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This Week on Cable or near-Cable

3 Oct 2014

New kid on the block
As I finish launching the publication of White House Storm and move into my final edit of the sequel, Queen Joan, I'm reading less and turning to current cable TV more for inspiration. Such a wild and woolly scene it has become! Soon it will be all but impossible to recall the days of childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, when TV was so timid that Jack Parr was forced to leave The Tonight Show for making an oblique reference to a "water closet" - a popular euphemism of his day for speaking of a room with a toilet. Today we call them bathrooms (or "half-baths"), which is funny because water closet is actually more accurate.

I'm going to try my hand at a short weekly blog with comments on the events and prospects for my favorite shows. Sometimes I discover those shows, like Jericho, years after they leave the air! But if they are interesting I will toss them in the mix. This week we have a lot to talk about starting with a Jump-the-Shark episode for the Season 4 premiere of Homeland. My timing is perfect for Season 4, because I just finished watching Season 3 on Netflix DVDs. I choose to watch HBO and Showtime shows on Netflix DVD, I refuse to pay for extra subscription channels. With 500+ channels I already have more TV than I have time to watch.


Season 3 ended all the major story lines that began in the series premiere, and did them with success given the absurdity of almost every subplot offered. The show is high in drama and tension but low in believability, so the death of Brody at the end was a blessing for viewers as well as for Brody. Between that, the retirement of Saul and the promotion of Carrie, the series reached a perfect final resting place.

So naturally they're going to keep going. They have an entirely new story line and new characters except for one, a manic-depressive CIA station chief who wouldn't last two minutes in a real intelligence organization. The hope is that the changes will be more realistic, but is that hope realistic? I don't think so. Carrie as a female station chief in Pakistan? Really? Homeland should have stopped while it was ahead.


Gotham is a DC/Batman spinoff show that is far better than we had reason to expect, especially after the disaster that was Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a weak Avengers spinoff. Gotham covers the period immediately after the death of Bruce Wayne's parents. We see the rise of young James Gordon as a new police detective forced to cope with police corruption all around him, encountering the criminal and non-criminal oddities of city Gotham. Among them are a gymnastic 13-year-old street urchin with an affinity for wayward cats, Selena Kyle ("Cat" she hisses); a 20-something psychopath, Oswald Cobblepot, whose extreme makeup falls just short of white face, and whose busted-leg hobble results in a cruel nickname, "Penguin", that spells immediate violent death for all who utter it; a young police analyst, Edward Nigma, who delivers all his answers as quirky questions ("anyone ever tell you to get some help?" one cop asks); and a criminal gang boss, Carmine Falcone, eager to use the vicious talents of all the miscreants who pass his way.

In the first two episodes Gotham establishes itself as a setting for character studies. When you see the pathetic home from which Cobblepot comes it almost feels like a soap opera, but with better writers than usual. I watched the first episode completely by accident, assuming the worst after the stale characters of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so I was pleasantly surprised. We only see a little bit of the long-term protagonist, Bruce Wayne, but that's a good thing. What we see is interesting: A boy of about 12 struggling to come to terms with the wrenching change that violence has brought to his life; a boy already making plans, a boy looking to transform himself, but doomed to be a boy for years to come. Meanwhile Gotham has a slew of interesting bad guys in development, and I look forward to seeing them learn and grow. It would be fun if they twisted the Dick Grayson story a little bit and made him more of a peer to Bruce than an adopted foster child, but don't expect that. New episodes on Mondays.

Sons of Anarchy

The comic book violence of DC, though relatively graphic when viewed through the prism of Gotham, is thin gruel compared to the violence of Sons of Anarchy, which delivered 20 new murders in the latest episode, including 2 police officers and 16 innocents whose sole crime was working in a legal brothel. The sheer quantity of the killing has gotten so out of hand that they can no longer show them all. Like the latest slaughter some are simply implied and it is described via the aftermath.

