I ranked all the second season episodes of Community to demonstrate how consistently good it was this year. I’m ranking all the sixth season episodes of How I Met Your Mother for a somewhat different reason.

After a poor fifth season, HIMYM desperately needed a comeback. And for the most part it had one. It started off solid, but inconsistent, only to rattle off a string of very strong episodes in the middle of the season. Unfortunately, it completely fell apart at the end, and that’s likely to be the thing fans and critics remember heading into next year. Which is a shame, because HIMYM produced an awful lot of good episodes this season, and at least a couple classics. To wit, the list:

24. The Exploding Meatball Sub: An unmitigated disaster. There are elements of “The Exploding Meatball Sub” that could be funny and elements that could be touching, but the writers ruin them all by playing them against each other in such a way that not only undermines the emotional impact of the episode, but also of the whole season. This is the episode that completely reverses the show’s upward momentum and leads into a final stretch of episodes that more or less destroys the season’s reputation. Given its impact on the season and the future of the show as a whole, I would consider this the worst episode of the series.

23. Challenge Accepted: There are some decent beats toward the end–Lily’s pregnancy, Barney and Robin’s conversation in the taxi, Barney’s future wedding–but mostly “Challenge Accepted” just didn’t feel like a finale at time when the show desperately needed to show some sense of focus.

22. Landmarks: The penultimate episode of the season focuses squarely on the end of Ted and Zoey’s relationship, which is a glorious thing. Actually watching it, however, isn’t, as both Zoey and Ted are just terrible, terrible human beings.

21. Canning Randy: Will Forte’s character has always been too broad by half, and that’s the case here as well. Much more disturbing, however, is the humiliation the episode heaps upon Robin, whose arc has gone in some pretty problematic directions in general. The reveal at the end here–in which we discover that Robin has played a sexy nurse in an adult diaper commercial–is frankly inexcusable.

20. Unfinished: There’s a heavy focus on Robin’s fifth season boyfriend Don in this episode. And that’s basically all you need to know about it.

19. The Perfect Cocktail: The cocktail device is fun, but the narrative at this point in the season–all about Ted, Zoey and The Arcadian–had completely lost me. The cockamouse deserves better.

18. Architect of Destruction: This episode features a lot of dick jokes and the introduction of Zoey. The dick jokes are sporadically funny. Zoey, however, is the destroyer of all things good and holy. Her awfulness far outweighs even the best of the penis humor.

17. Oh Honey: HIMYM first became a genuine hit when they stunt cast Britney Spears back in season 3. “Oh Honey” feels like an attempt to recapture some of that ratings magic. It didn’t really work, but the episode’s funny enough, and Katy Perry’s giant eyes do a decent enough simulating naivety to make her seem passable as an actress.

16. Baby Talk: Like “Oh Honey,” “Baby Talk” is a silly, funny episode. How much better would the season have been if Ted had stayed with this attractive, infantile blonde instead pursuing the other attractive, infantile blonde that featured so heavily this year? It also further establishes Marshall’s relationship with his father, which becomes important later on.

15. The Mermaid Theory: The best thing by far about the Ted-Zoey relationship was Kyle MacLachlan’s The Captain, who features prominently here. Throw in some classic HIMYM unreliable narration and Robin in a manatee costume, and what’s not to like?

14. Garbage Island: People should start shipping Ted and The Captain. They would make a much better couple than Ted and Zoey. Also, Barney meets Nora. And he likes her. Like likes likes her.

13. Subway Wars: One of the show’s occasional New York centric episodes, full subways and taxis and Woody Allen references. These episodes are generally good–as is this one–so it’s odd the writers don’t do them more often.

12. Big Days: A strong premiere that’s exactly what the show needed after a poor fifth season. “Big Days” also blesses us with the presence of Rachel Bilson.

11. A Change of Heart: Barney lies to Nora about what he wants out of their relationship. Or does he? The subplot about Robin’s doglike boyfriend is stupid, but funny.

10. Hopeless: The return of John Lithgow temporarily gives hope after the disaster that was “The Exploding Meatball Sub,” but the episode title proves an all too apt descriptor for the remainder of the season.

9. False Positive: Built around Marshall and Lily thinking they’re pregnant when they are in fact not, “False Positive” takes the opportunity to send Robin’s character arc in something like a positive direction, even if it does undersell the benefits of being Alex Trebek’s coin flip bimbo. The game show parody is spot-on, and Barney’s Oprah impression is, if nothing else, impassioned.

8. Cleaning House: Ben Vereen guest stars. He’s not Barney’s dad, but he’s really nice about it. Wayne Brady continues to be improbably bearable. Robin sets Ted up on blind date with a women to whom she suggests Ted isn’t awful. This understandably puts Ted under a lot of pressure to be something other than awful, as that is of course his natural state.

7. Desperation Day: Marshall reverting to a child in the wake of his father’s death is funny, but it also feels very real.

6. Last Words: Mining laughs from funerals while still maintaining the emotional stakes seems like a difficult line to walk, but “Last Words” pretty much nails it. If I were the one in charge of handing out Emmys (and I really ought to be), I’d give Jason Segel two, just for that last scene alone.

5. Glitter: The return of Robin Sparkles. “Glitter” isn’t a very deep episode, but it’s almost preternaturally funny. And sometimes that’s enough.

4. Blitzgiving: HIMYM is always good at Thanksgiving episodes (even after all these years, “Slapsgiving” remains the series high point), and this is no exception, featuring a great guest turn from Jorge Garcia as the unluckiest person in the world. Again.

3. Natural History: The episode that kicks off the great middle section of the season and seemed to announce that, yes, HIMYM really was back. “Natural History” does all the things a really good episode of HIMYM does, and does them well. Even Zoey is bearable. And Neil Patrick Harris completely sells the last scene, when Barney finally discovers the identity of his father.

2. Bad News: Not everyone likes this episode. Not everyone thinks the plots are funny. Not everyone thinks the countdown is a good idea. Not everyone thinks the ending is earned. But they’re wrong. Barney’s doppelgänger is consistently amusing, and though Robin’s story is slight, it’s funny and it brings back Alexis Denisof’s always welcome Sandy Rivers. The countdown has drawn a lot of ire, but I think it perfectly demonstrates the way the moments leading up the most important or tragic events in our life feel. Nothing particularly significant happens throughout the majority of the episode, but they gain significance precisely because they are part of the countdown to the death of Marshall’s father. And even if you don’t buy that–which you should–the final scene is still absolutely devastating.

1. Legendaddy: This is a such a great episode of television that it’s hard to believe the show would completely fall apart immediately afterward. Most unfortunately, that collapse makes it all too easy to forget just how great “Legendaddy” is, easily one of the best five episodes of the series and one of the best episodes of television this year. Lithgow is perfectly cast, and his portrayal of the square, middle-class suburban Dad trying to make up for the biggest mistake he ever made is Emmy-worthy. Segel has yet another great moment, convincing Barney to go have dinner with his father. And Harris does what Harris always does and absolutely owns his showcase episode. “Legendaddy” is about the gaps in our lives, the things that we’re somehow missing, be they a word you can’t pronounce, a basketball hoop over a garage, a father you’ve just lost or a father you’ve never known. And it reminds us that HIMYM can still be one of the best shows on television when it really puts its mind to it.

Clearly, the sixth season of HIMYM is not the second season of Community. But on an episode by episode basis, this really is a pretty good season of television. Seventeen out of the 24 episodes are what I would consider good. Here’s a pie chart, because pie charts are awesome:

That’s not a great ratio (Community’s chart would be all blue), but I don’t think it’s an especially bad one either, especially for a show that has always struggled with inconsistency.

The season’s trajectory is more problematic, however.

Keeping in mind that everything below the 18 marker is pretty good, it’s clear that the season started off solid but inconsistent, and then settled into a prolonged stretch of excellence where it really appeared that the show had turned itself around. If the season had ended with “Legendaddy,” I think we’d all be feeling pretty good about the season and about the show going forward. Instead, five more episodes followed, four of which were subpar to awful and focused on plots that were of interest to nobody. Further, the final five episodes aired after a long break, creating a distance from the season’s good stretch that made it all too easy to forget about. As a result, the perception of the season as a whole has suffered, and it will likely make fans and critics less charitable going forward.

The real question, though, is whether that great middle stretch of episodes is something HIMYM can repeat or whether we’re doomed to more and more episodes like “Landmarks” and “The Exploding Meatball Sub.”

You know what’s fun? Community. You know what else is fun? Lists. So this list of all the second season episodes of Community ranked from 24 to 1 is sure to be a blast. It should also have the added benefit of demonstrating just how good the second season of Community was.

24. Early 21st Century Romanticism: So how good was Community this season? So good that a perfectly harmless, generally entertaining, just slightly messy episode is the worst of the season. Everything works sporadically here, but doesn’t really come together in the end. Britta and alterna-faux-lesbian-Britta’s extremely awkward kiss is the clear highlight, though the introduction of the instant party that is Magnitude! definitely deserves a mention.

23. Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples: Maybe the most ambitious episode of the season, “Messianic Myths” just never manages to live up to that ambition. There are those who really dislike this episode, but I’m not one of them, as Abed’s attempt to understand religion–and Shirley’s growing frustration with the film that attempt produces–is both good character work and an incredibly impressive thing for a sitcom to try. It still ranks 23.

22. Asian Population Studies: Though I like the character of Rich a lot, there’s nothing terribly memorable here, and that’s why it slots in so low. It’s just one of those really solid episodes of television most sitcoms would be thrilled to produce on any given week.

21. Competitive Wine Tasting: A class about “Who’s the Boss” taught by Stephen Tobolowsky should probably have been given an episode of its own, not shunted off to a subplot like it is here, where it feels too rushed and not quite fully formed. That narrative unevenness aside, the A-plot is good, built around Jeff’s insecurity and Pierce’s growing sense of alienation.

20. Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy: Shirley’s pregnancy–though an important story throughout the season–was never quite as funny or interesting as the writers wanted it to be. Consequently, the B-plot here is the memorable one, making good use of Britta’s strident liberalism and guest starring Enver Gjokaj in a funny turn as an unrepentant war criminal turned Greendale student.

19. Basic Rocket Science: This episode probably works better for people more invested in the astronaut genre than I am, but even so, its commitment to that genre is undeniable. It also does a fine job establishing the City College-Greendale rivalry.

18. Celebrity Pharmacology 212: This is the part of the list where we move from funny episodes that don’t quite come together to very funny episodes that don’t quite come together. “Celebrity Pharmacology” is around the time when fans really began questioning Pierce’s character arc, as his behavior begins to cross the line from obnoxious to almost unbearably obnoxious. But the way Pierce turns his marijuana leaf villain into the hero of Annie’s play is an instructive insight into his character: like The Office‘s Michael Scott, he just wants people to like him. Unfortunately, he has no idea how to make that happen.

17. Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts: Despite my ambivalence towards Shirley’s pregnancy, the pay-off is quite good, going so far as to make Chang seem something close to human for a minute or two. What it all means for Shirley is less clear, unfortunately. Britta’s attempt to play midwife is one of the funnier gags of the season and continues her struggle to live up to her ridiculous ideals.

16. Intro to Political Science: Despite the general absence of Britta and Shirley, and being a bit too on the nose with Jeff and Annie’s relationship, there’s a lot of sharp political humor here between Jeff’s inane catchphrases and Troy and Abed’s commentary. Additionally, Jeff dresses up like George Micheal and sings “You’ve Gotta Have Jeff,” and the Dean dresses up in “his sister’s” Uncle Sam costume. It’s a good episode for fans of outfit humor.

15. Aerodynamics of Gender: Community did a lot of really bizarre plots this season, but Troy and Jeff finding a magical trampoline is probably the most bizarre plot of all. Abed as a mean girl, meanwhile, does a good job highlighting his antisocial tendencies. Abed must be used for good, not for evil.

14. The Psychology of Letting Go: Pierce’s second-season storyline really begins here, with the death of his mother. The episode manages to depict both the group’s pathologies and the way they genuinely try to support one another. In the end, Pierce is left with a CD of his mother’s last words and a profound loneliness that will feed his own pathologies in the episodes to come.

13. Anthropology 101: Two great scenes bookend the season premiere. The first is the opening montage, which is one of those iconic scenes that successfully encapsulates the characters in just a few short moments. The second features Betty White rapping before breaking into Toto’s “Africa.”

12. For a Few Paintballs More: The season finale, meanwhile, had one job it had to do: It had to pay Pierce’s character arc off. And “For a Few Paintballs More” did so in a way that seemed to redeem the storyline even in the eyes of its harshest critics. That last scene, with Pierce addressing the study group before leaving, and the group waiting for Pierce to return only to realize he’s not going to, is a thing of beauty.

11 and 10. Epidemiology and A Fistful of Paintballs: Great for the complete commitment to their genre aesthetics, neither of these are the funniest episodes, but they’re both an awful lot of fun. “Epidemiology” is important for introducing Shirley’s pregnancy storyline with her and Chang’s apocalyptic tryst. “A Fistful of Paintballs,” meanwhile, ably sets up the conclusion of Pierce’s second season arc and features a really enjoyable guest turn from Josh Holloway.

9. Accounting for Lawyers: The second episode of the season features maybe the funniest scene on television all year, with Annie’s deranged chloroforming of everybody around her. Drew Carey also guest stars as a lawyer with a hole in his hand that he can drop a quarter through. You don’t really need much more than that.

8. Cooperative Calligraphy: The bottle episode, in which Annie holds the group hostage and demands the return of her stolen pen. As a result, they miss a puppy parade. Turns out it was Troy’s monkey all along. (I now blame Troy’s monkey for everything.) As with most of the remaining episodes on this list, it’s great because of its focus on the individual characters and how they each fit into the group as a whole.

7. Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking: As if to illustrate that (I only sort of did it on purpose, I swear), the focus here is very much on the characters and the way they view themselves and one another. Interestingly, it’s maybe the best defense of the documentary-style sitcom ever produced, as it really plays up the strengths of the format, especially in regard to the talking head interviews and the quick cutting to pay off jokes. My only complaint is the end of the episode, as it’s the only time I ever really felt Pierce’s behavior went too far.

6. Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas: As if the careful examination of the world as seen through Abed’s eyes as a Rankin-Bass Christmas special weren’t enough, the climax of “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is a Lost joke. I have to be honest: I’m not entirely sure I didn’t dream this episode.

5. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design: Well, most the episodes at this juncture of the list are great because of a strong focus on character dynamics. This one’s great because of the brilliantly elaborate conspiracy theory parody. And the Kevin Corrigan. And the giant blanket fort city.

4. Critical Film Studies: The best Abed episode, “Critical Film Studies” hides an obscure movie parody within a popular movie parody. Abed and Jeff play the audience roles, with one of them aware of what’s happening and the other in the dark. By the end of the dinner, Jeff has become emotionally invested in Abed’s role, only to get angry when he discovers that Abed staged it all. The episode asks, broadly, whether it makes any sense to get emotionally involved with fiction–be it television, movies or literature–and, specifically, whether it makes any sense to get emotionally involved in a show so meta that it intentionally leaves a large portion of its audience adrift. And then it puts Pierce in a leather bodysuit.

3. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Much of the latter half of the season was devoted to expanding the world of the show, but this episode in particular is important because a recurring character is actually at the center of the story, which opens up a lot of possibilities for world-building going forward. Also, Chang wears drowface. And then there’s this little bit of brilliance, for all those Abed-Annie shippers out there.

2. Mixology Certification: For all of its half-smirking, the second best episode of the season plays a few old tropes completely straight, taking the gang to a bar on Troy’s 21st birthday. Jeff and Britta argue over which bar to go to, only to discover they each had the some one in mind. Abed again displays complete and utter social ineptitude. Shirley tries to hide past transgressions under a thick layer of piety. Annie gets a false ID and tries out a new identity. Pierce is stuck in the entryway, not exactly excluded from the group but not quite a part of it either. And Troy discovers that growing up isn’t really all that great.

1. Paradigms of Human Memory: Even at their worst, clip shows are pretty good at two things: nostalgia and character study. They remind viewers of all the good times they’ve had and demonstrate how the characters have evolved over the years. They’re also a hackneyed money-saving device ripe for parody, and several shows have offered up clip show parodies, some that still manage convey that sense of nostalgia and evolution. “Paradigms of Human Memory” adds to all of that a deconstruction of the clip show and of Community itself, ripping apart its characters, themes and narrative motifs in such a way that only makes us love them more. It is everything that Community is, for better and for worse. But mostly for better.

Who are you? A citizen of some country. Of some region. Of some state or province. Some city or town or locality. You’re a man or a woman. A son or a daughter. A husband or a wife. A mother or a father. Or single and unattached. Gay or a straight. You have a job with a title. You’re a coworker or a boss or an underling. Or you’re unemployed or a housewife. You’re rich or poor or middle-class. You’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Agnostic or Atheist or indifferent. You’re a Republican or a Democrat. You’re a member of some ethnic group, determined by who you’re ancestors slept with and the color of your skin. You’re an optimist or a pessimist. A snappy dresser or shy or fat. Or you’re a lot of these things at different times, depending on who you ask and who you’re with. Maybe once in a while, when you’re all alone or with a couple of close friends or a spouse and you’re not really thinking about it, you’re just you. But then, who’s to say that’s “you,” anyway?

People occasionally point out–not as a matter of opinion, but just as a fact, as though it were the weather–that The Good Wife is poorly titled. And I accept that it’s possible that the title might have some sort of negative effect on viewership, though I really have no idea why, unless people simply don’t want to watch shows about married women (and the long run of Desperate Housewives would seem to beg to differ). But in every way that matters, The Good Wife is the perfect title for this show about the roles society makes for us and our sporadic, thrilling, messy attempts to break out of them. It’s show about identity.

