Category Archives: Television

How Cable Has Killed Network TV

Draper, WhiteThe television medium has long been denounced as brain-rotting, child-destroying junk food. While that criticism has always been harsh, it also wasn’t that far off for most of the things on the air.

Back in the day, the basic household didn’t have cable. Everybody had the four basic channels (FOX, NBC, ABC and CBS), PBS, a home shopping network, the WB/CW and maybe a TV Guide channel. That meant anybody who produced TV needed shows to be easily digestible and widely accessible.

Viewers needed to be able to jump in week to week and watch whatever was airing that week without needing to see the previous week’s episode. There were occasional story arcs of multiple episodes, but for the most part every episode was its own self-contained unit.

Thirty minutes or an hour is generally not long enough to tell a fully fleshed out story, so television got a reputation of shallow, guilty-pleasure entertainment. The Big 4 networks largely have stuck to that model, and have looked on while cable networks have turned that model into a shambling corpse waiting for an ax through the head.

Not that long ago, networks like AMC and FX were nothing special. AMC was an abbreviation that actually stood for something (American Movie Classics), and all it did was buy the rights to old movies and show them on loop.

FX (which originally had a lower-case “f”) exclusively aired repeats of FOX shows from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and its only originally productions were multiple live broadcasts from the same apartment that focused on broad topics ranging from pets to music.

Both networks made slight changes to their models over the years, but largely stayed the same. AMC continued showing classic movies, and FX continued showing reruns of hit shows from the main FOX network. But for both channels, things began to change in 2002.

AMC always had run old films uncut, unedited and with no commercial breaks. It was a premium channel at the time, so it made money off subscriptions. But in 2002, the network decided to insert commercials into its programming, which required editing films for length.

The network also shifted its focus from classic movies and began showing more contemporary ones. It began re-branding, eliminating the full name “American Movie Classics” and sticking with just AMC. With the ad revenue it was now receiving, it was able to remove itself from premium status and become a basic cable network.

After a few years of mostly showing documentaries and one failed reality show, the network executives tried their hand at scripted television. They took their first shot at a drama script that had been turned down by premium channels HBO and Showtime, called Mad Men.

FX was a few years ahead of that curve. At the same time AMC decided to begin editing films and adding commercials, FX first decided to try its own programming independent of its parent company. It hit critical gold with its first show, The Shield, and ratings gold with its second show, Nip/Tuck.

After the network hit with its first two dramas, it decided to give comedies a shot and launched It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia three years later. It also was wildly successful.

With both AMC and FX having a virtual 100 percent success rate on launching new shows, both shifted their primetime focus to scripted programming. Since they didn’t require the same ratings levels as the Big 4 networks, they could take chances on more controversial shows that would attract niche audiences.

What followed was an assembly line of critically-lauded dramas in the span of a few years: Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels, Sons of Anarchy, Justified and American Horror Story.

All of these shows did away with the network model of telling easily-understood stories that viewers could pop in and out of week to week and miss nothing. They instead focused on morally grey central characters and their internal struggles, often within lives of crime.

The focus on anti-hero dramas created some of the most fascinating character studies in the history of any storytelling medium. With the ability to tell more personal, intimate stories over the course of entire seasons, these shows built passionate fan bases and began piling up Emmy nominations and wins.

These kinds of shows were not necessarily brand new. HBO had made its name on that kind of programming. Hell, it even built it into its slogan – “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” – with the implication that normal TV was shallow and mindless, while HBO was deep and thought-provoking.

But people had to pay extra for HBO, and the majority of its original programming came on Sunday nights, which meant it largely was appealing to a different audience as the Big 4 networks. AMC and FX were available as part of any basic cable package, and FX ran its original programming throughout the week, which meant it was in direct competition with the Big 4.

That competition might originally have seemed like a bad idea. Why try to fight these four behemoths that have built audiences over the course of 50 years when you’re just a fledgling cable network with no name recognition?

