Temperature Take: Checking In on the 5th Season of FX’s ‘The Americans’

Welcome to Temperature Take, a new recurring column here at Pajiba wherein I check on a show during its current season. For the inaugural installment, I’ll be checking in on FX’s The Americans, which just passed the halfway point in its penultimate season.

Before its debut, you called this show «the peak of peak TV.» Does that pithy statement still hold true seven episodes in?

Snarky first question, but I’ll allow it. Yes, I believe it does, even though I’ve gone on record as claiming other seasons of TV are either better (The Leftovers) or more vital (The Handmaid’s Tale). But it’s the cumulative effect of this show, coupled with its almost supernatural consistency of quality, that leaves me constantly stunned at how goes this show is. It’s by no means an easy watch, and yet I’m always surprised when an episode is over. It never overstays its welcome, and never feels like it’s padding time even while doling out its story at a moderate pace.

What’s been the most satisfying thing so far?

The way the entire endgame of the show seemed to click into place in the final scene of the last episode, «The Committee On Human Rights,» in which Gabriel’s final words to Philip about Paige seemed to set up the ultimate conflict of the show. It’s not about the US and Russia. It’s never been about those two countries. It’s about Philip and Elizabeth deciding if Paige will grow up like them or free of them. And that focus solidifies why this is a great drama, not just a great spy thriller.

What’s the difference?

I like spy thrillers just fine, but some tend to get caught up in the technicalities and plot mechanics. Not all, mind you, but it’s better to start with a human drama that HAPPENS to be a spy thriller than work the other way around. That goes for any genre of storytelling, to be sure. The Americans has always foregrounded the familial aspects of its story, placing the strains on the Jennings’ household above The Cold War, focusing on it as a specific reason Philip and Elizabeth do what they do even while the existence of their children provides both incredible cover from detection and incredible complexity as those kids grow older. Paige and Henry, for lack of a better analogy, have been ticking time bombs since the moment they were born.

Speaking of Henry, is there any chance this is a Buffy Season 5 situation in which they secretly replaced the other kid and we’ll learn that Glory/Ben has mindf$ cked everyone into thinking this was the same son all along?

Look, that’s ridiculous. We all know Mail Robot is behind the mass hypnotism/bodysnatching.

What other family aspects have been strong this season?

In order to set the stage for the Philip/Elizabeth schism, the show has leaned more heavily on Frank Langella’s Gabriel to serve both as overt father figure as well as an example of how wearying the spy world can be on a person’s emotions. Philip has always been the most likely to stray from his role: From the very pilot, we’ve seen how he’s embraced aspects of Western culture and has resisted bringing Paige into the fold. The guilt Gabriel felt over lying to Philip about his son’s visit manifested itself not in telling the truth, but in revealing that he has been lying to Elizabeth this entire time about Paige’s viability.

Philip has not only lost the only parental figure he’s truly had, but now has received information that confirms his own worst fears. But there’s another aspect that makes all this truly land like a thunderbolt.

What’s that?

The sheer tonnage that The Americans has put both Elizabeth and Philip through over the years. We’ve seen them go through masquerading as others without so much as an emotional scratch on them to being bloodied and battered by each subsequent encounter. Whether it be Philip’s marriage to Poor Martha, or the way Elizabeth orchestrated the undoing of Young-hee’s family, the time The Americans spent watching these two infiltrate, manipulate, and ultimate undo these people means that we understand the exhaustion and hesitation they have exhibited this season. Neither are on their A-game: Philip’s mark is already bored with him, and Trader Joe turned out not to be a traitor but just a crunchy dude with a wandering eye.

The difference is that the further this goes along, Elizabeth tends to cling more tightly to the fact that she’s doing all of this for a reason, while Philip is quickly losing his grip. The season has gone to great links to show how they are trying to be strong for one another, which is what’s going to make the Battle For Paige absolutely, positively brutal.

What’s the best part of having Gabriel serve as the kickoff of the show’s last act?