Todd VanDerWerff has a piece up over at the AV Club (which is just slightly more read than this blog) calling The Good Wife the spiritual successor to The Wire, and it’s a comparison I’ve made before as well. It’s a good match, not just because of all The Wire alums that have guest-starred, but because both shows are deeply interested in the way social institutions grind people up and destroy them. The Wire went about illustrating this in an extremely methodical way, famously building each season around a different institution while constantly circling back around to show how they’re all connected.

The Good Wife is a lot messier. It began with a premise that allowed for a frothy mix of legal and domestic drama. But over the course of its first season, the show slowly piled plot upon plot, theme upon theme, institution upon institution, until by the start of the second season each episode would begin with a whirlwind of action that in general accomplished more than most shows do over the course of entire seasons. It’s often disorienting, but always exhilarating, and it works for the show because that’s exactly what it’s going for, not just with its world-building or its plots, but also with its characters. Whereas The Wire sought to methodically expose the invisible hand of the institutions that trap unsuspecting people, everyone in The Good Wife is at least partially aware of what’s going on around them and trying to push back against it.

The title of the show is on some level a relic from its earliest episodes when it was still reliant on its premise, but everything that’s come after has grown out of that premise. Just as The Wire originally presented its central theme of institutional rot in the guise of a cops and drug runners procedural, The Good Wife originally presented its central theme of finding an identity within these institutions in the guise of a domestic drama about a betrayed wife. Early in its run, the show focused on Alicia and her attempt to figure out who she was and what to do in the wake of her husband’s betrayal. She had grown accustomed to certain roles, had wrapped her whole sense of being up in them, only to discover they weren’t metaphysical, immutable constants, but creations of a social order to which she no longer belonged. And in losing those roles, she gained others: in the eyes of her old friends, a disgrace; in the eyes of the public, a jilted wife; in her own eyes, what exactly? And all of that is still part of the series. This isn’t a show that has jettisoned its premise. This is a show that has rapidly, impressively, but entirely naturally expanded its premise by building around this central theme of identity.

Much of the first season was about Alicia building a new life for herself, integrating herself into a new social setting and coming to terms with the public’s view of her. The second season has been about regaining what was lost to her and about just how much of it she actually wants back. She doesn’t, for example, want to return to her old social circle or stop working. At the same time, however, Alicia had been slowly reconciling with Peter over the course of the season and supporting his campaign, going so far as to give an interview to the local press expressing a forgiveness she may or may not have genuinely felt. She seemed to do all this at least as much out of obligation as anything else, as just what (if anything) she got out of her relationship with Peter emotionally was unclear.

But the betrayal at the center of the series’ original premise continues to seep into every facet of her life. Her friendship with Kalinda–which seemed as genuine to her as all her old relationships seemed fake–collapses upon discovering that she had slept with Peter several years before she and Alicia ever met. This revelation informs the last arc of the season, with Alicia kicking Peter out and deciding to cast off the role of the good wife (see what I did there?) once and for all.

I’m not an Alicia-Will shipper by any stretch of the imagination–the tension has often seemed forced and at times gratuitous–but the final scene of the finale, with the two of them leaving a bar and heading up to a hotel room together, is pitch-perfect. The scene feels giddy and reckless, and the elevator door device (which looked awful in the previews) lends just the right sense of heedless disorientation to the situation. Ultimately, in the moment, it’s less about Will and Alicia than it is representative of Alicia pushing back against what she’s supposed to be and trying something new. She may regret it or she may not–we’ll have to wait until next season to find out–but either way it’s darn good television.

Peter, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to go back to the way things were before he, in Alicia’s words, “banged a hooker 18 times” and got unjustly thrown in jail. And in fairness to him, he does appear to have changed, not only in regards to his feelings for Alicia, but also in the way that he views the District Attorney’s office–witness, for instance, the scene in the finale when he helps an innocent man get off at the expense of his predecessor’s legacy (not that he much cares for Childs, of course). His feelings for Alicia may well have changed in part because of all the ways she has changed in the wake of his betrayal. Unfortunately for him, those changes seem to have rendered her incapable of reciprocating those feelings. What hasn’t changed in Peter is his ambition, and it’s clear that he’s bought into his role as the redeemed politician that he used to win the DA election, which is why he seems genuinely surprised to discover that Alicia hasn’t entirely.

Of course, that image of the redeemed of politician is largely Eli’s creation, because that’s what he does. He is the architect of identities. He puts people into roles and then sells them to the public. This presents certain ethical dilemmas, as illustrated earlier in the season when he basically ruins an illegal immigrant’s life in service of getting Peter elected. Natalie was an innocent, but Eli knew the public would simply slot her into the role of illegal and vote against Wendy Scott-Carr on the basis that she hired her as a nanny.* Similarly, Eli wants to respect Alicia’s wishes because he likes and respects her, but nonetheless needs her to play the role of the good wife to achieve his and Peter’s political ambitions. In the final few episodes of the season, Alicia is ready to leave all that behind, but Eli successfully intrudes on that plan by bringing his consultation service under Lockhart Gardner’s umbrella in what is sure to be a central third season plot.

(*Eli would later save her, but the show was very careful to make clear the damaging, outright cruel toll the political and legal systems take on immigrants.)

Not that these ethical difficulties are limited to Eli or the world of politics, as they also show up constantly on the legal side of the show, where once again Alicia, Diane and Will are always trying to redefine their clients’ identity in the eyes of the jurors to make them see not a guilty person, but an innocent (or at least sympathetic) one. They do seem to honestly believe it’s important to defend the accused and to generally try to do the right thing. But they rarely defend clients for purely altruistic reasons. Generally speaking, they’re perfectly willing to ignore their personal ideals for the sake of their firm’s money, power and prestige (especially Will). Whether the people they defend are guilty or not is not their concern.

But as the show often points out (including in the finale), it’s not really the concern of the DA’s office either, which is more concerned with getting convictions and looking good in the eyes of the public than making sure justice is served. Carey might protest this description, given his stated reasons for leaving Lockhart Gardner for the DA’s office. Whether he would protest it privately is another question, as he was more than ready to return to Lockhart Gardner in return for the right employment package.

These are all characters who straddle the line between wanting to do the right thing and cynically doing their institutions bidding, in part for personal gain and in part because they believe their institution’s success is on the whole good for society. Politicians may be sniveling panderers and lawyers on both sides of the aisle may not have much interest in personal ethics, but the institutions they serve do work a lot of the time. But sometimes they don’t work, and as a result a lot of people fall between the cracks. But what, ultimately, is someone who’s caught up in these institutions supposed to do about it? The show ultimately doesn’t have an answer to that.

Kalinda is a fascinating character because she’s attempted to free herself from institutional and moral constraints. She sleeps with whoever she likes, man or woman, married or single. She works at her pleasure, not the firm’s. She didn’t like who she was, so she changed who she was. But this season has seen all of those attempts come crashing down. Achieving that kind of freedom requires cutting yourself off from emotional attachment. But over these two seasons, Kalinda has become close with Alicia. But in the past, before she knew her, Kalinda had slept with Peter. When Blake comes along and threatens to expose her old identity, it’s at least in part the possibility of Alicia discovering this secret that makes Kalinda so focused on ruining Blake. In the end, it does get out however, and ends up destroying their friendship. And when Kalinda tries to escape this situation by jumping to another company, that company ends up getting hired by the DA’s office, leaving Kalinda with the choice of working with Alicia or Peter, which isn’t really any kind of choice at all. Which is all to say, there are consequences to playing outside the bounds of polite society.

But figuring out how to live within it–or whether you want to live within it–is a challenge too. That’s where Grace’s arc has taken this season. It’s a very recognizable teenager storyline, but it fits perfectly within the show’s thematic fabric, because it’s all about growing self-aware and establishing an identity. When a Jewish lobbyist comes over for Passover, she questions his stance on Middle East policy. When her mother tells her they’re supposed to be trying to help Peter win the election, she asks why he would be a better DA than Wendy Scott-Carr. She develops religious ideas that flummox her nonreligious mother. She back on her school’s dress code by wearing an explicitly Christian T-shirt. In every case, she’s pushing up against what she believes her parents, her school, her society expect her to be, just as the adult characters do in more subtle ways.

At the risk of gender stereotyping, I think it’s also worth noting just how many of these significant characters (including the main character) are women. Most of the great modern television dramas (including The Wire) have been dominated my male characters, with strong female characters few and far between. They’ve also been dominated by male writers and creators. The Good Wife, on the other hand,is full of strong female characters and was co-created by a husband and wife team. It’s true that The Good Wife is a glossier, more upper-class-focused, network version of The Wire, but it’s also something like The Wire from a female perspective, focusing less on the hardness of institutions and more on the emotional lives of the people–and especially women–who live within them. This shows up not only in theme and plot and characters, but also in the show’s style of humor. Whereas The Wire derived laughter from McNulty’s wacky, drunken antics and general crassness, The Good Wife gets laughs out of talking lion telephone attachments. I don’t want to go too far with this, but I do think the show’s more feminine perspective is part of what makes it so good and refreshing.