The Big 4 likely felt the same way, and did nothing to change their programming approach. But FX slowly began to chip away at the networks’ ratings lead, gradually stealing viewers. And now, despite being available to significantly fewer viewers, FX shows are consistently competitive in ratings with their Big 4 counterparts.

The most successful cable ratings juggernaut is Sons of Anarchy, which beats its network competition virtually every week. Last night (Tuesday, Dec. 4), Sons of Anarchy had a 2.4 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic, which is advertisers’ main focus. That tied NBC’s average for the night, and soundly beat both ABC and parent FOX. So basically, the only Big 4 network that beat Sons of Anarchy was CBS, mainly because it aired the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

So now cable programming is crushing networks in quality and consistently competing in ratings. This past year, not a single broadcast show was nominated for Best Drama. Looking down the Emmy nominations and winners is a Who’s Who of cable programming, with Modern Family sprinkled in as broadcast’s only real contributor.

So while network television has been chugging along, happy to change nothing about itself, cable programming has been pulling light years ahead in quality. The real shame is that it isn’t impossible for networks to air more adventurous programs.

Obviously, being able to curse and show nudity helps cable shows depict a more mature show. But most people aren’t watching cable because “Oh my God, they can show side boob and say ‘Shit.’” They’re watching because the quality of storytelling is exponentially higher than what they can find on the Big 4.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Talented writers can make almost any setting interesting as long as the show’s world is inhabited by interesting characters. The skill of the writers of shows like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy is that we genuinely care about people who are awful human beings.

Lost is the last network show to successfully have that kind of focus on morally grey characters. The entire basis of that show was that most of the people on the island didn’t want to get off because they had awful lives, which was so because they were bad people. Lost was a ratings king during its heyday, but it was a monumental struggle just to get that show on the air.

Lost and all of these cable shows prove that people are drawn to complicated, interesting characters and stories. Stories like that can be written without meth cooks or serial killers, but networks seem to have no interest in trying to find them.

It’s much easier to roll out some new asinine comedy from Chuck Lorre or formulaic drama from Shonda Rhimes, so that’s all networks do. In the past, that was fine because viewers didn’t know any better. The only other choice they had was to shell out a bunch of money for HBO.

But now that viewers can watch Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy with a basic cable subscription, they’re starting to realize just how much their quality dwarfs the shows on network TV. People are beginning to choose thought-provoking over mindless, and it’s left network TV in major trouble.


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The Newsroom Fails to Live Up to Its Potential

There are countless TV shows that are instantly doomed to fail. They either have a terrible premise, inexperienced writers or a cast that doesn’t gel. Look through the lists of new shows on the Big Four networks and you’ll see several every year.

Then there are the more frustrating shows that seem to have every ingredient needed to be interesting and successful, but manage to screw it up. Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show The Newsroom fits into that second category.

The Newsroom marks Sorkin’s third time creating a show that analyzes how TV itself is made, following 1998’s Sports Night and 2006’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This time around, Sorkin tackles cable news programs and their clear bias in reporting.

The concept of poking holes in the reporting of major cable news has made household names of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, so it isn’t completely new ground. But while The Daily Show and Colbert Report focus strictly on satirical comedy, The Newsroom aims to show how cable news can better serve the public.

That premise is rife with content, and there is an elite level of skill both in front of and behind the camera on The Newsroom. It should be a transcendent show; one that can both entertain and inform. It clearly wants to be that kind of show, but largely fails to live up to the billing.

The Newsroom has one significant flaw, and it brings down everything else around it: The insistence that its characters tackle real-world events that already have occurred.

The show jumps from one major event to the next, leaving large gaps in time between episodes. The show’s timeline has gone from April 2010 to June 2011, meaning it covered more than a year in the span of nine episodes.

Through all that time, there is almost no narrative continuity. The News Night team just wants to do the news well and tries to show up the competition. There are two inherent problems with that storytelling model.

