), there's conceivably room for smart counter-programming against them. Smash is a risk, no question (so was Glee), but on the front end, NBC is doing everything it can to get this high-profile, high-quality, Broadway caliber production noticed and sampled.
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Question: I loved Homeland and found the finale very satisfying. I agree that Claire Danes and Damian Lewis are Emmy-worthy. And let's give a shout-out to Morgan Saylor, whose portrayal of Dana was emotional and believable. I just have one small complaint and it's about Brody's character, not Lewis' portrayal of him. While in the bunker, I kept wondering why someone who could be so smooth and pass a polygraph test while lying through his teeth, someone who had spent eight years as a POW being tortured and forcibly converted to Islam, someone with a vengeful purpose to redeem the death of his beloved Isa, would be so obviously rattled in those moments when he was finally about to carry out his plan. Granted, his own death awaited, but he had trained and prepared for it and I thought it lacked a bit of authenticity for his strong character to break down so visibly. Your comments in your recap made some sense to me; that he was now a family man as well as a terrorist, and felt torn between the two. But I thought he would have had better outward control of his inner turmoil. — Donna
Matt Roush: The entire bunker scene, while incredibly harrowing, is easily the most controversial and problematic aspect of Homeland's finale, seen by some no doubt as an overly pat conclusion to an up-till-then no-exit scenario. I bought it, thanks in no small part to Lewis' performance. The extreme close-ups on Brody as he sweated out the moments before flipping the switch (and then the aftermath when it failed) were meant to give us an uncomfortably intimate look at his psychic state, which I do think has a lot to do with him having been changed by his homecoming. He was never going to be a mindless puppet, which makes him so fascinating. But from the outside, his twitchiness and anguish was nicely explained to onlookers as a reaction to being locked up underground again. He looked sick, all right, sick to his soul, jolted back to reality and life by the wake-up call from Dana — and you're right that Morgan Saylor somehow transcended the usual pitfalls of the bratty rebel teen daughter, especially in the later episodes. (No Kim Bauer here.) Would it have been even scarier if Brody had projected the same stoic facade we'd become accustomed to? Probably, but given his own development through the season, that might have seemed out of character as well. I'm just glad he'll be back for season 2.
Question: Any thoughts on the Boardwalk Empire finale (and second season overall)? Based on initial Internet reaction, I seem to be one of the few fans not about to dramatically boycott the show as a result of Jimmy Darmody's fate (although I'm always skeptical about how well the most vocal voices represent general opinions). I could have happily watched the character for another season, but I love the gutsy choices made, not just in the finale but in the episodes leading up to it. Characters that were "supposed" to survive according to TV conventions were killed off while someone like Manny (the awesome William Forsythe), an obvious dead-man-walking as the season villain, survives. I think even the writers realize the risks involved in their choices, but it's silly to say there is nothing left on the show now with Jimmy gone. Not just the repercussions from the last episode, but with several recurring characters now gone, it should provide additional space to develop some of the other existing characters. At any rate, I'm already impatient for season 3.
PS: Do you have any insight on the overall "health" of the show as a continuing series? I know channels like HBO take a more liberal view of ratings and the like compared to the major networks. As best as I can tell, Boardwalk Empire seems to be doing fairly well, all things considered. My concern is that it would be a more expensive production to sustain and therefore have to meet higher than normal standards of "success" even for an HBO show. — Daniel
Matt Roush: I'm a bit ambivalent about Boardwalk Empire (I think in part because for me it was so overshadowed by Homeland on the same night for most of the fall). The season's first few episodes grabbed me, possibly because I devoured the first month's screeners in a batch, and like many HBO dramas, Boardwalk isn't always seen at its best in weekly hourly installments. Then I felt it was spinning its wheels a bit during the midsection, but came to life in those shocking final chapters. It was incredibly gutsy for the Nucky-Jimmy storyline to come to this violent and perhaps inevitable end so early in the show's life, and it does reset the narrative's calculus, with the spotlight now strictly on Nucky, for better or possibly for worse. I'm still not entirely convinced Nucky is a solid enough anchor for such a diffuse show that splits its focus from Atlantic City to the action in New York, Chicago and now even Philly. Jimmy's departure leaves a hole in the show that I hope some compelling and appealing new characters will fill — or maybe it will allow Capone and Rothstein and others to come into their own a bit more fully. I agree that it's best not to overreact to knee-jerk Internet furor, where everyone's always too eager to declare a shark has been jumped. Still, there is room for growth and improvement on Boardwalk, but the one thing I'm not worried about is HBO's willingness to give the show's creators a long leash to realize their vision. They've invested a lot in this one, and while it's no Sopranos, it gives HBO a powerful signature drama around which to launch the rest of its fall lineup (the way Game of Thrones operates in the spring and True Blood in the summer).
