Jun 19, 2010

Reviewed at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

"The Two Escobars" plays as a nice companion piece to another ESPN "30 for 30" documentary, "The 16th Man." That film told the story of South Africa's post-Apartheid Rugby World Cup run and how President Nelson Mandela used it to bring his country together. "The Two Escobars," on the other hand, focuses on how the rise and fall of both the Medellin drug cartel and the Colombian national soccer team were intertwined and how they reflected a country in tatters.

The film, co-directed by brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, follows two parallel stories. The first is that of Andres Escobar, a star in the early 1990s on the Colombian national soccer team. During his time on the team, Colombia came out of nowhere to become the best soccer team in South America and one of the favorites to win the 1994 World Cup. The team had an unprecented level of talent and an unprecedented flow of cash to support it.

That's where the film's second story comes in, that of Pablo Escobar (no relation to Andres), the violent and powerful leader of the Medellin drug cartel. In addition to supplying the world with cocaine and declaring an all-out war on the Colombian government, Pablo was also a huge fan and financial booster of Colombian soccer. This led to friendships with the players and coaches that continued even after the drug lord went to prison.

In crafting a set of parallel stories about the two Escobars, the filmmakers could've opted to exaggerate the connections between the two worlds. Such exaggerations would've been unnecessary given the remarkable ties the drug lord had with the team (at one point the national team even snuck into Pablo's prison to play a game with him). Instead, the film almost underplays these jaw-dropping moments, which benefits the film both by maintaining a non-sensational tone and by keeping sports in the proper context of the larger Colombian political scene.

Kudos to ESPN for allowing the Zimbalists to keep their feature length cut intact. This allows far more nuance into the story than one expects from a sports documentary for television. Rather than take short cuts in the narrative, the film presents interview subjects who provide conflicting opinions about the same events, allowing the viewer to better appreciate the complexity of Colombia's problems. And when each of the Escobars becomes a victim of violence, the connections between the two deaths is easily illustrated with any need for heavy-handedness.

***

"The Two Escobars" is scheduled to air Tuesday night at 9pm on ESPN. I spoke to co-director Michael Zimbalist after the film, and he told me that ESPN is airing the entire 100 minute feature on Tuesday night (albeit with commercial breaks that will extend its length to two hours).


Jun 16, 2010

I only started watching "Breaking Bad" a few weeks ago, and having raced through the first two and a half seasons in a week then watched the remainder of the third season at the usual weekly pace, I'm only now experiencing my first withdrawal from the show. To take the edge off, I thought I'd write a series of posts about the show's use of color. The creative use of meaningful shades in the series' production design, costumes and cinematography add an extra layer of depth to the show's already great writing and performances.

To start with, let's take a look at Sunday night's season finale, "Full Measure." Specifically, I'm interested in how the show presented the character of Gale, Walt's new lab assistant. (SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't seen Sunday's episode, stop reading now.) I covered some of these moments in my episode review already, but this time I'm adding a few visual aids to illustrate the moments in question.

As Walt pulls into the laundromat after his powwow with Gus, he notices the car parked next to his, complete with a recumbent bike strapped to the roof. Gus told Walt he was choosing Jesse's replacement himself, and the safe bet here is Gale. Walt fired Gale earlier in the season, presumably out of fear that Gale was planted there by Gus to learn Walt's meth formula. Given Gale's earlier quirkiness, the visual of the car and bike (with some help from the episode's "previously on" segment) suggests Gale's return. Cinematographer Michael Slovis adds a bit of symbolism to the shot of Walt noticing the car: A sign reading "SIGNS" in all red letters looming directly over Gale's car:

Once Walt and Gale chat inside the lab, Gale zips up his hazmat suit, enveloping his entire body in yellow. Yellow, of course, is Gus's signature color, and the show has used the hazmat suits all season to make the point that when Walt and Jesse are in the lab, they belong to Gus. The shot of Gale in this scene builds on that same concept, only this time he is the only person in the lab covered in the color. He's "Gus's man," a point that will be solidified later in the episode.

Despite his workplace role as a company man, at home Gale is carefree and immersed in his own life. In the memorable scene where he sings along with the Italian song, "Crapa Pelada," while watering plants, Gale wears a green T-shirt. The show has long used green as a symbol of life. Walt dresses in green more than any other character on the show. Throughout the first season, as Walt got a series of thrills from his entry into the criminal world, he was always wearing green. This season, Jesse wore green while in rehab, as he emerged from years of drug abuse. Skyler, too, has been seen wearing green this year, particularly as she's given in to the temptation of Walt's money and proposed her own entry into his lawbreaking. Here, Gale wears it after getting his old job back, enjoying a night at home with his plants (ahem, green) and music:

But he is visited that night by Gus, dressed in yellow (of course), enticing him to take over the lab for Walt. Gus uses Walt's cancer as the excuse for the conversation, but as he presses Gale to reduce the amount of time he needs to learn Walt's formula, emphasizing a not so subtle subtext, Gale soon complies with a touch of eagerness:

Finally, when Jesse shows up at Gale's door to shoot him, Gale has switched over to a yellow shirt, even at home. Both because he agreed to become Gus's inside man and because Walt and Jesse are targeting him because of his connection to Gus.

Jesse, of course, is dressed in red, a color that was once his signature. Since his relationship with Jane and his stint in rehab, he hasn't worn the color as much as he used to, but as he sinks into a very bad place, the red shirt is back.

Off the top of my head I can think of two specific sequences from the season I'd like to write about in a similar manner: Walt receiving payment from Gus while stopped at a traffic light and Hank leaving his office after being suspended from the DEA.


Jun 14, 2010

Tonight's pre-credit sequence flashed back to a young househunting Walt and Skyler looking at the house they'd soon buy. The season's recurring theme of Walt as a man of caution is turned on its head, with Walt scoffing at the three bedroom house as too small. When Skyler suggests it's as high as they can go in their price range, he asks her, "Why be cautious?"

Young Walt and the new "no half-measues" version have a lot in common, it seems, but on very different sides of morality and the law. As Mike points out during the remote summit between Walt and Gus, the same words can be open to a wide range of interpretations. But one of the points made by "Breaking Bad" over and over is that Walt's criminal schemes make him feel more alive than he has in years. And that's the problem.

In the few glimpses of Walt as a younger man we've seen, he's a far more vibrant man than the teacher and father we saw in season one. In tonight's opening scene, the carefree father-to-be is wearing a green shirt, the same color clothing the present day Walt wears when his meth cooking results in some kind of excitement (often the dangerous kind). When he first entered the business in season one, he wore green all the time, and we saw time and again the rush he got from breaking the law. This brought back a youthful vibrancy, including a renewed sexual vigor with Skyler (which eventually got too vigorous). Walter White, chemistry teacher and father, was a beaten down man. Walter White, meth dealer, on the other hand, chases highs the same way junkies do, just not the chemical variety. This season, as his criminal activity became little more than another job, however, Walt has favored much cooler shades of blue.

Through it all, Walt's car has always had a faded paint job, to the point of being a non-descript beige. Mike tells Walt he needs to get the damage from last week's incident repaired. In the very next scene, Walt arrives at the lab with a dent-free car, complete with a fresh paint job. Turns out the factory color was a pale green, and its been restored. Walt may still wear a blue shirt to work for Gus's sake, but the car he used to mow down Gus's men betrays the excitement Walt feels in such unpredictable moments.

