This week, I look at some shows that mostly got unexpected second lives, whether from rebooting, lasting longer than expected, or coming back in a different form.
Thewb.com, first two seasons streaming for free
You won’t be able to watch the biggest news in online video of the past two weeks until early next year, when the team behind Veronica Mars (UPN, CW 2003–2007) releases the feature film continuation of this teen private eye show. Since the Veronica Mars Kickstarter project raised its required $2 million in the first 24 hours, I’ve had several friends ask me why they should care. It’s easy to understand why crowdfunding as a way to continue your favorite shows is making a splash in general, but unless you’ve actually seen Veronica Mars you may not get the fan excitement. Since the show can’t be streamed on any major service (Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon) most people haven’t caught up online. Luckily thewb.com has the show’s first (and best) two seasons available online for free, which follows teen sleuth Mars (Kristen Bell) as she solves mysteries at Neptune High. While the teen detective set-up may evoke images of Nancy Drew, Mars the show has a distinctly darker noir influence. For the first season, Veronica is trying to find the real killer of her best friend Lily Kane, and the show deals with issues like social class and even rape with an intelligent and adult sensibility. For the third and final season, the show moved over to the CW, which resulted in some studio interference and a general drop in quality. But if you’re a fan of the first two seasons, it’s worth tracking down to make sure you’re caught up in time for the movie.
Netflix, season eight recently added
Weeds (Showtime 2005–2012) was an odd show. It started off with a strong first season, featuring a fantastic cast headed up by Mary Louise Parker and a strong central premise—Parker’s character Nancy Botwin had to sell drugs to keep her family in a comfortable suburban lifestyle after her husband died. Starting with the second season, however, the show seemed to run away from all of those strengths as fast as it possibly could. It discarded cast members and moved Nancy and her family out of their suburban neighborhood and into increasingly odd locations. It seemed like the show felt the only things that were actually important were Mary Louise Parker and weed. The show’s eighth and final season was the strongest since fairly early in the run, returning the Botwin family to their original suburban setting after a few seasons on the lamb, in prison, and then in parole in New York. The show tried to give the family a sense of coming full circle that seemed to be straining a bit too hard for a clean ending at points, but at least returned to some of the commentary on suburban life that had made the show so much fun to watch in the first place.
The Good Wife
Amazon, first three seasons available free for Prime members
After a few years as the hit network critics loved to hate, CBS has quietly been building up a stable of hit shows that garner more critical respect than its monster crime procedurals like CSI. The Good Wife (CBS 2009-present) is probably the network’s best show. Good Wife follows Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, whose husband has been forced to resign after a sex scandal and who now has to use her long-neglected law degree to provide for herself and her family. At first Good Wife seemed like a typical legal procedural with a ripped-from-the-headlines twist, but over its first season it evolved into a show dense with character relationships that intelligently tied Alicia’s personal and professional problems together.
Netflix, season one available
So let’s get this out of the way: TNT’s revival of Dallas (TNT, 2012-Present) isn’t that good. It isn’t a disaster by any means, and when it’s firing on all cylinders it can be dumb fun in the same vein as the original Dallas, but it’s not great. It is, however, an incredibly interesting and odd experiment since the new Dallas is, ostensibly, the same show as the original, picking up almost 30 years later. The CW’s 90210 tried a similar gimmick, but dropped most of its connections fairly early in favor of a mostly separated world of a new generation of sexy teens in occasional communication with cast members from the original show. Dallas, on the other hand, feels at times like it’s been beamed in from an alternate universe where Dallas has stayed on the air this whole time and the studio just forgot to tell us. Sure, there are a host of new characters and many others have disappeared, but that’s not that dissimilar from watching two soap opera episodes 20 years apart from each other. It isn’t an entirely successful experiment, but the idea of just picking up where Dallas left off like the audience had never left is such an odd and ballsy move it deserves at least some respect for trying.
Hulu, pilot now streaming
If reviving Dallas is an odd but ultimately somewhat nobel project, then Bates Motel (A&E, 2013) seems more like the product of a diseased mind. Ask Darth Vader, prequels are tricky beasts in general. Creating an unasked-for prequel to Psycho—one of the most iconic films of all time—as an ongoing series was pretty much doomed to failure from the get go. Thinking of everything the show had wrong with it before a single word of the pilot script was written, I’m tempted to say it’s a minor success for being a coherent attempt at a TV show. There are even some grace notes around, the show’s visuals are strong, and the horror can be genuinely horrifying (even if it does lean pretty strongly on violence against women in some pretty icky ways) but ultimately there’s just too much to overcome here to keep Bates from being a minor disaster. The decision to position a young Norman Bates (at top) as the protagonist, forcing you to sympathize with him while knowing he will eventually grow up to be a, well, psycho, is a hurdle the show ultimately can’t get past. If it were an original program with some similarities to the film, or more of an anthology show with a few sly homages to Psycho, you might be able to overlook the flaws. Instead, the show is forced to do five impossible things and only pulls off two or three of them. I almost wish I could grade on a curve against how bad the show might have been, but it still means the final product is sub-par.
Netflix, second season available now
The Killing’s, (AMC, 2011-Present) pacing rightly drives a lot of fans and critics crazy. Its first season unfolded in a style that could be charitably called “lyrical” but is probably more accurately pinpointed as “extremely dull.” The decision not to solve the central mystery of the show’s first season—who killed Rosie Larsen—in the finale just added insult to injury. When the show returned for a second, stronger, season, it brought more focus to its characters and actually moved forward the overarching story, but still had significant flaws that made it probably the weakest show on AMC’s schedule. As a result, the network canceled the show before a planned third season. Strangely, though, The Killing got a second chance and a third season through a joint deal between AMC and Netflix, with the two sharing production costs. Look forward to a third season on Netflix after it airs on AMC later this year.