Question: Looking at the Best Drama shortlist from last year as an example, do you think many of the usual suspects like Mad Men and Breaking Bad may have their best days behind them (maybe not so much objectively as much as in short-attentioned minds of many voters), along with Homeland seeming to have edged ever-so-slightly into ludicrousness (get pacemaker serial number and induce heart attack, all without Chloe opening a socket), Downton Abbey now having a "perennial obligatory nominee" vibe, and Boardwalk Empire maybe not even deserving to make the final cut anymore, could this be the year that Game of Thrones finally breaks out of the fantasy ghetto and gets enough votes to have its name called when the big envelope is opened?
Scenes so far this year involving Lannisters sitting across a table from and talking to (or yelling at) each other are among the most enjoyable I've seen from any show all season. Thrilling scenes such as Dany acquiring her army of soon-to-be freed slaves, the Night's Watch rebellion and the Hound's trial by combat leave the viewer breathless. Quietly mesmerizing speeches such as Jaime confessing to a selfless act that saved thousands but was dubiously honored with "Kingslayer" for his trouble (all while holding his stump in front of him, reminding us that, yes, the show actually did go there). And since producers have kept the broad strokes close to George R.R. Martin's original story, there's no reason not to expect many viewers to require oral surgery by the end of the season given how hard jaws will hit the floor as the events those of us who are reading ahead are giddily awaiting will finally come to pass. In spite of passing within shouting distance of crazytown, I still think Homeland had a very good season, I'd say that Breaking Bad has not shown a dropoff in quality, I believe that Justified reached and arguably exceeded the greatness of season 2, and although those are the only dramas that come close, Game of Thrones leaves them all in the dust. Now that we're close to the end of the current TV season, how do you think Game of Thrones stacks up this year? — Mike
Matt Roush: This has been a remarkable season so far for Game of Thrones for all of the reasons you so cleverly articulate. It absolutely deserves the Emmy nods it will get, and if the momentum continues as we expect it to, up to and including the "events" you hint at thankfully without spoiling, Thrones could end up a front-runner, and wouldn't that be great. Mad Men for me is only now starting to catch fire this season, and between Breaking Bad's incomplete half-season (to me, a corporate misstep on AMC's part to split the final season into two) and Homeland's lurch into ludicrousness in the second half of the season, this does present an opportunity for Thrones. I would take issue that Downton Abbey's inclusion among the top dramas is a rubber-stamped inevitability. Few current dramas bring such joy to so many, and I'd hate to see it ignored. Ditto The Good Wife, which had another tremendous season. I'd also like to see FX's The Americans acknowledged for its smart, taut first season, although maybe not at the expense of Justified. And then there's Rectify, which like Breaking Bad suffers from feeling incomplete with only six hours in the first season.
But back to Thrones' chances of winning: Just as it took the Lord of the Rings movies several tries before winning the big Oscar, there is a sense now that Thrones at its best — and this season it is at its best — transcends genre and is so magnificently produced that it deserves to be taken very seriously as a contender.
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Question: Three things are on my mind this week: 1) Having seen all of it now, Sundance Channel's Rectify is a bona fide masterpiece, up there with Breaking Bad for me (no coincidence that two of its producers are from that show), so thanks for highlighting it in a recent piece. It's great news that it's coming back for a 10-episode second season, though I have to wonder how this show didn't land on Sundance's sister network AMC considering the wider exposure there and the sad fact that AMC will be losing its two best shows over the next year. 2) Is Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black now TV's most versatile actress or merely its hardest-working? She has to be pulling 16-hour days to do this, and I'm in awe of the way she completely differentiates her characters. 3) The moment I wake up I say a little prayer asking that the "Untitled Greg Garcia Project" isn't picked up. That sounds mean, but Margo Martindale is simply too valuable to The Americans for her to be lost to a sitcom, don't you agree? Seeing her go toe-to-toe with Felicity Elizabeth is one of the great joys of this TV season, almost as much fun as Pete Campbell vs. Lane Pryce on Mad Men last year. — Brian
Matt Roush: You must be eavesdropping on my own private conversations, where each of these topics has been front and center lately. 1) Given the deceptively quiet nature and slow dramatic build of Rectify, Sundance may be a more compatible home for this series, but I was glad to see AMC give the pilot episode a boost by re-airing it after Mad Men recently. This is definitely worth seeking out. 2) I've been in discussion with other TV critics recently on a project, and Tatiana Maslany's tour de force on Orphan Black keeps coming up as something we're all impressed by. So fun to welcome new talents to the TV party, and that includes Aden Young's haunting work on Rectify as well. 3) I'm just happy to know that the wonderful Margo Martindale is so in demand. But yes, one of the highlights of The Americans was the crackling hostility between Elizabeth (Keri Russell, another breakout star this season) and her handler Claudia aka "Granny," who is much deadlier and cannier than she appears. Margo has great comic chops as well, so wherever she lands, I'll be happy to see her — and career-wise, landing a sitcom gig on CBS is nothing to scoff at. But I'll secretly be hoping Claudia's time in Russia is short-lived as well.