First thing tonight, Walt meets with Gus to explain why he killed those two dealers. He frames the situation in a pragmatic manner. The best option, Walt says, is to consider this a hiccup in their relationship. Jesse is gone and forgotten, and Walt will keep cooking meth for Gus. And Gus agrees to the deal. Though no one -- not Walt, not Gus, not the viewing audience -- is calmed by the arrangement.

The first sign of trouble with the arrangement is Gus's choice to replace Jesse as Walt's assistant. It's Gale, the professional chemist Walt fired after just a few days. His arrival is announced in humorous fashion, with Walt noticing Gale's car parked outside the lab -- complete with a billboard that reads "SIGNS" looming directly over the vehicle. Gus soon pays Gale a home visit, asking how soon he'd be ready to take over the lab if Walt were to, say, succumb to his cancer. And at this point we know Gus plans to kill Walt.

Walt seems oblivious to the danger, answering Gale's questions about the cooking process, but we soon learn he knows the real situation. Meeting with Jesse, who hasn't left town after all, Walt devises a plan to for them to murder Gale so Gus won't have anyone else to make his product, thus keeping Walt alive a little longer.

Gale has always been a charming character in his appearances on the show, from his lab setup for brewing coffee to his penchant for singing Italian songs while watering his plants. So the plan to kill him, despite Gale's unwitting (perhaps) betrayal of Walt, is a wholly unsympathetic one. If Walt's coldblooded murder of Gus's dealers last week was a major step into darkness for the character, at least the victims were two men who had killed an 11-year-old boy. Murdering Gale would be a freefall into darkness by comparison, and Jesse (our moral compass for this season) says as much, refusing to pull the trigger himself.

But as is the case with Walter White, his own criminal schemes always drag other people into the darkness with him. Jesse was content to cook mediocre methamphetamine in a low level operation before Walt recruited him. But since they're paths crossed, Jesse has found himself in constant danger and involved in several deaths. Skyler, too, now seems headed down the path of corruption as Walt's money launderer. Saul was already in criminal activity up to his eyeballs before meeting Walt, but now he's being threatened by Gus's enforcer, thanks to Walt.

Alas, Gus's men move on Walt before he can kill Gale. To save his own life, though, he offers to give up Jesse. Calling him to set up a meet where Mike will ambush him, instead he tells Jesse he has to kill Gale himself. And we end on a cliffhanger, something "Breaking Bad" hasn't really done before. Seasons one and two both had unresolved storylines at their conclusions but never cut off mid-crisis like this. As the show goes to black tonight, Walt is being held by Mike and Jesse has just pulled the trigger on Gale (though we don't know for sure if he actually shot him).

Given the abrupt ending, it's too soon to properly reflect here about what tonight adds to the season's themes and character arcs, other than to repeat the theme of caution discussed above. Walt's post-plane crash caution put him in much the same rut he was in before being diagnosed with cancer, even after taking up the meth trade again in a very controlled, professional environment. It's no coincidence that Heisenberg's pork pie hat made a return here, as it represents a more exciting, less cautious time in Walt's criminal career.

Jesse's seasonal arc has also been discussed at length online prior to tonight. He began the season fresh from rehab, resigned to being a bad man. But time and again he proved to be the least evil person in most situations he found himself in. He couldn't sell meth to a mother. He couldn't kill the dealers who shot Combo himself, and tonight he refused to kill Gale. But the sad conclusion to this storyline seems to be that he gets dragged into doing very bad things anyway because of his association with Walt.

So that's where we stand until next year. As things sink in, I may follow up with another season spanning post, but I make no promises. An analysis of how the show uses color so effectively might be more likely.

A few random thoughts...

  • Someone at AMC is on my shit list tonight for slating "Breaking Bad" for a running time of 1:47 in the TV listings despite it only being the usual one hour length. When the credits popped up, I wasn't prepared for it. From the previews I've seen, "Rubicon" looks like a good show, but don't trick people into watching it by sneaking it into the "Breaking Bad" slot unannounced. With no expectation that the episode was wrapping up, I now feel like I left a Wagner opera 3 hours in.
  • Some nice color work with Gale's clothing tonight. When we first see him at the lab, he's wearing the yellow hazmat suit, pulling the hood over his head and tightening the drawstring, enveloping him in Gus's signature color (foreshadowing his role as Gus's inside man). Following his first day on the job with Walt, however, we see him at home wearing green, signifying the rejuvenation of his return to the lab as Walt's assistant. He's watering plants (green) and offers Gus a creme de menthe (green) when he arrives to chat. Next time we see him at home, however, after he's begun preparing to take over for Walt, Gale is now even wearing yellow at home. (I could talk about this stuff all day.)
  • No appearances from Hank and Marie tonight, so his home recovery will have to wait for next season. The same with Skyler's money laundering plans, as she only makes a couple of cursory appearances.
  • From what little I can make of "Crapa Pelada," the Italian song Gale sings along with, it seems to be about a man who is in such a state of despair that his hair falls out, but then sings a song about cooking to forget these worries." I could be way off on this, but if not it's a clever choice. Maybe someone who actually speaks Italian can clarify. [UPDATE: Josh Gajewski at the L.A. Times Show Tracker blog received an email from a reader that provided an explanation of the song. "It's called Crapa Pelada, which literally means 'bald head' in Italian. It's basically about a bald guy that cooks omelets and won't share his cooking with his brother."]
  • "Look, I saved your life, Jesse. Are you gonna save mine?" Such a manipulative plea on Walt's part.
  • Mike's great scene breaking into the chemical plant was a bit out of place, clearly setting up a cartel storyline for next season.

Jun 13, 2010

The "Lost" season six rewind posts are not intended as a thorough analysis of the episodes, but are a fresh look at each in light of what later events would do to shed new light on them.

It goes without saying, but HERE BE "LOST" SPOILERS. If you haven't watched the entire final season of the show yet, please put down the guitar case and step away from the murky spring.

As a long-time viewer of "Lost" reruns, I know re-watching an episode a few years later, with a lot more of the show's mythology on the table, can be a revelation. When I saw "Flashes Before Your Eyes" for a second time last year, I kept thinking about it for several days because of how different much of its story played, particularly the scenes with the character we later knew as Eloise Hawking. Even the pilot episode has moments that didn't make sense until the fifth or sixth season, with real payoffs for those who go back and watch the episode again. (I'm a fan of the backgammon scene, in particular.)

"LA X: part 2" is not one of those episodes.

A "Lost" episode doesn't have to tie directly in to the overarching storylines in order to be great, of course. Some of the best episodes of the first season focused on adapting to extended life on an island after a plane crash. No monsters. No polar bears. Just survivors on a beach making things up as they go along. Or in season three's "Greatest Hits" where Charlie thinks back on his favorite memories as he prepares for a mission he knows will kill him.

"LA X: part 2" is not one of those episodes either.

The biggest problem is the introduction of the Temple and the band of Others who inhabit it. This storyline never took off, dragging the island timeline down for much of the season's first half. The behavior of Dogen and his followers defies logic most of the time. When Hurley, Jack, Kate, Jin and Sayid arrive at the Temple, Dogen immediately orders them shot. Only when Hurley tells him that they were sent by Jacob does he halt the executions. And if Hurley hadn't screamed in time? Or if sometime between the second plane crash, life in the Dharma Initiative, or taking part in the detonation of a nuclear bomb he had lost track of the guitar case that proved Jacob sent them? All but one of the surviving candidates dies in an instant at the hands of Jacob's own followers.

