A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office...
'The Sopranos' turns 25, 'True Detective: Night Country' brings new life to an old franchise, and more
This week’s What’s Alan Watching? newsletter coming up just as soon as I change John Sasquatch’s name…
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Certain aspects of showbiz, and our thing
January 19 is the 25th anniversary of the debut of The Sopranos, a show you may have heard of. For the 20th anniversary, Matt Zoller Seitz and I wrote a whole Sopranos book. That was on top of it featuring prominently in another book we wrote, and also in a book I wrote solo a decade ago. Oh, and I covered the series extensively for The Star-Ledger from the fourth season on.
So when this next big anniversary began looming in the distance, I began to wonder if there was anything left I had to say on the subject, or if I could no longer see the trees for the forest. Eventually, I figured out a somewhat new approach. I say all the time that The Sopranos fundamentally changed television and has been the most influential scripted TV show since I Love Lucy, but I’ve never entirely dug in on what that means. So this time, I approached that question from both the past and the present: I spoke with Sopranos creator David Chase about what it was like to make television in the decades prior to the introduction of Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts, and how different the job became once he was at HBO. And then I spoke with a quartet of 21st century showrunners whose series would not exist without The Sopranos breaking all the old rules. I’ve interviewed Chase too many times to count over the years, and this was the first in a very long time where we weren’t revisiting the same questions again and again, which was a pleasant surprise for both of us.
I think the story turned out very well, but now I’m already worrying about what I can do in five years if someone wants me to write a 30th anniversary story.
Time is a flat circle… again
As I’ve mentioned a few times lately, at Rolling Stone these days, we tend to publish TV reviews either on the day a show premieres, or very shortly beforehand. There are exceptions, though, when a debut or a return is particularly high-profile. The first True Detective season in five years — and the first season of the show written by someone other than Nic Pizzolatto — certainly qualifies, so we ran my review of what’s being called True Detective: Night Country when the embargo lifted on Tuesday.
Like it says in the review, I was extremely pleased with what writer/director Issa López has done with this old and arguably unnecessary title. It feels very much of a piece with the better parts of what Pizzolatto was doing, but without his more self-indulgent excesses. The setting (a remote Alaska town entering its annual winter stretch of perpetual darkness), and the pair of female leads (Jodie Foster and Kali Reis) also do a nice job of differentiating things. And where Pizzolatto seemed regretful that so many people took Season One’s Robert Chambers references as a sign that the mystery would take a supernatural turn, López finds a way to gracefully straddle the line between worldly and otherworldly. It’s not transcendent in the way that the earliest McConaghey/Harrelson episodes felt, but I found it tremendously satisfying.
I imagine we’ll have a lot more to talk about when Night Country debuts on January 14. I’ll be recapping it weekly for Rolling Stone.
Odds and/or ends
It’s both a short week and a busy one, so I’ve only had a chance to watch the first two episodes of Funny Woman, which aired last year in the UK and arrives on PBS this weekend. It’s adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl, about a young English woman who becomes a sitcom star in the Sixties. I liked the book, and I like Gemma Arterton, who stars here and gets to play things much lighter and more charmingly than I’ve seen her be on screen before. She’s very good in what I’ve watched so far, and I hope to find time to see the rest at some point.
In case you missed last week’s pre-New Year’s newsletter, I’m looking for a new home for this operation in the wake of Substack leadership’s extremely sub-optimal response to complaints about Nazis using the platform. I remain open to any and all suggestions, and also want to know how important the ability to comment is for you, as some of the potential alternative services don’t have that feature. (Of course, the people answering that question will mostly be the ones who like to comment, but you can also shoot me an email in response to the newsletter if you prefer.)
After feeling frustrated for most of the second half of the season, I was very pleased with this week’s The Curse, particularly the final scene. I don’t know that it wholly justifies the overall amount of time we’ve had to marinate in the awkwardness of the Seigel marriage, but it’s definitely an excellent payoff to all of that so far.
For All Mankind recaplet: “Brazil”
FAM tends to treat its final two episodes each season as one long finale spread out over a couple of weeks. “Brazil” is very much in this mode. The asteroid heist is put into motion, but complications soon arise, from the North Korean commander getting wise to Lee’s extracurricular activities, to Dani figuring out what the black market is being used for. It’s definitely tenser than the previous episode, but still not as thrilling as what I had hoped for after the DMX moment between Dev and Ed a few weeks back. Part of that is again, the story having to lean a lot on Sam and Miles. She’s barely been developed at all, while he’s been a fairly one-note and uninteresting character.
But that’s been something of a global problem with FAM for these last two seasons, hasn’t it? There was this huge and compelling ensemble in the first two years. But as time has gone on, the original characters have died or otherwise been written out, and the replacements have generally been underwhelming. At this point, we’re basically down to Ed, Dani, Margo, and Aleida. And Ed is insufferable now, even if the show is aware of this. So the moments that stuck with me here had little to do with the heist and mostly to do with my attachment to the veterans. I got genuinely choked up, for instance, when Dani promised to show her unborn grandchild episodes of The Bob Newhart Show. (Hi, Bob!) And the KGB murdering Sergei — along with the implications of this for Margo — hit very hard. But if there’s going to be a fifth season, the producers have to come up with some more compelling characters who are not senior citizens.
Fargo recaplet: “Blanket”
Where For All Mankind feels like it’s losing momentum heading into the finale, “Blanket” is a real corker of an antepenultimate episode, particularly with what it does with Roy. In theory, he should be flying high. He has Dot back in captivity, which seems to be the thing he cares most about, and he again gets to use her as a punching bag. (It’s to the show’s credit that his abuse of her mostly happens off-screen; we only go into the torture shed when she’s fighting back.) But it’s all a facade. He’s physically much stronger than her, but she’s tougher than this smug bully will ever hope to be. She’s not broken by her captivity, nor by being attacked by him. She’s plotting the entire time to get out, and she manages to lay some hurt on him, too. He thinks she’s the same victim he knew a decade ago, but she is, as Ole Munch has dubbed her, a tiger.
Meanwhile, Danish Graves comes up with a delightful way to derail Roy’s reelection campaign, legally changing the names of three of Lorraine’s debtors so that they are also Roy Tillmans, and entering them in the race for sheriff. Roy is completely unnerved by their mimicking presence, and loses his terrible temper in front of his constituents. They are all afraid of him to begin with, but his tantrum makes him look weak, and like someone they may not vote for anymore.
All of this leads to the kind of moment I’m a sucker for: a long oner of Roy walking along the ranch, trying to hold back all his concerns about how poorly things are going, but letting his stony facade crack with each step he takes. Jon Hamm, ladies and gentlemen. Jonathan. Q. Hamm(*).
(*) Yes, I know his middle initial is D. I just started jokingly calling him Jonathan Q. Hamm a few years ago, and now I can’t stop. Please indulge me.
In the wake of his debate triumph, Danish gets overconfident and decides to confront Roy on his own to secure Dot’s release. It ends as badly as you would expect, with the one-eyed attorney getting fatally shot in the gut by the lawman he publicly humiliated. I’ll miss Danish, particularly because Dave Foley was giving the exact same performance he would have in a Kids in the Hall sketch about a smug lawyer. But between Danish’s death, Dot continuing to plot an escape attempt, Witt knowing where Dot is, and Ole Munch appearing in the back of Gator’s car, things are converging very effectively for the season’s final two episodes.
That’s it for this week! What did everybody else think?