Question: I love a show that makes me think or feel; I love being sucked in and stirred up. But I don't like being repulsed or having to watch through fingers covering my eyes. For me, Dexter derailed this season. It tried to have Dex put Harrison above all else, which was noble, but Dex's need for revenge took over. The biblical overlay was too thick. I didn't want to go there, so I switched from watching IRT (in real time) to watching On Demand. And then the therapist went "there," with the exploration of Deb's feelings for Dex — which I believe were founded on his being the only person she could truly trust, which she misstook for "love." And then the finale. Dex survives the circle of fire in the water. He somehow is rescued, kills the pirate, and guides the boat to shore. He gets home, eats a banana, and goes out again. Yes, he captured Travis, and at the moment of kill, Deb reveals her presence. Okay, do I care what happens? Unfortunately not. Will Deb have Dex arrested? Of course not. Will Dex have to kill Deb to protect himself? Probably not. So how will the show go on for two more seasons? This once fabulous show lost its heart and soul, and probably viewers along the way. Sometimes I think "going there" is a mistake. — Ellen
Matt Roush: The one point on which we disagree is that I do think Dexter ultimately had to "go there" with Deb discovering the truth about her brother. Not the romantic "feelings" part — that was a non-starter, and a big creepy "ugh" they should never have broached — but the fact that he's a murderous vigilante, and it probably won't take long for her to extrapolate and realize that he's the actual Bay Harbor Butcher. I might have wished for a more elegant reveal than the too-typical-for-TV last-second cliffhanger, but at least we can put the Doomsday story to rest and see how things play out now that Deb and Dex have to keep working together with the Dark Passenger haunting their every interaction. That's bound to make the next two seasons better than the one we just endured.
Question: What is it about Strike Back and MI-5? They can't leave well enough alone? [SPOILERS FOLLOW] In Strike Back, they have already killed off two of the good guys, and both members of the retrieval team have been shot? When MI-5 ended, they couldn't let Harry and Ruth leave together, but had to kill her with a knife. The BBC already is noting that over its 10-year run, almost every MI-5 agent dies, except for Tom. All these deaths are unnecessary for the story lines of these series. — Gary
Matt Roush: I beg to differ, though I'm quite a few seasons behind on MI-5 (waiting on a hiatus or sabbatical, perhaps, to find time to catch up on the DVDs, given that the show vanished from my radar post-A&E). This same argument occurred frequently during the run of 24, which also took down a number of series regulars during its long run. Are violent deaths necessary for these shows? If your tastes run more to the mainstream likes of NCIS, where (Kate excluded, and that was more the actress' call) you rarely have to worry about a major character's well-being, maybe not. But I've always felt that for the more fatalistic (if not exactly realistic) spy/action thrillers, there should always be an undercurrent of suspense that even the main heroes aren't exempt from injury or death. On an action cartoon like Strike Back, where the heroes are almost as superhuman as Jack Bauer in the way mere gunshots rarely slow them down for long, it's actually refreshing when a major character — but did it always have to be women this season? — meets an untimely end. It raises the dramatic stakes, although some have argued (especially to me in this column) that it somehow cheapens a show as well. For me, if a character's death is earned and has impact, that's legitimate drama. And in the Strike Back finale, when Col. Grant confessed her sins (including framing Scott) and then ignited the bomb, taking Latif with her, that seemed appropriately and explosively climactic. Considering that this series opened with the murder of the hero from the first season (Cinemax only aired season 2), the intent was always to keep us on edge.
Question: Just really had the urge to defend American Horror Story. It's as much a guilty pleasure as Spartacus is. Terrific decision to anthologize it. This might be because I come from a film background, but I enjoyed tropes from The Shining, Amityville and Carrie this season. Agreed about too many ghosts, but the style and tone of the horror soap operatics continue to intrigue me. Would have loved to see this on Starz — Justin (from Twitter)
Matt Roush: This is a condensation of a brief Twitter conversation I had with a fan of a show I loathed more than I could have ever expected, given my usual fondness for horror and the supernatural, when well executed. The witless vulgarity and numbing obviousness of American Horror Story was such a turn-off to me, the only thing I hope they retain for season 2 is a semblance of those terrific opening credits, which promise something far creepier and unnerving than the ridiculously overpopulated ghost house ever delivered. And Jessica Lange, of course. Just because someone can quote from better horror antecedents doesn't mean they've made a good horror show themselves. I admit I'm intrigued about the anthology concept, even the notion of using some of the same actors in new roles as part of a repertory company (but please, not the Harmon daughter), so I'll come to season 2 with an open mind, hoping it's like Nip/Tuck in reverse, which started strong and got worse along the way. Though with these producers, much like in the X Factor discussion that started this week's column, I'm not expecting them to concede they produced anything but genius in this hot mess of a first season. And regarding how it might have been different on Starz, seems to me FX gave these guys all the creative freedom they needed.