As for the season as a whole, it’s probably clear at this point that I’m a huge fan. Not everything the show does works, of course. Kalinda’s storyline was neutered somewhat by Blake’s complete lack of characterization. The case of the week plots vary significantly in quality and are at times too on the nose, though that’s more or less bound to happen given the procedural format. And the writers sometimes drop story threads unexpectedly, apparently having written themselves into a corner or simply not having any idea what to do with them; the arc about the church politics in the middle of the season just sort of ended with no real conclusion, for example. But in no small way, the narrative messiness is in fitting with the messiness of the show’s world and characters. It’s a messiness borne of ambition, bursting at the seams, pushing in every instance at the bounds of its genre, like a slightly drunk couple spending $7,800 to do something they might regret in the morning, trying to carve out an identity for itself in the cold, hard business of network television.

Part ones get off too easy. The first part of two-part episodes are usually light on action and weighed down with dull exposition. They also tend to be padded, as television writers accustomed to telling stories in 42 minutes struggle to fill 84 minutes of air time. Despite these problems, fans and critics alike generally let them slide, providing the episode has a strong enough hook at the end (and sometimes even absent the hook).* It’s as though we’ve been conditioned to not judge part ones on their merits. And I think that’s both a mistake and somewhat odd.

(*Both Fringe and–to a much lesser extent–Doctor Who have suffered from part-one-itis in the last few weeks, for example. And viewers didn’t seem to mind.)

Part ones operate by somewhat different narrative rules, of course, but those rules are not so different from the rules under which episodes of serialized dramas operate. They still follow certain rhythms and have to achieve certain goals. Part ones are, by their very nature, always going to spend a fair amount of time setting up the episode (or episodes) to follow. This set-up has to account for both plot considerations and character conflicts. Though this set-up will generally lack the traditional narrative payoff, it should still be expected to entertain. It’s not enough to merely promise entertainment next time, though the promise of further entertainment is important, as this is what replaces the normal episodic conclusion. All part ones need some sort of cliffhanger to hook the audience for next week. And it’s perfectly reasonable to judge a part one on its ability to meet these criteria, just as we judge episodes in serial dramas on their ability to do the same. And “A Fistful of Paintballs” is, in fact, pretty much excellent on all these counts.

One of the things that made “Modern Warfare” (this episode’s spiritual predecessor) so great was how radically unique it was. If Community’s basic tone is one of self-aware satirical seriousness, then “Modern Warfare” took it to its most extreme conclusion. A normal episode of Community, as established throughout the first season, both makes fun of and employs sitcom tropes. “Modern Warfare” did the same thing, only it mocked and used action movie tropes instead, presenting a mash-up of action cliches in an inherently ridiculous setting that nonetheless managed to also be as fun as a regular action movie. Upon realizing they could pull this off, Dan Harmon and company started using this method all the time, and it’s led to a second season that’s featured almost as much genre-hopping as traditional sitcom plots. People sometimes refer to the genre-hopping as a gimmick, but they don’t actually depart from the regular language of the show–they just import that language into different genres, all while maintaining consistent and evolving characterization. At this point, it’s less a gimmick than simply a thing Community does.

“A Fistful of Paintballs” applies the standard Community half-smirk to the Spaghetti Western. This isn’t a genre I’m terribly familiar with–I haven’t even seen The Good, The Bad and The Ugly all the way through–so it’s hard for me to say for certain haw well the episode represents the genre. But I do know enough to say that it was very enjoyable not just because of the way it mocked certain aspects of the genre, but also for all the way it played it straight. For instance, it’s funny when Josh Holloway’s mysterious mercenary reveals that he has tickets for Coldplay because it undermines the archetype’s swaggering masculinity. But it’s no less enjoyable for the twenty minutes of the episode that Holloway actually is a mysterious mercenary with a swaggering masculinity. On the one hand, all of that is set-up  for the punchline at the end. But on the other hand, all of that set-up is darn fun. So fun, in fact, that it would have been fine even if there hadn’t been any punchline at all.

And the episode as a whole can be judged on the same merits. It’s unclear as of yet how the second part is going to pay “Fistful” off, but regardless of what happens next week, this is just wildly entertaining. It sets up multiple conflicts between the characters, including the reintroduction of Pierce’s storyline. And it features a very solid twists, in which the ice cream cone mascot is revealed to be the leader of a vast conspiracy. Given that it’s a part one, you really couldn’t ask for much more that that.

Impressively, though, “Fistful” actually does deliver a little more than that. The thing that makes part ones hard challenging as single episodes of television is that aforementioned lack of a traditional conclusion. They don’t feel like complete episodes, in part because they usually aren’t complete episodes. Serialized dramas also have this problem from time to time, their episodes losing their own narrative identities as they get subsumed into the larger narrative. This doesn’t have to happen as a matter of course, however, not even with part ones, and it doesn’t happen with “A Fistful of Paintballs.”

It’s true that the character conflicts here are all left dangling, but the episode has a very clear closed-off plot construction that revolves around Holloway’s mysterious mercenary. The larger story is about the paintball tournament, but within this episode, Holloway is the problem our heroes have to overcome. And when Pierce shoots him after faking a heart attack, it concludes that particular plot, while at the same time introducing the next episode’s threat. It actually plays a lot like an episode of serialized drama, in which the ongoing story and character threads frame and inform the procedural plot that gives the episode its definition. And it’s what makes “A Fistful of Paintballs” a step up from even well executed regular part one.

Loose Ends:

  • Maybe my favorite part of the episode was the reveal of the source of the playing card nicknames. I wasn’t expecting those to have a point.
  • I haven’t disliked Pierce’s arc this season like some people have, but next week will go a long way in deciding whether it was a good idea or not. It’s the sort of thing that really does need a decent payoff.
  • This wasn’t the funniest episode, but a lot of Community’s best episodes aren’t the funniest episodes. It was an awful lot of fun, though.

Back when I was in elementary school, a new student joined my class and promptly started beating the shit out of me. For obvious reasons, my opinion of him was not too high, and I expressed my dissatisfaction over the situation with my parents, who suggested that I attempt to befriend him. I’m not sure how great this advice was, considering that the vast majority of the time, the people stealing your lunch money have little interest in procuring your friendship. But I was young and stupid at the time, so I took their advice without question. And surprisingly enough, it worked. We stopped trading punches (a deal he always got the better of) and started trading baseball cards (which played much more to my strengths). Eventually though he moved away, and we only saw each other twice a year at one another’s birthday parties. The last time I saw him was a couple weeks after my ninth (tenth? eleventh? The memory is fuzzy. I’m not really sure. I do remember he gave me some sort of toy truck. But that may have been years earlier.) birthday party, when he invited me over to his home, and I saw the possible reason why he felt like he had to act so tough around the other kids. It was the first time I’d ever really seen poverty or understood the concept of a broken family. We quite literally played in a junkyard out behind his apartment building, complete with piles of old tires and broken mirrors. His mother sucked down cigarettes on the porch as we ate macaroni and cheese out of styrofoam bowls. And then I went back to my blue-collar, middle-class home and never saw him again.

Happy Endings is turning out to a be a bit like that childhood friend. When it premiered, the show specialized in punching its audience in the face and stealing its time. The first two episodes were brutally bad.  I started writing a review of those episodes that I never got around to finishing, but it began like this:

Happy Endings is terrible. Terrible. Just terrible.

There were two major problems with those first two episodes. The first was simply that the writing was bad and the jokes weren’t funny. That sounds glib, but, honestly, the writing was bad and the jokes weren’t funny. In the pilot, for example, there were two funny moments. The first was a scene in which Casey Wilson’s Penny threatened to “physically fight” a woman in the gym, and it was mostly funny because of Wilson’s delivery. The network was clearly aware that this was the episode’s funniest scene too, as it was the centerpiece of every single promo they ran. The other funny gag was the club girl’s “Stay Grounded” tramp stamp, which she said reminded her to “stay grounded.” There was nothing else even worthy of a chuckle, and as those two examples indicate, the show was very, very broad.

But it seems even clearer now than it was then (and it was already fairly clear then) that the real problem–the problem that most likely led to the poor writing and extreme broadness–was the premise, which involved Elisha Cuthbert’s Alex leaving Zachary Knighton’s Dave at the altar. The execution of this plot point was the worst thing about the pilot, which opened with Alex’s former boyfriend interrupting the wedding ceremony on rollerblades and convincing her to run off to some tropical paradise.  When Alex returned two weeks later, Dave had already moved on to banging club girls with tramp stamps. From that point, there was just a lot of shouting and general unpleasantness. The pilot ended with Dave explaining that he still despises Alex with every fiber of his being, but by golly he’s in a sitcom about a group of these people hanging out together, so he’s stuck with her.