Question: How did The Following go so badly wrong? I started watching largely due to your review of the pilot and the strength of Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy. How did they go from the gripping pilot to the clichéd ending of a dark and deserted lighthouse and the villain "dying" in a fire after a knock down fight the hero goaded him into by insulting his favorite writer? And of course there are enough question marks around the body that the villain may still be alive, sure didn't see that one coming. Did the writers use up what little originality they actually had writing the pilot? — Jason
Matt Roush: The sad fate of Agent Parker aside (and nice cell reception, by the way, in her underground tomb), that finale was such a paint-by-numbers collection of hoary and lazy horror-show clichés, from the fiery "demise" of Joe Carroll to the "shock" ending of Ryan's psycho neighbor lurking to stab our heroes for a cynically dark finish. As Ryan and Claire kept snarling at Joe throughout the ridiculous finale: So predictable! Still, I have no reservations about having recommended this show based on its scary pilot with its unexpectedly nasty twists, and for a good part of the season, the intrigues among Carroll's "following" (especially the Emma-Jacob-Paul triangle) helped make up for silly episodic plotting that made the good guys look like they'd been trained by Barney Fife. But ultimately, The Following couldn't sustain the diabolical nature of its premise over the course of a season, which often happens to shows that might have made better movies or miniseries. I'm sure I'll check into the second season out of curiosity next year, but my expectations certainly have been significantly lowered.
Question: Shut the front door! The Good Wife had one of the best finales of this season or any season. Fun in the courtroom, making out in a limo, political intrigue, office politics, a deluge of guest stars and even Mother Florrick had a nice surprise twist. Can't wait to see where it all lands next year. A little worried for Cary, though; I don't think you would ever want to cross Kalinda. This episode has got to win an Emmy for best writing. — Gary T
Matt Roush: Couldn't agree more, as my own write-up in advance of the episode's airing will remind you. This is everything I could want in a season finale: pure entertainment, great twists, superb performances (including some of the best guest-star work in the business), smart writing. But that's just our opinion. Here's an opposing viewpoint.
Question: We've always enjoyed The Good Wife and found it to be a cut above CBS' standard procedural fare, but the recent season finale was, to say the least, not the show's finest hour. I don't need strict realism in my TV viewing, but the show's many "twists" were so far-fetched as to be eye-rolling, and frequently took us out of the action. In what universe would a candidate's wife serve as the attorney of record in an election fraud case where the primary witness was her (and the candidate-in-question's) son? Or how about the complete lack of media attention to an all-night emergency election hearing that could dictate the outcome of a gubernatorial race? Yeah, we all know how hands-off the Chicago culture is when it comes to politics. And if those completely implausible scenarios weren't enough, Alicia leaves her husband's victory celebration and no one, including the media, notices? And to do what? Join a new, upstart law firm after just being made partner at the one she's at?
Regardless of the silliness of the job change idea, I don't see how a sitting Governor's spouse, particularly of a state as large and influential as Illinois, could even practice courtroom law at all, with almost everything being a conflict-of-interest with her husband as the state government's leader. A problem The Good Wife has always skirted with Alicia frequently going up against her husband's ADA's, something that could never occur in the real world. (Just ask Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama.) Sure, a governor's wife can work — it's not 1950 — but as a lawyer she'd likely be relegated to teaching, advising or reviewing other's work simply due to ethical guidelines, not to mention political expediency. There's no way Alicia could realistically continue to be a courtroom presence with Peter in the governor's mansion.
