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Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far.

So much has happened this year on "Person of Interest," I had to review recaps of some of the early episodes to get my bearings. At the end of the second season, we were still in the thick of the H.R. plot, Decima Technologies was still being set up as the next Big Bad, and Root was about to have an extended stay in a mental hospital. The face of Control hadn't been revealed, and Samaritan and Vigilance hadn't even been namechecked. More importantly, Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA were just about to come to light.

And now a year later, we're looking at a very different "Person of Interest," one that has not just undergone cast changes and moved on to new storylines, but one that is now actively grappling with the big issues that have always been at the heart of its premise. Snowden hasn't been referenced directly, though there have been a few minor references to the NSA surveillance programs, but we've definitely seen the position of the heroes shift from an uneasy alliance with the tools of the surveillance state that have made their work possible, to active adversity. Finch, Reese, Shaw, and their allies are now targets of a new and improved government-funded information-gathering system that threatens to create a full-blown Big Brother dystopia.

First, let's go back a couple of months to one of the biggest events in the show's run so far, the death of Detective Carter. Taraji P. Henson left the show, and "Person of Interest" gave her quite the sendoff. Not only did they take the opportunity to tie up all the storylines involving the New York criminal organizations and the corruption in the NYPD, but gave Henson, Clarke Peters, and Kevin Chapman some of their best moments. There were some choices I didn't agree with - throwing in a romantic connection between Reese and Carter so late didn't make sense for either character - but the episode directly following her death was one of the show's finest, with an especially strong final bow for Enrico Colantoni's crime boss, Elias.

All terribly pat, but the resolutions were satisfying enough. And it cleared the board to start pursuing a new set of villains starting at the midseason. Peter Collier (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Vigilance gave us urban terrorists with a sympathetic cause, John Greer (John Nolan) and Decima Technologies embodied evil corporations run amok, and the shady government unit that originally commissioned the Machine got a figurehead in Control, played by a deliciously malevolent Camryn Manheim. It would have been easy enough to leave them as shallow comic-book villains, but what I really admire about this show is that every one of them is given shades of gray. Control is a sadist, but a patriot at heart. Collier is likewise a true believer in his cause. Greer, amusingly, shares a lot in common with earlier versions of Root.

Speaking of Root, she and Shaw got the lion's share of the character development this year since Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi have joined the cast as regulars. I'm a little sad that Root became saner and more reasonable with every appearance under the influence of the Machine, but she's still enough of a rogue and wild card that I enjoy her contributions immensely. It was a good move to make her a largely independent force, often taking care of business for the Machine on separate missions, and only intersecting with Finch's group when necessary. Shaw was a harder sell, since she came off as such a blank in the second season. However, a couple of good episodes played up her emotional detachment as a defining trait, which works reasonably well, and her snarky rapport with Reese and bouts of trigger-happiness can be a lot of fun. If the Nolans have had trouble with their female characters in the past, it's not apparent here.

Accommodating the larger ensemble has meant less emphasis on the personal stories of our do-gooders and more emphasis on the plotting, and "Person of Interest" has always done a great job of it. At this point we've only had about half a season with the Samaritan storyline, where a competing surveillance system without the Machine's safeguards has been pitted against our heroes by Decima, through the manipulation of Vigilance and the government. However, it feels fully developed, exciting, and momentous, despite unfurling over only a handful of episodes. While the treatment of the surveillance issues has been shallow so far, at least the show has successfully introduced a very different point of view to consider, and I expect that we'll see improvements as the Sentinel story goes on. The finale was one of the highlights of the year, completely fleshing out Collier and delivering a game-changing set of events that have set up a promising Year Four.

There were weaker spots, as usual. "Person of Interest" stuck to its procedural format for most of the year, and some of the cases of the week were bland filler. Finch and Fusco got good spotlight episodes, but the ones for Reese felt off. He had a few minor storylines, including a brief leave of absence early in the season, that felt inconsequential. It's clear that Jim Caviezel is getting tired of the role, and the show's creators are taking steps to reduce his screen time so he can take on other work. Though considering his most recent big screen role in that Schwarzenegger and Stallone team-up pic, Caviezel shouldn't give up his day job.

"Person of Interest" remains one of the better action shows on network television, and is as strong as its ever been. In the beginning I wasn't sure it could sustain itself for so long, but a little reinvention and fresh blood has gone a long way toward keeping it feeling fresh and vital. And the timeliness of the subject matter doesn't hurt either.

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I think the work of Denis Villeneuve is overdue for a post here. The Canadian director first came on my radar with the 2010 mystery "Incendies," which made my Top Ten list that year, but which I never got around to writing a review for. He followed that up with last year's crime thriller "Prisoners," starring Hugh Jackman, and then "Enemy," a strange little existential puzzle film, which hit VOD recently. I thought I'd take a closer look at the latter two pictures, two intense stories about frustrated, lost men.

"Prisoners" is one of those ensemble dramas with a big cast of familiar faces. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a working class man who becomes a vigilante when his young daughter and her friend disappear at Thanksgiving, and the police are unwilling to charge a mentally challenged young man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who Dover is convinced is involved in the disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is leading the investigation, has to contend with elusive suspects, many wrong turns, and Dover's increasingly desperate and extreme tactics to find his daughter.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trailer for "Prisoners," which seemed to give away far too much of the film's twisty plot, actually didn't give away as much as it appears to. "Prisoners" is quite a complicated narrative following both Dover and Loki in their parallel hunts for the kidnappers. Between the psychological murkiness and the gorgeously bleak Roger Deakins cinematography, "Prisoners" reminded me a lot of David Fincher's "Zodiac," except that it plays out in a much more conventional fashion. A clear answer to the mystery is dutifully provided at the end of the movie.

I found that the melodrama occasionally gets cranked up a few notches too high. There's a pulpiness to how events play out that suggest "Prisoners" was influenced by more high octane crime films like "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" or several of the recent hyper-violent Korean revenge dramas. While Dover's moral ambiguity is placed front and center, the film doesn't seem particularly interested in exploring it in any depth. We see that the consequences of his rage are horrific, but story choices lessen the impact, to the detriment of the whole.
That's not to say that the movie isn't well made or well executed. The writing is taut, the suspense is excellent, and the performances are all solid, particularly Hugh Jackman's wild-eyed Keller Dover. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes a good crime thriller and doesn't mind a few nasty shocks. However, it does feel like something of a missed opportunity, considering how many juicy concepts and sticky issues are raised by the film.

"Enemy" is a smaller, more modest project despite a much more ambitious concept at its core. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a college professor named Adam who discovers that he has an identical double, an actor named Anthony. Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony, eventually tracking him down and involving himself in his life, which has some unforeseen consequences on both Anthony's relationship with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) and Adam's relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent). Isabella Rossellini also appears for a brief, but important scene as Adam's mother.

I categorize "Enemy" as a puzzle box film because Villeneuve includes an audacious ending that essentially demands that the viewer go back and actively search out, pick apart, and interpret the film's none-too-subtle symbols and messages. The concept of the double is only one of several themes in play, serving to add more layers to the spare, but involving thriller scenario that plays out between Adam and Anthony. The film manages to be ambiguous and intriguing about its aims without feeling too manipulative, though I found it a little stingy with the little details that make similar puzzle films more fun.

However, I did appreciate the paranoid atmosphere, wonderfully sustained by Villeneuve throughout the whole of "Enemy." We're never told anything particularly concrete about the strange situation that develops between Adam and Anthony, but simply invited to witness the consequences of their existence and meeting. Exposition is sparse, in favor of slowly ratcheting tensions and an alienating mood that is effective without ever feeling too obvious. Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent job in both roles, and this is one of his better leading man outings in a while.

I don't think "Prisoners" or "Enemy" live up to "Incendies," but then they're very different films and aiming for different audiences. I've enjoyed everything I've seen from Denis Villeneuve so far, and think he has the potential to do a lot more. He's proven he can tackle art house and mainstream material with equal skill, and seems to have a good eye for interesting projects. I'll continue to keep an eye out for his work in the future.
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So the long-awaited "Veronica Mars" movie finally appeared in theaters and online this weekend, to the delight of "Mars" fans everywhere, and to the fascination of industry watchers curious to see what a Kickstarter-funded movie was capable of. "Veronica Mars" is not destined to be a blockbuster hit, being far too much of a love letter to its existing fanbase to be very accessible to new viewers unfamiliar with the former teen-detective television show.

After a quick exposition dump to fill in for any brave newbies what the premise of "Veronica Mars" is, we learn that Veronica (Kristen Bell) is living in New York, fresh out of law school, and on the verge of landing a lucrative job with a prominent law firm. She's in a steady relationship with college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), and steadfastly refusing to acknowledge her upcoming ten-year high school reunion. Then she gets the fateful phone call from her high school bad boy ex, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who has been accused of murdering his high profile pop star girlfriend. Veronica heads back to the sunny, corrupt town of Neptune, California to help save Logan's skin, reconnect with old friends, and get herself thoroughly tangled up in a big mystery once more.