What’s great about this development is that Gabriel was only added to the show because CBS said, «Hey, Margo Martindale, we want you to be on a terrible sitcom,» and Margo said, «No way, I’m Margo Martindale, and I’m awesome and I don’t need my brand besmirched,» and CBS said, «Does Margo want a yacht?», and Margo said, «Margo loves yachts,» and CBS said, «Here’s some yacht money, come overact with Will Arnett,» and Margo said, «Mags Bennett OUT,» and thus Gabriel was born. (All of these quotes are 100% true and really what happened.) TV shows always have basic plans, and all those plans go to hell because TV shows encounter situations like this all the time. But the best ones are smart enough to use this to their advantage. Who knows how the show would have arrived at this point had Langella never been cast. Would the final showdown still be the same? Probably. Would the path have been the same? Undoubtedly not. But it feels like it was always supposed to be this way, and that’s the sign of great writing.

Is there anything that makes you too uncomfortable while watching?

Given how tense and awkward certain scenes can be, I’m remarkably OK with everything except when it seems like Stan Beeman’s penis is going to reveal government secrets to His Girlfriend That Is Totally A Spy. I watch those scenes from across the street through binoculars with the sound off.

What’s the overall temperature?

Let’s call it a simmering boil. This isn’t a show with huge histrionics. It’s built on time and pressure, and while I couldn’t imagine before this season started how it had two seasons left in it, now I’m glad we’re getting a season six to truly wrap things up. Here’s where all the show’s patient work will pay off. The Emmys might continue to ignore this show, but history will show this was one of the five or six greatest shows this decade produced.

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Is FX’s ‘Legion’ an Incoherent Disaster or an Incoherent Masterpiece?

I don’t think there’s much legitimate disagreement about the fact that the writing and characterization on FX’s Legion is thin, and that the storyline is borderline incoherent, which is why it took an exposition dump this week between crazy David Haller and rational British David in a fantasy room within a fantasy world to more clearly explain what the hell is going on in this show.

In short, there are enough clues to indicate that David is the biological son of Charles Xavier. Xavier and the fantasy world parasite, Amahl Farouk the Shadow King, battled it out in the Astral Plane when David was a baby, and while Xavier was able to defeat the Shadow King, he could not kill him. Echoing Voldemort, the wounded soul of the Shadow King survived, attaching itself to David and tagged along to David’s new adopted family. David and the Shadow King have been battling it out for years in David’s mind — which is why David thinks he’s crazy — but Syd woke David up and strengthened him for fight going on inside of his head.

This week, David finally went mindo a mindo with the Shadow King; meanwhile, Syd and Kerry got into it with Lenny; meanwhile, the real world, Cary, Melanie, and Oliver were working to ensure that David and Syd weren’t shot to death in David’s childhood bedroom.

It’s more coherent than it sounds in print, but not by much. The fact that so much of this season has taken place in the astral plane has been both a boon and a detriment to the series. For the comic book laymen among us, it may have taken a few episodes before we even realized how high the stakes were in the dream world, where Noah Hawley’s characters often feel like Ryan Murphy characters in that characters could die but not die. That notion was even more confused when Syd put on the glasses Cary made and learned that some of the monsters within the fantasy world aren’t even real within the astral plane (what is reality is such a challenging concept for this show).

I’m sure there are those — particularly those more familiar with the comics — who had less difficulty lining up all the dots and visualizing the storyline (it’s a schooner, dumbass), but for many of the rest of us, the exposition dump at the chalkboard this week was absolutely necessary to help us make sense of series.

On the other hand, who the hell cares, right? Every week of Legion could be a brilliantly acted Noah Hawley music video, and most of us would be content with just that. There are moments in the series in which I find myself battling to stay awake, but every episode has at least a few giddy, intoxicating sequences that pull us to rapt attention. This week, that sequence was set to an electronic remix of Maurice Ravel’s «Boléro,» which is easily one of the most enchanting, stupendous television sequences of the year, or of the last several. There wasn’t a lot of meat to it, although there rarely is when it comes climactic battle sequences in comic-book properties, but wow, it was fun to watch.

«Fun to watch» describes much of Legion, especially scenes involves Aubrey Plaza, who is doing work that many of us may not have believed she was capable. Honestly, it’s God’s work.