This premise of a particular family of sitcoms that focus on sets of couples at different stages of their relationship. This sictom genre has become extremely popular with with network executives over the last year, if not with viewers. Though not technically part of a the genre, I feel confident that the success of How I Met Your Mother is to blame, premised as it is on relationship-building. It’s possible, of course, to trace the source back further and lay the blame at the feet of Friends, as all of these shows are at heart about groups of attractive twenty-somethings hanging out. They just come with built-in relationship drama and are thus able to avoid the hard work of developing relationships organically over the course of the show.

None of these shows have been particularly good or successful. Perfect Couples and Better With You both started off inauspiciously but have grown into competence; neither are likely to be picked up for next year, however. I haven’t seen Mad Love, but it is by all accounts terrible and doomed. I find Traffic Light completely unwatchable, though I know that some people like it. Regardless of its quality, it too is destined for cancellation. Only the unkillable Rules of Engagement–the grandfather of the genre–has found any degree of commercial success, if you can call being useful to its network as cheap filler “commercial success.” Moreover, Rules of Engagement is a terrible show, easily one of my least favorite on television. If it were just a little worse and had even been even moderately popular, people would be referring to it as the new According to Jim. As it is, it’s just a rung above ‘Til Death‘s legacy: the sort of show that most people don’t even realize exists, but has somehow managed to survive for a nearly 100 episodes. Why executives keep greenlighting these sitcoms, I don’t know, but I fully expect that every new show next year will be about various sets of couples. It’s like a speculative bubble at this point.

And because of that terrible premise, I was all ready to call Happy Endings the worst of this sorry lot. The thing about premises, though, is that they can almost always be changed. And Happy Endings’ premise in particular was the sort that could be discarded without anybody really even noticing. All it really accomplished was to set up some tension in the early going. (It overshot that goal by quite a bit, actually.) The show could run for ten more years and never mention the premise again, and it’s unlikely anyone would care.

And much to the show’s credit, it’s recognized the problem very quickly and almost immediately shunted it to the background. Whereas in the first two episodes, the focus was squarely on Alex and Dave (who also have the misfortune of being the least interesting characters), later episodes have shunted them to the side and spent a lot more time with the excellent, much funnier supporting (originally supporting, anyway) cast. “Of Mice and Jazz-Kwon-Do,” for example, put Alex and Dave off in an inconsequential plot by themselves, while Eliza Coupe’s Jane fake-murdered Penny in increasingly funny ways in a self-defense class and Adam Pally’s Max accused Damon Wayons Jr.’s Brad of gaycism. Pally and Wilson are the standouts here, and were even in the pilot, when their performances were energetic enough to almost carry even terrible material. “Of Mice and Jazz-Kwon-Do” also brought Coupe’s particular brand of tough-girl humor to the fore, finally; Coupe has been stealing scenes in various shows for a while now (she was easily the best thing about Scrubs‘ rebooted ninth season, for instance) so it was odd and disconcerting that Happy Endings had somehow managed to squander her early on. Even Cuthbert and Knighton are perfectly serviceable in the presence of funnier cast members. The tag, in which the whole gang gets together for some jazz-kwon-do, really highlights the chemistry they’ve developed impressively quickly.

Unfortunately, now that Happy Endings and I have developed a rapport, it’s become clear that ABC has little intention of renewing it, despite generally positive post-pilot reviews. The network has dumped it in a terrible timeslot and appears to burning off episodes two at a time. Its ratings have consequently been, at the very least, inconsistent. All of which would seem to suggest that I’m no more likely to see a second season of Happy Endings than I am to see that old childhood friend again.

Loose Ends:

  • Cory Barker made the case for renewing Happy Endings last week. It would be nice, but I’m not holding out much hope.
  • Really, when Eliza Coupe is only the third best thing about your show, you have quite a bit of potential on your hands. Pally and Wilson have really been terrific.
  • I understated Better With You’s chances for renewal in the post proper. I’d give it decent odds, actually. 60-40 maybe.
  • On the other hand, you should probably ignore every half-hearted attempt at prognostication in this post anyway. I’m terrible at that sort of thing.

UPDATE: Happy Endings was, in fact, renewed. Better With You, meanwhile, was canceled. I will never prognosticate again.

Television is a basically a death factory. If you watch just a couple of hours of primetime fare, you’re almost guaranteed to see at least one dead body and probably a couple more. Watch it for a whole year and you’ll see hundreds upon hundreds of bodies. In real life, death is the thing we fear most, the thing from which all our other fears stem. And yet we subject ourselves to it every night and call it entertainment. It is, if nothing else, curious.

Less curious is why television has turned itself into a death factory. Shows are under constant pressure to make it seem like the stakes are serious, and life-and-death situations are the easiest way to create this illusion. So there are a lot of cop and doctor shows, which have the advantage of intrinsically high stakes. And with these shows come the steady stream of corpses.

Crime procedurals use death almost exclusively as a plot point. Every murder mystery has to start with a murder, after all. The problem with this is that it almost inevitably results in the dehumanization of the victim. As a rule, the victims are less characters than mere excuses for their given episode to exist. Shows like CSI, Bones and NCIS that rely on forensic investigation turn victims into objects riddled with clues. In Criminal Minds, meanwhile, victims are playthings for sadists, murdered for titillation. Life and Pushing Daisies* use dead bodies as centerpieces in elaborate set pieces–death as art. And in Law & Order and CSI: Miami, victims are frequently reduced to a punchline. Within these shows, death is a mundane evil. By bringing the murderers to justice, the characters defeat that evil. So these shows rob death of its power in two ways, first by making it a mundane occurrence and then by never letting it be open-ended, by always finding someone to blame. We watch these shows in part precisely because they desensitize us to death.

(*Though I use it as an example here, Pushing Daisies could also be used as a counterpoint, given that its victims always get a chance to speak for themselves and have backstories. They are, in this way, actual, legitimate characters. And yet, despite this, it’s hard to deny that the show has a generally casual attitude towards to death.)

Medical shows tend to use death more to teach their characters lessons and provide an emotional shorthand. Most medical shows are dramas, obviously, but Scrubs offers maybe the best example of how this works. As a sitcom, one of the show’s chief objectives is to make people laugh, so there’s always plenty of wacky hijinks going on. But the show also wants us to care about the characters, and the medical setting lets it ground itself in life-and-death situations. These situations not all that infrequently result in patients dying, so the audience knows the stakes are real (real being a relative term, of course). And when patients do die, the audience can always count on JD’s voiceover to explicate the very important lesson we have all just learned. Even though death is emotionally serious in a show like this, it’s bearable because it’s always meaningful, and we can take some kind of comfort in that.

Serialized shows use death in similar, only slightly different ways.* When a serialized show uses death as a plot point, for example, it’s likely to be a plot point that alters the dynamic of the show in some fairly significant way. Unlike a procedural, in which a large part of the appeal is that it rarely changes, serialized shows are supposed to change all the time. Characters are supposed to grow and regress and get thrown into wildly different circumstances from storyline to storyline. And every so often, a character needs to die. Maybe the character’s arc has run out of steam. Maybe the actor wants off the show. Or maybe the show just needs to change some more. Regardless of the particulars, if an actor wants job security, he’s probably better off signing onto a procedural, because serialized shows tend to murder regular and recurring characters, rather than just guest stars.

(*When I talk about serialized shows, I am also talking about the serialized elements that exist in shows that would still be described as procedurals. Nearly every show has a serialized element now that these rules apply to.)

The advantage to killing off characters the audience is familiar with is that the death feels more real, and the emotional pain of the living characters and the lessons they learn more immediately identifiable. And because the character actually served a purpose within the show, the stakes can seem significantly higher than with the death of a victim-of-the-week in a procedural. When handled well that is.

Killing off a regular character is a much riskier proposition than killing off a random guest star, and the margin of error is significantly higher. When handled poorly, killing off a regular character can seem extremely exploitive or just outright cruel. Serialized shows tend not to help themselves in this regard by frequently relying on shock value in their death scenes.

Tara’s death in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is pretty representative of the way death is generally handled in serialized shows, as she’s killed with absolutely no foreshadowing by a stray bullet. Her sudden, shocking death acts as a plot point that kicks off the season’s final story arc by throwing Willow into a serious emotional turmoil that turns her evil. This storyline represents a significant departure from The Trio’s storyline, which had dominated the season up to that point. Willow eventually recovers from her turmoil and gives up her evil ways after learning a valuable lesson about friendship. Not all serialized shows follow the template quite this closely, but they’re certain to employ at least a couple of these elements in any given death sequence. This particular story is fairly controversial* among viewers, but it demonstrates that serialized shows have both a great potential to depict death in an emotionally real way and a tendency to simply use death for shock value or plot considerations.

(*This is probably an understatement.)