Now, I realize that Jacob was a hands off leader who wanted those who came to the island to choose good or evil of their own free will. So it's quite possible that until Dogen cracked open that Ankh in the guitar case he had no idea there was such a thing as "candidates," why they're so important, or that there were only five of them left. He had no reason to believe that killing a bunch of strangers would be such a devastating blow. So I guess I don't fault Dogen (even if he is a frustrating character).

No, Jacob is the one to blame here, because although he's so hands off with the island Others, he still went to the mainland to raise an army led by Ilana. He charged that army with protecting him and his candidates, a concept that Ilana knows all about. My point is, if Jacob wasn't opposed to discussing the importance of the candidates with Ilana who wasn't even on the island, why not go ahead and tell the Temple Others now that it's getting down to crunch time? Because he didn't, we came very close to having Sawyer be the only candidate left. Seeing how his various schemes against Flocke played out later in the season, I don't think he was quite up to the job.

Despite never taking off as a narrative thread, the Temple isn't a total waste of time. The Temple Others are the logical consequence of the way Jacob chose to run things, something we later learn isn't supposed to be infallible. He's just a man who had a warped childhood. We're even led to believe in the finale that Hurley will run things differently in his own stint on the job. The Temple Others get what they want by force, threatening the people they're supposed to protect with physical violence at every turn. Dogen himself conjures up an infection story to explain away Claire's insanity and Sayid's resurrection, treating each as an adversary with no effort to have a reasonable conversation. Had Jacob not run such an isolationist ship, perhaps the Others wouldn't have become so hostile and trigger happy.

And let's not forget Smokey's influence. As Ben says to Flocke tonight, "You used me." For almost Ben's entire life he has done the bidding of the Man in Black, thinking it was the absent Jacob leading him. The first time Ben ran into Richard Alpert, he was following the apparition of his dead mother. It's safe to assume now that Mommy was actually Smokey leading Ben to the Others. This connection was precisely how Smokey infiltrated and corrupted them. Even with Ben (aka MiB's puppet regime) no longer leading the Others, the damage was done and even the contingent in the Temple bore the scars of that corruption. So we get a group of "protectors" who order executions at the drop of a hat, try to murder people on the grounds that they have a fictional infection, and refuse to tell the candidates what the hell is going on.

But they're still annoying. (In this episode we get one of the season's worst lines, courtesy of Dogen: "I don't like the way English tastes on my tongue.") In a few episodes, when Dogen and most of his crew are slaughtered by Flocke, this storyline will end with no real narrative benefit to show for the time we spent with them. As with a lot of season six, I like the ideas behind the action, just not always how it plays out on the screen. And I must not be the only one, because in the two hour recap show that aired before the premiere, there was no mention of the Temple or the events that transpired there to be found. It was pure thematic development with no payoff for the plot.

Well, I guess it did provide a way for Sayid to recover from his gunshot wound. But even that is mishandled to some extent. In "LA X, part 2" they bring Sayid to the Temple, where he is drowned in a murky spring that's supposed to have healing powers. Presumably the water isn't clear because Jacob died without naming a successor (though that's speculation, with no direct answer provided), and when Sayid first dies, then resurrects at the end of the episode, this is supposed to suggest that something other than the spring brought him back to life. As the next few episodes play out, the conclusion of the Temple Others is that something evil brought him back (and "infected" him blah blah blah), but when all is said and done I think the most direct explanation is that because Jacob died and the water was murky, the spring's power was weakened and it just took longer than normal for it to work. Mystery solved, I guess.

Apart from the introduction of the plodding Temple storyline, "LA X, part 2" also suffers from another technique used all to frequently on the show: one character asks a reasonable question and the person who knows the answer simply stares back at them without answering. It creates suspense, but it often makes no real sense. For example, when they arrive at the Temple, Hurley takes Jacob's guitar case out of the Dharma bus...

Miles: We gonna sing Kumbaya on the way?

Hurley: It's not a guitar, man.

Miles: Then what is it?

Hurley: [doesn't answer]

Had Hurley answered him, "Um, it's a giant wooden Egyptian thing," it would've ruined the reveal later in the episode (and sounded rather stupid to boot), yet there's no real reason for Hurley not to answer that question. Even just to say, "It's Jacob's, so I'd rather not say." No, staring ominously at Miles creates far more suspense, albeit at the cost of the characters' believability.

There are other examples. When the Others submerge Sayid in the spring and he begins to drown, Jack, Kate and Hurley freak out. "What are they doing?" "He's awake. Let him up." "That's enough!" "You're not saving him! You're drowning him!" And through it all, there is no response from Dogen or Lennon. Other than making things as tense as possible, why wouldn't someone respond, even just to say, "This is a healing spring. If he is going to be saved, this is the only thing that will save him." Which is pretty much what was going on, yet such a direct response would've lessened the suspense.

A few random thoughts...

  • The Sideways World didn't provide any "aha!" moments here, nothing in the same vein as Rose's conversation with Jack last week. Jack and John's conversation in the baggage claim office about Christian's missing coffin still plays well, but with no payoffs regarding the Sideways-World-as-afterlife notion, save for maybe a slight nod in John's line about the airline only losing Christian's body, not Christian himself. "How could they know where he is?"
  • Most of the Sideways story in the episode is about Kate escaping from custody, so it's all action oriented. There is that great scene in the elevator between her and Sawyer where he sees her handcuffs and helps her avoid a couple of security guards. Once we learn Sawyer is a police officer, it at first feels odd that he helped her escape even knowing she's on the run, but it fits in with the reason he was on the Oceanic flight in the first place: hunting down the con man who killed his parents. He doesn't want Miles or anyone at the department know about his vigilante trip to Australia, and getting caught in the middle of an airport manhunt would probably reveal everything.
  • Water played a very big role throughout the season, and Sayid's drowning in the healing stream is the first real instance of this. Among other things, water would be an important element in the glowing cave, the wreck of the Black Rock, Jack's choice to not leave the island, and the deaths of Sayid, Sun and Jin. Sayid's drowning here foreshadows those deaths (including his own) on the submarine.
  • When Sun tells the customs officials she doesn't speak English, we're not sure at this point whether she's telling the truth. As we learn in a few episodes, she was.
  • There were a couple of big lines in the episode from Flocke that either turned out to be sort of inaccurate or never got an explanation. For one, he tells Ben that he wants what John Locke never wanted: "I want to go home." Well, he wanted to leave the island, but since he was born on the island and has never left it, leaving wouldn't really amount to "going home." I suppose he was saying it more as what John Locke considers to be the equivalent of leaving, but it's a stretch. The other line is when he says to the congregation of Others outside the statue, "I am very disappointed in all of you!" With the show wrapped up, I'm still not quite sure what he meant here. Perhaps he's just finally telling them what he thinks of their being followers of Jacob, but that seems an odd way to express it.
  • Flocke does have a great line that gets payoff later in the season: "It's good to see you out of those chains." Upon hearing it, Richard realizes who Locke actually is. As we learn in "Ab Aeterno," that's what the Man in Black said to Richard after freeing him from the slave chains he wore on the Black Rock.
  • More evidence of Hurley's status as the chose one: He is the first of the candidates that Dogen summons for a private conversation. Jack is second.
  • Next week is the dreaded "What Kate Does," one of my least favorite episodes of the season.

