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The truth is 30 years old from being out there
Plus, when series finales are not series finales, and a 'Welcome To The O.C.' promotion
This week’s What’s Alan Watching? newsletter coming up just as soon as I figure out whether this is a wax on, wax off situation...
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Buy my book! Buy my book! Buy my book! (And get a bonus!)
This is an extremely light week for me in terms of Rolling Stone content, with only my Reservation Dogs recap publishing since the last newsletter. This is the result of a confluence of events, from having to binge screeners of shows to review for an upcoming print issue of the magazine, to the fact that some of the week’s more prominent premieres are of returning shows that I’ve either never watched, or haven’t watched in a long time. (The Morning Show very much fits the latter category, though I’m happy for my TV critic peers who can’t get enough of its messiness.)
So why not start our newsletter with some more shameless plugging! As I’m pretty sure I’ve told you, I’ve written another book, Welcome To The O.C., an oral history of the seminal mid-00s teen drama. I’m very proud of how it turned out, and pleased with how candid almost everyone was on almost every subject, and it turns out I’m not alone in this belief. Publishers Weekly recently said that, “The insider perspectives are refreshingly candid and offer new insights into what went into making the much loved show. The O.C. fans won’t want to miss this.”
Now, you might say things like, “I’m not a fan of The O.C. Why would I want to read this?” This is a fair question, and it’s entirely possible that you would not. My counter would be that a lot of the book is using the specific example of this show to get at larger issues about how TV shows get made — particularly at that moment in time, when the broadcast networks still ruled the earth — the compromises and mistakes that get made, the miscommunications and executive interference, how interpersonal dynamics evolve and curdle over time, etc. The story of The O.C. is unique to that show in many ways, but universal in many others.
Regardless, if Welcome To The O.C. sounds interesting, I would ask you to consider pre-ordering a copy (print or digital) now, rather than waiting until November 28 or later. In the world of publishing, pre-orders have never mattered more. They tell booksellers (Amazon in particular, but all of them) what the level of demand is for a title, which in turn informs how many copies they will order for when the book is actually published. If they think that no one cares, then they won’t have many copies in hand, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Several times in my book-writing career, Amazon and others have run out of stock early in the first print — one time on the day the book was published — because they underestimated demand. Some of those people who were trying to buy it ordered a copy and were willing to wait, but I imagine many others simply went looking for another book. And if there aren’t copies for people to see in the brick and mortar stores, then those are more potential sales that disintegrate.
If that’s not enough to encourage people to pre-order, my publisher has set up an incentive program(*), where if you order the book (again, in print or digital) prior to November 28, and upload proof of purchase, you’ll receive a digital bonus chapter. So you’re not just helping out me, but getting something extra in the process. Win-win!
(*) Yes, the program is only available in the United States. No, I have no control over this, and this has unfortunately been the case for every promotion related to every book I’ve written. And yes, the book will be published in many international markets, but I also have no control, nor any specific info, on when and where. I’m just a cog in a domestically-based machine, I’m afraid.
Here endeth the plugging. I promise that they won’t all be this long between now and Thanksgiving. (Though some of them will be, I’m sure.)
Reservation Dogs and the case of the faux-finales
As I say at the beginning of my recap of this week’s predictably tremendous Reservation Dogs, anyone who didn’t know that there were two episodes left wouldn’t be blamed for assuming this was the series finale. In terms of plot, theme, and tone, it felt like the culmination of everything the show has been trying to do and say for the past three years.
But there’s more to come, and this is far from the first time a great TV show has done this. Just last year, for instance, I briefly wondered why Better Call Saul seemed to be wrapping up Cinnabon Gene’s story when there were three episodes remaining. In that case, I was very wrong, because Saul still had a lot more to do with Gene (and Jimmy, and Saul), but in the moment, I was very puzzled.
In general, there are two different kinds of fake series finales. The more common one involves shows that either don’t know if they’re being canceled, or assume that they’ve been canceled. Chuck did at least a half dozen different In Case of Emergency finales, because that show perpetually lived on the cancellation bubble. Michael Schur wanted every Parks and Rec season finale to work as a series-ender in the event NBC didn’t order more. In one of my favorite examples, Eighties cop show parody Sledge Hammer (starring David Rasche, aka Karl from Succession) ended its low-rated first season with Sledge and the other characters at Ground Zero for a nuclear bomb detonation, because nobody believed ABC would renew it. So the unexpected second season had to open with a title card revealing that these episodes were all set five years earlier.