Television news has by far the most problematic relationship with death, as it takes real-life tragedies and presses them through the same narrative wringer writers use in crafting the fictional shows described above. Theoretically, the news should be able to provide the most realistic and serious portrayals of death on television, what with the way the stories are real and all. And on very rare occasions–usually in cases of severe national tragedy–it succeeds in doing that. News footage from 9/11, for example, is still incredibly powerful. But it’s powerful mostly because the networks simply got out of their own way. Most of the time TV news has the effect of trivializing personal pain by taking local tragedies and turning them into national entertainment.  It does so by applying narrative devices to real events. So a war becomes a plot point in an electoral campaign, a senseless attack becomes a lesson about the need to enact some sort of policy, and the murder of a pretty young girl becomes  the shocking kickoff to a real-time murder mystery. And through all of this, it desensitizes us to death more than something like CSI ever could, because it teaches us to treat real death like it actually is something from CSI.

The Killing fits squarely within this culture of death. It’s a serialized procedural about the shocking, brutal murder of a pretty, young girl that reaches towards lessons about the society in which we live. By involving a political campaign, it even invites comparisons to the way tragic evens are used in the public sphere for personal gain. And yet despite employing all of these familiar tropes, the show manages to carry an emotional power unlike any other show on television right now. In fact, it manages to carry that emotional power precisely because of the way it employs–and at times subverts–all of those tropes.

Rosie’s death is, obviously, The Killing’s initial and central plot point. But the show resists the tendency of other procedurals to dehumanize the victim. Rosie’s body is never presented to the audience as an object to be studied, nor is her suffering ever displayed prominently for the viewer’s enjoyment. Indeed, the show’s restraint in this regard is remarkable. The pilot opens with a few short shots of her running through the woods gasping, trying to escape some unseen threat, but thus far there’s been no long scene depicting her murder. In the third episode, when a tape emerges depicting her apparent rape, we see only brief snippets of unclear footage. Upon finding her body, no character cracks wise or attempts in any other way to dismiss the significance of her murder. While the crime scene is meticulously shot in such a way as to give it artistic meaning, it’s not at all like the candy-colored tweeness of the crime scenes in Pushing Daisies and Life. Those shows created crime scenes that intentionally undercut the tragic nature of the crime, whereas The Killing shoots its crime scene with an eye toward enhancing the tragedy, with Rosie’s body curled up like a fetus in the trunk of a submerged car. The forensics, meanwhile, are all conveyed second-hand, generally through conversation. A scene in the fourth episode, in which the Larsens see forensic photos of their daughter’s body when Detective Linden accidentally leaves a door open, actually acts as a direct rebuke to the CSI aesthetic. There’s nothing gratuitous here. Nothing wasted. No easy jokes. We see just enough of the horror and the pain and the tragedy to begin to understand it, and not one second more.

In the face of that horror, The Killing reaches in a general sense towards the kind of lessons we see in other television series. There’s a pervading sense that something is wrong, that our society is fundamentally broken. It raises questions about how we raise our children and how we react to murder. It draws parallels between the grieving family and the other characters on the show, such as Linden and the son she never spends enough time with. But it rebuffs at every opportunity any easy answer to these issues. Most striking is the scene in which Terry can’t help herself any more and asks Mitch why she never called Rosie over the weekend she disappeared. Mitch was able to answer that question earlier in the episode, but at this point she has no answer, so the question just hangs. It’s a painful scene precisely because the question is both so unfair and so natural, and it makes explicit not just the thoughts running through Terry’s head, but also the thoughts running through Mitch’s head. But the moral of the show is clearly not that Mitch is to blame for Rosie’s death because she didn’t call her that weekend. No more than the moral is simply that Linden needs to spend more time with her son. (And what? Let a murder go unsolved?) Rather, these fit into a larger aesthetic of intrinsically flawed people living in a far more intrinsically flawed world than they deserve. Parents and children and spouses constantly let each other down, but consequences do not flow evenly from those mistakes as in some sort of karmic storybook. Mothers forget to call, parents work too much, kids have sex and use drugs, and fathers are never around, but none of it explains why Rosie died or what anybody’s really supposed to do about it.

Part of what makes this open-ended thematic style work is the serialized format, which The Killing uses to great effect in general. Serialization allows, for example, for the show’s very deliberate pacing, which in turn allows the show to spend a lot of time with the Larsens even though they’re tangential to the actual crime-solving, and it’s the Larsens that provide a fair amount of The Killing’s emotional impact. Indeed, the show is as much a study of a family beset by tragedy as it is a police procedural.

The deliberate pacing also allows for The Killing’s pervasive gloomy atmosphere, giving the director and cinematographer time to linger over shots that do little-to-nothing to advance the plot, but nevertheless create a sense of place and mood that provide a darkly immersive experience for the viewer. Even most serialized shows rarely bother with stuff like this, as they tend to be obsessed with moving the overarching plot forward (or at least giving the impression that they’re moving the overarching plot forward). The Killing is, of course, plenty plot driven; each episode has thus far ended with some new, significant piece of information pertaining to the investigation. But instead of wheel-spinning in between plot developments, we get lots of mood-setting. It’s an example more shows should follow.

In addition to the police investigation and the Larsen family drama, there is a third major plotline involving a mayoral campaign. This plotline has received a fair share of criticism, and those criticisms have not been entirely unfair. But it’s significant to note that the show appears to be using it to address the way in which personal tragedies like Rosie’s murder play in the public sphere. The news media, which has thus far been depicted only tangentially, is desperate to connect the murder to the campaign and create a scandal for mass consumption, while the campaigns all jockey to turn the murder to their political advantage. Lost on the vast majority of these people is how their actions affect the family and the investigation; even something as simple as a newspaper headline proves devastating when it shows up on the Larsens stoop. The only exception is Darren Richmond, a mayoral candidate who’s wary of disrupting the investigation or using the murder politically because of a what is at this point vague past tragedy involving his late wife. But even he feels a great deal of pressure to distance himself from the murder and even turn it to his advantage. It’s not entirely clear where this plot is going at this point (which is probably responsible for some of its criticism), but a subtle critique of the public sphere’s handling of death is apparent. Whether the show does anything with this critique remains to be seen, of course.

And that applies to the show more generally. Finding the right balance between employing the standard narrative devices and subverting them isn’t exactly an easy game, and it’s not hard to see how it could all tumble down into a series of clichés. But for now anyway, The Killing has just the right balance.

Loose Ends:

  • The Killing’s good, but it’s not perfect. Its depiction of youth culture seems especially and unnecessarily alarmist to me. And I have some concerns about what the show is doing with Stan Larsen.
  • That said, both Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes have been utterly fantastic as the grieving parents.

The Paul Reiser Show desperately wants to be Curb Your Enthusiasm. Desperately. It even goes so far as to feature Larry David as a guest in its first episode. It even feeds David lines like, “You should do a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I wonder if David would still feel comfortable saying after seeing the finished product.

It is perhaps somewhat unfair to compare Reiser’s show to David’s. Reiser, after all, has to deal with network constraints that David has never had to worry about. And Reiser’s show so far consists of one episode, whereas David’s show has had several seasons to refine its humor. But given that Reiser invites the comparison so heavily, it’s hard to avoid. Sadly, it’s not at all flattering.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show with a very clearly defined point of view and purpose. Everyone in the show’s world is a tremendous asshole, and sitting in the middle of it is Larry, who is in fact the biggest asshole of them all. Terrible things consistently happen to him, and he deserves every one. But a big part of the joke is that the terrible things that happen to him aren’t really all that terrible. He’s just too shut off from the rest of the world to know what actual suffering looks like. So every minor offense he suffers seems like the universe conspiring to ruin his life. He’s caught in a karmic cycle of punishment  of his own making.

Wealthy people come off horribly in the show, which is part of the point. David presents rich people as out-of-touch fucks, and the show allows the viewer to take pleasure in all the mundane shit that makes them think they’re suffering even though they’re actually not. But at the same time it forces us to acknowledge that we’re not so different. It’s a scathing indictment of David’s culture, just as Seinfeld was a scathing indictment of the culture to which he used to belong, and as such acts as a critique of society in general.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is also rigorously formulaic. It’s true that many of the individual lines are improvised, but the episodes are very much not. Virtually every episode is built around a series of misunderstandings, which is a pretty hoary comic device. Generally, someone does something to Larry that he construes as an offense and in return Larry behaves pettily and it all just spirals from there, leading to an over-the-top comic set piece at the end. The improvisational feel is entirely dependent on this formula. Without it, the show would just seem like a bunch of rich people sitting around acting like dicks for no reason. Or, in other words, it would seem like The Paul Reiser Show.

The problem with Reiser’s show is that it lacks both the narrative and moral focus of David’s show. At least in it’s first episode, it’s just a show about a bunch of stuff happening to Reiser and his wealthy friends. They’re all kind of dickish and they all kind of hate one another. But the they’re not the huge, over-the-top dicks you find in Curb Your Enthusiasm; the episode ends with Reiser affirming his love for his children and a big group hug, for God’s sake.