April from Parks and Rec

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… looks like a deranged Tim Burton villain on heroin:

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Has anyone ever had more fun than Aubrey Plaza must be having on this series?

It’s just a shame that the substance doesn’t match the style in Legion, because aside form Hawley’s flair for visuals and a mind for creepy fucked-up imagery, there are a lot of very good actors putting in very strong performances for very thinly written characters (Jemaine Clement and Jean Smart as Oliver and Melanie Bird, for instance). The pilot episode displayed a lot of potential for the series, but while it has been able to exceed that potential in some ways, the story is still lacking.

But when a show is this much fun to watch, does it matter?

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Everything Is Amazing about FX’s ‘Taboo’ Except The Show Itself (But You’ll Still Get Hooked)

[Warning: Some itty-bitty possible visual possible text spoilers here. Nothing major but if you’re a spoiler hawk, proceed with caution]

How’s this for a murderer’s row of awesome?

Here’s a show on FX, which knows how to do television.

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It takes place in London.

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In 1814.

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It’s noir.

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It strives to be accurate to the period with regard to dress, teeth, relative levels of filth, etc.

The plot is that one man is going to take on the English Crown.

Aaaaaand the East India Company.

At the same time.

Sold? I was by this point. By this point I was frothing at the mouth to see it. But there’s more.

The East India Company —The Company— as it’s referred to, is run by one Sir Stuart Strange. Played by Jonathan Pryce. He is astoundingly good on the show.

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If a show that features the East India Company doesn’t already get your Don’t-Tread-On-Me to half mast, I just don’t know. But let’s continue. Because there’s more.

The lead character of the show returns to London after being presumed dead on the Dark Continent. He shows up just in the nick of time to hear his father’s will and take over what’s left of his family’s nearly defunct shipping empire.

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His name is James Keziah Delaney, which I think is an absolute kick-ass name.

He’s played by Tom Hardy.

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Now you may not like Tom Hardy, but the boy has chops. He has talent oozing from every pore. Like him or not, he’s a pro.

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And he has a van dyke.

And a shitload of body ink.

And he’s still jacked.

Done? Sold yet? No? Okay I’ll continue.

James Keziah Delaney is half Native American. His father ‘purchased’ a plot of island land with beads a la Peter Minuit and in the bargain, the tribe threw in James Keziah Delaney’s mother. The actress who plays Delaney’s mother, Salish, is a guarded show secret, but the rumor is that it’s Hardy’s friend Noomi Rapace.

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So Delaney, who speaks either her native language or an African language, is really tied in spiritually to his mother’s people. So much so that he experiences premonitions and visions.

It helps him stay alive, but, if he needs it, he carries a cool curved dagger on him at all times.

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And he’s a cannibal. Did I mention that he was a cannibal? Yep. He tears out the hearts of his enemies and eats them. Or sometimes he just bites them in the neck and shit.

Buuuuuuuut there’s more.

He has a sister. She’s lovely and interesting, and is played by Oona Chaplin. You might remember her from such parties as Robb Stark’s Secret Tryst and The Red Wedding. She’s Delaney’s sister, ‘Zilpha.’

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Aaaaaaand she’s his lover.

Because honestly, you can’t go all-in these days without at least one juicy incest plot scaffold.

Also, Delaney can sometimes sit in front of the fireplace in his house and use the ash as war paint and make her orgasm across town like Catherine the Great on coke. Orgasmic dream visits are a pretty sweet arrow to have in your wooing quiver, I’ll bet. It’s a hell of a third date.

The cast, in general is amazing. Why? Because Nina Gold did the casting. When you see her name on anything you just know immediately that it’s top notch, and will have a mix of people you know and people she knows are amazing but you don’t necessarily know yet. There are several of these on Taboo.

For example, if you ever watched HBO’s Rome, you have a special place in your heart for Nicholas Woodeson who played ‘Posca.’ He plays Delaney’s duplicitous barrister ‘Robert Thoyt’ on the show and he’s note perfect, as usual.

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Do you know Michael Kelly from House of Cards? He plays an American Spy on Taboo. Oh, yeah I forgot to mention that. Delaney also takes on the Americans and is a sometime pal, sometime disembowling, murdering aggressor to them. Frenemies, really.