As a fan of the show, the "Veronica Mars" movie gave me exactly what I wanted. There's lots of snarky banter, updates on the lives of all the familiar characters, Veronica getting her sleuth on again, and some pretty big questions about her future that get definitive answers. I didn't mind the fact that the whole thing felt more like one of those old reunion TV movies that they used to do for shows like "The Brady Bunch," or the pilot for a new "Veronica Mars" series than a proper stand-alone movie. And I didn't mind that it was clearly made on the cheap with very TV quality production values, with a soundtrack full of indie acts that seem to have been chosen by lottery. It felt like we were comfortably back in the universe created by Rob Thomas, even if Veronica could throw out a few unbleeped expletives now.

What did concern me was the parade of cameos. At times it felt like every minor recurring character whose actor was willing to return was shoehorned into the story somewhere. I understand why time was devoted to Veronica's besties Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino), and sometimes ally Weevil (Francis Capra), but did we need to check in with the high school principal (Duane Daniels)? Or Veronica's long-ago crush, Deputy Leo (Max Greenfield)? And that's not even getting to the actual celebrities who make appearances, whose identities I won't spoil here. At certain points the movie feels like a game of spotting the famous and familiar faces, and it gets pretty distracting. Oh, and there are in-jokes galore for fans to catch and for newbies to feel self-conscious about not getting.

Fortunately there is a strong story to keep the whole thing together, and Veronica is still as fun and watchable a heroine as ever, who works fine on the big screen. The case has some good twists, landing Veronica in serious peril. The sheriff's department of Neptune has gotten even more corrupt since we saw it last, making it even harder for Veronica to conduct her investigation. The Veronica-Logan-Piz love triangle is inevitable, of course. The major conflict of the film, however, is actually the question of what Veronica wants to do with her future. If you were left unsatisfied, as I was, with how the ending of the television series played out, and where we left Veronica Mars as a character, the movie does a great job of giving us some resolution as she confronts some demons and gets her priorities in order.

Veronica remains one of the best female characters to come out of TV in the past generation, and I'd love to see "Veronica Mars" get a sequel, either on film or on television. Heck, I'd settle for that rumored spinoff series featuring Ryan Hansen as the doofusy surfer bro Dick Casablancas, who is deployed as much-needed comic relief throughout the film. Or one for the movie's MVP, Enrico Colantoni, as Veronica's father Keith Mars. If there's any character who I wanted to see more of in the "Veronica Mars" movie, it was him.

There's been a lot of drama around the film because of the Kickstarter campaign, but I can't imagine that many of the backers could be too upset with the film itself, which is absolutely made for them. And while I don't have a non-fan perspective, I think that the film is a good enough watch on it's own to potentially hook a few viewers who were unfamiliar with the "Veronica Mars" series. I don't know if Kickstarter is a good option for many cancelled shows, but I'm happy with the results here.
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Minor spoilers ahead.

I'm doing some catching up on my British crime dramas. The second series of "Luther" felt like a big step down form the first, because the overarching story simply wasn't as compelling and the new characters were less interesting. Fortunately the third series is a big improvement on both fronts. Luther gets a major new antagonist in DSI George Stark (David O'Hara), who with the help of DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is secretly investigating Luther for corruption and misconduct, a thread that carries through the whole series.

Like the last round, we get four episodes this time out, which can be neatly split into a pair of two-parters. Unlike last time, though, this series is much better paced and more cohesive. The first half has Luther juggling a pair of cases simultaneously, the murder of an internet troll, and multiple attacks by serial killer with some peculiar fetishes. His partner Ripley (Warren Brown) is contacted by Stark and Gray, who want his cooperation with their investigation of Luther, casting doubts on Ripley's loyalty. Luther also gets a new love interest, Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), who gets roped into the action in the second half of the series, where Luther is pitted against an attention-seeking vigilante killer who likes going after criminals he doesn't think have been punished enough.

"Luther" has always been bloodier and more gruesome than your average television crime drama, and that's certainly the case in this set of episodes, where we meet some pretty memorable, depraved perpetrators. There's about one gut-churning, avert-your-eyes moment per episode and plenty of high tension thrills throughout. Fortunately for the squeamish, this is well balanced by the character drama of the more thoughtful investigation storyline. Previous series have questioned how far over the line Luther can push before going too far, but the way the investigation story is framed, Luther is invariably shown to be in the right, and the focus is largely on Ripley and then other characters grappling with the decision of what side they'll come down on.

Luther himself has gotten cuddlier as a character, his demons still in residence but further beneath the surface. He has a few flares of temper when met with hurdles during his cases, but few moments of the truly uneasy ambiguity that made his morality such a puzzle in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the series plays out fine with Luther as a more typical good guy, but it makes the character and the series undeniably different from what came before. Idris Elba remains charismatic and appealing and so John Luther is still easy to stay invested in. If we take show creator Neil Cross's claim that this is the last series of "Luther" at face value, then I think it's perfectly satisfactory to have our hero close out the series on the side of angels for good.

"Luther" is not particularly sophisticated stuff, still dependent to a large extent on action and thrills, but the performances are good, the production values remain very high, and the writing is much stronger this year. The second series' sore thumb damsel in distress, Jenny, has been replaced with Guillory's Mary, who seems an unlikely love match for John Luther, but at least she's a more logically sound character with a good sense of autonomy. Warren Brown gets a good amount of the spotlight this year and sells several big moments. I also want to highlight the work of guest stars, Kevin Fuller and Elliott Cowan, who play this year's two most colorful murderers. I still miss Indira Varma and Saskia Reeves from the first season, but not nearly as much.

And what about Alice Morgan, Luther's serial killer associate who remains one of the show's best creations? There's been some talk of spinning her off for her own show, which I'm behind 100%. However, "Luther" stays mum on the subject. Let's just say that she has a part to play in the new series, but how big a part and the nature of the part is a big spoiler. Ruth Wilson has been busy with film roles lately, so I'll caution fans of Alice not to expect much. The new series is a perfectly good watch without her contributions in any case.

The next we'll see of "Luther" is reportedly a theatrical feature, which sounds like a great idea. The character is in a good position to jump to the big screen, and a feature would be a great vehicle to push Idris Elba's profile higher. The recent series have been so short, they feel like features already to a great extent. If the show ends here, though, I wouldn't be all that upset. "Luther" has had a good run and the third series ends in a very satisfying way.

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Yesterday we took a look at the big studio pictures with real box office prospects. Today it's time for the more modest, but probably more rewarding films of 2014 that I'm looking forward to. Movies that were delayed from last year, including Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," are being left off. And here we go:

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" - Wes Anderson's latest is so obviously the work of Wes Anderson, there's no point in even pointing out the avalanche of aesthetic quirks or the presence of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson anymore. However, this time around Ralph Fiennes has joined the fun and the tone looks a touch zanier and more broadly comedic, which is hitting all the right buttons for me. There's also something about the color palette with its rich purples and candy pinks that really make the visuals pop. I'm sure the film itself will turn out to be all too familiar, but I can't bring myself to care one bit.

"The Cobbler" - Thomas McCarthy hasn't made a film that I've disliked yet, from "The Station Agent" to "Win Win." And though I dislike Adam Sandler's typical comedies, when he tries something smaller and more heartfelt, the results can be fantastic. These two sound like they would work well together, so I'm looking forward to "The Cobbler," where Sandler will star as a shoe repairman who discovers a magic MacGuffin that literally lets him "walk in another man's shoes." This is a premise that a big studio would happily turn into yet another idiot comedy, but with McCarthy writing and directing, I'm pretty optimistic.

"Ex Machina" - Alex Garland, the screenwriter of "Never Let Me Go" and many of Danny Boyle's films will be making his directorial debut with the science fiction film "Ex Machina," which has some similarities to last year's "Her." This time the AI is a female robot played by Alicia Vikander and the story is a psychological thriller instead of a straight romance. Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac also star. It's a low budget, small scale film that is being produced in the UK, so it might be a while before we get to see it stateside. The premise and the cast have me excited though, and I'm adding it to this year's ever-growing list of intriguing, ambitious science fiction films.

"Whiplash" and "The Voices" - There are quite a few interesting titles that have emerged from this year's Sundance Film Festival that I'm keeping an eye out for, including "Skeleton Twins," "Life Itself," and "Dear White People." However, there are two in particular that I want to highlight. First, there's the "Whiplash," the tale of a young drummer played by Miles Teller that took home the Grand Jury and Audience prizes. Then there's "The Voices," the latest from "Persepolis" director Marjane Satrapi, where Ryan Reynolds plays a seemingly ordinary man who accidentally kills a woman, and now his benevolent dog and evil cat are both speaking to him, trying to persuade him of what he should do next.