For one, Sorkin now has the benefit of hindsight, so he can have his characters cover every story as they should and how their competitors didn’t. The result is an almost infallible leadership structure that manages to gather key information that nobody would have thought to ask about at the time.

We can now wag our fingers at CNN and MSNBC for not covering the BP oil spill in detail from Day 1, but there was no way anyone at the time could have known what a disaster that would turn out to be.

Because the show so routinely points out the way in which other networks are failing to cover events in as much depth, there is a veiled implication that the people who covered events at the time didn’t do their job well. Almost as if to say, “If you had worked hard enough, you would have discovered what our characters did.”

I’m fine with criticizing networks for being biased in their presentation of the news, but I think it’s unfair to imply that they weren’t trying hard enough to find out the information.

But The Newsroom characters manage to get every morsel of information they need from their impeccable web of well-connected sources. Every character seems to have a friend or relative somehow connected to every major government entity, making information retrieval significantly easier than it would be in real life.

Those characters in general also are The Newsroom’s second inherent problem. Their problems run from week to week as they would on any sitcom, but unlike a random sitcom, The Newsroom can have six months separating two episodes.

The show tries to have its cake and eat it too; it wants you to follow the timeline in the major events it covers, but not follow the timeline when it comes to the characters’ everyday lives.

The result is a cast of cardboard cutout characters who are very difficult to care about. They pop in and out of the main plot as needed, and spend the rest of their time getting into romantic entanglements (a well Aaron Sorkin loves to revisit ad nauseum).

We know almost nothing about what makes any of them tick or why they behave the way they do. We know that they love doing the news, and that’s it. So why should we care when three of the supporting characters become involved in a love triangle? Especially when that love triangle still exists after a year and has seen no progression.

What little character history the show does reveal almost seems exploitative. When all of the main characters are celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, we’re suddenly told that Kaylee – a character who had been in approximately three scenes in the entire season – had a family member who died in the World Trade Center attacks.

Later in the same episode, a random unnamed character puts on an FDNY hat while the news of bin Laden’s death is read. Instead of those moments seeming deep and resonant, as they should have, they seemed more like Aaron Sorkin pointing a finger and saying, “Here are people who have been touched by tragedy. You should feel sorry for them.”

Those kinds of moments show an almost lazy approach to the nuts and bolts of the show. There is almost no depth to any of the characters, and any time something is supposed to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience, we’re basically told what we should be feeling.

Strong TV shows are supposed to depict interesting and fully-formed people who seem real, as if cameras just happen to be following this group of people around. But The Newsroom constantly feels forced and staged.

Aaron Sorkin has a message to send about the state of American news journalism, and it’s a message I agree with. News programs have become ongoing jokes that pander to one side of the political aisle, and they’re steadily growing worse.

Everything revolving around that specific message on The Newsroom is well written and usually interesting. But Sorkin doesn’t seem to have given much thought to everything else going on around the show-within-the-show.

That would be fine if Sorkin were making a documentary about news journalists, but he isn’t. Strong characters are the foundation for any great TV show, and The Newsroom has none.

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Parks and Recreation’s Rob Lowe Problem

**Note: This is the beginning of a week-long series on some of the best comedies on network television, and the one main problem facing each of them**

In March of 2010, Parks and Recreation series regular Paul Schneider announced he was leaving the show to focus on his film career. To fill that void, the Parks and Rec creators reached out to Rob Lowe and Adam Scott to join the cast.

At the time, Lowe was supposed to appear in a few episodes before leaving again, but received much of the attention surrounding the move. He had a well-established career in television and was well-known nationwide, while Scott was only recognized as Will Ferrell’s asshole brother in Step Brothers.

The message at the time seemed to be, “Parks and Rec is getting Rob Lowe!! Oh, and there’s Adam Scott, too.” But now, their roles have reversed.