Sons of Anarchy has had a good run and maintains a solid, faithful fan base, but in truth its Jump-The-Shark moment came years ago in Season 3, when the MC snuck into Belfast, Ireland on an illegal cargo flight with their motorcycles and never had any problems with police while they were there, in spite of their California license plates, gang colors and thuggish appearance.

Since then the most interesting question to emerge is how many members of the club will be tortured and killed before the show runs its course, and when. As a viewer this is among the least desirable or tasty directions for the show to take. Who will last longest? Presumably the final episode will feature the showdown between SAMCRO "den mother" Gemma Morrow and her son Jax. Gemma doesn't have as much blood on her hands as Jax or late husband Clay, but she encouraged the death of both her husbands and personally murdered Jax's wife Tara; that death she delivered with savagery using a kitchen utensil in last season's finale.

Facebook betting on which characters will survive the series finale has been heavy for months. If you believe there is justice in the world, they will all die except the children. All of them. Every single one. Who on this show is without guilt? Only the children, and even one of those turned a machine gun on his classmates when the last season began. The Sons murdered the boy's parents to keep them quiet, because the gun came from the Sons' gun-running operation. Which characters will survive the final episode? The ones that FX wants to hold on to for possible spinoff series. Who could they be? I don't know. Better call Saul!

Hell On Wheels

Hell On Wheels is the Western we always needed but could never get from postwar Hollywood. Later Western movies like Silverado and Unforgiven hinted at the possibilities, but it took a series with dozens of episodes to fully play them out. And play they do! Confederate soldiers and freed slaves working and fighting together on the railroad; evangelist preachers with dark souls; whores and widowed women desperately fighting to avoid their fate; savage but intelligent Indians, one of whom struggles with a switch to American society; pitched battles between railroad workers and Indians; Mormon forts among Protestants and Baptists who loathe them; Irish entrepreneurs struggling to make their way; and federal politicians scheming to use them all for power and self-aggrandizement. This show has it all, including occasional visits from the likes of Brigham Young and General/President-elect Grant.

The show started out being about friendships and rivalries formed around the building of the Union Pacific's transcontinental railroad in the months after the Civil War ended, but over time the story has morphed somewhat. You might say the camera has panned out and beheld everything going on around it, not just the railroad.

Holding together the first three seasons was the Odd Couple friendship of railroad boss Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier, and former slave Elam Ferguson. Over time their stories took them in different directions, but I also suspect that rapper Common, who played Elam, had other interests and obligations. HOW killed off Elam in a sad but kindly tragedy. Elam, while in the wilderness searching for the then-missing Bohannon, is attacked by a bear while holding only a hunting knife for self-defense. He prevails, barely, but the fight leaves him blind and insane; in the end he must be put down for the safety of others. It was a respectful send off for one of the most important characters of the show. .

The power struggles of the early seasons featured Bohannon and Ferguson facing off against railroad manager/owner Durant, but with the exit of Elam comes a change in the axis of power: Grant has appointed a governor to civilize the Wyoming Territory. Governor Campbell doesn't want the job, but he accepts it and makes it his own. Campbell quickly becomes a despot. In particularly venal and unnecessary ways he seizes power over the railroad and everyone else in Cheyenne. In the latest episode he seduces the female newspaper owner in an effort to control what she prints. Whether she capitulates to be close to power and gain an advantage or out of sheer loneliness remains to be seen, but this show's track record suggests she has her own agenda.

The next episode should feature the final showdown between Bohannon, now acting on behalf of Durant, and Campbell's new marshall, an outlaw killer and lawman in name only. The marshall has imprisoned most of the railroad worker's on the frontier equivalent of outstanding warrants, purely to control the railroad's overseers. How will the show's producers stretch this story arc into a season finale? The marshall is Campbell's primary henchman; once he goes down, Campbell's remaining defenses should be meager. But the clock hasn't run out yet, so I'm expecting surprisSaturdays, but on hiatus until November.

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