Sunday, May 21, 2017

Post Mortems: Frequency, Making History, and Emerald City

Leighton Meester, Adam Pally, and Yassir Lester in Making History.

Perhaps the biggest event of the television season is the one that didn't happen earlier this month, after an 12th-hour deal between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the major networks and studios averted an imminent writers' strike. True, a WGA strike threatens every decade, but the memory of the 100-day strike of 2007-2008 still looms pretty large, and with television's continually evolving face, the content of these regular negotiations always offers the rawest insight into the state of the industry, as years-old collective agreements hit headlong with new norms: 2007 revolved mainly around the surge of web-streaming, and the most recent almost-strike focused on the now-established shorter seasons of some of television's most prestigious shows. To add to the general anxiety, this year the talks also fell at roughly the same time that the networks were making their final decisions on which shows would be returning for another season and which would be axed. While some of my favourite shows (like ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which sat on the bubble for most of its impressive, often heartbreaking, 4th season) got last-minute pickups, there were a couple of painful casualties. Below are a few of my reflections on the 2016-2017 season that was, and won't be again.

Back in the fall, I noted the sudden surge of time-travel themed shows on network television (with The CW's Frequency, NBC's Timeless, ABC's adaptation of Time after Time, and Fox’s sci-fi sitcom Making History) – and now that the dust has settled in true Battle Royale fashion, only one remains standing: Timeless. When the pilots of Frequency and Timeless first aired, I deemed the former the more promising of the two, but to my surprise, as their respective seasons progressed, I found myself eagerly consuming Timeless upon airing, while relegating Frequency to my "watch it when I can" pile. Though both suffered from the inevitable incoherence of time-travel narratives, I was mistaken in anticipating that Frequency would be the lesser offender. Frequency, it turns out, took both the best and the worst from the 2000 feature film that inspired it, with its serial-killer storyline building to a crazed conclusion by the end of its 13-episode season. While the series was entertaining and often powerfully heartfelt, what initially seemed like a clever conceit – that Peyton List's Raimy Sullivan would retain the memories of previous timelines along alongside the alterations that came from her ham-radio interactions with her father (played by Riley Smith), across two decades – became a frustrating distraction as the show played fast and loose with its previously established rules. (In short: if every conversation with her dad, and every action he would take over the course of his day in 1996, resulted in an entirely new future history, by the end of the season Raimy should have had near-infinite overlapping, and contradictory, sets of memories to negotiate back in 2016 – making this viewer at least fear regularly for her sanity.) To its credit, Frequency did conclude in a satisfying way, with its creators even offering a 3-minute unaired epilogue, released after news of its cancellation was made public, to address one of the few remaining open plot threads. I don't regret having spent the time on Frequency, though I will not miss the cognitive nausea that came with every episode.

Making History, however, definitely deserved better than its own unceremonious cancellation. Created by The Late Late Show writer Julius Sharpe and starring Adam Pally (Happy Endings) as Dan Chambers, a low-ambition college janitor with a time-travelling duffle bag, Making History was an absurdist delight for the entirety of its short run. (Its ninth and final episode airs tonight on Fox.) We meet Pally's Dan, an every-bro with barely a cereal-box sense of either causality or history, hanging out in 1775 Boston, playing drinking games with a couple of gun-loving horndog Founding Fathers (Broad City's John Gemberling as John "I sign lots of things" Hancock, and SNL writer Neil Casey as Sam Adams) and trying to get with Paul Revere's wide-eyed but rebellious daughter Deborah (Leighton Meester, Gossip Girl). After Dan's antics inadvertently alter the history of the American Revolution, he enlists buttoned-down history professor Chris (comedian/writer Yassir Lester, who has worked on Girls and The Carmichael Show) to help fix things – with almost always painful results for Chris. At the beginning of the season, it seemed that the show, having quickly established its cohort of colonial-era characters, would be content with jumping back and forth between the present and 1775 – but soon enough Dan, Chris, and his 18th-century squeeze are failing to kill Hitler, betting on the 1919 World Series (interacting with an emotionally needy Al Capone, SNL's Tim Robinson) and directly interfering in Dan's own rather unremarkable history. Making History was made with an infectious cartoonish glee – think of it as Timeless imagined by the writers of Comedy Central's Another Period – that is notably absent from network comedy. It will be missed.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Adria Arjona in Emerald City.

Surreal and effective in an entirely different way was Emerald City, NBC's 21st-century reimagining of L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz. Developed by Matthew Arnold and Josh Friedman, Emerald City took liberally from Baum's many Oz books and from the classic 1939 film, mixed in some contemporary sensibilities, and created something entirely new. The series – whose 10 episodes aired from January to March, and which was cancelled by the network a few weeks ago – admittedly began awkwardly, with its 2-hour premiere feeling a little too self-consciously like the "Wizard of Oz meets Games of Throne" project it was marketed as. I could have done without the requisite "edgy" pan-sexuality and I'm still wondering why everyone constantly referred to Vincent D'Onofrio's character as "the Wizard of Oz" rather than merely “the Wizard.” (It struck me as both incongruous and distracting – as if Americans would regularly refer to their head of state as "the President of the United States of America.") That said, D'Onofrio brought the same energy, darkness and complexity to Emerald City's Wizard as he did previously to the role of Wilson Fisk on Netflix's Daredevil – and Adria Arjona's adult incarnation of Dorothy Gale (alternately reckless and brave, selfish and heroic) was even more compelling, creating a character of both power and moral complexity.

Emerald City looks gorgeous from the outset but, production values notwithstanding, it isn't until the fifth episode that the series truly finds its legs as it builds to the season's epic conclusion. Along the way, Dorothy, of course, meets the Scarecrow (an amnesiac soldier and love interest, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the Tin Man (a horrifically maimed teen, played by Gerran Howell, whose life is saved by making him half clockwork machine), and even – though his story seems to begin only at the season's end – an exquisitely tragic version of the Cowardly Lion (Mido Hamada). But the most starkly contemporary and surprising character of the series is also the one that is perhaps the truest to its origins, Ozma – the lost, but rightful, heir to the throne of Oz. In Baum's original story, an infant Princess Ozma is magically transformed into a boy ("Tip") and grows up without knowing her origins, ultimately transformed back into a girl and ruling her kingdom. The struggles of Tip/Ozma (played by British actress Jordan Loughran) as he finds himself suddenly in a girl's body are the most affecting scenes in the series – as well as unforced and sensitive illustrations of the very real lives of transgender people. Emerald City's cancellation brings that story to an untimely end, and that is tragic.

Still, one good thing about our current over-populated era of television is that the diminished life expectancy of great shows also comes with an extended afterlife. Frequency is currently streaming on Netflix, and both Making History and Emerald City are available on Amazon Video. Do yourself a favour and check them out. (Besides, with Twin Peaks returning tonight after a 27-year hiatus, who really knows what the future might hold?)

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.


  1. MAKING HISTORY visited Al Capone too!? That makes (at least) three time-travel shows this year, then.

    1. Yes, I think I enjoyed TIMELESS's visitation the most (though LEGENDS OF TOMORROW did get there first). MAKING HISTORY -- like TIMELESS, though in a profoundly different way -- tried to give the character some psychological nuance.

      As for the the current intrigue with Capone? No idea... unless there's some reason why American audiences might be intrigued by the idea of a strongman being brought down for tax evasion that I'm not thinking of.