In a way, the characters actually come off worse for not being as objectively terrible as the characters in David’s world. Whereas on Curb Your Enthusiasm you know the characters are exaggerated to prove a point, on The Paul Reiser Show you can’t help but get the impression that this is really what Reiser and his friends are like. By rounding off the edges, the show ends up like something of a cross between Curb Your Enthusiasm’s biting satire and Friends‘ hanging out with a group of people aesthetic. The result is just unpleasant.

The pilot manages to culminate with a fat guy glued to a car door by the seat of his pants. When it come times for the big group hug, he lunges forward and his pants come off, leaving him in his underwear. It’s not clear how we get to this point or why it happens, other than that it provides a cheap laugh at the end of the episode. And that, right there, is pretty much all you need to know about The Paul Reiser Show.

“The Exploding Meatball Sub” is a deeply frustrating episode of television. It comes off of a string of excellent episodes that have very successfully mixed humor with heavy emotional stakes: Ted has broken up a marriage, Marshall’s father has died and Barney has reconnected with John Lithgow. It’s understandable that the show might want to take a step back and catch its breath with a lightweight episode. And I’m pretty sure “The Exploding Meatball Sub” is meant to be just that kind of palate-cleanser.

The problem is that the central joke of the episode is a meta-joke in which the writers set up complicated plots that seem to be heading into the heavy emotional territory of the last few episodes only to pull back and conclude them with a simple gag. It’s the sort of thing that could work given the right circumstances, but is badly mistimed in this case, as it has the effect of undermining not just the potential emotional impact of the early part of the episode, but also the emotional impact of all the episodes leading up to it. And because the stories in the episode are genuinely interesting, throwing them out in service of a cheap joke can’t help but feel like a waste. In all, instead of seeming clever (which I’m sure is what the writers intended), the episode just plays as a series of missed opportunities.

For example, Ted and Zoey’s relationship has consistently been the least interesting part of the season,* but “The Exploding Meatball Sub” presents a concept that I’d love to see a show explore: two characters who really do care about one another but who are gradually coming to realize that they are just too different to be happy in a relationship together. Unfortunately, this show apparently has no interest in exploring that concept, as it reduces it to a few lines of voice-over and a 30-second montage early in the episode. Ted spends the rest of the episode determined to break things off with Zoey, only to get sidetracked by break-up goggles at the end of the episode. The montage at the end with Zoey yelling at Ted and Ted enjoying it–which mirrors the montage at the beginning–is moderately amusing, but not worth losing a potentially compelling arc for.

(*This is the curse of Ted. Though I do love The Captain.)

Lily and Marshall, meanwhile, get a very complicated plot, which goes something like this:

  1. Marshall decides to quit his job at GNB.
  2. Marshall puts on the break-up goggles and has second thoughts.
  3. Marshall reaffirms his desire to quit.
  4. Marshall quits.
  5. Marshall goes to apply for a job with an environmental organization.
  6. Said organization has no openings, so Marshall agrees to volunteer there.
  7. Marshall talks to Lily about this.
  8. Lily tries to act supportive even though it stresses her out.
  9. Marshall agrees to hold a fundraiser in their apartment.
  10. Lily confides in Ted that she’s getting more and more stressed out.
  11. Lily runs away.
  12. Ted is worried about telling Marshall that his wife has run away.
  13. Lily returns during the fundraiser having decided not to run away and determined to be honest with Marshall.

I may have missed a plot point in there, but that’s the basic idea. All of this takes place in the course of around seven minutes of airtime. How I Met Your Mother is, of course, renowned for cramming a lot of plot into its episodes, but this particular subplot seems a bit much even for this show. Likewise, some of this is stuff we’ve seen before; as several people on Twitter pointed out, Lily’s arc in this episode is similar to her arc at the end of the first season. I can’t be positive, obviously, but I think this is all part of the meta-joke and is meant as a self-mocking set-up for the abrupt conclusion in which Marshall simply agrees that he should go look for another job without Lily even having to say anything. The over-complicated plot and the reliance on old character arcs (Lily running away, Marshall pining to help the environment) is supposed to be satirical. Unfortunately, the meta-joke doesn’t really work, not least of all because the story (like Ted and Zoey’s) is one I would have actually liked to see play out over an arc, though hopefully with a bit less rehashing of old plot points. Again, it just seems like a waste.

Barney’s story is the most frustrating, however, because it explicitly references the emotional stakes of his arc this season as part of its meta-joke set-up. The first part of the episode feels like a continuation of the preceding episodes, with Barney upset at losing his best friend just like he lost his father all those years ago. It’s a little on the nose–OK, a lot on the nose–but How I Met Your Mother is always a little on the nose; it’s still effective. And when Barney clears off his desk in rage and anguish with Robin standing right next to him, it’s both funny and sad. But of course it’s all part of the meta-joke, and Barney is in fact just upset that Marshall has robbed him of the chance to use a carefully plotted practical joke by quitting. Once again, Barney’s practical joke would make a perfectly good idea for an episode, but doesn’t work here because the episode makes a false promise. It leads us to believe that we will get a serious conclusion to the story, and so we want a serious conclusion to the story. As a result, an exploding sub sandwich–no matter how funny it would be under other circumstances–just seems cheap as an ending to this episode.

This gets at the big problem with the meta-joke, which is that it feels less like a satire of the show than like a mean-spirited gag at the expense of the viewer. Though the plots are somewhat exaggerated, they aren’t exaggerated enough to work as obvious satire, so the viewer has no choice but to take them at face value. The writers then pull the rug out from under them and laugh in their face: “Ha ha, you thought this was a serious episode when it’s actually a silly episode!” Except, of course, that because of the set-up, the episode really does have consequences: Ted really does kind of hate his girlfriend, Marshall really is unemployed and Barney really does have abandonment issues. The episode just refuses to deal with them because it’s too busy laughing at its fans.

Loose Ends:

  • Robin doesn’t get a ton to do here, but she does make up a pretty great little story in the middle of the episode. I don’t actually remember any details, but Cobie Smulders’ delivery is typically excellent.
  • The exploding meatball sub could legitimately have been a funny gag in other circumstances. The visual of a meatball sub exploding is pretty inherently humorous.

It’s a universal truth that our past has a tendency to follow us around. As such, it makes a good theme, and a lot writers have put it to good use. Just last year, How I Met Your Mother devoted an episode to the concept, literalizing the metaphor of baggage by forcing its characters to lug around actual suitcases (if only in Ted’s fevered mind). “Killer Song” isn’t quite that unsubtle, but it comes pretty close.

The Good Wife always goes big, and that’s one of the main reasons it’s the best the drama on (at the very least) network television. But the downside to going big is that when it doesn’t quite work, it can come off as sort of goofy. And that’s the case here. “Killer Song” is about a killer who writes a song. Specifically, it’s about a killer who’s been locked up in an insane asylum for 30 years, who’s set to be released after a writing a song about raping, torturing and murdering a woman, which is just the sort of thing he did. The daughter of his victim is taking him to court to prevent him from getting rich off the song. But the case is complicated by the fact that the song apparently isn’t specifically about the murder he was convicted for. It turns out, instead, that it’s about a murder he committed but was not convicted for. He ends up winning the case, only to get dragged off in handcuffs afterward, arrested for the murder he more or less admitted to by writing the song that made him rich.

As I said, this is all a bit goofy. But goofy’s better than boring, and The Good Wife is never boring. It also consistently manages to use sensationalistic stories like this without making them feel exploitive. This particular story frequently pairs a serial killer’s lyrics with photographs of his horrible violent crimes and features a subplot in which the serial killer makes creepy advances on Alicia. That could be an episode of Criminal Minds, right there. But the show’s obvious ambition and Quality TV sheen* keeps even its goofiest, most sensationalistic plots grounded.

(*A Quality TV sheen isn’t always a good thing, but The Good Wife earns it.)

In this case, the show grounds itself by suggesting that just as the serial killer can’t outrun his past of torturing innocent women, Kalinda is finding it more and more difficult to keep her past life and the things she had to do to change it hidden from the prying eyes of those who would damage her both directly and as collateral damage. The metaphor here is obviously wildly outsized, but Kalinda has always been the show’s most outsized character. The problem is that to this point, Kalinda’s mystique hasn’t felt entirely earned, and that problem persists in this episode.

The Good Wife is quite clearly indebted to The Wire. Like The Wire, it seeks to create a sprawling social commentary touching on as many social institutions as possible, ranging from the legal system, to politics, to religion, to schools and so on. Though The Good Wife is more obviously stylized,* each show generally tries to present a realistic portrayal of the people and institutions it depicts. But each show has exceptions to that rule. In the case of The Wire, Omar Little is the glaring exception, a flamboyant rogue in a trench coat with a sawed-off shotgun. But Omar clearly serves a purpose beyond simply being awesome. He’s a hero in a world desperately short on heroes, a Robin Hood who rights the wrongs of his universe in the only way he knows how. No matter how deeply flawed he is (and he is pretty deeply flawed), it can’t take away the hope his mystique provides.

