End of an era
Preparing to say goodbye to 'Succession' & 'Barry,' plus 'Platonic,' 'Happy Valley' & more
This week’s What’s Alan Watching? newsletter coming up just as soon as I’m a casket wheelman…
Thanks for reading What's Alan Watching?! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Fare thee farewells well
We have ourselves a big week of finales coming up. Next week, I imagine we’ll have to talk about the end of either Ted Lasso Season Three or the end of Ted Lasso the series, and ideally I’ll have time to say a word or two about Season Three of Dave, which also wraps up on Wednesday. Earlier this week, The Flash came to an end, and with it is the functional conclusion to the whole Arrow-verse, even if Gotham Knights or Superman & Lois manage to survive(*).
(*) Once upon a time, I watched all of those shows, but at a certain point most of them became too glum and angst-ridden for my liking, at which point I just watched Legends of Tomorrow. And even that, I didn’t get around to finishing. Young Alan would be dismayed to learn that middle-aged Alan was not a completist with all these comic book shows.
It is a period of endings, though I can’t instantly think of a night like what we’re getting on Sunday, where one mortal lock Hall of Fame show ends, immediately followed on the same channel by the end of another one that has a good argument of its own for immortality. When Sopranos ended, for instance, that episode wasn’t immediately followed by the series finales for Six Feet Under or The Wire, but by the first episode of poor John From Cincinnati. I’m sure there must have been instances of this in the broadcast TV days, but I’m hard-pressed to recall one. So it’s a lot, and it’ll be a lot next week, too, once we’ve all actually seen these finales and can talk about them.
See you in Hell, Roys!
There are plenty of TV shows it’s taken me a long time to warm to, especially in the pre-cable days when there wasn’t as much to watch and something like Star Trek: The Next Generation could take the better part of two seasons to figure itself out. But I’ve never had quite the relationship with a show that I’ve had with Succession, where over the span of five years, I went from not caring at all to considering it a masterpiece. Here’s how the journey more or less went:
Back in the late spring of 2018, I got screeners for the first few episodes of the series. Maybe just the first two at that point? I watched the premiere, didn’t feel hugely engaged by anything about the conflicts within the company and the family, and while I’d always liked Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong had barely made an impression on me in other movies and shows I’d seen him in. It was a busy time, my editors didn’t insist that I keep watching, so I set it aside.
Over that summer, readers and fellow critics kept asking me what I thought of the show. I would shrug and say I only watched the premiere and didn’t think much of it, they would insist it was great, I should keep going, etc. I think I watched the second episode, maybe the third. Still nothing.
Several critics at the time — I remember Andy Greenwald was the most vehement — swore that if I just made it to episode 6, I’d love it. As a longtime “It gets good after Episode X” evangelist, I felt I had to give this a try. I made it to the end of that episode (the one where Kendall fails to get Logan voted out), still unconvinced that I cared about any character or the power struggle. Then Andy and company now promised that episode 7 (the family counseling session at Connor’s ranch) would for sure do it, and when that didn’t work, they invoked the season finale. At a certain point, I threw up my hands and said, “Yeah, they love this, but it’s not for me. It happens.”
Over the summer and fall of 2019, I did not watch Succession Season Two. It just felt like I did, because every Sunday night, my social media feeds would fill up with people quoting dialogue and/or describing whole scenes and plot twists, like “Boar on the Floor!” or “You can't make a Tomelette without breaking some Greggs.” I did not begrudge people the right to tweet about a show I wasn’t currently watching, but it only enhanced the feeling that I had no reason to go back and watch more.
During the early pandemic months, various friends — the great and maddening Emily St. James, most of all — suggested I use the fallow period when the programming supply lightened to finally catch up. Eventually, I found a window, and by the time I got to Season Two’s active shooter episode, I found myself finally on the show’s wavelength, but also annoyed for having let myself get spoiled on so much of the season by waiting this long. I was finally appreciating many of the characters, the conflicts, and, especially, the comedy, but I understood I wasn’t getting the full experience because I knew every plot twist in advance.
Finally, Season Three came. I watched the new screeners, loved them, and agreed with my editors at Rolling Stone that I should recap them, which meant I would have to think about each episode even more deeply than if I was just watching week to week. And I found that I loved writing recaps of this show, more than all but a handful I’ve ever done this with(*) — and that I just plain loved Succession itself.
(*) Mad Men and The Leftovers are the two I probably loved recapping most when those shows were on, along with the revised Sopranos ones I wrote or co-wrote years later for The Sopranos Sessions. It is not always the case that how much I enjoy writing recaps tracks with how much I enjoy the show — I think The Americans is incredible, and I had to battle writer’s block pretty much every week for that one, while it was fun to cover Winning Time Season One even though the quality was all over the map — but there’s often a correlation.
What took me so damn long to get with the program? Given the kinds of shows I’ve written books about and evangelized for in the past, you would think that I’d have no trouble falling for another series filled with unlikable characters. Perhaps there was something about this particular type of unlikability, in this particular moment in American history, that made it so difficult to emotionally grab hold of. Maybe I just have a higher barrier to entry for stories about the super-rich and aristocracies of any country. (Some of you may recall my general ambivalence to the upstairs portion of Downton Abbey, even though Lord and Lady Grantham were perfectly nice people.) It could be any number of factors. I’m just glad I finally turned that corner.