Adam Scott the actor and Ben Wyatt the character had a seamless transition into the existing cast of characters in Pawnee. Ben popped onto the screen fully formed, with a fleshed out backstory that informed his current behavior.

Scott also showed instant chemistry with lead Amy Poehler, and acted as a much-needed straight man in a den of weirdos. Pairing Ben with just about any other character has been a comedy gold mine. Meanwhile, Chris Traeger (Lowe’s character) just seemed to drift along aimlessly.

The writers briefly paired him with Ann (Rashida Jones), but that side plot accomplished little more than putting two very attractive people on screen at the same time. After their breakup, Chris has been even more of an issue. He gets shoehorned into B plots with other characters just to give him something to do.

The issue here is that the character originally was supposed to only appear in a few episodes. He was supposed to give Ben an excuse to come into Pawnee before moving on his way. But the star power of Lowe forced the writers into keeping him around, when they clearly had no idea where to go with the character.

Ben is a failed young mayor who never lived down one huge budgetary mistake, so he became a budget auditor to compensate. Chris is a guy in good shape who says “literally” a lot. That’s his whole character.

It doesn’t help that Parks and Recreation has been firing on all cylinders for more than a season now. That just draws more attention to how weakly drawn the Chris character is by comparison. Any time spent giving him a plotline just feels like wasted time that could be better spent on any of the other characters [see: his budding relationship with Jerry’s daughter].

The more time goes on, the harder it will be for the writers to give Chris something of significance. They established Ben’s background quickly when they first introduced the character, but if they do the same thing a year later for Chris it will feel forced.

In my mind, the writers are left with two choices: Leave Chris as he is and just don’t give him a ton of screen time, or give an entire A plot to him that reveals significant pieces of his background. Even better, make those pieces of background be embarrassing, which would be why he hasn’t revealed them sooner.

I have to think the latter path is the one the Parks and Rec writers will take, but it contains some risk. Focusing an entire episode on a weak character has the potential of ruining that episode and making the character even worse. The feeling of wasted time could stretch to the length of an entire episode.

But it’s at least worth a shot, because as of now Chris just does not seem to have any reason to be on the show. That by no means ruins a show that has been evolving into one of the best comedies on television, but it does stand out as Parks and Recreation’s greatest weakness.

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What’s Really Wrong With the Emmy Awards

The nominations for the 2011 Emmy Awards were officially announced today, and as usual most casual conversation instantly turned to the snubs. While I could go through all the reasons why people like Nick Offerman or Sean Bean deserve nominations, those likely will be done to death by the end of the week.

And really, the snubs themselves aren’t the problem. They are just the symptoms of a larger disease that plagues the entire Emmy process.

The Primetime Emmys have always involved far too much politicking. There are some actors and shows the voters absolutely will never recognize regardless of quality, and there are others they will nominate every year. The voters seem to treat nominations like a statement on series as a whole, when they are supposed to be focusing strictly on the past season.

The result is something similar to what happens with All-Star Games in professional sports. Since the fans – who are the most biased people you could possibly ask to decide such honors – get to vote, they just pick their favorite players.

That’s how Derek Jeter gets elected to the MLB All-Star Game despite a subpar year, or Yao Ming gets elected to the NBA All-Star Game despite suffering a season-ending injury that also essentially ended his career.

It’s also how Glee and Hugh Laurie end up on the ballot again when their respective shows have seen significant dips in quality recently. The Emmy voters are just biased when making selections as random fans are for All-Star games.

It doesn’t help that the pool of Emmy voters looks something like a retirement home. That rewards TV shows that skew older, which normally is the exact opposite demographic for which shows aim. The most prized group for advertisers is males 18-35, not males 50+.

If the inherent bias of the voting body isn’t enough, the Emmy process is also hamstrung by the required selection of one highlight episode. Each actor is required to submit one example of their best work that season, which is an absurd way of doing things.