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" - Swedish auteur Roy Andersson makes bleak satires with painstakingly composed visuals, many of them incredibly elaborate. He's only released two films over the past fifteen years, but they've both been brilliant. "Pigeon" is expected to complete the trilogy. Production diaries have been slowly appearing on the internet over the past several months, and the project appears to be finally nearing completion. As it's been seven years since the last Andersson film, this is definitely going to be a cinematic event. Not much is known about the story yet, but it apparently involves salesmen, near brushes with death, and explaining why society is the way it is.

"Gone Girl" - David Fincher's been out of the game since his adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and I'm glad to see him back on the slate, even if he's decided his latest crime thriller should star Ben Affleck - I'm still not sold on him as an actor. However, the original author of the source novel, Gillian Flynn, is penning the screenplay and has apparently entirely rewritten the third act for the adaptation. This one's already gearing up for an Oscar campaign, with a release date set for October and an unusual bit of early marketing - a provocative "Entertainment" Weekly cover picturing Affleck and co-star Rosamund Pike referencing the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Rolling Stone" portrait.

"Inherent Vice" - Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix. That's really all I need to know. Based on the Thomas Pynchon detective novel, this will be another period piece, set at the end of the '60s in Los Angeles. Filming was completed last year, so there's every likelihood that we'll see "Inherent Vice" in theaters by the end of 2014. The novel has been described as noir crossed with psychedelia, which might make me worried if this were any other director. Fortunately Anderson, coming off of "The Master," is more than qualified to handle the notoriously difficult Pynchon material. As the highest profile prestige project of the year so far, this one's going to get a lot more press in the months to come.
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The long-awaited third series of the BBC's "Sherlock" is kind of a mess. It's not a bad mess, and certainly an entertaining one, but stakes are lower, the writing is more indulgent, and there's a definite sense that it's resting on its laurels a bit. While it avoids certain pitfalls and doesn't hit the lows of the prior series, it gets nowhere near the highs either. This set of episodes caters to existing fans of "Sherlock," but certain changes also move the show in a direction that some of them may not appreciate. Some mild spoilers ahead.

Of the three new installments, the first is the most successful because it's the most focused. Last series and two years ago, Sherlock Holmes faked his own death after a standoff with arch nemesis Moriarty, and so the premiere episode has to expend a great deal of effort to get everything back to the status quo. Sherlock is brought back to London on the trail of a new terrorist threat, and reconnects with his old circle of friends and allies, some of them in very different places from where he left them. John Watson has not only vacated Baker Street, but now has a serious girlfriend, Mary Morstan, played by Amanda Abbington. Patching things up between Holmes and Watson isn't easy, and for a while it seems that the rift may be permanent.

The biggest change in the new series is that Sherlock Holmes has softened up and gotten more human. He's still capable of being incredibly selfish and thoughtless, but his concern for his friends is transparent now, and there are several examples of him really trying to be more considerate towards people like Molly Hooper. The bromance with Watson gets downright sentimental at times, as they both have to acknowledge multiple times in these episodes how much their partnership means to them, particularly as the threat of further separation keeps rearing its head. We get more material referencing Sherlock's past, with regular appearances by older brother Mycroft and couple of great comedic scenes with their parents. It all serves to demystify Sherlock Holmes as a character, which I rather enjoyed, but may set other fans' teeth on edge.

All the emphasis on character exploration means that the mysteries get rather shortchanged this year. The first and second installments both feature exciting, but uninvolving cases that aren't presented in a particularly engaging way. They feel incidental to everything else that's going on, and a little slapdash in basic construction. It's only the finale that features a pair of strong villains that feel like real threats, one of them a blackmail artist played with great panache by Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen. Unfortunately, that installment gets tripped up by a particularly poor ending, especially compared to the previous series' cliffhanger. Also, there are many more self-referential moments, which don't add much to the stories.

The season still features plenty of its trademark inventiveness, lots of little clever bits of plotting, and some really good dialogue. I especially liked the way that the first episode offers multiple theories and explanations for how Sherlock Holmes faked his death, starting with a totally unrealistic one straight out of a Hollywood action movie. The problem is that the scripts are overstuffed and too ambitious, juggling lots of different disparate elements that fail to cohere as well as they have in the past. We zip from comic scenes to sober ones to action beats to bromance at a lightning pace. Though I saved them up, I found couldn't watch more than one installment at a time.

If you set the twisty mysteries aside, however, and focus on the character drama, "Sherlock" is still very consistent and a lot of fun. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are both excellent, and their rapport is as good as it ever was. They handle this year's lighter material with ease, and both seem to enjoy the sillier moments. Cumberbatch manages to make a particularly long and unwieldy comic sequence in the second episode work seemingly by sheer force of will. Amanda Abbington's a great addition to the cast, with such an easy chemistry with Martin Freeman that it comes as no surprise that they're romantic partners in real life.

I hope "Sherlock" doesn't end here, because it would be a very unsatisfying place to stop. The third series feels like a transitional one, a stepping stone to a different phase of the show's existence. However, considering the difficulties with the production of "Sherlock," juggling the schedules of two much in-demand lead actors, I'm a little worried about this approach. If we have another two-year wait before the fourth series, it doesn't help that we've been left with a set of episodes that ended so weakly. I really hope the last twist was a red herring.

Oh well. There's still every reason to stay optimistic, considering the level of the talent involved. The wait begins for Year Four.
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It used to be that the start of the TV midseason in January was for the premieres of the second-stringers, new shows that weren't good enough to premiere in the fall, and the return of existing ones that were solid but unspectacular performers. A few familiar titles might be held back to plug in expected holes in a network's schedule, and a few shows might be switched to different time slots, but there was nothing really big to look forward to.

Well, cable content changed all that with its vastly different year-round scheduling, and the rise of foreign television and the web-content have only made the change more pronounced. Now there's a lot of new television to look forward to each January, and this year looks like it's going to get off to a big start. Lots of new shows and lots of returing ones will hit the airwaves soon, giving February's Sochi Winter Olympics some serious competition for eyeballs. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most anticipated shows coming (back) our way.

"Community" and "Hannibal" - Both of these critical darlings were renewed by the skin of their teeth for NBC, and both are coming back shortly after New Years. Original recipe showrunner Dan Harmon is back for a course-correction after the not-entirely-disastrous fourth season of "Community," and there may be hope for a sixth season yet. The really interesting one to keep an eye on will be "Hannibal" though. The buzz for this show has only increased during its hiatus, and hopefully audiences have had a chance to catch up on the first season. It'll be taking over the Friday late night slot from "Dracula" in February.

"Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" - The fourth series of "Downton Abbey" ran from September to November of 2013 in the UK, and will be coming to PBS in January. Viewers regularly complain about the gap in broadcast dates, but that gap keeps getting shorter as the series progresses. "Sherlock" fans will have an even shorter wait. The much anticipated third series premieres on New Years Day in the UK, but will begin airing on PBS on January 19th, and hit DVD and Blu-Ray the week after that. And let's not forget the "Doctor Who" Christmas Special, which BBC America will air on the same day as its premiere in the UK.

"True Detective" and "Black Sails" - One of the most anticipated HBO originals in some time is its upcoming drama series that will star Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as a pair of detectives on the hunt for a serial killer. Billed as an anthology of crime stories, the cast is expected to change with each season, so its high profile leads aren't locked into a multi-year commitment. It premieres January 12th. Two weeks later over on Starz, we'll see the premiere of "Black Sails," a pirate-themed adventure show following Captain Flint and his crew. This should not be confused with the upcoming NBC series "Crossbones," with John Malkovitch, which has yet to secure a premiere date.

"Flowers in the Attic" and "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" - Lifetime has latched on to event movie after the headline generating buzz of projects like "Liz & Dick." This January we'll be getting a new adaptation of the notorious V.C. Andrew novel "Flowers in the Attic," starring Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn as members of a seriously dysfunctional family. And then comes "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" starring Christina Ricci in the title role. Lifetime isn't exactly known for the quality of their TV films, the descendants of the once-popular network "Movie of the Week" franchises, but these both of these projects feature a lot of good talent and the trailers that have been released certainly make them look like a lot of fun.

"Space Dandy" - Almost entirely under the radar to everyone except us anime fans, "Space Dandy" is the newest series from Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of the beloved "Cowboy Bebop" and "Samurai Champloo." The series will actually be premiering first in the US on January 4th, fully dubbed, on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and then in Japan a day later. This isn't the first time a US broadcaster has made a deal like this, but I've never seen one for a series so highly anticipated. "Space Dandy" will be a science-fiction adventure comedy, following the adventures of a super-cool and super-perverted alien hunter.

Other January season premieres include "Girls," "Archer," "Justified," "Mythbusters" (which is kicking things off with a "Star Wars" special), "House of Lies," "Banshee," "Shameless," "Episodes," "Teen Wolf," "Pretty Little Liars," "White Collar," and "The Fosters," "The Americans," "Vikings," and "House of Cards" will be back in February.