(*Note that this is not to say that The Wire is not stylized, as it most certainly is, just in a more nontraditional (for television) way.)

Kalinda is The Good Wife’s Omar, but she lacks the depth of that character, both in theme and characterization. She’s undeniably awesome. Archie Punjabi’s performance is consistently fascinating. Her charisma is arresting. Her sexuality is impossible to ignore. Her boots are relentlessly stylish. And she wields a baseball bat like Omar wields his shotgun. She’s also been given the soapiest of the show’s plotlines this year. But none of it has really added up to anything more than that. It’s all endlessly entertaining, but it also all feels thematically hollow. In this sense, Kalinda is both the show’s most fascinating character and its most disappointing. The current storyline is clearly meant to rectify this, but given how frustrating her feud with Blake has been, it’s hard to give the show the benefit of the doubt on this particular front.

Blake has been a fairly serious misfire, with the character ultimately failing to amount to much of a character at all. His motivations were always extremely murky, and the majority of the time, his actions seemed designed entirely to cause trouble for Kalinda. Even the source of their feud was far from clear. In the end, he amounted to little more than a cheap villain used by the writers to set up the current plot twist. But that’s pretty representative of Kalinda’s storylines in general.

The question now is whether the show will be able to turn Kalinda’s past life and regrettable dalliance with Peter into anything substantial. I have little doubt it will be fun to watch, but it would be nice if it lived up to the rest of the show’s thematically high standards.

Unlike Kalinda, Eli’s role in The Good Wife’s thematic fabric has always been clear. He is a representative of the political system, and as such frequently has to do things that are morally questionable to win elections. In the case of  the current storyline, that has meant outing America Ferrera’s Natalie (who, for the record, is not ugly) as an illegal immigrant in service of destroying Wendy Scott-Carr’s political burgeoning political career. Ever since then, Eli has been trying to help her, either out of genuine affection or guilt. The show has been cagey about the exact motivation, in part because even Eli himself seems unsure. His daughter sees it as the latter, chalking it up to Eli’s savior complex:

You always find some crush in the last month of the campaign to fixate on … You need to act as savior to someone, or you’ll have to face the fact you do bad things.

Most likely, it’s a little bit of both. The Good Wife is a good show, and so characters behave in ways that are honest without being obvious. Eli’s no different.

Eli finally gets to make up for this recent transgression (and as his daughter implies, a thousand past transgressions) in this episode by preventing Natalie’s father from getting deported. Luis hasn’t done anything wrong. Rather, he’s the victim of racial profiling, a compassionless justice system and an outright cruel immigration policy. He’s in a position to get saved by Eli because his daughter just happens to have been collateral damage in one of Eli’s political machinations. And because Eli’s wealthy and powerful. All of the nameless people in line around him, of course, aren’t so lucky. Eli’s a very a limited sort of savior.

So you can’t outrun your past. But if you have enough money or know the right people, maybe you can pretend you can. But only for a little while. Eventually, the cuffs come out and you have to find a new victim to save.

Loose Ends:

  • Eli’s C-plot is really the only part of the episode that works without reservations. It’s a shame it’s so buried.
  • I really do think there’s a way forward with the Kalinda story that will make it thematically relevant, and I think Eli’s arc here suggests the show’s heading in that direction. But Blake’s storyline was such a misfire that it gives me pause.
  • I’m not going to lie, the killer’s song is kind of catchy.

It’s easy to forget now, but it was just two years ago that The Office had its finest season and was perhaps the best show on television. That season was itself a rebound from the problematic, strike-shortened fourth season, when many fans felt it had lost its way before it managed a stellar finale and introduced Amy Ryan’s Holly Flax. Since that great fifth season, the show has been wildly uneven and at times outright terrible, but it has recovered somewhat with a strong string of episodes this year, initiated once again by the reintroduction of Holly.

Holly is Michael’s perfect match, but the writers have been very careful not to turn her into a Mary Sue. When a show brings in a female character to help its male lead grow up, it often will reduce that female character to either a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or a nurturing mother type. Holly is neither of these. While she’s likable, she’s likable in a recognizably human, imperfect way. She makes Michael better, but Michael makes her better too.

As flawed as Michael is, it’s actually Holly’s very un-MPDG overcautiousness that kept the two of them apart, first when she was unwilling to risk a long-distance relationship and then when she was unwilling to break off her relationship with AJ. And it’s Michael’s overdramatic willingness to wear his heart on sleeve and take risks that cures her of this overcautiousness.

Moreover, she makes Michael a better person not by taking care of him, but simply by reacting realistically to his most pettily immature actions. She shares many of Michael’s flaws, but has a self-awareness that keeps her from indulging in Michael’s antisocial excesses. And by sharing that self-awareness with Michael–sometimes by being hurt, sometimes by telling him off, sometimes just by being honest with him about how he’s coming off–she gets Michael to see his antisocial behavior for what it is. She’s far from the only one who has had these reactions, but Michael is far more willing to reconsider his behavior in light of her reactions because she is, in fact, so similar to him. Whereas Michael generally reacts to criticism with victimization, he understands that when Holly doesn’t like something he’s done, it’s not meant as an indictment of him as a person. Like Pam (who does have a very mothering relationship with Michael), Holly blunts Michael’s worst excesses simply by being a person he genuinely trusts. But unlike Pam, Holly treats Michael like an adult.* And this, in turn, makes Michael behave like an adult.

(*It should go without saying, but Michael’s relationship with Jan was also very different. Like Holly, Jan has a lot in common with Michael. Unlike Holly, Jan brought out the worst in him, and vice-versa. The Jan and Michael relationship is basically the evil flipside of the Holly and Michael relationship.)

“Garage Sale” finally pays off Michael and Holly’s relationship. Given that it’s an event episode, it’s not terribly surprising that it’s a good episode, as The Office has always been exceptionally good at event episodes.* Though the show has always featured multi-episode arcs, its event episodes tend to pay off character arcs, not plot arcs. They’re not about mysteries being revealed, wherein the fun is in not knowing what’s going to happen next. Rather, they’re about recognizable events that happen during the course of most everyone’s lives. As such, we know exactly what’s going to happen. But The Office almost always manages to make them feel surprising anyway.

(*The big exception to this is “Phyllis’s Wedding,” which is basically a disaster with lots of cringe and very little humor.)

And so it is with Michael’s proposal. As is his wont, Michael wants his proposal to be very dramatic. His first plan involves dousing the parking lot in gasoline and expressing his love in fire. Pam fortunately interrupts him before he can accidentally set himself ablaze.* From there, the whole office teams up to create Michael’s very dramatic proposal, and the result is the show’s second pitch-perfect moment of the season.

(*This would have been a pretty surprising way to write Michael out of the show.)

The first of those was Toby in the church in “Christening” throwing his hands up and asking God why He’s so mean to him. That the season’s second perfect moment is a testament to true love is fitting, in that it highlights two of the show’s most dominant themes. In Toby, we see a desperation to live a meaningful life in the face of a seemingly indifferent if not outright cruel world. And in Michael and Holly, we see characters finding that meaning in other human beings and the small, ordinary events they share. The great tension is that finding other human beings you can connect with is extremely difficult. And this, in turn, makes those small, ordinary events seem enormous within the lives of the people experiencing them.

On the show, Michael filling the office with candles and proposing to Holly seems like the grandest gesture in the world. In reality, it’s just a bunch of candles in an office. The show itself even undercuts the grandness by having the candles set off the sprinkler system. This is a direct reference to Jim’s proposal to Pam in the rain at a gas station, which Michael had derided as insufficiently grand and even lame earlier in the episode. But, in fact, Jim’s proposal felt huge too. Michael wants to believe he can do something bigger, but some rain and a few candles is as big as it gets for most of us, aesthetically speaking. But that’s OK, because what makes the moment big is that these characters have managed to escape, if just for a moment, Toby’s existential despair. And they’ve done it precisely the way we all do it, with a simple, boring, wonderful human relationship.

Loose Ends:

  • The writers also undercut the grandness of the proposal with the episode’s mundane title. This is huge moment for Michael and Holly, but at the same time, it’s just another day.
  • The garage sale itself was pretty fun. It’s almost a shame it got such short shrift here. It easily could have propped up a whole episode. But it’s hard to complain too much, obviously.
  • This was one of the better Jim-Dwight subplots in a while, for a lot of reasons, but mostly for Jim’s little kick of delight at the end.
  • I failed to mention it in the review proper, but this episode also sets up Michael’s departure, and it does in a realistic, completely humane way. Some might complain of the abruptness, but I like it a lot. This is life. Things happen. People move.
  • All of that said, the major lesson of “Garage Sale” is that you should never play board games with Kevin. He will fuck you up.