Even in the midst of a mediocre season, a show still can be capable of knocking one episode out of the park. So such a show can easily steal the spot of a competitor that consistently provided high quality all season.

That’s like actors being forced to choose one five-minute clip from a film to put forward for consideration as Best Actor at the Oscars and ignoring the other 90 minutes of the film. It’s ridiculous.

The process is especially damaging for drama actors. I’ll use the example of Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones. The best part of her Season 1 performance was her portrayal of her character’s transformation from fearful and abused sister to powerful and confident warrior queen.

But how can any of that be shown to the Emmy voters if all they ever see is one episode? They may appreciate the performance of that one hour, but have no idea how well Clarke showed a full range of emotions and characteristics across a season.

The greatest indictment of the Emmy system actually comes courtesy of the Television Critics Association, which provides its own awards. That body of writers consists of vastly different ages and tastes, but contains people paid to maintain their objectivity.

The result is a much more diverse and interesting group of nominees. Shows like Community and Terriers receive the recognition they so richly deserve but will never receive from the Emmy voters just because they lack star power or hit status.

But unlike the critics association, it seems that Emmy voters cannot be troubled to keep up with a variety of shows or make themselves aware of full seasons. So why are they being trusted to decide who they should honor? They have no grasp on the industry on which they are voting.

The snubs and ridiculous inclusions will continue every year because they are a byproduct of the system itself. Until the voting body is diversified or its subjectivity combated, nothing will change. And unfortunately that will never happen.

This Year’s Emmy Ridiculousness:

Glee Nominated for Best Comedy Series

I get that the series is much beloved, and I’ll admit that the first season had some solid moments deserving of credit. But the show has devolved into a mess that even critics no longer fully support. The show employs talented singers and choreographers, but the plotlines and dialogue are absolutely horrendous. It should be considered a musical or variety show rather than a comedy.

Modern Family Receives Four of the Six Supporting Actor Nominations

Modern Family is consistently the funniest and most well-written sitcom on network television. I have no problem with any of the awards it wins, because it deserves them all. But it should not receive nominations for every actor involved in it.

I’m fine with two actors and two actresses getting nods, but frankly it’s unfair to essentially shut out every other show just to stuff the box with Modern Family nominations. At this point it seems like the voters would just feel bad singling out one or two actors to not receive nominations, so they just include everybody. While they leave out people who know they would never win, but would be deeply honored just to be nominated.

Harry’s Law Receives Two Nominations

Here is by far the best example of the Emmys skewing old. Kathy Bates received a nomination for Best Actress in a Drama Series for Harry’s Law, which can only hope to one day be called mediocre television. Bates took a place that could have been given to Katey Sagal for Sons of Anarchy or Emmy Rossum for Shameless. The only reason for Bates’ nomination is that she’s Kathy Bates. Harry’s Law now has been honored with the same number of nominations as The Wire. Just think about that for a second.

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Game of Thrones: When Heads Roll and Games Change

**WARNING: The below post contains plot spoilers from the most recent episode of
Game of Thrones. If you have not watched episode 9 – titled “Baelor” – and still want to be surprised by its ending, read no further.**

When I first learned that the Song of Ice and Fire book series was being adapted for television, this is the singular moment I was waiting for. Ned’s execution was the moment that convinced me I was reading a wholly unique story and made me commit for the long haul.

Ned’s death is significant both in a literary and meta sense. It increases the drama and tension within the story itself and puts several plotlines in motion that run for the entire series. But it also is a message to the audience that no character is safe and that anyone can and will die if it serves the story.

Ned is essentially the only “good” adult character in the first book of the series. He is honorable, straightforward and honest, and has been a loving father and husband. But it is those very traits that first get him into trouble, and then ultimately lead to him publicly shaming himself just before his death.

His death is not merely a plot device or intended for shock value. It makes sense in the story and was the culmination of several weeks of buildup. Most viewers just didn’t catch the signs because they assumed the character couldn’t possibly die.