On the network side, I'm still holding out hope for the Alphonso Cuaron-produced supernatural series "Believe," which is slotted for the mid-season, but had its premiere date pushed back after reports of production troubles. Also keeping an eye on FOX's "Rake" with Greg Kinnear" and the army-themed comedy, "Enlisted."
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To wrap up my coverage of the series, and to acknowledge how it left us wanting more, I've decided to write up a list of the Top Ten completely made-up "Breaking Bad" spinoffs I'd like to see, featuring some of our favorite surviving characters, and a few who who didn't. This excludes "Better Call Saul," which is actually going to happen now.

Of course none of these are ever going to happen. But wouldn't it be fun if they did?

Alaska, Bitch - Jesse makes it to Alaska, and gets work as a carpenter. But just when he's settled into his new life and his new identity, Jane's father shows up, recently released from prison. He recognizes Jesse and decides that some revenge is in order. However, since Mr. Margolis has broken parole and is also on the run, he can't risk drawing attention to himself either. Cat and mouse (and moose?) games ensue.

Albuquerque Yellow Cab - Skyler caught the empire-building bug from Walt and ends up taking over the taxi service she's working at with some of the Gray Matter money. She reconciles with Marie, whose kleptomania results in her driving off with an entire MRI machine after a very bad day. This leads to the sisters getting involved in the medical equipment black market. Skyler uses the taxi company to launder their earnings.

Meth Queens - Fast forward twenty years into the future when Holly "Seaborg" White, Kaylee Ehrmantraut, and Kira Rodarte-Quayle have grown up. The trio have a chance meeting in prison, having all lead disreputable lives, that leads to the resurrection of their parents' meth empire. Their greatest enemy? Brock Castillo, who has taken over the Juarez cartel and is still trying to avenge the death of his mother.

Huell's Diner - Well, somebody had to find the barrels of money that the Nazis left behind, right? Huell and Kuby blow most of it, but after some bad repercussions are smart enough to use the last few grand on opening their own diner. You look at Huell and tell me that's not a man who appreciates diner food. Walt Jr. works the grill part time, specializing in breakfast. Wendy gets hired as the worst waitress ever.

Los Pollos Hermanos - The story of how Gus came to America and started his empire. Of all the characters in "Breaking Bad," it's Gus who I think really has the most potential to sustain a whole series. We could dig into his past in Chile, relationship with his former partner, and see how he first met Mike, Gale, Victor, and Tyrus. Or we could just spend twenty episodes watching him intimidate his restaurant employees.

Young Heisenberg - Let's go way, way back to when Walter White was a budding genius in the 1960s, using feats of SCIENCE! to defeat playground bullies and make a little extra cash selling souped up cherry bombs. Perhaps he was exposed to EARLY radiation testing, which is the reason why he develops lung cancer later in life. And hey, if AMC needs some convincing, there's plenty of potential for "Mad Men" crossovers!

Juarez Cartel - A prequel series about the Salamanca family, specifically about the relationship between the twins and their uncle Hector. I'm sure Tuco would be involved too, since he seems much closer to his Tio than the cousins. I assume that Hector ended up in the wheelchair because of a stroke or a disease, but maybe the paralysis was caused by something else. And did he have any other run-ins with Gus Fring?

Gray Matters - I'm not as interested in learning the particulars of Walt's falling out with Gretchen and Elliot as I am finding out what happens to them after Walt leaves a pile of cash and a sword of Damocles over their heads. Gray Matter appears to be in trouble, from the severity of the PR firestorm, and following through with Walt's demands may turn the heat up more. Surely these two beautiful people are hiding something.

Badger and Skinny Pete Go Hollywood - Everyone's favorite stoner duo capitalizes on Badger's fanfiction writing abilities and Skinny Pete's musical talent to make it in show business. Let's say they crate a web series that becomes a viral sensation and attracts the attention of Hollywood. They head out to Los Angeles for many happy misadventures in Tinseltown, eventually becoming beloved dealers to the rich and famous.

Crime and Cinnabons - If "Better Call Saul" is going to be a prequel series, that means there's still room for a Saul Goodman sequel series. An Omaha Cinnabon becomes Saul's new unofficial dispensary for under-the-table legal advice, mostly to small time crooks, but Saul inevitably gets caught up in bigger crimes again. This also presents and opportunity to witness some of the unseen fallout of Walt's death from afar.
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I like mystery films, especially twisty, plotty mysteries that hold back a key piece of the puzzle until the very end, one that usually puts everything else that has transpired into a new perspective. I'm writing about two recent additions to the genre today, Danny Boyle's "Trance" and Louis Leterrier's "Now You See Me," two movies that have practically nothing in common except that they both follow this same kind of basic structure. And their faults, stemming from how they use this structure, are practically the inverse of one another.

Danny Boyle returns to his R-rated crime thriller roots with "Trance," where an art auctioneer, Simon (James McAvoy), participates in the theft of a valuable painting. The painting goes missing after the heist, but Simon can't remember what happened to it, having sustained significant head trauma. To cure the amnesia, his associate in crime, Franck (Vincent Cassel), sends Simon to undergo hypnosis therapy by a therapist named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson). Both men fall in love with Elizabeth, who has her own agenda.

Because "Trance" unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner, it is dependent on character drama and the mechanics of its twisty plot. Hypnosis is essentially treated like mind control here, and poor Simon's head gets so scrambled, it's a wonder he can walk straight. The actors are all very strong, though, and do a good job of selling the unbelievable. Boyle summons up all kinds of fancy visual tricks to portray the effects of hypnosis too. It is nice to see Danny Boyle doing a bloody, pulpy genre movie again. "Trance" earns its R-rating with a good amount of violence, gore, full frontal nudity, and profanities in abundance. All of the characters are terrible people, and it's a lot of fun watching them screw with each other.

However, a major problem is that while the mystery is interesting, the characters are very thin, which is necessary to some degree because of how the plot functions. For much of the movie, you simply can't know much about Simon or Elizabeth or the story doesn't work. The film gets muddled in its second act as it labors to keep everyone from figuring out the truth about the painting too quickly, and it often feels like it's artificially prolonging the suspense. When the big reveal comes, it's a good one and it satisfies, but it takes some patience a lot of suspension of disbelief to get to that point. I can't help thinking that the film should have been much shorter or that it could have used another subplot or two.

"Now You See Me," on the other hand, has no trouble at all keeping the momentum going. A quartet of magicians, illusionist J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and street magician Dave Franco (Dave Franco) are recruited by a mysterious benefactor to become The Four Horsemen, a team that utilizes all their combined talents to pull off a series of fantastic, large-scale stunts. When one performance involves them appearing to rob a bank in France from a stage in Las Vegas, the police get involved. The FBI's Agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol's Agent Dray (Mélanie Laurent) are thrown together to investigate the puzzling crime.

Again, thin characters, but because this is an action flick full of chase sequences and flashy stunts, our enjoyment doesn't really depend on them. All the actors give serviceable performances, including Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in minor roles, and that's all that's really necessary. The film is eventful enough and inventive enough in the way it handles each new bit of magical mayhem that it breezes through most of the running time. The major weak point is Ruffalo and Laurent's characters, who get the clunkiest expository dialogue and don't connect the way they need to. Laurent in particular is saddled by a near-impenetrable accent and an especially underwritten part.

And then comes the ending, where it all falls to pieces. I enjoyed the first 80% of "Now You See Me," and then comes the big reveal, which does everything wrong. It's not set up well at all. It feels completely arbitrary, like someone simply picked the final mastermind's name out of a hat. It undermines a lot of the story and is logically unsound. And frankly, it cheats. I find it's a very bad sign where immediately after seeing a film my first instinct is to figure out where the story went wrong and how it could have been corrected. "Trance" may have exaggerated what hypnosis is actually capable of, but it played fair by its own rules. "Now You See Me" doesn't.

So "Trance" comes out well ahead of "Now You See Me" in the final tally for executing its basic premise better, but I'm actually looking forward to the announced "Now You See Me" sequel. The movie didn't do much with the most interesting characters, and I think it has a good shot at metamorphosing into something like the "Fast & Furious" franchise, except with magic acts instead of car racing. And it wouldn't be hard at all to improve on the first movie.
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Spoilers, spoilers, and more spoilers, ahead.

So let's briefly recap here. The ricin was for Lydia. The M60 was for Jack's gang. The lottery ticket was for Skyler. The money was for Flynn and Holly, by way of Gretchen and Elliot and a couple of laser pointers. Everything went according to plan for Walt, in a season where nothing went according to plan. And boy was it satisfying to watch Heisenberg engineer his last impossible string of stunts. He went out on a high note, finally accepting the consequences of being a bad guy, and able to end his story on his own terms.