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Did I mention there’s a naval blockade element on the show? And a cholera outbreak? And ship auctions? And body snatching gravediggers? And unscrupulous medical procedures? And poison? And a crew of street-smart prostitutes led by Franka Potente? And chemistry? And Ocean’s Eleven style heists? And an organized crime element led by a whip-smart thug called ‘Atticus,’ played by Stephen Graham? I don’t like Stephen Graham’s face…I love Stephen Graham’s face. Here’s another actor who isn’t widely known by an American audience who just kills it in every scene he’s in.

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That’s probably enough.

But there’s also black magic. And Malay hit men. And burlesque shows and creepy dukes trolling for group sex. And tea and fur negotiations. And trade routes. And war. And cross dressing. And parties. And stuffy British fops. And slave ships. And a kick-ass former slave turned legal crusader named George Chichester, played by the magnetic Lucian Msamati.

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That’s enough. Seriously.

But let’s just also throw Tom Fucking Hollander in for good measure and have him play a drug using magician/chemist. And let’s have him secretly run a gunpowder factory during a gunpowder shortage.

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And to put a bow on it, let’s have the series be created by Tom Hardy and….oh…say Steven Knight of Peaky Blinders fame. And let’s set the whole thing up at Ridley Scott’s production company and roll it out on FX.

That, friends, is a fucking stellar lineup.

But the show doesn’t quiiiiiiiiite work yet. Is it too much? I don’t think so. There’s a lot going on, yes, but they do an outstanding job of leading you so you can keep track of the various subplots and they’re all handled with remarkable deftness. Just about every character is interesting, from the drunks in Wapping to the hypocritical stuffed-shirt prick junior assholes at the Company. They definitely went too far over the top making the Prince Regent visually displeasing to look at…

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…but his aide-de-camp, played by Jason Watkins, is a snuff-snorting shark.

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The show looks awesome and noir-y and the world feels full and rich and frankly pretty disgusting. Which all works.

What doesn’t work right now is Hardy. That realization kind of knocks my socks off. It’s not his performance as much as it is the way the character is drawn. It’s a pleasure to root for a good antihero. Especially when he’s giving two fingers to the House of Lords set. But James Keziah Delaney never smiles. Never. He grunts. That’s his thing, ostensibly because he’s kind of a savage. Don’t believe me? This amazing fan-made video of all his grunts will knock your dick in the dirt.

That’s some grunt-tastic acting right there. And honestly, the grunts never bother me. It’s the joylessness of it. The emotional torment. Even when Delaney experiences true love, with his eherm…sister, there’s no joy in it. It’s like a war dance. And he’s not a forgiver. He treats EVERYONE like dog shit. Even the people who are most loyal to him. He’s mean as fuck and kind of nuts and always tormented and dressed like the Artful Dodger on steroids. If you meet him for any reason, the odds are like 3 to 1 that he’ll stick a blade in you and 5 to 2 that he’ll grab you by the throat in a vice grip and scare tiny rabbit poops out of you. He’s a fucking mean-spirited shithead. And that’s why it’s tough to root for him. He’s not an avenging angel. They actively refer to him as the devil on the show and he likes it. Tough to get behind that much wanton malice.

And all his enemies are always trying to kill him and can never find him and he’s always walking around in the open.

But he is crafty. And he does have a good story. And he’s always a step ahead of some pretty daunting competition. And he gets to say things like «I need to get a message to Thomas Jefferson, who is meeting secretly in Ghent.»

That’s kind of tough to pass up. But then we get scenes of him chanting in his native language and when it’s not kind of distracting it can be downright offputting and show-ruiny. Like in certain cases it’s pulled me out of the suspension of disbelief entirely and I find myself sitting in my living room watching Tom Hardy making certain tribal sounds and I think, «Oh no. Don’t do that.»