Jun 9, 2010

Throughout the freshman season of "Glee," I've harped upon the show's failure to embrace its comic superiority and abandon the angst-ridden, surface-level drama that dominates the show. For about 15 minutes each week, the show is the best comedy on TV. The rest of the time it's one of the worst dramas. The plot's lack of forward momentum makes each week a rehash of the same miseries as the week before: Kurt's struggles to connect with his blue-collar family, Quinn's fall from queen of the school due to her pregnancy, and Finn's desire to be with Rachel. To make matter worse, the musical numbers, though still providing a lot of classic television moments, too often opted for the most on-the-nose song choice available to make sure the audience understood the intended emotion or lesson of a scene. Now it's not that I deem comedy as being better than drama. If that were true I'd prefer the first season of "Breaking Bad" to the current one. No, I simply believed that "Glee's" writers were just better comedy writers. So I wanted them to embrace their strengths, play up the dark comedy, and let Sue Sylvester have free run of the show.

Well, tonight demonstrated a third path the show could take: write good drama.

The season finale of "Glee" was without question the best episode the show has offered since the pilot. Gone were the black and white portrayals of characters' emotions. Instead, everyone (even Sue) became a three-dimensional character who experienced happiness, sadness, anxiety, anger, laughter and confusion, often at the same time.

For most of the show's run, save for the earliest episodes, Will Schuester has been written and played as an over-sincere idol of morality, talent and stunning good looks. Even Sue Sylvester envied him.

Yet tonight, Will became the man he actual is again. Early in the episode, after having to feign emotional strength for the benefit of his deflated team, we see Will driving his old beat up car, complete with a muffler scraping the blacktop in a shower of sparks. A simple moment, yet placing him in that car reset his place in the world's economic and social strata. Will is a high school Spanish teacher. He doesn't make much money, and to all the "haves" of the outside world, he probably looks sort of pathetic. The only place he's an alpha male is in that choir room. As he's driving, Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," an important song in the pilot, comes on the radio. Will pulls the car over to the shoulder and cries. Not the over-earnest, lip-quivering, single-tear-down-the-cheek crying the show uses every week. No, Will Schuester laughed for half a second, then leaned his head forward and sobbed. The scene lasted only 38 seconds, yet it did more to develop the character than the entire rest of the year.

And that wasn't even the most powerful sequence in the episode.

Given that the entire spring season of the show has been leading up to regionals, the expected way for the finale to play out would be for McKinley's performance to be the episode's centerpiece. It wasn't, and that was a bold move for the show that worked. Instead, as good as New Directions' Journey medley was, it was overshadowed in the very next segment by Vocal Adrenaline's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Coming back from commercial, the Carmel team begins its rendition of the Queen song. For over a full minute it's a typical performance number, something we've seen dozens of times. Then, after lulling us into expecting nothing more than a stage performance, the scene cuts to Quinn, in labor, being wheeled into the hospital. For the duration of the song, the show cuts back and forth between the auditorium and the hospital. By song's end Vocal Adrenaline has bettered New Directions and Quinn is holding her new baby. When the music ends, the scene fades to black and the show goes to commercial.

The juxtaposition of the two scenes is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it moves two separate storylines forward in perfect synchronization. Second, setting Quinn's labor scene to the tune of a performance by the glee club's arch-nemesis gives the entire sequence a nuance it wouldn't otherwise have. On a show willing to take fewer risks, Quinn would've gone into labor just before New Directions went on stage, having her give birth during her teammates' performance. Then the emotions behind the two intercut scenes would've been consistent. Instead, we get conflicting cues that play off their contradictions, pulling us in two separate directions. This six minute song is probably the best segment of a broadcast series this year.

In the segments that follow "Bohemian Rhapsody," two things happen that play against the show's usual earnest populism. For one, Quinn and Puck opt to give up their child, despite a quiet conversation about their feelings that seems to be headed toward keeping the baby. Secondly, New Directions loses. Not only do they lose, they come in third place. Each of these developments allows the show to pursue unexpected paths while not playing against either the characters' prior development or the realities of the situations we've witnessed to date. Quinn had always planned to give up her baby, and one touching moment with a guy who dated the entire glee club since he got her pregnant wouldn't change that. And the mere fact that New Directions is a scrappy, likable choir team that pulled together an excellent performance wouldn't realistically make it possible for them to overcome a powerhouse like Vocal Adrenaline in one year.

Even Sue Sylvester's decisions to vote for McKinley to win the competition and to coerce Principal Figgins into giving the glee club one more year were developed well enough in the span of just one hour to make them not just plausible but consistent with who she's always been. For all her hatred of Will Schuester, she's always shown a willingness to support the students of McKinley High, so her support of New Directions after the other judges' disparaging remarks feels like a natural progression.

For all of you wondering why I keep watching a show that I complain about every week, tonight is why. Even in the worst episodes, there are fleeting moments of greatness, sometimes only a few seconds at a time. So I knew if the pieces came together in the right order the show could recapture the magic of the pilot. Tonight it did just that. And for all the ups and downs leading up to it, "Journey" was so good that I'll probably put myself through this ordeal all over again next season.

A few random thoughts...

  • I didn't like everything. I harped on the adoption thing enough last week, so I'll simply complain here that the show seems to only be interested in how the mother-daughter reunion affects Shelby. Her decision to adopt Quinn's baby may be a moving moment for that character, but Rachel's reaction upon learning of this would be complicated to say the least, especially since Shelby keeps pushing her away.
  • Will declaring his love for Emma fell flat for me. I think the weekly stalling tactics on this storyline are to blame, because at this point I'm sick of them as a romantic pairing. The moment also felt sort of thrown in because, "Hey, this is the finale so we better mention Will and Emma." It does, however, work in a structural way as a parallel to Finn's declaration of love to Rachel at the show's 15 minute mark. In Finn's case, the moment was understated and Rachel's lack of a reply seems a positive thing. When Will did the same thing 45 minutes into the show, it felt forced, a desperate move. So Emma's non-response feels negative. I like the symmetry and contrast.
  • The Israel Kamakawiwo'ole-inspired take on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" might have worked better had Ted's a cappella band on "Scrubs" not done the exact same arrangement of the song four years ago.

Jun 7, 2010

The "Lost" season six rewind posts are not intended as a thorough analysis of the episodes, but are a fresh look at each in light of what later events would do to shed new light on them.

It goes without saying, but HERE BE "LOST" SPOILERS. If you haven't watched the entire final season of the show yet, please return your window seat at once.

When "LA X" first aired in January, most of the attention paid to its opening scene focused on the lack of, you know, a plane crash and the shots of a familiar island-scape now relocated to the bottom of the ocean (complete with Dharma shark). Well, we now know why the plane didn't crash -- and why that has no bearing on the island timeline at all -- but it's not so clear why the island is underwater.