Did the finale make Walt seem too heroic, as some reviews have suggested? I don't think that's the message here. Jesse would have been perfectly justified in shooting Walt down, as he was justified in strangling Todd. Skyler was cold and distant, offering little sympathy, and none was expected. Walt didn't even try to have a last moment with his son. No, this was about Walt acknowledging his own faults at last, and putting them to use to try and fix some of his most egregious mistakes. The most significant moments of the night were Walt admitting to Skyler that he started cooking meth for himself, not for the family, and finally being direct with Jesse. No more lies or pretenses. He's just a bad man willing to do horrible things to get what he wants. The whole bit with Gretchen and Elliot made that explicit.

As finales go, this one was certainly eventful, but not nearly as eventful as some of the other episodes of "Breaking Bad" in this final half season. There were no unexpected deaths or major twists. The big showdown was telegraphed far in advance, and the camera lingered on the Stevia packet and Lydia's tea. We checked in with all the remaining characters, but it's far from certain what will happen to them in the fallout from Walt's death. Does Walt's scheme with the money actually work? Will the police find Jesse? Does Lydia have a chance of surviving the ricin if she gets to the hospital in time? I can still see a worst case scenario where Jesse and Skyler both end up in prison, and a vengeful, crippled Lydia hires more hit men. And there are still plenty of unanswered questions. What happened at Gray Matter? Who spray-painted HEISENBERG on the living room wall?

Emotionally, though, I got all the closure I wanted for Walt's story. When Walt returns to town, it feels like it's been eons. He was essentially a dead man in "Granite State," and "Felina" marks a brief resurrection. Chance and luck, and from the opening segment, perhaps God are on his side, allowing him the opportunity to make some amends and settle some scores. Walt knows he has no time left, and there's no self-delusion that he can tell the truth later, or explain himself later. There's a finality to every conversation, except those with Todd, Lydia, and Jack, who still require a little manipulation. From his feigned desperation, though, you can tell that's not who Walt is anymore. This Walt has accepted his existence is finite, and only wants enough time to take care of a few last pieces of business. Jack tries to bargain with a Walt who no longer exists.

Is the ending a little too neat, though? Would we have been better served by more moments of ambiguity, or a few more reminders of Walt's failures? Should the writers have spent more time on thematic resonance instead of making sure that every last little thread of the plot was nicely wrapped up for us? I don't see people dissecting "Felina" the way that they dissected the famous ending of "The Sopranos" or even "The Shield" for years to come. However, "Breaking Bad" is not nearly as deep or weighty or as ultimately tragic as either of those shows. It's always been a very slick piece of entertainment, that puts the audience's enjoyment first. And I can't think of an ending that could have imparted more enjoyment to the audience than Walt using SCIENCE! one last time to dispatch his enemies, and Jesse getting away.

I've barely left myself any room to talk about the production, but I loved that we got a final alt-POV cam shot, gorgeous southwestern vistas, and lots of other fancy visuals - the slow reveal of Walt in Skyler's sad apartment, the Hitchcock shots of Walt's keys, Walt exploring the Schwartzes' new house, the police car lights through a snow-covered windshield, and finally that last, overhead shot of Walt in the meth lab. Vince Gilligan directed this one, and he gave it his all. I especially liked that Walt died surrounded by scientific equipment, in a lab similar to the one where he found the most happiness in the last two years of his life.

I'll have a wrap-up post for the whole series in a few days, possibly a Top Ten. Then it's on to "Better Call Saul."
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I briefly had some hopes for "The Blacklist." James Spader plays Raymond "Red" Reddington, on the FBI's Most Wanted list for being the "concierge of crime," who facilitates the misdeeds of others. When he surrenders himself at FBI headquarters, offering information on an upcoming crime, FBI Assistant Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) and his team are understandably wary of their old foe, but Red is convincing. Spader chews the scenery with everything he's got, and the pilot's biggest problem is that there's not enough of him in it.

You see, Red insists that the only person he'll talk to directly is brand new FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), who turns out to be our real main character. Boone is about to adopt a child with her husband Tom (Ryan Eggold), and displays a personality entirely too open and cuddly to take very seriously. When she describes herself as a "bitch" with a tendency to be remote, I wondered if the role had been recast at the last minute. It was as though someone had hired Jewel Staite to play warrior woman Zoe on "Firefly" instead of sunny sweetheart Kaylee. Boone herself appears to be a pretty competent actress, but the mass of contradictions about her character was too distracting to take.

Otherwise, "The Blacklist" is a fairly typical crime drama. It's big distinguishing characteristic is a of those hammy mastermind characters who would be utterly insufferable if the actor playing him weren't so charismatic. There's slightly more intense violence than the norm. The good guys run around trying to solve the mystery and avert a major crime, relying on a lot of convenient contrivances and well-timed reveals. There's a lot of series mythology set up, and it's all to easy to conclude that Red's interest in Agent Keen points to him being her father. On a better show, I'd assume this is a red herring, but "Blacklist" isn't good enough yet to earn that much benefit of the doubt from me. It's too slapdash, spending way too much time on action set-pieces and sinister hints of a big backstory, and not enough on characters. Poor Diego Klattenhoff plays an agent whose job seems to be to run around playing the gullible patsy to everyone else in the show.

I can certainly see "The Blacklist" improving with time, but there are too many similar shows out there already for me to stick around to see how things pan out.

Now on to Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," one of the most anticipated shows of this season because it shares continuity with the Marvel cinematic universe. And indeed, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) from "The Avengers" stars as the leader of a new global response team set up to deal with incidents involving superhumans, and there are references to Iron Man and the Hulk tossed out left and right. Joss Whedon directed the pilot, and wrote it in collaboration with showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. And as with all Whedon shows, the best parts are in the dialogue - the little quips, the self-aware moments of superhero meta, and the characters' banter. This is in spite of Marvel and Disney clearly spending quite a chunk of change, paying for lots of fancy special effects, fight sequences, crazy vehicles, and a big finale sequence at the crowded Union Station in Los Angeles.

I wasn't expecting much more than the razzle dazzle and some character introductions, but the pilot does set up some interesting themes. Along with Agent Coulson, the ensemble includes black ops hard-case Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), the bruiser with the past, Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), nerdy techies Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) who are regularly lumped together as "Fitzsimmons," and the newest recruit to the team, Skye (Chloe Bennet), an anarchic super-hacker who spends much of the hour actively working against "S.H.I.E.L.D." The secret government agents are the good guys, but viewed with great suspicion by people who often have good reasons to be wary of them. The complications of working for Big Brother could yield some good things, and the best bits of the hour involve Coulson and Ward trying to convince civilian characters why they're worthy of their trust. One could draw parallels to Whedon's employment by the Disney empire.

But that's beside the point. The show is light and fun to watch. It's family friendly and cheesetastic, but the humor is sharp when it needs to be. The characters are not yet fully formed, but they have loads of potential. Whedonverse regular J. August Richards shows up here as a guest star, playing a sympathetic sad-sack whose superpowers lead to a lot of trouble. He makes such a great impression, I think it's a shame that he's not going to be a regular. Still, I'll be sticking with "S.H.I.E.L.D." for at least a few more weeks to see if they can keep the quality up.

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For years Warner Bros. has been trying to capitalize on the success of Batman through a television spinoff, they way they did with the long-running Superman series "Smallville." There was the "Batman: Year One" prequel project that would have explored Bruce Wayne's early days as the Bat, a project that eventually became "Batman Begins." There was the "Graysons," about the pre-Robin youth of the Boy Wonder. And there was the very, very short-lived "Birds of Prey," about a trio DC universe superwomen with ties to Batman. Now here's the latest - FOX has committed to a pilot for "Gotham," that looks at Gotham City before Batman showed up on the scene, focusing on a younger Commissioner Gordon. It's "Batman: Year One" without Batman.

The impetus for this development is obvious. The premiere of Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" won high ratings last night for ABC (review forthcoming). It marks the first major entry of the Marvel universe into live-action television in some time, and there has been talks of other shows in the works, like the rumored Agent Peggy Carter spinoff. DC has had plenty of successful shows over the years, but we could certainly stand to see a few more, especially if they want to explore some of their non-superhero titles. "Gotham" is clearly an attempt at putting some of their lower-profile Batman characters to work the way Marvel is opting to use some of its lesser-known characters in "S.H.I.E.L.D"

And sure, why not? This isn't a new idea. There was a forty-issue "Gotham Central" comic book series that ran from 2003-2006 based around the daily travails of the Gotham City Police Department, and there was some talk of a TV adaptation. "Gotham" sounds very similar since it centers around the Commissioner. The Batman universe also has several other memorable law enforcement characters, including detectives Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya, who have long histories in the comics. Removing Batman from the picture doesn't mean that his rogue's gallery of villains is off limits, and there are some good ones who are never going to be considered heavyweight enough to show up in the films. Plus, we might finally also see some development for minor, but important characters like Thomas and Martha Wayne, the parents of Bruce Wayne.