Killing such a character is a risky move, and one that new viewers are mistakenly attributing to HBO. They had nothing to do with the plot itself; that honor goes to author George R.R. Martin alone. But the network’s risky move came long ago, before the Game of Thrones TV series began.

As soon as HBO’s press releases, tours and advertisements about the show began, they elected to put all their focus on Ned. Actor Sean Bean was the biggest name in a talented cast and he was the bankable star.

The image of Bean sitting on the Iron Throne was plastered on everything HBO ran relating to the show. Billboards featuring him hang throughout the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if that same image is the cover art for the DVD once it is released.

All of that advertisement framed Game of Thrones as “the Sean Bean story.” His previous headlining role came as Boromir in the Lord of the Rings films, so he seemed perfectly suited to being the leading man in a fantasy TV show.

But HBO did all that knowing full well that Bean’s character would not make it out of the first season. They knew they would have to replace all their billboard images after only one year, but did it anyway.

They hoped to attract people with name recognition and then keep them because of the quality of the story. For the most part, the show has been so excellent I think the plan has worked.

However, fans who did not read the books cried out in anger after the final scene of Sunday’s episode. That was supposed to be their reaction. They were supposed to be furious that an evil brat of a king managed to kill the supposed hero of the story.

Videos (like the funny one below) came out across YouTube depicting viewers’ visceral reactions to Ned’s death. Some included crying, but most just featured streams of obscenities.

On one hand, such reactions are a good sign. It means the show has been so well done and has developed such a connection with people that they feel genuine emotion based on what happens in the story.

But other people have taken those reactions one step too far. Immediately following Sunday’s final scene, Twitter exploded with people proclaiming that they were abandoning the show. “How can you kill the main character?!” they said. “He was good and righteous, how could he die? I can’t watch a show where the good guys die.”

But that is exactly the point. With most TV shows that feature significant conflict, the only question you ask yourself is “How can they get out of this one?” Things never get any deeper.

That is probably the same question people were asking about Ned when he first was captured. “Everything seems to be going against him. How can he get out of it?” Well, the short answer is, “He can’t.”

With one swing of a headsman’s sword, Game of Thrones changed the entire mentality of its audience. When characters ride into battle or a swordfight ensues, viewers subconsciously will stop asking “I wonder how the good guys will win?” and start asking “I wonder IF the good guys will win?”

Every scene and every conflict ends up being exponentially more interesting and dramatic because you genuinely don’t know how things will play out. When your favorite character is embroiled in a conflict, you sit on the edge of your seat hoping and praying they make it to the next episode.

That is what made the books so enthralling. You found yourself not being able to predict what would happen next and you just had to flip the next page to make sure a character was still safe. Then you looked up, saw it was dark outside and discovered you had kept “just flipping the next page” 200 times.

Viewers whose instant reaction was to boycott the show need to rethink their stance. Realize that if a show inspired such an outpouring of emotion from you, it means it has impacted you in ways that are rare for the small screen.

Wait and see how the story progresses from here, don’t just dismiss it out of hand because it gave you something you weren’t expecting. Isn’t that what we want from television and film? To surprise us, shock us and occasionally break our hearts? If you could always predict what happens next, what would be the point of watching?

Other fans are quick to dismiss the boycotters and tell them not to continue watching if they are going to become so upset about one death. But that isn’t the right mentality either.

As a fan of the show and the books, I want as many people as possible to experience this story. It is possibly the greatest I have ever read and has spawned one of the best TV shows in recent memory. Sunday’s episode is probably the best hour of television I have seen in the last year, and Ned’s death scene was so good my jaw hit the floor. And I knew what was coming.

So don’t bail on the show simply because something unexpected happens, but don’t send people away for overreacting either. Ned’s death is just the first of many such unexpected plot twists, and I want the show to maintain enough viewers that it gets to tell all those stories.