Here is my recap of the penultimate episode. Over the weekend, we’ll be running my probably futile attempt to rank the show’s major characters from least despicable to most, so check my author page for that. And Sunday night, I will be screener-less for the series finale — which is annoyingly the case these days for most of the big HBO shows — and thus will be writing and reacting live.
What a long way we’ve come with this terrible, terrible family.
Meanwhile, here is my recap of the penultimate Barry, which was mostly great but also had one plot choice — Jim Moss leaving Barry in a circumstance where he could so easily escape — that left me as baffled as anything this side of the Nate subplot on Ted Lasso this season. (I also have to admit to completely missing that Sally backs away from the cop because she either starts to picture him as the biker she killed last season, or because he was entirely a figment of her imagination.)
Barry is another series I’ve been on a rollercoaster with, albeit a different kind than I had with Succession. I thought the first season was incredible, but in a way that left me wishing the show would be one-and-done. The second season mostly confirmed those fears, even though I enjoyed aspects of it. But then Season Three was in many ways even better than the first, while this year has had incredible highs like the Fred Armisen scene, but also weird lows like the first episode after the time jump.
On Sunday night, I’ll have both a series finale recap and an interview with the great Henry Winkler. (If not for the WGA strike, I would have also spoken with Bill Hader and/or Alec Berg.) I look forward to next week’s newsletter, when we can all discuss how the show ended.
What’s Alan reviewing?
Several notable shows debuted this week. I reviewed three of them:
After premiering in the UK earlier this year, the third and final season of Happy Valley premiered Monday on Acorn TV, AMC+, and BBC America. As I said in my review, this is a great example of a show that pretty much needed to go away for many years before returning, because so much of what makes the farewell run work is that Catherine’s grandson is now a teenager. Some of the side cases are very dodgy, but Sarah Lancashire continues to deliver one of the great TV drama performances ever. (Also, while I generally consider the comments here to be a spoiler-approved space, I’d ask any of my UK readers to be a bit vague when discussing this one, for the benefit of American viewers who won’t see the finale for another month and a half.)
Wednesday brought us Disney+’s adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s beloved graphic novel American Born Chinese, which features most of the Everything Everywhere All At Once cast in supporting roles. My review talks about how the TV version perhaps tries to do too much and isn’t wholly successful at all of that, but that it’s charming despite the messy sprawl.
Did I want to devote the first couple of paragraphs of my review of Netflix’s FUBAR to a complicated and incredibly dated analogy to John Fogerty leaving Credence Clearwater Revival? Yes. Did I actually do it? No, because I’m a coward. (Though there is an only slightly less dated footnote about Sean Connery’s off-brand James Bond movie Never Say Never Again.) Only a few weeks after CBS canceled its True Lies TV adaptation, here comes 75-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger with his own unofficial spin on the concept, albeit focusing on a father/daughter relationship rather than husband and wife. I expect it to be a big hit for Netflix, even though I felt underwhelmed by most of it.
Also, this doesn’t qualify as writing, but I was a guest on Richard Deitsch’s sports media podcast from The Athletic this week, talking about the process of writing my recaps of Succession and other shows. If you’ve ever been curious about how I do what I do, this will give you way more detail than you need.
Byrne and Rogen get Platonic
Finally, we have a fourth premiere that I intended to review, but simply didn’t have the bandwidth for: Platonic, starring Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen as former best friends who reunite to deal with their respective midlife crises. (The first three episodes are streaming now on Apple TV+, with the remaining seven releasing weekly.) It’s co-created by Francesca Delbanco and Nicholas Stoller, the latter of whom first paired Byrne and Rogen in the movie Neighbors in 2014. The thing is, Platonic would very obviously have been made as a film itself if it was still 2014 and the movie business hadn’t largely given up on the idea of people going to see comedies in theaters. (See the general indifference last year to Stoller’s Billy Eichner movie Bros, or the Jon Hamm Fletch movie going straight to video on demand.) Like a lot of streaming dramas, this feels like someone’s unsold movie pitch that got expanded to fit the medium that would actually make it. There is a general shagginess to it that you find in both those kinds of series and in many of Stoller’s past works, along with those of his frequent collaborator Judd Apatow.
All that having been said? If your shagginess is going to largely consist of watching these two actors, who have great chemistry together, banter and do goofy things — sometimes just the two of them, sometimes with members of a fine supporting cast that includes Bros co-star Luke Macfarlane, plus Carla Gallo from Apatow’s brilliant-but-canceled Undeclared, where Stoller and Rogen had early jobs — then I can absolutely get behind that. Each episode manages to feel like its own thing, with its own story, like Byrne struggling to return to legal work after 13 years as a stay-at-home mom, or Macfarlane as her husband inviting Rogen to hang out because he’s worried that his wife is spending too much time with another man. That episode features my favorite sequence of the whole 10-episode season, where everybody gets drunk and demonstrates various secret skills, like Rogen being able to do the dance from Coyote Ugly, or Guy Branum being able to name every prime number up to 1000.
Just as every Apatow and Apatow-adjacent film could benefit from being 20-30 minutes shorter, Platonic Season One would probably work better at eight episodes rather than 10, and I don’t love a few choices made towards the end of the season. But this is a rare instance where the collapse of non-franchise filmmaking has led to a TV show that actually functions well as a TV show. I had fun with this.
That’s it for this week! What did everybody else think?
Looking forward to the Henry Winkler interview. I'm always amused when I see him now, especially out of character, how when I was 6 or 7 in the mid-70s, he was not only the coolest person in the universe, but the coolest possible person in the universe.