I am pretty sure I got food poisoning from a neighborhood sushi eatery about ten days ago. It stuck around until late this past week, leaving me unable to sit at my desk and concentrate on much of anything until Wednesday. Because I couldn’t sleep for more than three hours at a time during the ordeal, I’m still a little spacey and washed out feeling.
One thing I did manage to do during the times I wasn’t curled up in a fetal position wondering when my inability to eat would be replaced with a longing for human brains was binge on four seasons of Sons of Anarchy.
I’m not sure if it’s a comment on my slow return to full reason or a decline in the show’s writing, but season 4, which I wrapped up on Friday evening, seems to involve a lot of hard to credit situations you don’t like to see shows rely on too often: Characters are used to make information more or less symmetric at the whims of the plot, but they do so inconsistently. Characters pinball between situations with life or death implications with no sense that anybody really has any priorities, even when a murderous drug cartel is involved. The season finale was mildly ridiculous, too. It feels like a show that might not know what to do with itself to get to whatever number of seasons represent the syndication sweet spot these days.
I was in pretty bad shape while watching season 2, which seems to be the best the show has offered so far. Tight plots, believable reactions from most of the characters in most of the situations, one heavy who was a little ridiculous but kept the pot stirred enough that I didn’t mind. Season 3 (spent in Ireland) was a harder slog, and I’m not sure if my impatience with it was a reflection of my growing fear that I had some special kind of food poisoning that would never, ever end or deeper flaws in its structure. There was some unevenness of tone, too. The show’s got a certain dark sense of humor to it that it sometimes trades for broader stuff to poor effect. But for all its problems, the season resolved itself well enough for me to think “hm … so maybe they’ll have it zeroed in for next season.”
Season 4 feels like the writing team has gotten more gratuitous and maybe a little too willing to lean on a collective understanding that “those cartel guys are animals. ANIMALS!” to move things along. As a result, the show is beginning to lose some of its luster as an exemplar of the kind of high quality t.v. drama we’ve been getting the past few years. In fact, let us just enumerate some of those dramas. I won’t even try to rank. Just what’s coming to mind as it comes:
- Sons of Anarchy
- Walking Dead
- Game of Thrones
- Dexter (though I’ve got some reservations on this one)
- Mad Men
- Breaking Bad
Of the lot, and if I had to rank, I’d say Sons and Dexter are the two fighting over last place. Sons is having some late-game unevenness that doesn’t bode well for its alleged seven season ambitions. Dexter troubles me because I can never tell whether the supporting cast feels sort of cardboard because they aren’t written well, or because they’re some strange, meta attempt to get me to view them as a total sociopath would — mere tools to be manipulated at the convenience of the narrative. I think the former. And if I had to name a third to complete a sub-list of shows fighting for a place in the top 5 of that list, it’d be Mad Men. I think my problem with Mad Men might be as much with the cultural miasma that surrounds it as the show itself, but I also found a few episodes last season sort of tedious.
Walking Dead hasn’t been without its problems, but it has been pretty consistently watchable. We found Homeland pretty gripping. I was already a fan of Game of Thrones, and I think HBO’s adaptation has been pretty good. I really look forward to Jaime’s arc in the next season because I think he’s one of the characters that sets Martin’s work apart.
Breaking Bad amazes me anew with each season. It remains consistently good, and Walter White is just confounding to me. I think when this final season wraps up, the show has the best chance of any of the last decade or so’s generation of arc-driven dramas to stand as a real achievement in television. I thought the closest we’d gotten to that prior was probably The Wire, which was great but fell short of greatness as a whole with its final season.
And there’s Justified, which isn’t necessarily as ambitious as everything else on the list, but consistently delivers satisfying drama. It’s well crafted and competent, and you know its depiction of Harlan County is a cartoon, but there are hints of an allegorical grandeur underneath.
Since I so seldom write about this kind of stuff, I also want to drop in mention of Louie, which I love. I wish more comedy was like this.