My own theory, argued unsuccessfully to a couple of Sideways haters, is that it relates to Christian's speech to Jack about how the time spent on the island was the most important part of all the castaways' lives. In "What They Died For," both Kate and Sawyer confronted Jacob about the upheaval caused by bringing everyone to the island. Jacob did a decent job of countering their arguments, but even so, there's little doubt that any or all of the castaways, at some point in their lives, would be tempted to agree with Sawyer that they were doing just fine until the island came along. Thus, part of the Sideways World was presenting to them a version of what their world might have looked like had that interference never came along. There's little question that there was a lot of wish fulfillment at work in the Sideways World (Widmore and Desmond as the best of friends, Benjamin Linus as a good-hearted man, John Locke as the recipient of successful spinal surgery), so why not include what had to have been a big wish for a lot of them at one time or another: no island. As a result, once they "awaken" and have their memories restored, the awareness of a deep connection to a lot of people they wouldn't have otherwise known and of the very important work that accomplished by them on the island as a collective whole would reinforce to all of them how vital that island detour was in their lives.

Now, simply agreeing with me that this was the intent of the underwater island shots doesn't guarantee that you'll like Sideways any more than you already do. But for me it works. Of course, that explanation doesn't quite justify the suspenseful way in which the sunken island was presented in "LA X," but "Lost" has a long history of setting up mysteries in a dramatic manner that doesn't always match the importance of the reveal.

What's more interesting about the opening scene on a second viewing, however, is neither of the original mysteries. Instead, it's what Rose says to Jack. After that bit of turbulence that doesn't crash the plane, Rose notices Jack still gripping his armrests tightly and says to him:

You can let go now. It's okay. You can let go.

And of course that's what the Sideways World was all about: letting go. Once the awakenings began mid-season, I've toyed with the question of whether Rose and Bernard were already awake the entire time. In her few scenes, Rose always served as a reassuring presence for the others, offering advice about letting go of things. And, of course, there's little doubt that Bernard was awake when Jack visited him late in the season. Rose's words here seem to back up this hypothesis, but I'm still not 100% sure, at least not this early on. Her words, while prophetic, don't have quite the same look of awareness behind them that Bernard's did to Jack. But since all the survivors seemed to go through different stages of awakening, it seems reasonable that Rose was still in one of the early stages here.

Jack visits the restroom right after this, and we get the first of many mirror shots in the Sideways World. And in this first shot Jack's neck wound begins to bleed for the first time. The wound, of course, was the result of his cliffside battle royale with Flocke in the finale. Again, the payoff here wasn't as huge as we'd hoped, but still a nice tie-in to the finale and the island reality.

After a commercial break, we get our first appearance of the island reality. The Dharma kids are scattered around the scene of the nuclear explosion at the end of "The Incident," and quickly figure out that a) they've flashforwarded to 2007 and b) the detonation didn't alter the timeline at all. The Swan hatch still got built, someone still had to push the button every 108 minutes, and Oceanic 815 still crashed on the island. So, in Sawyer's eyes, Juliet died for nothing, and it's all Jack's fault.

Sawyer is wrong. Juliet didn't die for nothing. The nuclear explosion, although it resulted in the same chain of events we knew before, prevented a much worse incident. Had Jack not been so determined to counter the electromagnetic energy and Juliet not hit the undetonated bomb with a rock, we know what would've happened: the island would have been destroyed and the evil it kept at bay would've escaped into the rest of the world. We know this because of the finale. My assumption here is that the result of Radzinsky's team drilling into the pocket of energy would've been the equivalent of Desmond pulling the stone cork out of the heart of the island: bye bye island. It's the same energy. There just happen to be pockets of it all over the island that serve as "back doors" into it, as explained by the Man in Black in "Across the Sea." It's the same energy that was released when Desmond was late pushing the button in 2004, causing Oceanic 815 to crash. So in a way, Jack caused the plane crash by setting off the bomb, but had that bomb not gone off, there wouldn't have been an island in 2004, which would have been a bad, bad thing, if Jacob and Widmore are to be believed (and I think they are). So while the bomb may have killed Juliet, the good it did far outweighs the bad.

Once Sawyer descends into the hatch to find a not-quite-dead-yet Juliet, of course, the scene's bizarro moments make a little more sense (though I think we all assumed from the start that Juliet's "Dutch" line would payoff in the Sideways World, didn't we?). Of course, there was another line here that's still not quite clear:

I have to tell you something. It's really really important.

In part two of "LA X," Miles told Sawyer that what she wanted to tell him was, "It worked." Most of the season, then, we're left to believe that she was referring to the nuclear bomb. And perhaps there's some sliver of a chance that she was (see above: it did work), but she also said "it worked" in the finale when Sawyer was trying to get a candy bar. Using Occam's Razor, this is the more likely meaning of the line given its explicit usage in the finale. If that's the case, the whole "really really important" thing now plays as way overblown.

Up by the Dharma bus, Sayid lies nears death. This scene introduces his season long arc of deciding whether he is a fundamentally good or bad man. Here he says to Hugo that he suspects he's headed to an unpleasant place when he dies because of all the bad things he's done. As the season plays on, Sayid will be told by Dogen in the temple that he is "infected" as a result of his resurrection from the dead. Dogen even tries to poison him because of this belief. Sayid eventually gives in to the accusations, embracing himself as an evil man and joining forces with Flocke. I think it's safe to say now that the infection Dogen talked about was non-existent. Sayid didn't embrace darkness because he was infected with anything. He did so because Dogen told him over and over that he was. Desmond, however, convinces him later in the season that he has a choice. That he's always had a choice, and Sayid chooses in that moment to be a good man, ultimately sacrificing himself to protect his friends. (The fictional nature of the infection is further backed up by Claire, who through no cure other than Kate's words, returns home to be a mother to Aaron. I repeat: there is no infection.) Sayid's scene here with Hurley offers our first look at a wishy washy year of good and evil for the Iraqi.

Also at the VW bus, Jacob pays a visit to Hugo. Granted, given that he's dead, Jacob can't really chat with any of the other candidates at this point, making Hurley his only choice, but the exchange the men have here really reiterates the unique relationship Hurley already had with the island protector by this point (at least among the candidates) and helps support the argument that Darlton knew from very early on that he was going to be Jacob's successor at series end. Think about it. Hurley and Locke were the only candidate to see Jacob's cabin. They were also the only one's who knew his role as the unseen leader of The Others. Hurley's taxi conversation with Jacob in LA marked the only time in his life (that we know of) that Jacob discussed the island directly with a candidate. (All the other visits were superficial by comparison, mainly an excuse for the all important "touch.") Compare this with Jack, who upon hearing Hugo mention the island protector can only say, "Who's Jacob?" And in a twisted nod to how roles played out at series end, Hurley says to a hesitant Jack:

Can you fix Sayid, Jack? Then you're going to have to let me do it.

(Jacob's visit to Hugo seems to back up my belief that there isn't an infection. Jacob himself tells Hugo to take Sayid to the temple. If his death and the brown water flowing through the temple were going to render the water ineffective, opening Sayid up to an infection of evil, why would he send them there?)

Back in Sideways World, Jack saves Charlie's life by pulling a bag of heroin out of his throat. Charlie's lack of gratitude played out the first time around as a suicide wish, but as we learned in "Happily Ever After," it wasn't that at all. While choking on a baggie he was only trying to hide from the flight crew, he had a vision of Claire and his island reality that he didn't want to leave behind.

Which raises a question: what the hell would've happened if he had died here? Is it possible for any of the survivors to die in the Sideways World? If they do, are they instantly transported into the doorway of light and into the next world? Or could Charlie have lain there not breathing for a couple of hours and still been revivable? Seems like it would've been a major crack in the construct of the world if any of them could die.