We may be nine episodes into the story already, but this basically has just been a prologue. From here, we get vastly different views of certain characters, while hardships inextricably change others. It becomes an exceptional story with several interwoven plotlines, and it all begins with Ned’s death.

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What Makes Party Down Great

Films and TV shows have told countless tales of people moving to Hollywood and making something of themselves, becoming rich and famous, and living happily ever after. And while those do happen, it is far more common for people to get there and utterly fail. Party Down chooses to focus on those stories.

Party Down has often been dubbed the “anti-Entourage,” and in some ways the comparison is appropriate. Rather than engaging in constant wish fulfillment, the Party Down writers choose to dwell on harsh reality.

The concept for the show started with a simple question: What would happen to the Verizon “can you hear me now” guy when that well runs dry? People would recognize him for one distinct ad campaign, but he still would struggle to make ends meet. He would get all the pitfalls of stardom without any of the perks.

Filling that role is Henry Pollard (played by Adam Scott), who was in a series of beer commercials with the catchphrase “Are we having fun yet?” He occasionally is spotted by people who recognize him, and the one line for which he is famous now haunts him.

Henry’s rise to semi-fame and then meteoric fall to normalcy have left him jaded and unenthusiastic about pretty much everything, and he is forced to go back to his old job as a caterer. There he is surrounded by a pack of starry-eyed dreamers who all are waiting for their big break.

Joining Henry on the catering staff are aging actress Constance (Jane Lynch), hard sci-fi writer Roman (Martin Starr), wannabe comedian Casey (Lizzy Caplan), self-believed renaissance man Kyle (Ryan Hansen) and boss Ron (Ken Marino), whose only desire is to open his own soup restaurant.

All those staff members are chasing their own version of the American dream, and they all are in various stages of failure. Yet they keep fighting the good fight, convinced they will one day make it.

The majority of the show’s humor stems from juxtaposition, starting with a downtrodden main character surrounded by hopeless career romantics and extending to their daily job.

Part of the genius of Party Down is that it technically is a workplace comedy, but never feels like it. The workplace changes every episode as the catering company works a new event surrounded by new people.

The result is that every episode feels fresh and unique. Workplace comedies tend to have a particular shelf life because they become stale after years of the same people stuck in the same place. But Party Down keeps everything fluid, which allows the writers to think of new and ridiculous places to put their characters.

Roman is lonely and sex-starved, so the crew works a porn party. Ron is constantly looking for validation, so he works his own high school reunion. Constance and Kyle have overinflated senses of self worth, so they work a party packed with just about the only people who have actually seen their movies.

The writers have a deep understanding of all their characters, allowing them to create situations specifically geared around each individual. And since they can choose to set each episode anywhere they want, there is no limit to their creativity.

All of the comedy of Party Down comes organically. It comes from the situations in which the characters are placed, their reactions to those situations and how they play off each other. The writing is witty, but never feels forced. It doesn’t follow the simple “setup-joke-punchline-repeat” formula that is the bane of most sitcoms’ existence.

Because each of the characters is suffering through their own private battles, it is much easier to relate to them. The series may be set in Hollywood, but the theme of failure is universal.

It helps that Party Down has one of the most talented crews for a comedy in recent memory, both in front of and behind the camera. It features a writing team of Paul Rudd (yes, that Paul Rudd), Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge and John Enbom (the trio responsible for Veronica Mars), and direction by Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) and Bryan Gordon (Curb Your Enthusiasm).

In addition to the superbly talented main cast already mentioned, Megan Mullally replaced Lynch in Season 2, and recurring guest stars included Kristen Bell, J.K. Simmons, Jennifer Coolidge and Ken Jeong.

Weirdly enough, Party Down shares its blueprint for greatness with Game of Thrones. The two may seem diametrically opposite, but they have more in common than you would think.

Both present a story that takes place in a kind of fantasy world. In Party Down it’s Hollywood, in Game of Thrones it’s a fictional place. But with those fantasy worlds as the backdrop, both focus on brutal realism with relatable and understandable characters.