I might have been more wary of this news a few years ago, but we're been seeing a good number of successful prequel series lately, including "Hannibal," "Bates Motel," and AMC just ordered up the "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul." Prequels don't have to be a narrative dead end, especially when they're working with a universe as colorful and well-populated as Gotham City. My hope is that "Gotham" will take the plunge and really commit to the idea of showing the downfall of a great city. Maybe it could be a period piece, taking advantage of the '30s detective serial and noir origins of Batman. These were always the elements that the movies tended to overlook or downplay, opting instead for the more fancy action sequences and funny costumes.

I also take heart that the series will be headed to FOX and not the CW, which is currently airing the DC series "Arrow." Though there are exceptions, CW's has a younger target audience and they tend to go for slicker, broader material. I gave up on "Arrow" pretty quickly when it became apparent that they were doing everything they could to hide its comic book origins under a mountain of generic teen drama cliches. There's no guarantee that FOX will want to aim "Gotham" at grown-ups, but if they do, at least they have more experience fostering good genre shows like "The X-Files" and "Fringe." I'd rather we got a series that could be paired up with the happily campy "Sleepy Hollow" than one that could be paired up with "Arrow."

There are plenty of reasons to be wary, of course. The later seasons of "Smallville" turned into a showcase for minor DC superheroes and dragged out its origin story past the point of absurdity. "Arrow" looks like it's about to go down the same path, dragging the Flash into this season's storylines. I wouldn't be too keen on watching a version of "Gotham" where we're hammered over the head with allusions to future characters and events week after week. However a solid crime procedural with some flamboyant criminals could be a lot of fun.

What interests me most is which version of Batman "Gotham" is intended as a prequel for. The Nolanverse films? The backstory for the Ben Affleck Bat? Or something entirely different? And for those of you who would rather have a Batman series with Batman, there's already a perfectly good on airing on CBS - "Person of Interest."
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Spoilers, yo.

So after all that talk about family, what draws Walter White out of hiding isn't that he's worried about his kids or that he wants to rescue Jesse. No, it's plain old pride. It's a Charlie Rose interview with his former business partners, Gretchen and Elliott, who they paint an unflattering picture of how he's likely to be remembered. This finally puts Walt on the road to back to New Mexico and the teasing flash-forwards from earlier in the season.

But first, an hour of watching the further fallout from the events of last week's "Ozymandias." Walt dwindles into illness and self-doubt in the isolation of the New Hampshire wilderness, with only intermittent visits from Saul's fixer, Ed, played by a perfectly cast Robert Forster. Most of the other major characters only get a scene or two apiece, each highlighting more nasty surprises. Marie discovers her home ransacked. Skyler and Holly are threatened by a masked Todd, who orders Skyler to clam up about Lydia's involvement. Flynn (emphatically not Junior anymore) gets an upsetting phone call during chemistry class. Saul, also fleeing Albuquerque, has one last unpleasant encounter with Walt. Jesse discovers that Jack and his gang don't make idle threats.

However it's not Jesse but Todd who is our counterpoint to Walt in this episode. He's everywhere, still trying to pursue Lydia's affections through 92% pure blue meth, being alternately nice and cruel to Jesse, threatening Skyler, and hinting at the complexities of his relationship with Uncle Jack. Jack is still among the most underdeveloped villains on the show, but he and Todd are giving Gus Fring a run for the title of most horrifying. They have no limits, no moral code, and are not the kind to be reasoned with. The only thing Jack seems to respect is family, which makes him a dark mirror of Walt. Note that it's not the money that sways Jack, but the realization that his nephew is sweet on Lydia. Todd, however, is the reverse of Jesse, never emotional, and unthinking in his loyalty and devotion. I'm sure he sleeps very well at night after murdering innocent people.

A great deal of time passes during this episode, as evidenced by Walt's deteriorating mental and physical condition, but it's not clear how long exactly, so it's hard to say when all these different events are taking place. Cranston's performance helps to sell the most important moments, particularly the final Forster scene where Walt offers him ten grand to just delay leaving for an hour. This is Walt at his absolute lowest point, having failed to manipulate Saul or Ed, and even his own son won't play along with his desperate scheme to get money to his family. It was widely discussed how the show could have ended with "Ozymandias" last week, but it also could have ended here, with Walt's spiritual defeat.

For those who wanted to see Walt end up in prison, his miserable life in hiding is a good approximation. He starts out full of plans, full of determination to smite his enemies and gain the upper hand once again. However, he finds himself powerless and without recourse, fuming while the world moves on without him, but too afraid of bringing worse consequences on his head to "leave the reservation." The snows of New Hampshire provide a great contrast to the New Mexico desert, an alien landscape Walter White is wary of traversing alone. So his plans fall apart. The cancer eats at his strength. The loneliness gets him. Heisenberg goes dormant. And after Flynn rejects him, you can understand why Walt would think the only way out is turning himself in.

But the rest of the episode sets up far too many unanswered questions and unresolved plot threads that still need to be paid off, and we've already seen that "Breaking Bad" is very good at making things pay off. So Lydia's bloodthirst and Skyler's endangerment will have to be addressed. And Jesse's situation and the threat hanging over Brock will have to be addressed. And the fact that Walt is barreling back into town apparently having no idea about either situation is not an outcome I was expecting. I believe next week's extra long finale is going to go quickly, because though "Granite State" also ran an extra ten minutes, it didn't feel any longer than usual.

I have no idea what's going to happen next, and at this stage I'm doing my best to keep from speculating or trying to set any expectations. "Breaking Bad" has already given us two potential endings that have addressed most of the things I wanted to see before the series ended, and now it's going for a third. Hopefully there's a final Jesse and Walt confrontation ahead, but I don't want to even guess at how it's going to play out.
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Spoilers ahead.

All I could think as I finished this episode was that people were going to be debating the meaning of the dog in the last shot for ages. That's because "Breaking Bad" has cemented itself in these past few episodes as one of the television greats. It was no mystery what was going to happen – there have been commentators making very accurate predictions all week, about who was going to die, what would happen to Jesse, and so forth. The crux is the execution. It's in the little turns and character moments, the performances, and the show's now-familiar idiosyncrasies. It's not that fact that the big developments happened, but so many and so fast, and it was terrifying to watch each domino fall.

The cold open was a flashback to the beginning of the series, a blunt reminder of how far the characters have come, but all too soon we were back in the firefight. I can already hear the complaints about how it was unrealistic that Hank wouldn't be blown to smithereens in an assault like that, but I appreciate that it allows for Walt's doomed last ditch attempt to bargain for Hank's life, which of course only results in Walt giving up one of his last bargaining chips, and Hank ("My name is ASAC Schrader") being shot in the head anyway. I love that Hank knows and accepts what's going to happen, while Walt still thinks he can control the situation if he can just come up with the right thing to say. But the decision's already made.

Walt's barrels of money falling into the hands of Jack's gang (I refer to them as such to avoid the Nazi v. White Supremacist debate), but Jack leaving Walt with a single barrel of money was unexpected. It's a reminder that the villains in "Breaking Bad" tend to be complicated souls, and if we had more time to spend with Jack, we'd surely get to know those complications better. All we have here are some hints, not entirely satisfying ones, but still indicative of the character having the potential to be more interesting. Todd, however, we've gotten to know, and he just keeps getting creepier. Ever polite, ever softspoken, ever helpful, heaven help us if her ever decides he doesn't want to be somebody's stooge anymore, and strikes out on his own.

And poor Jesse. Poor, poor Jesse. Walt blames him for everything going sour, and orders his death to his face this time. And to twist the knife, we finally get the Jane reveal. Of course, Uncle Jack still needs a meth cook, so Walt only ends up damning him to the hell of a new meth lab. The scene where Todd takes him to cook has very little dialogue, but so much is conveyed through the images – Jesse's bloody face, the grated pit, the handcuffs and leash, and finally the photograph of Andrea and Brock. Throw in Todd's completely unperturbed demeanor, and it's gut-wrenching. In a different episode, this would be the most shocking moment of the night, but then we go catch up with how Walt's family has been handling the news of his reported arrest.

Nobody predicted what was going to happen at the White household, and I wonder if the cliffhanger might have been designed to deflect some of the speculation. Everyone was so concerned with what would happen to Hank and Jesse, the developments with Skyler and Junior were unexpected. Junior had to find out sometime, and it was a probable outcome of Walt's arrest, but who guessed Marie would be such a key player in the decision? And since Skyler' alignment with Walt against Marie and Hank, I thought she's passed the point of no return. But no, she still has limits. "What's one more?" was okay when it was Jesse, but not Hank.

Whatever happens in the finale, the White household confrontation scene was the one I'd been waiting for. Walt trying to bully and cajole his loved ones into following orders, Skyler calling him out and having her horrific epiphany – Go Anna Gunn! – and then the misdirection with the cel-phone, the ultimatum, the knife fight (I was dreading/anticipating a fatality right there on the newly replaced rug), and finally Walt confronted with the sight of Skyler and Junior treating him as the threat, the bad guy, the unwanted intruder. And his first instinct, in the face of this rejection, is to ensure the one member of his family he hasn't alienated remains on his side.