The episode ends with Oceanic 815 landing at LAX. This non-dialogue sequence set to Michael Giaccino's swelling musical soundtrack, was pretty moving the first time through, but knowing now that everyone is coming home to LA to begin their final journey into the afterlife actually makes it more powerful. I actually had some tears in my eyes the second time around. And as the flight crew helps Locke into a wheelchair to deplane, Jack and he meet eyes for the first time. I didn't realize it the first time I watched "LA X," but this marks the first time that spinal surgeon Jack learns that Locke is a paraplegic. At no time in the original timeline does Jack know that John Locke was ever in a wheelchair.

A few random thoughts...

  • There's not a lot to discuss about the scenes involving Flocke, Ben, Richard and the others at the statue in the aftermath of Jacob's death. Everything plays out pretty straightforwardly. We, of course, have the big reveal of Flocke as the smoke monster, but this was a strong theory making the rounds during the hiatus, and it really doesn't change in perception based upon any knowledge gained through the rest of the season.
  • So did anyone ever come to a definitive theory as to why the episode was titled "LA X" with the space between the A and X? I don't think I ever heard one. The best I can do right now is incorporate the old cartoon technique of using an X as an eye to signal that someone is dead. So then "LA Dead," because they're all dead? Lame. There's got to be something better out there.
  • The whole thing with Jack's missing pen is established nicely here. Kate bumps into Jack coming out of the restroom, then when he's trying to save Charlie, Jack complains that his pen is missing. We won't get to see Kate using the pen until part two, and she'll mention it to Jack in the finale.
  • Since I'm following the reruns of season six on Saturday nights at 2:30am on KABC in Los Angeles, these Rewind posts will be a weekly affair. I realize Hulu has the entire series up right now, but the Saturday night reruns are a long-running tradition for me. I've re-watched seasons three through five this way already (though without the accompanying Rewind posts).
  • Boone to Locke: "This thing goes down, I'm sticking with you." Yeah, great idea.

Jun 7, 2010

In last week's episode of "Breaking Bad," there was a curious moment just before Walt got his dinner invitation from Gus. As Jesse was about to open a valve that would release toxic fumes into the lab, Walt had to remind him to put on his mask. It was a throwaway moment, but its inclusion in the episode was a subtle reminder of Walt's role as the cautious partner and Jesse's as the careless loose cannon.

Caution and safety were mentioned a lot tonight, but always filtered through some sort of compromise. For example, as he rides home with his son, Walt notices that Walt Jr. is still using both feet to drive. Unlike last time, Walt lets it slide: "Well, as long as it gets you safely from point A to point B, then who am I to argue?" Immediately after, Walt and Skyler discuss her offer to run the car wash as a money laundering front. Last week, Walt refused outright. As soon as he sees an opening for more access to his family tonight, however, a compromise is ironed out.

Such compromises would see things unravel in a big way in the fallout surrounding Combo's murder. When Jesse meets with Walt to let him know his plan for revenge, one that utilizes Walt's old plan for killing Tuco with ricin, Walt calls the situations apples and oranges. Tuco wanted to kill them, so Walt's plan to kill Tuco was reasonable. Now, however, compromise was called for because the dealers who killed Combo work for Gus.

(I'd argue that Tuco and Gus aren't so different now that we know Gus is the kind of guy who'd use kids as dealers and assassins — and perhaps have kids killed. I suspect even crazy Tuco would balk at that.)

To seek a compromise, Walt asks for Saul's help. Saul talks to Mike the P.I., who tells Walt that half measures (like having Jesse arrested) accomplish nothing. So Walt goes to Gus. No doubt, Walt doesn't consider going to his boss a compromise, but once Gus gathers all the warring factions for a sit down, we learn that Walt has even managed to convince Gus to compromise. ("If it wasn't for this man, things would be handled very differently," Gus tells Jesse.) Gus's solution? Jesse should shake hands with Combo's murderers and drop the matter. Jesse initially refuses, but after Gus tells his men "no more children," Jesse relents and the situation looks to be resolved.

And so, just as Mike foreshadowed with his story of half measures, the most sympathetic person in the whole mess, 11-year-old Tomas, is the one who ends up dead. We don't know for certain who killed the boy, but it's not unreasonable to believe, as Jesse does, that Gus's words to his employees, "No more children," would be dealt with by murdering the kid.

There's a nice callback moment when Walt finds out about the murder. Sitting at the dinner table with his family, the conversation is drowned out by a roar in Walt's head, something that happened regularly in Walt's early days as a drug dealer but which vanished as his role in the business became more stable. With a quick jump cut, the roar is gone and Walt is out the door.

And so the show ends with a scene that had me holding my breath for a good 30 seconds. Jesse goes back to the corner, snorts a bump of meth (the first time this season we've seen him use the drug), and at the first sight of Gus's men, grabs his gun and walks toward them for a shootout. At just the moment we expect the first shots to come, Walt's car veers onto to the scene running over Gus's dealers. Walt gets out of the car and, seeing one of the men crawling for his gun, picks up the weapon and shoots the dealer in the head. Without hesitation. He looks up at Jesse and says one word: "Run."

(It was at this moment that I finally inhaled a lot of air quite audibly.)

Of course, in the next to last episode of last season, Walt stood by and watched Jane die. He didn't kill her directly, but he could've saved her. Here, Walt takes yet another step down the moral ladder, this time actively murdering someone in cold blood, with no real argument that it was self-defense. The big question I'm pondering right now in the immediate aftermath of the episode is how much of his behavior was about protecting Jesse and how much was pure retaliation for the killing of a child. At the very least, it seems to be a real recognition that Jesse's initial lack of compromise in the meeting with Gus was the most reasonable position of anyone in that room, even if it held a lot of risk for Jesse himself.

One of the things that makes "Breaking Bad" so good is its ability to weave a theme under the surface of nearly every scene of an episode without ever needing to have its characters spell it out for the audience. The closest we get here is Mike's story to Walt about the half measure he took as a cop that ended with a woman dead. But the scene is so effectively underplayed by Jonathan Banks that it never comes off as the show's moral moment. And in his story, Mike even works in Gus's advice from last week to never make the same mistake twice, yet nothing about the scene feels expository or pretentious.

In earlier seasons, despite a lot of raves from critics, Aaron Paul didn't impress me much with his acting. His emotional outbursts were too bombastic to warrant much respect, although that really was what the character called for at the time. This season, however, the range of emotion he's been called upon to play has expanded considerably, and Paul has turned in some great episodes as a result. Tonight, two scenes in particular saw him building off the seething undercurrent he developed last week. The first was his meeting with Walt about poisoning Combo's killers, while the second was when he stood up to Gus for his dealer's use of a child assassin. Both scenes belong on an Emmy reel. But I think Paul's best moment of the episode was his swift transition from drug-fueled rage to speechless surprise when Walt ran over the rival dealers.

Only one more episode this season. Given the trajectory of the show in its first three seasons, it's easy to assume that Walt will eventually get rid of Gus (either intentionally or through some unintended consequences), moving up the ladder and stepping into his former boss's shoes. The question is whether it's going to happen this soon. If so, it would be a shame to say goodbye to Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Frings, but that's really a minor complaint given how fantastic this season's story arc is playing out.

A few random thoughts...