In Party Down, part of you wants the characters to succeed because they’re easy to root for. But another part of you hopes they keep failing because they’re just so damn entertaining as they do it.

**Note: I am well aware that this is the most obscure of the three shows in this “Greatness Analyzed” series. For that reason, I highly recommend you check out Party Down, currently available on Netflix’s Instant Stream, if you haven’t already.**

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What Makes Game of Thrones Great

The medieval fantasy genre has stayed in a very distinct wheelhouse for a very long time. Dark forces gather and threaten everything that is good and pure in the world, forcing a band of heroes to struggle against seemingly impossible odds to save the world.

The formula has worked in varying degrees for years, with the most obvious success story being Lord of the Rings. One of the few medieval fantasies to see mainstream success, the film trilogy made more than a billion dollars in box office revenue alone, was critically lauded and earned several Academy Awards.

While the Lord of the Rings films made fantasy more acceptable to the masses, the effect did not carry over to television. The majority of the attempts to bring the genre to TV came in the form of throwaway shows geared toward teenagers and young adults.

But HBO’s Game of Thrones has changed all that by turning the genre’s conventions on their heads. Instead of presenting a classic story of good against evil, Game of Thrones chooses to dwell on the gray area in between.

There is no “great evil” for a group of heroes to fight, at least not one that is central to the plot. Instead, the story focuses on the interplay of a wide variety of deep characters. And those characters cannot be restricted to generalizations.

Some are more sympathetic than others, but none are easily defined. The supposed hero of the story is fatally flawed, while the villains are the smartest and cleverest. Just when you think you have someone figured out, they prove otherwise.

We’ve all grown up on stories of the little hero vanquishing the big bad guy, to the point that it has become expected. But that is not what Game of Thrones delivers. The people you cheer for fail more often than they succeed. They fight and they die, regardless of their allegiances.

As the plot unfolds, there are also subtle questions asked of the audience that again do not have black and white answers. Is mercy always right? Do good men make good leaders? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Or does power attract people who already are corrupt?

These are the kinds of questions we’ve been trained to answer easily, but in the Game of Thrones universe things are not as simple. The show indirectly asks you a question, but never answers it. It leaves that up to you. It doesn’t spoon feed the audience, instead allowing each viewer to personalize the experience with their own opinions.

The world of Game of Thrones may be fantasy, but the people in it are realistic. They are not idealistic principles to which all people should aspire, but rather they are what all people already are. They love their children and will do anything for them. They want to be great, but often are foiled by their own imperfections.

We get a full understanding of their hopes, fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses. Even when we hate what someone does, we understand why they do it. We can relate to both their internal and external struggles.

On top of all that realism is peppered a very small number of mystical elements that add an additional layer of dread to the proceedings. Characters are fighting personal battles while the threat of an endless winter and monster invasion hang over their heads, with some of them paying the threat no mind.

The ways in which Game of Thrones has altered the traditional fantasy formula are staggering and give it the potential to be a truly revolutionary TV show. The production matches the detail of the story, and the opening title sequence alone shows more creativity than some entire series.

HBO has made sure to get every detail just right, from the food to the costumes to the set pieces. Everything has been meticulously created, making Westeros seem like a living and breathing place. It becomes easy to lose yourself in such an expertly developed world. It speaks volumes that I have read the books and know what will happen, yet I still have been on the edge of my seat in every episode.

Thus far the series has been a ratings success for HBO, rising in total viewers almost every week. With two episodes left in its first season, it already has been picked up for a second season and has been nominated for Best Drama in the Critics’ Choice Awards.

If Game of Thrones can continue to build viewership and garner more seasons, it has the potential to become one of the most memorable shows created in recent years. Part fantasy, part historical fiction, part family drama, it manages to combine several elements together seamlessly to create one of the most engaging experiences currently on television.

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