And let's not forget the mega plot-hole where Peter Florrick's "fixer" is found to be stuffing a ballot box ... the same ballot box that Peter's son saw tampered with, which is what prompted campaign manager Eli Gold to get the fixer involved in the first place with his "Do I wanna' know?" order to increase votes. Meaning: he couldn't have been already out stuffing boxes when Zach spotted the broken seal. He'd need a time machine to be the culprit! And how on earth would only one side think to try to obtain surveillance footage in the wake of this allegation? Such a request is basic evidence-gathering 101 at this point. All of it dumb, dumb, dumb, something I never thought I'd accuse The Good Wife of being. So what's your take, has this once-great show jumped the shark? — Susan
Matt Roush: I don't understand the timeline issue in regards to the fixer and the surveillance video, but I'll let that go, because clearly this is a case where nit-picking got in the way of enjoying a sensational hour of heightened (which isn't always a bad thing) entertainment. To enjoy The Good Wife, you have to accept the premise that Alicia is pursuing her own high-profile career, often in an uncomfortable media spotlight, while her (up-to-now) estranged husband chases his own political goals. I felt the episode made a pretty good case for the extraordinary (and secret) nature of these late-night emergency proceedings, and even while I also personally wondered about the propriety of Alicia grilling her own son on the stand, I enjoyed the drama — and was astonished at what it revealed about the corruption within Peter's campaign. Which like Nixon with the Watergate scandal wasn't even necessary, because he would have won anyway. (And you know this is going to come back to haunt him, and challenge the Florrick marriage, in the future.) I have to give shows like this some leeway to be outrageous and maybe even incredible to accommodate such thrilling game-changers as unfolded in the finale. So no, I clearly don't agree The Good Wife jumped the shark here. In fact, it presented a new shark tank full of possibilities I can't wait to dive into.
Question: I absolutely love History Channel's Vikings! It is a fantastic show in every sense. I cannot get enough! But I was crushed to discover the return date as being sometime in 2014. Do you think there is any chance of it returning in the fall (2013) like most series? Vikings is like a drug for me — I'm hooked! Thank you for any info you can offer up. - Cheri
Matt Roush: Vikings operates on a cable, not network, schedule, and produces a considerably fewer number of episodes per season than "most series" that premiere in the fall, again comparing it to the network model. So no, despite its success and all of your exclamation points, Vikings isn't likely to return until winter/spring 2014 at the earliest. It doesn't start production on the new episodes until this summer, and this is a fairly ambitious physical production, so it's probably best to give them time to do it right and be patient.
Question: I was wondering if you could give your thoughts on why you feel The Voice is so popular compared to American Idol in particular. All I hear is about how Idol's ratings are falling, even though this year's top 5 is one of the strongest in the show's history. The Voice is okay, but I gave up on the last two seasons midway through, and this year I DVR it but always watch Idol live. I much preferred The X Factor to The Voice last fall as well. The judges' banter on Voice gets old really fast, and they never have anything bad to say about the contestants after performances. People say Idol is too much about the judges this year, but making the judges mentors/coaches only makes it more about the judges. Plus, the footage of contestants preparing with their coaches for the battle and knockout rounds is so boring. The only somewhat valid complaints I hear about Idol are a) the weaker crop of males this year and b) the tired song choices. But Idol's ratings have only gotten worse over the last few weeks, even though the guys are gone and the songs have been a bit more current (especially last week). I know I'm in the minority in being lukewarm on The Voice, so I'd love to hear your thoughts. — Melissa
Matt Roush: As always, these things tend to be subjective, and it's not like the Idol fan base has vanished altogether, but a lot of the current shift is probably due to what seems newer and fresher, and in that regard, The Voice has Idol beat, especially during the first stages of the Voice seasons. Those blind auditions are terrific TV, and adding the "steal" to the "battle" rounds also keeps the suspense high. I tend to agree that once the teams are chosen, some of the energy goes out of The Voice, and judges doubling as coaches harms The X Factor to an even greater degree — the only thing I can see that X Factor has brought to TV is a further and faster weakening of the Idol brand on Fox. The franchise may never recover from losing Simon Cowell to his greed for forcing The X Factor on American TV. But I disagree about The Voice's mentoring segments and the sparkling chemistry of its judges' banter. Process is almost always an important part of these competition shows, whether it's the glimpses of rehearsal with the Dancing With the Stars teams or, in one of Idol's best moves all season, showing the singers getting pointers (whether they choose to listen or not) from a charismatic pro like Harry Connick, Jr. — and he was right about over-singing the classics. There may also be some truth in the theory that given Idol's popularity with tween girls, the lack of a male heartthrob this season may have hurt the show, despite the overall excellence of the Top 5 girls (go, Candice) and the fact that Idol provides a better showcase and springboard for individual talents than The Voice has to date. But speaking of divas, if the Idol producers thought that it would be a good idea to cast two prima-donna judges whose apparent contempt for each other casts a pall over the entire panel, they were again sorely mistaken. In conclusion: Go, Candice.