  • Another great pre-credit sequence, this time focusing on the daily life of Jesse's prostitute friend, Wendy, last seen in season two providing an alibi for Jesse. The whole thing is set beautifully to the tune of The Association's "Windy."
  • Just like last week, we get some progress in Hank's road to recovery through a small amount of screen time. After a bet regarding how well a certain part of his anatomy is, Hank has to accede to Marie's wishes, and now he's going home from the hospital.
  • For all her reasonable advice last week, Skyler is still naive enough to be reading up on money laundering in Wikipedia.
  • Nice touch having Walt play with Saul's scales of justice, leaving them unbalanced just before launching into his plan to "protect" Jesse by having him arrested.
  • "I'll be here with bells on." "What?" "Just a saying. Don't worry. I won't be wearing bells."

Jun 5, 2010

For as long as I can remember, I've loved television. I still remember the night in 1978, just a few days before my fifth birthday, when my mother came to find me so I wouldn't miss the first episode of "Diff'rent Strokes." When I was nine, I cried at the end of the "M*A*S*H" finale, the first time I'd shed tears about something that wasn't real. During college, I stayed up late laughing with friends at MTV shows like "The State" and "Beavis & Butthead." As an adult, series like "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Mad Men" and "Battlestar Galactica" made having a DVR a home necessity. And I'm the guy who stays up until 2:30am on Saturday night to watch the weekly syndicated rerun of "Lost" to see how it plays differently with knowledge of later episodes.

I've written on various blogs since late 2004, and the topics I cover are all over the map. One day I may write about the newest legal research database as part of my professional life, then follow up the next day with a story about the movie I saw the night before. TV has never been a huge part of this blog (save for a burst of obsession when "Rock Star: INXS" aired), yet in conversations with friends it always seems to be a major topic. (I wonder if the guy in the office next to mine ever got sick of overhearing my "Lost" telephone debriefing with a colleague every Wednesday this spring.) In recent years, television criticism has become more prominent, thanks to the internet and a crop of shows that warrant weekly analysis. I've become an avid reader of writers like Alan Sepinwall, Todd VanDerWerff, Maureen Ryan and Myles McNutt, and the more I read their work, the more I want to have the kinds of online discussions their work generates.

So, starting with my analysis of the "Lost" finale, I began writing regularly about television two weeks ago. Given that there might not be a lot of overlap between those who read my TV posts and those interested in my pieces on law librarianship, I decided to segregate the television material into a section called "Tom's TV." The library stuff now resides in the "Library Laws" section (reviving the title of the tech and libraries blog I used to run with Josh Brauer). For the articles that don't fit in either category, there's a third section called simply "The Blog." Each section has its own RSS feed, too, so you don't have to subscribe to the whole site just to get the category you want.

The writers I mentioned above are all professional critics of one form or another. I am not. As an amateur, my style often leans toward the emotional and the exaggerated. As an academic (and a lawyer), sometimes my sentences get too long and my word choice gets too stiff -- I seem to like the word "thus" for some reason. I'm also better able to articulate what I don't like about something than what I do, making me more likely to fill a review with negatives. Yet, the whole reason I watch TV is because I love it, and when it's really good (like, say, the current season of "Breaking Bad") it can be a transcendent experience. My hope is that by writing several articles each week I'll work out these flaws and become a better writer.

I won't write about every show I watch. Some series just don't warrant weekly analysis, and I don't have the time to generate 1,000 words about every show on my DVR. If I get busy with work or life, I may miss a show for a week or more here and there. Since no one is paying me to write "Tom's TV," I have that freedom. But just like "Lost," continuity matters in television criticism, so I hope to be as comprehensive as my time allows.


Jun 5, 2010

"When people want less, they turn to us."

"Party Down Company Picnic" is all about competition. Ron competes with Uda for a job. Lydia and Kyle compete for control of Lydia's daughter's career. Roman and Kyle compete with Valhalla to see who has the best catering skills. And Casey competes with everyone about everything. Nearly all these competitions end in an anti-climatic manner, and the deflated resolutions are a perfect fit for Party Down catering's malcontents.

This is the second time this season we've had an episode where the gang isn't working a party. Just as before, Ron refuses to enjoy the festivities, showing up in a coat and tie (and carrying a briefcase). Turns out there's a job opening in company management that he intends to lobby for during the picnic.

Ron makes a quick pitch but is informed by new bossman Bolus Lugozshe that the gig has already been offered to Valhalla Catering's Uda Bengt, who also just happens to be catering the picnic. While contemplating the unfairness of life, Ron gets whacked in the back by a flying horseshoe. The thrower is none other than Bolus's daughter, Danielle, who offers to help Ron get the job. Since she's a pothead (who happens to be pretty stoned the whole time), she suggests they plant a bag of pot in Uda's bag. The anti-climax here, of course, is that Uda turns down the job. Even if she hadn't Bolas probably wouldn't have held the drugs against her, since he fires up one of the joints as soon as Ron shows it to him.

The big continuing storyline is, of course, Casey and Henry's renewed relationship, and Henry's one task here is to break things off with Uda. This is the first time we've seen Henry and Uda interact onscreen as a couple. Until now we've only gotten Henry's take on things, plus that great one-sided phone conversation during "Nick DiCintio's Orgy Night" where he and Ron can't stop cracking up at her. Henry has nothing invested in the relationship. The allure for him is stability ("No risk, no risk"), but even with Casey waiting outside Henry does nothing. Ultimately, Uda has to break up with him.

The resigned way in which this whole scenario played out rubbed me the wrong way at first. Nothing about Henry and Uda's scenes is particularly funny. Given Uda's strong personality and the constant near blow ups she has with her staff ("Tell me what happened!"), I expected a hilariously messy breakup. Maybe Uda would scold Henry like he was a child, or she'd refuse to accept the end of the relationship. Instead, she breaks up with him in the calmest manner possible, even telling him she hopes they can still be friends.

While writing this recap, however, I put the episode on in the background for a second viewing. It played better without the expectations. Given who Henry is, the anti-climax was the only way things could play out. Henry isn't a man of action, so there was little chance he'd initiate a break up. Henry's entire life is an anti-climax because he never takes on anything that isn't handed to him through circumstances, be it a catering job, the team leader role, or a relationship.

And that's what makes the competition theme so perfect for the episode: the one thing that really should be a competition, Casey and Uda's pursuit of Henry, isn't much of one at all. How do you pursue something that's always standing still?

A few random thoughts...

  • The show's status quo is restored, with Henry offering the team leader role back to Ron. Given some of the discussion at the show's Paley Center panel last month, I expect the equilibrium to be temporary.
  • The funniest moment of the episode for me was Lydia's call to action before the kickball game. She's the character you least expect to say those words.
  • After several references to Alan Duk in earlier episodes this season, I wondered if Ken Jeong would make another appearance. No dice. As we learn, Alan is now serving jail time.
  • We did finally get a taste of the Roman/Lydia interaction I mentioned last week, and Roman plays nicely against type, lamenting the fact that he's too nice, just like her.
  • "Dog shit or human shit? Use a stick, burn the garment, bleach everything."
  • "Get in the ring with me and you're entering a world of shit." "I'm sure that applies to doing just about anything with you."
  • "It's fucking Skynrd, man. It just puts me in a weird space, you know?"