The baby grabbing struck me as repetitive at first, but it does show Walt hitting rock bottom. Then it gives him a chance to show that he isn't a complete monster, and still has his family's best interests at heart. The phone call to Skyler suggests that he may be able to find redemption in the next two episodes. His snarling, played-up confession provides her with an alibi, and serves as a goodbye and apology too. It's one of the show's very best scenes, and Bryan Cranston is just fantastic. By the time Holly was found in the firetruck, I was on his side again.

And while there wasn't much to laugh about this week, I love that the creators still got in that whimisical bit with Walt rolling his barrel of money through the desert, plus a bonus ironic song choice.

And Rian Johnson. Just, Rian Johnson.
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There is so much to talk about with Netflix dramedy "Orange is the New Black." I could discuss how it features such a diverse cast of female characters - lots of black and Latino actresses, old and young, straight and lesbian and bisexual, and even a transgender male-to-female inmate. It puts the spotlight on the women who you rarely see on television in any meaningful roles. I could talk about how in examining the ins and outs of the prison experience, it tells the stories of those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, those most affected by drug use, mental health issues, alcoholism, neglect, and abuse. Or I could talk about the depiction of prison life itself, unglamorous and unpleasant, where the system is rife with dysfunction, and the guards and administrators often seem as trapped as the prisoners.

But where I want to start is with Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the default Caucasian, educated, middle-class woman who is our entry point into this universe. Chapman is sentenced to eighteen months in a federal penitentiary, Litchfield, for transporting drug money for a former girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon), a decade prior. In the first episode Piper and her supportive fiance, Larry (Jason Biggs) arrive at the prison, trying to face their long separation bravely, and Piper having prepared by reading all the right books. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Piper is not prepared at all, for the infuriating bureaucracy, for the dehumanizing loss of basic privacy and trust, for the apathetic and abusive authorities, for the loss of the amenities she's taken for granted, and for a prison culture that is defined by a set of hard rules that Piper keeps running afoul of.

Very quickly it's apparent that Piper is the one who is in the minority, the odd one out, who has to confront the fact that she's had all the advantages and is far, far luckier than the majority of the women in Litchfied. And though the series keeps her at the center of the show, and follows her difficulties with prison life, the scope grows to examine the lives of other characters. There's Red (Kate Mulgrew), the Russian who runs the kitchen with an iron fist, but also looks out for her some of the younger inmates she has adopted as her "daughters." There's the hostile Latina mother and daughter pair of Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Daya (Dascha Polanco). There's Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), who is a little unhinged and wants Piper to become her prison wife. There's religious fanatic Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning). Their's Lorna (Yael Stone) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), girls who Chapman eats her meals with. There are best friends Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks), two highly opinionated and exuberant black women. There's Sophia (Laverne Cox), who funded her sex-change with stolen credits cards. It's easy to confuse allies and enemies, those who are truly mean and hurtful with the damaged, the misunderstood, and those just trying to survive.

Makeup is in short supply and all the inmates are in orange or tan prison garb, so the women look more like real, genuine women than they so often do on television, and their personalities are more distinct. The close quarters of the prison force them all to interact with each other, and the interactions are often hostile, full of posturing and threats to maintain the pecking order. They curse frequently, make bawdy jokes, and small offenses can trigger big reprisals. They stringently delineate lines between races, cultures, and classes where they can, but ultimately everyone is in the same boat, and everyone hates Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber), the slimebag guard with grabby hands. So there are also the friendships and the romances and the little moments of shared hilarity. We get to know these women intimately, a motley collection of people on the lowest rung, trying to recover from one mistake too many. Flashbacks are a big part of many episodes, filling in character details, and providing vital context. Sometimes we learn what crimes they committed and sometimes we don't, and it doesn't matter.

Piper unravels further in prison, confronted with her own demons as she learns to survive in Litchfield. A big chunk of the narrative is devoted to her, and to Larry trying to cope with her absence on the outside. Larry's scenes often feel tedious, because his problems often come across as so insignificant and petty next to what's going on the prison, and Piper's do too, to a lesser extent. However, they are necessary to ground us, to remind us of the accepted, mainstream conception of prison life, and how that contrasts with the actual reality of it. "Orange is the New Black" is surely not and entirely accurate picture of what goes on in a federal women's prison, though it's based on the memoir of a real former inmate, but it does such a good job of highlighting so many parts of the experience we never think about. It's closer than anyone else has ever gotten. We get the POV of the guards, the strained family and friends waiting on the outside, and so many different inmates who have so many different experiences. And they're all fantastic.

What I really appreciate is how jarring, how blunt, and how direct the writing is. This is an issue-based show that embraces the fact, and has plenty to say about its subject matter. Underneath the laughs and the melodrama and occasional poor music choices, there is pointed commentary about the state of prisons and the treatment of prisoners that has an unusual amount of impact. It helps that this is a stellar production, top to bottom, stuffed with great characters, strong performances, and twisty storylines that help to humanize each offender. The show was created by Jenji Kohan, most recently of "Weeds," who has a little experience with finding the lighter side of criminal activity.

I keep coming back to the word "different" to describe "Orange in the New Black," because I have never seen anything else like it, nothing with a POV that comes anywhere close. The networks and most cable channels would never have shown this. It might have found a home on HBO and Showtime, maybe, but its premiere on Netflix signals that the streaming service has truly arrived as a producer of quality programming. "Orange in the New Black" is a breakthrough, instantly up there with the all time greats. And I can't wait to see more.
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Spoilers for all episodes that have aired so far.

I was a little worried for the first half of this episode, which seemed to be taking its sweet time deciding where it wanted to go. After some table-setting exposition scenes with Lydia and the Aryan Brotherhood, Hank and Gomez pumping Huell for information was a bright spot, but then Walt pays an awkward visit to Andrea and Brock. This encounter is especially problematic because it only serves to underscore how awfully underwritten Andrea has been. She's a little too obliging when Walt comes to visit - surely she's not that naive considering her history. So much time was spent on these little set-up and establishing moments, even though I knew that "Breaking Bad" didn't have many episodes left, I expected this one would end uneventfully, having maneuvered all the characters a little closer to the positions they would need to be in for the big showdown we all knew was coming.

And then Jesse makes a phone call.

There are apparent dead ends all over this hour, but they aren't dead ends at all. Huell doesn't know where the barrels are, but he does provide enough information for Hank and Jesse to fake out Walt and get him to lead them to the money. Walt decides to call off the hit on Jesse, but Uncle Jack shows up anyway because he needs Walt to cook for him. The only move that was really foiled was Walt's visit to Andrea, because Hank intercepted the call, but I'm not sure if that one might come back next week in some form or another. This was a really smartly plotted episode, where it looks like we're only getting smaller developments at first: Walt agreeing to cook meth again, Hank taking Huell out of the picture, and the money barrels becoming important. But like so many previous episodes, suddenly the situation changes in an instant and we're in the desert with Walt getting arrested. And then the Aryan brotherhood shows up armed to the teeth.

Hank has apparently learned his lesson after getting outplayed by Walt so badly in the last few episodes. Here he and Gomez and Jesse pull off two elaborate fake-outs, the first to fool Huell into thinking he's on Walt's hit list, and the second to find Walt's stash. And it goes so beautifully that I knew something had to be up. Being able to handcuff and Mirandize Walt was a moment of glory that was hard won, but also comes much too early in the season to have any finality. When Hank called Marie to tell her the news, I had the sinking feeling that he was already dead, his arc played out and his usefulness to the story ended. Of course we won't know for sure until next week, thanks to the boldest cliffhanger the show has probably ever done. I've seen a few TV shows end mid-gunfight like this, but never so abruptly.

Walt's actions were the most fascinating this week though. He knows he's defeated in the desert, and gives up without a fight, with hardly a word of protest. Did he call off the hit when he saw that it was Hank driving up with Jesse? Or did seeing Jesse face to face make Walt realize that he didn't want to be responsible for his death? Earlier, he spells out for Jack that he considers Jesse family and wants him taken out painlessly, but fumbles as he tries to explain why he's ordering the hit. Should he have realized that the barrel photo was a fake? Possibly, but Walt in panic mode has always been prone to making mistakes, and he's still berating Jesse on the phone for being stupid, underestimating him again. It was a nice irony that Jesse's acting skills and Walt's emotionally manipulative appeals, surely caught on tape Hank and Gomez, will likely be what puts Walt away in the end.

And then there's Todd, creepily crushing on Lydia and making "marginally" better meth than Declan that still fails to live up the the Heisenberg brand. (Branding also comes up with Skyler and Walt Jr., working at the car wash.) Todd's utter nonchalance when he gets the call from Walt is chilling. And when he learns that it's Jesse who's the next target, someone he's worked with in the Vamanos scheme, still nothing. In fact, he's right there at the end, behind one of the cars, blasting away at Hank and Gomez.