In general though, this really is a show that feels kind of like a sneaky cult hit. Not only does it have all the elements it needs to be great, it has pretty much every element in television history baked right into the plot. While there are some questionable choices here and there, overall the show repays your loyalty with some great scenes and home-run performances. It’s currently performing just below Legion in the all important 18-49 demo, and I expect it to be renewed for a second season. Sure, you may huff and groan through the first half hour of the confusing pilot, but after it gets its decidedly grim hooks into you, you may just find yourself looking forward to the next filthy, twisted, joyless abomination.

Taboo premiered on FX on January 10th, 2017. Episode 7 (of 8 total) airs tonight on FX, or catch up on the FXNow app.

Follow Lord Castleton on Twitter

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Review: FX’s Marvel Series, ‘Legion’ and Fox’s ’24’ Reboot, ’24: Legacy’

If orange is the new black, then February is the new September. Forget Fall premieres: Winter premieres are where most of the heavy hitters now reside. There’s a metric ton of shows either premiering or returning, and I’ll be reviewing some in this space each week. For now, let’s look at two of the more highly-anticipated ones. Does FX’s Legion re-invent the Marvel small-screen universe? Does FOX’s 24: Legacy live up to its predecessor?

Read on and find out.

***

FX’s Legion, which debuts February 8th, is such a departure from everything else that Marvel has put on the small screen to date that it’s worth celebrating just for being unique. It doesn’t try to tie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it doesn’t look visually flat, and it has no desire to adhere to the normal narrative patterns of a serialized television show. These are all wonderful qualities, which suggests that Marvel may finally realize there’s more than one way to bring its huge roster of characters into our living rooms.

But at least through the first three episodes made for review, there’s much more to admire than love. Is that due to the relatively obscure Marvel character at the center of this show? Not at all. That’s an excuse rather than a reason. Indeed, Dan Stevens goes a long way towards selling titular protagonist David Haller as a flesh-and-blood person rather than the potentially most-powerful mutant in the world. Nothing about Haller’s anonymity when compared to characters like Wolverine and Cyclops has anything to do with the short’s early (and honestly, minor) shortcomings.

If there’s a show that comes to mind during these episodes, it’s Hannibal. But while both shows use the visual iconography of dreams to frame each episode, Legion tends to be percussive while Hannibal stayed hypnotic. Both have signature rhythms, but those in Legion are intentionally designed to keep audiences on their toes rather than lull them into a sense of true displacement.

Now, that’s a conscious choice on behalf of creator Noah Hawley and the phenomenal production team that put together Legion. Other shows should probably stop thinking about winning Emmys for production design, editing, visual effects, and sound mixing, because this show pretty much blows everything else off the map at this point. It’s simply astounding to think what’s even possible on an episodic budget at this stage, but all the money in the world takes a backseat to the inventive ways Legion is shot, composed, framed, and then woven into a disorientating feverscape that nevertheless never completely alienates its audience. But the overall effect calls attention to itself in the moment, rather than in retrospect, which can have an unintended distancing effect while watching.

I have no problem envisioning a scenario in which such visual and aural mastery meets compelling character work. But having seen essentially a third of the first season of the show, the former overshadows the latter. The show is so busy setting up its world that it has little time to simply slow down and show two people express their hopes, fears, and desires. Haller is someone who can’t trust his own brain, and as such most of his scenes feature halting dialogue in which another figure is trying to work out what’s wrong with him. Again, this is by design: Haller can’t be fully-formed from the outset, otherwise there would be no show. Most of the early scenes with true dramatic meat on the bone come when Stevens interacts with Rachel Keller’s character Syd Barrett. Keller, so great on the second season of Fargo, proves here that performance was no fluke.

There’s a lot to like here, and I imagine this will be one of the few reviews that aren’t outright raves from the outset. This isn’t a «comic book television show» in any of the traditional senses, which demonstrates what comic book fans have known all along: There’s really no thing as a «comic book television show.» It’s a reductive way at looking at an infinitely malleable genre. Even if Legion doesn’t start off as an all-time classic show, it’s well worth watching all the same. Come the end of season one, it may have already made that leap. In the meantime, you’ll be able to watch a visually audacious show that has more on its mind that capes and tights.