Question: At a friend's recommendation, I bought the first season of Justified this summer and I really enjoyed it. I keep hearing that season 2 was even better, but since it hasn't been released on DVD yet, I haven't seen it. I can't for the life of me understand why the powers that be would wait until the new season starts to release the previous season on DVD. It seems smarter to give new fans a chance to get caught up and get hooked on the show before starting a new storyline. It's not like they haven't had months to release season 2. I guess I just don't understand the marketing strategy. Any insight? — Carl
Matt Roush: According to my notes, the Justified season 2 DVD is released today, so what are you waiting for? You have two full weeks to catch up before the third season starts on Jan. 17. (Look for my online review then.) I'm being a bit facetious, but it seems the conventional wisdom regarding this kind of marketing is to drop the DVD relatively close to the start of a new season as part of the promotional build-up. But of course it makes sense to make it available early enough to build the show's fan base in hopes of growing it. And in this case, it would have been even smarter to put it out shortly before Christmas, because it would have made an excellent gift. Regardless of timing, don't miss it, if only for the magnificence of Margo Martindale's Emmy-winning turn as the unforgettable Mags Bennett. And don't think about skipping season 3.
Question: I wanted to ask your thoughts about Touch. It marks the return of Kiefer Sutherland on TV, and the trailer of the show is amazing, but it really doesn't explain the story of it. Is it about preventing events or what? Also from the trailer, it looks like it has some of the elements of 24, which is by far the best show I have ever seen. No show has ever come close to 24, so can you suggest a show that is as good? Many people have suggested Person of Interest, but what do you suggest? — Ishaan
Matt Roush: Expecting any show to be the next 24 is setting yourself up for disappointment, and that's certainly the case with Touch, which only shares with 24 the sense that I've never seen anything quite like it. I've only screened the pilot (which will air Jan. 25 as a sneak preview before returning for a regular run in March), and it's a difficult premise to explain. Kiefer Sutherland is excellent in this show, but he's playing pretty much the opposite of Jack Bauer, a very ordinary man (not a super-agent) caught up in an extraordinary situation when he realizes that his gifted but emotionally closed-off (think autistic) son is making connections through complicated mathematical patterns that predict interlocking events in the future, and it becomes the dad's job to somehow make things right. In that respect, it's not so much different from the missions the heroes of Person of Interest go on to prevent crimes "the Machine" intuits. But Person is primarily a procedural-with-a-twist whereas Touch is a much more emotional experience, weaving a fantastical landscape in which random characters are destined to have a profound impact on other strangers' lives, and only Kiefer's boy can see it coming. Regarding "the next 24," my best recommendation (if you don't subscribe to Showtime) is to mark time until the first season of Homeland comes out on DVD. It's just as intense, but isn't as trapped by the format, which was always a blessing and a curse for 24. I miss it, too, and hope that if the movie does ever happen (Kiefer insists it's still a go), it lives up to our expectations.
Question: Another of my favorite TV shows is being canceled! It seems that if the show doesn't include vampires, walking dead, or supernatural events, it gets dumped. I'm in my 50s, and my friends and I would like to see some of the good shows stay long enough to attract an audience. Prime Suspect is an example of a well-written, well-acted series. I think it is up there with Unforgettable, Person of Interest and Blue Bloods! I hope its abolishment will be reconsidered. Maybe a cable station would consider picking it up if NBC is determined to drop the show. I recall that one of TV's longest-running series, All in the Family, didn't catch on right away, but Norman Lear stayed with it, and it attracted a huge fan base. Remember all the fuss about NYPD Blue being too gritty? Another example of a popular show! Save Prime Suspect, it deserves a chance! — Mary
Matt Roush: I empathize about the unfortunately short run of Prime Suspect, a show that got better along the way and deserved better, but to be fair, NBC tried to get it noticed, and it's not as if there aren't a ton of shows like it all over the schedule, most notably on CBS, where all three of the other shows you call out are doing just fine. (And much better, by the way, than most supernatural-themed series.) USA Network would be the most likely cable network to go for a show like this, but it already has a full inventory, as do most of its rivals. There is no white knight coming to this show's rescue, and the times this actually happens (i.e., Southland, returning to TNT later this month) are very rare. So while it's sad to see this go, especially given how dreadful its replacement is (the new series version of The Firm), I can't exactly agree that the audience for this sort of show is being underserved. To address your historical models, while it's true that networks were very reluctant to air All in the Family, it was pretty much an instant hit. Same for NYPD Blue, which faced resistance from some affiliates and advertisers, but critics were always on board, and all of the fuss made the show a runaway phenom. Prime Suspect, while it did have its media champions, never made as much noise and was never as distinctive — certainly not as notable as the British series that inspired it — and while there's no doubt it was silenced too soon, it was always going to have trouble breaking out on NBC.
That's all for now. Keep sending your comments and questions to email@example.com, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter!
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