The second kind is more rare, in part because you tend to see them mainly on great, and extremely specific, shows like Rez Dogs. They are, essentially, the shows that could end in any number of ways, and that are bold, versatile, and creatively strong enough to make more than one of those endings. Breaking Bad did that in a way, as the show in theory could have, with minor tweaks, ended with any of its last four episodes. (Which would have given us, respectively, Walt captured by Hank, Walt driving out of town having left utter devastation in his wake, Walt realizing that Heisenberg was just a myth, and then the actual ending, with Walt returning to settle all Family business.) Atlanta did a bunch of those towards the end, from character spotlights to the astonishing A Goofy Movie mockumentary episode. (The actual finale is perfect, but imagine what a mic drop “The Goof Who Sat By the Door” would have been.)
Reservation Dogs still has some bits of unfinished business, like Elora tracking down her father. But in the incredibly unlikely event that the final installments underwhelm, I can always look at this week’s as the true finale, in the same way I tend to treat “Ozymandias” as the actual end of the Breaking Bad story, and the last two episodes (plus El Camino) as a long epilogue.
I want to believe it hasn’t been 30 years (because that means I’m old)
Finally, as promised last week, some thoughts on The X-Files, which celebrated its 30th anniversary on Sunday.
If you were around in the Nineties, or if you binged it later, you know the deal: a pair of FBI agents reluctantly team up to investigate cases with paranormal or extraterrestrial undertones. David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder tried to prove that aliens were real, Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully looked at everything skeptically, and the two of them clearly had the hots for each other, bringing the whole notion of unresolved sexual tension to a more nerd-friendly series than something like Cheers or Moonlighting. It was wildly uneven — both in its original run and in the mid-2010s revival seasons — but incredible at its best. It made stars of Duchovny and Anderson, and launched the careers of a whole lot of future showrunners, most notably Vince Gilligan from the aforementioned Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. It’s among the most influential scripted shows of these past 30 years.
There is so much to say about the series — too much even if it took up the whole newsletter — so I want to focus on two of the things I find most interesting about the series.
The first is that X-Files became such a phenomenon that, midway through its run, Chris Carter got tasked with writing a feature film that would be released between the fifth and sixth seasons. This was the first time since the Sixties Batman series that an ongoing TV show had a spinoff movie playing in theaters, and was much more complicated and messy than Bruce Wayne falling in love with Miss Kitka. The thing is, X-Files was famous for two different kinds of episodes: your traditional Monster of the Week story that would be wrapped up within the hour, and the so-called “mythology” episodes, which periodically returned to the serialized saga of a government conspiracy involving aliens, Mulder’s kidnapped sister, bees, black oil, and more. Carter could have easily made the movie into a Monster of the Week story, but on a much grander scale, and life would have been relatively simple. Instead, he decided that the film would be part of the mythology. This proved much more challenging.
First, it meant that he had to slow down the advancement of that story on the show, just to save material for the movie. This was to the detriment of the series, at a moment when the mythology was already starting to become too slow and convoluted for its own good. But at some point in the process of writing the movie, Carter also seemed to recognize that if he wrapped up the mythology in the movie, it would then leave the show without a crucial component, and might also annoy viewers who didn’t see the film that summer. So the movie is just one piece of this bigger story, and isn’t hugely satisfying in its own right. Unsurprisingly, when a second film was made a decade later, it went with Monster of the Week.
Which brings us to the other thing I find fascinating about the show. At the time, the mythology episodes were the ones that everybody talked about, at least in the obsessive early online circles in which I traveled. People liked the Monster stories — particularly on the rare occasions they were written by Darin Morgan, like the hilarious but sad Peter Boyle showcase “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” — but speculation about the conspiracy seemed to consume all the oxygen around the show.
Now, though? Almost all of the affection towards the series revolves around the Monster of the Week stories. Whenever someone attempts to rank the episodes in order of quality, those lists are inevitably weighted towards the self-contained episodes. And when the show comes up in conversation today, people want to talk about Eugene Tooms or the incestuous killers from “Home” far more than they want to figure out what the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s true agenda was. That’s in part because the mythology ended in confusing, unsatisfying fashion. (Carter wrote all of the revival’s worst episodes, which tried and failed to reinvigorate the mythology by claiming that everything we thought we knew about it was wrong.) But it’s also in part, I think, because we’ve hit serialized drama overload in the past few years. There are too many endless sagas out there, and it’s exhausting with all but the very best shows. Whereas you can turn on “Small Potatoes,” or “Drive” (the episode which led Gilligan to cast Bryan Cranston as Walter White), enjoy it entirely on its own terms, and not feel like you have to sit through a dozen additional episodes to get the whole point.
With Poker Face, with the unlikely Summer of Suits, and with some other recent TV developments, the industry may be trending back to the idea of episodic storytelling — maybe not all the time, but at least in the sort of hybrid approach that The X-Files took at its best. Or, at least, I want to believe that this will happen.
That’s it for this week! What did everybody else think?