***

Full disclosure: I’m a 24 buff. I’ve seen every episode, and endured the rollercoaster in quality than represented the show’s full run. For every amazing twist and killer setpiece, there were at least as many silly narrative detours and ill-advised moves. It’s a big, bold, messy, important, frustrating show that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its importance in 21st-century television. Putting this in his book The Revolution Was Televised was one of the savviest things critic Alan Sepinwall did in that tome: It’s a show that’s usually overlooked but is a better reflection of both the medium and this country’s shifting politics than just about another show.

With that said, 24: Legacy (which returns in the plum post-Super Bowl slot on FOX this Sunday) is a show fueled by nostalgia rather than necessity. It’s a prime example of what I call Mad Lib TV: Simply insert a few locations, verbs, and adjectives into a pre-existing template and voila, you have new content within the same, rigid structure. You could argue that almost ALL of 24 has been Mad Lib TV, and even though I’m a huge fan I’ll admit there’s merit to that argument. There’s ALWAYS something that needs to be completed «within the hour.» There’s ALWAYS a mole inside CTU. There’s ALWAYS someone getting from point A to point B in less time than it would take to teleport there. Trust me, I’m with you.

And yet, the best seasons of this show demonstrated how iterations can alter based on small tweaks to the overall environment. 24 could (and did) offer up the best argument for and against using torture to obtain useful information. The show itself seemed to come around on its own use of this technique, and Kiefer Sutherland’s increasingly craggy face seemed to bear the accumulated weight of the decisions Jack Bauer made. He was our Sin Eater, and his final appearance in 24: Live Another Day offered up a surprisingly unheroic end for a man made to suffer so the rest of us could stay innocent.

In early episodes of 24: Legacy, the skeleton of the show is intact but the soul is absent. Corey Hawkins has something of a thankless task to fill Sutherland’s shoes here, but his character Eric Carter-an ex-Army Ranger whose missions overseas has come back to haunt him back home-is a real asset. His character hatches an absolutely ludicrous plan in episode two to solve a particular problem, but it makes sense that Carter would concoct it. That’s how well 24: Legacy and Hawkins establish this character in swift, bold strokes. What would have reeked of narrative desperation in a lesser season of the show feels like a character-specific choice that even the show realizes is symptomatic of a person that maybe enjoys danger a little too much.

If only the rest of the show lived up to that specificity. Everything else feels like bad fanfic rather than a new spin on a successful formula. Having the season only be twelve episodes reduces the need to extraneous subplots to pad out the narrative, but also means that any dull or ill-advised subplot that stays in stands out all the more for its uselessness. I audibly groaned each time certain people returned to my screen, and rubbed my temples each time I guessed the «twist» scenes before an onscreen character did. Spoiler alert: I’m horrific at guessing twists, mostly because the best shows are compelling enough that I’m living in the moment rather than trying to place bets on whodunit. 24: Legacy has many scenes in which I mentally projected myself into other, better parts of the same show. (Maybe that’s also the plot of an upcoming episode of Legion?)

Perhaps 24: Legacy isn’t so much Mad Libs TV as Member Berries TV, to borrow a concept from the latest season of South Park. It exists, not unlike the upcoming reboot of Prison Break, because it’s easier to bring back something executives know people like rather than try to impress them with new intellectual property. The same goes for film as well. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking an existing property and revitalizing it. But when you’re taking that property and Weekend At Bernie’s-ing it … well, then the corpse reveals itself as such. Because I’m a 24 completist, I’ll probably watch every episode, but I’ll be looking for signs of life beyond Hawkins’ compelling lead performance to make it more than an obligatory act.

Ryan McGee currently covers SNL for Rolling Stone. He has previously written about television for Screencrush, The AV Club, and Hitfix, among others, and co-hosts a podcast with Maureen Ryan Follow him on Twitter.

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Season 3 of FX’s American Crime Story Will Examine the 1997 Murder of Gianni Versace

The Hurricane Katrina-centric second season of American Crime Story doesn’t even have a teaser poster, but Deadline is already reporting the series has been renewed for a third, which will “examine the shocking July 1997 assassination of legendary designer Gianni Versace,” who was the fifth and final victim of serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s three-month, cross-country murder spree.

Read more…


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