Jun 3, 2010

In 2009, Wolters Kluwer (WK) launched a web-based legal research system called IntelliConnect. The site incorporated a wide array of WK's print content from publishing brands such as CCH and Aspen. Within the law librarian community, the product launch generated a lot of negative opinions. Seeking to rehabilitate the product's image, WK invited several law librarian bloggers to the company's offices in New York a few weeks ago for a day of presentations and meetings. Full FTC disclosure: I accepted the invitation, with WK footing the bill for my flights, hotel room and a festive Cinco de Mayo lunch, as well as providing a per diem to cover other meals and transportation.

My exposure to IntelliConnect since its launch has been intermittent. This parallels my experience with the company's print products. Services like CCH's reporters are primarily practice materials, and as an academic librarian who does very little research in the tax and business arenas that WK specializes in, use of these materials is hardly a daily event. Nor weekly.

It's for that reason that I think my reaction to IntelliConnect upon launch was more positive than a lot of my colleagues. WK had placed its materials online prior to IntelliConnect in a manner that essentially matched its print products, thus you needed to know what content each title contained in order to use the materials. Much like the classic Westlaw and Lexis, you needed to know where something relevant would be found before looking for it. IntelliConnect, however, incorporated federated searching with faceted results, allowing users who didn't know with any specificity where the useful content for a query was to search the entire system at once and find matching content regardless of its location or print title.

While I found this to be a vast improvement over the old system, the federated search model, and its accompanying move away from print organization, upset a lot of longtime users. And therein lies the seemingly unsolvable problem for Wolters Kluwer: How do you make all types of users happy?

Power users of IntelliConnect's CCH/Aspen/etc content know what's there, where it is, and expect the ability to go straight to it with as few clicks as possible. New and less frequent users than that group, however, might prefer a system they can log into and navigate with ease, guiding them to the material they're looking for even when they don't know where it is.

The initial launch played more to the needs of the latter group, with content organized by type (case, explanation, etc.), rather than practice area. This provided a major source of complaints from power users who wanted materials organized by publication title. Since the launch, WK responded to these complaints by reorganizing its content by practice area, a change that should make a big difference in usability to those users. Of course, for the non-power users this means the "CCH for Dummies" interface is gone. Personally, I wish the company could find a way to integrate both organizational models without one getting in the way of the other. I'm not sure how this could best be accomplished, and without a concrete suggestion to offer, I have to agree with WK that pleasing the existing user base has to be a higher priority for the company right now.

WK added a number of other features since the launch, including navigational enhancements like "next document"/"previous document" buttons, book browsing and full document path information for every piece of content in the system. All of these features are being added in response to user suggestions and complaints, while indicative of real problems in the initial product launch, demonstrates that WK is unusually responsive for a high end legal information vendor.

Beyond what's already been added, the company has several enhancements slated for release this year. In July the front page of IntelliConnect, currently a mostly blank screen void of useful content other than a search box will be replaced with a number of links to the user's "favorite" materials and a number of support documents that are currently buried within the system. More importantly, the system's "browse tree" will be visible on the front page, allowing users to immediately browse the system's contents without having to click the small "Browse" command first.

Also on the way is a "Titles A-Z" list that provides users an easy way to view and find every title included in the current subscription. Coupled with a "Title Finder" search box, this will finally allow a user to know what they've subscribed to without needing to navigate a confusing backend interface.

From a content perspective, IntelliConnect is a valuable practitioner resource, providing searchable electronic access to CCH's goldmine of looseleaf publications, as well as a number of Aspen publications. Despite the confusing branding on IntelliConnect's homepage (the URL says "CCH," the browser title bar says "IntelliConnect," and the page banner says "Wolters Kluwer), the company says IntelliConnect is intended to be the online presence for all of WK's legal information content, including (eventually) LoisLaw, the primary law database recently purchased by the company.

With all of these positives to recommend IntelliConnect, there is one aspect of the system that gives me pause: user interface. The layout of the system is something akin to a 1990's CD-ROM product running Folio Views. IntelliConnect's browse tree is constructed with threaded menus in which a user has to click on a small plus sign to expand the next level of the menu. The more levels down a user drills, the farther to the right the links are indented. And because this navigation pane is constructed with HTML panels, that means the titles become hidden behind the main content pane, requiring users to either scroll with a horizontal scroll bar or grab the panel's border and change the width of the nav pane. Is this functional? Yes. But it's not optimal nor is it in line with current web design norms.

The use of frames raises a larger issue than just the ease of navigation, which is overall browser functionality. One of the reason HTML frames fell out of favor in the last decade is that they render the URL visible in the browser's address bar unusable. That URL reflects the address of the page containing the frames, not the addresses of the frames currently loaded within that page. As a result, a user cannot copy and paste the visible URL into an email or another browser window or post a link to it on an intranet page so other users can access the precise material being viewed at any given time. Instead, if I email a colleague a link to the case I'm reading, when he or she tries to open it, it will load the IntelliConnect home page. In most situations, IntelliConnect's built-in email mechanism provides a workaround, but the functionality remains inconsistent that provided by most internet sites. The one place where there is no workaround is the browser's refresh button. If, as sometimes happens in IntelliConnect, a page doesn't load properly or freezes, users expect the refresh button to reload that page. Because frames are used, however, clicking the refresh button reloads the IntelliConnect home page, taking the user back to the beginning of the research trail. Frames can also break the browser's "Back" button (a common glitch in classic Westlaw), though this is less of a problem now than it used to be.

Another problematic issue with the interface is that it isn't compatible with all browsers. In fact, if a user loads IntelliConnect in anything other than Internet Explorer, a warning appears informing the user that he should use IE. While the system seems to work okay in Firefox despite the warning, it is effectively broken in both Safari and Chrome, with important buttons rendered unclickable or even invisible in those browsers. While many legal information providers rely on the accepted wisdom that all law firms are Windows shops that force employees to use only Internet Explorer, this ignores the realities of attorneys who prefer a different operating system or browser and ignore firm IT mandates when possible. And given what I see in the law school environment, where about 50% of students are now Mac users, as the current generation of students and young lawyers gain seniority in firms, the Windows-only mandates will evaporate. When questioned on the issue of browser compatibility, the folks at WK assured us they are aware of the problem and want IntelliConnect to be cross-browser compatible, no details as to what they're doing to fix the problem were offered nor a target date for when a fix would be in place.

Apart from technical concerns, the UI simply isn't consistent with design norms currently used across the web. This is a vague complaint to elaborate on, so I'll use an example within WK itself: AspenLaw.com. The colors, fonts, nav structure and browsing experience on this site are consistent with both contemporary concepts of what's "pretty" and what internet users have been conditioned to expect from popular sites like Facebook, Google or CNN. Upon selecting a publication series from the Student Central menu, the product listings are displayed in a two column layout, with facet navigation on the left and results on the right. Neither of these columns are frames. Each of the search facets list a few of the most popular categories by default, which tells the user what the facet title actually means, with a link to expand the list further if necessary. Selecting a specific item from the results loads that document in its own page with a permanent URL. To get back to the search results, a user need only click the browser's back button. No special training is required to navigate the site because it operates exactly the way most of popular sites do. AspenLaw.com illustrates that WK has excellent web designers (a distinct role that is separate from the web developers who actually build sites) at its disposal to design user interfaces for its products. I hope at some point the company asks them to tackle the IntelliConnect UI.

These UI complaints do nothing to detract from the high quality of IntelliConnect's content or the ways in which it organizes the content in response to user needs and suggestions. But with an updated look and feel that incorporates the ways users already navigate the web, the rich WK content provided in IntelliConnect could become not just functional but intuitive.


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