Question: Is it just me, or is Smash becoming a good show? — Renee
Matt Roush: Ironically, Smash did become a better show — if not exactly a good one — once it was banished to Saturdays, because the storylines became even more focused on the shows within the show: the Broadway opening of Bombshell and the off-Broadway non-profit-theater development of The Hit List. This is where Smash excels, and the musical numbers, whether uptown or down, remain a very persuasive reason to watch. But if we're talking shark-jumping (something I prefer not to do in most cases), I doubt Smash could ever recover from Karen and Derek's stupefying joint decision to abandon Broadway for the faux Rent — after all the who'll-play-Marilyn melodrama of the first season — which was almost as believable as Bobby resurrected in the shower in Dallas. And the petulant Jimmy Collins character has developed into one of the most aggravating nuisances in recent TV history: going on stage high, clashing with superiors who know better, expressing no gratitude for those who've sacrificed for his show, and in one of the more eye-rolling moments, brawling with his drug-dealing brother at Bombshell's opening-night party. When Derek bristled about still being in high school after one of Jimmy's antics, I had to agree. Even Glee seems a paragon of subtlety and realism compared to the writing on this show. But I'll stick with it for the music, for my helpless devotion for anything that tries to capture the magic of Broadway, and to admire its ambition despite its flaws.
Question: Do you know the reason why the titles of Covert Affairs episodes were taken from David Bowie song titles? For example, the last episode of the season was titled "Lady Stardust." Just very curious as I could not see the connection. — DK
Matt Roush: Here's an explanation from executive producers Matt Corman and Chris Ord: "Each season we pick a band we love, and name the episodes after their song titles. We try to pick song titles that fit the themes of the episodes, but sometimes they're just songs we love!" (According to the show, Season 1 was Led Zeppelin, Season 2 was R.E.M., Season 3 was Bowie, and it looks like Season 4 will be the Pixies.) For those marking time until the hectic summer TV season gets underway, Covert Affairs starts its fourth season July 16, paired with Suits.
Question: Several years ago, it used to be that just about every TV series showed an episode name and it was close to the beginning of every program. Now on most TV shows, it is missing, and only a very few TV series have a name of the episode. Why is that? — Abel
Matt Roush: Many producers still assign titles to their episodes, and sometimes, as in the previous question, they're in homage to a favorite artist (also, think Desperate Housewives and Stephen Sondheim) or they serve as playful variations on a theme, like the mischievous food titles on episodes of Hannibal ("Aperitif," Amuse Bouche," "Entrée"). Whether those titles are shown on screen at the start of an episode seems to be an individual creative choice, and I can't really say why some do it and others don't. You can usually find the episode titles by going online or to the on-screen guide.
Question: I really enjoy your column. Thank you for taking the time to really answer the questions asked of you in detail. You get to the nuts and bolts of things. My question is about sci-fi programming. When Sci-Fi became Syfy (a day I rue), they seemed to really kick true "sci-fi" to the curb. With the genre being so very strong and with the glut of cable programming being so obnoxious, why is there not more slotting available for proven programs like the following: Babylon 5, Star Trek (TNG, Voyager, DS9), Stargate (SG-1, Atlantis, Universe), Earth: Final Conflict, Andromeda, Farscape, etc, etc, etc. All of these shows have multiple seasons and plenty of content, not to mention tie-in movies. Why is it (traditional sci-fi) seemingly ignored? The Science Channel does Firefly and Fringe to some success. Why not more on another network? Heck, even one devoted to the genre. — Andy
Matt Roush: I wish I had a better or more satisfying answer than the obvious one, but whenever I've seen Syfy (and other) execs address this question, it almost always boils down to one thing: ratings. That said, I'm hopeful that if Defiance continues to hold up, it will encourage Syfy programmers to get more ambitious in their series development, perhaps once again reaching for and beyond the stars.