So the question remains, who survives next week? Walt, definitely, because Jack and Todd still need him to cook. Jesse still has a lot of unfinished business with Walt, so he'll get away too. We got a taste of their inevitable final confrontation tonight - Walt calls Jesse a coward, Jesse spits on Walt, and passions are running high. Hank - I give him a 50/50 chance. You could still do a lot with Hank, but that phone call felt an awful lot like a goodbye. That leaves Gomez as the most likely casualty.

Next week Rian Johnson's back in the directing chair. Boy, oh boy.
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"The Fall" is a five-episode serial recently produced for television by the BBC. At first glance it's similar to many other crime dramas. A serial killer is on the loose in the area, preying on women who fit a certain profile. A sharp detective, an outsider with few allies, does her best to find him before he can kill again. The fact that the detective is a woman is no longer unusual, but the fact that it's a female detective acutely aware of the gender politics of the killings and her own uneasy place in the police hierarchy is something rare. Minor spoilers ahead for the first two episodes, just to be safe.

Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) comes to Belfast to review the recent investigation into the death of a young woman. She's warned by Assistant Chief Constable Jim Burns (John Lynch) that things are different in Northern Ireland, and suggests that she is unprepared. Soon the death of one woman becomes three, after an earlier crime is linked and another victim, Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly), is identified. We know from the start that the killer is a man named Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), a bereavement counselor who has a busy wife, Sally Anne (Bronagh Waugh), and two young children. Spector appears to be a normal, decent family man, but is driven by terrible sexual impulses and obsessions.

"The Fall" is chiefly comprised of a pair of character studies of Spector and Gibson, on opposite sides of the investigation. Spector juggles his nocturnal criminal activities with work and family obligations. He's constantly tempted by other women in his life, including Liz Tyler (Séainín Brennan), a mother he's counseling through the death of her son, and Katie (Aisling Franciosi), the flirty teenager who babysits his children. Gibson is soon involved as a witness in the death of a local detective she slept with, resulting in a political quagmire and potential scandal. The investigation continues to hit bumps and mistakes are made. The crimes escalate in due course, but the show is in no particular hurry to reach any sort of resolution or confrontation, more interested in the inner lives of its characters. The events of the series would have likely been compressed into a single episode by most other crime dramas. And that's precisely what makes it worth watching.

I found Gibson fascinating. She seems totally unflappable at first, taking charge and issuing orders with ease and authority. She is sexually forward and makes no apologies for it, coolly undercutting any attempts to shame her for her after-hours activities. She also matter-of-factly reminds those working on the case (and viewers at home) to refrain from making value judgments about the victims, something I can't remember seeing in any similar media without it coming off as haranguing. She's so smartly written, in a way that's conscious of all the gender and social issues that must surround a woman in her position, but without letting her character become beholden to them. It's one of the best roles Gillian Anderson has ever had, and I'm so glad she's appearing in more high-profile projects lately. I've missed her.

The approach to Paul Spector's portrayal is also unusual, one that spends as much time looking at his good side as it does at his bad side. We learn that Spector is a caring father who goes to great lengths to hide his proclivities from his family. He is a quiet man, protective of children in general, and has a strong sense of morality and justice. When he suspects his patient Liz may be being battered by her husband, he goes to visit her at home, unannounced. Sometimes he's put in situations that invites us to mistake him for a flawed hero, a sympathetic rule-breaker that we could root for. However, he is also unequivocally a monster, as we see in the gut-wrenching crimes he perpetrates. Jamie Dornan portrays both sides of Spector easily, and is especially good about getting across his pride and self-righteousness.

In some ways "The Fall" feels like a prequel to a larger series, the way it holds back from the usual plotty twists and turns of most investigation stories and ends in a place that seems to anticipate further installments. And sure enough, the BBC recently announced that a second series of "The Fall" has been commissioned for next year. I look forward to seeing more of Gibson and Spector, but part of me wonders if they shouldn't have left well enough alone. Part of the effectiveness of "The Fall" is that it doesn't follow the template of your average crime serial, and that it doesn't go where the audience thinks it will. I've seen so many similar shows come and go, but "The Fall" stands out for all the right reasons.

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Small towns full of dark secrets are a mainstay of mystery dramas and crime serials. We expect broken families, shady cover-ups, and a wary, insular community where the hero or heroine has few allies. All this applies to "Top of the Lake," set in the fictional town of Laketop, New Zealand, which true to its name sits at the top of a deceptively beautiful and dangerous lake. What distinguishes the seven episode miniseries is the involvement of writer-director Jane Campion, who created and wrote the show with Gerard Lee, and shares directing duties with Garth Davis. Campion is best known for "The Piano," and "Top of the Lake" is another insightful exploration of women caught in restrictive relationships and oppressive social roles.

Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is visiting her dying mother, Jude (Robyn Nevin) in Laketop, where she grew up. She's drawn into the investigation of a local twelve-year-old girl, Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), who tried to drown herself in the lake and turns out to be several months pregnant. When Tui disappears, the main suspect is Tui's father, Matt Mitchum (Peter Mullan), a cruel, tyrannical man who lives with his grown sons in a guarded compound, and exerts a great deal of influence over the rest of the community. Other suspects include a convicted pedophile (Jacek Koman), and a boy named Jaime (Luke Buchanan) who was friends with Tui. The last people to have seen Tui are the members of a troubled women's commune, lead by a spiritualist named GJ (Holly Hunter), living in shipping containers by the lake. Robin gets some help from the police, chiefly her supervising officer Detective Al Parker (David Wenham). Matt's youngest son Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), who is Robin's old high school boyfriend, also comes to her aid.

The first several episodes are slow and moody, but when "Top of the Lake" starts picking up the pace, the revelations come fast and furious, with uncommonly strong impact. This is the most satisfying take on the "small town full of secrets" premise that I've ever seen, because all of these secrets are devastating, and never treated like they're anything but devastating. Usually there's an illicit thrill to learning the awful truth in crime dramas, but this is not the case in "Top of the Lake," where the central crime is the sobering rape and abuse of a twelve-year-old, and the goal of the heroine is trying to prevent the situation from getting worse. The writing is intelligent, and expects intelligence from its viewers. Many truths are implied rather than stated, and there are major loose ends that are never addressed, but we get enough information to draw our own conclusions. I also appreciated the very strong, emphatically female point of view. Laketop is dominated by a highly patriarchal social structure, and violence against women is common. Robin has to treat nearly every male character as a potential threat, a mindset I've never seen brought to the screen so well. Yet most of the antagonists are humanized and sympathetic to some degree.

All the performances are terrific, with Elisabeth Moss doing a superb job in the lead role. Robin is as damaged as anyone else in Laketop, something we only learn gradually, as old wounds are reopened and events escalate. The twists and turns of the plot are familiar, and would be unbearably melodramatic if not handled right. However Robin is assertive at work, but professional, able to consider Al and Johnno as potential love interests while keeping the investigation her top priority, and when she does become emotional, it's not self-conscious. She's reminds me of Gillian Anderson's Agent Scully from "The X-files," usually cool and collected, but able to summon some real emotional fireworks when necessary. And then there's the terrific menace of Peter Mullan's Matt Mitchum, whose violent rages and mercurial moods make him a ticking time bomb in every scene. We know that Matt and his sons are murderers from very early on, but the police have no evidence and the Mitchums are confident that they won't be caught, having gotten away with so many other unspoken misdeeds.

"Top of the Lake" is one of the most beautiful pieces of television I've seen this year, with its bleak, stunning cinematography of the New Zealand mountains and lakes and wilderness. There's something very old-fashioned and highly effective about its quietness and its lack of visual bombast. It gives Laketown an atmosphere of chilly unapproachability, and raises the specter of older, more primal fears. It's also one of the most ambitious shows, presenting thoughtful examinations of gender roles and gender portrayals, tackling sex and violence and victimization with startling maturity.

This is one of the first major pieces of original content to be distributed by the Sundance Channel, and "Top of the Lake" is a perfect match for their emphasis on independent and world cinema. I hope we'll see more like it.
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I weighed doing a wrap-up post and thought that this would be a better way to cap off my posts about the series. This is the best time to do one of these lists, and I'm actually confident enough that I'm going to rank these picks. Some moderate spoilers ahead. And here we go:

10. "Return of the Kane" - Veronica's biases make her lose perspective while investigating a possibly rigged school election. Meanwhile, Logan has landed in hot water with his movie star father when it's discovered that Logan has been organizing bum fights. Right and wrong are often very tricky to define on this show, and this episode is particularly good at subverting our expectations and making it clear that nothing going on in Neptune is as simple as it looks on the surface.

9. "Normal is the Watchword" - One thing I really admire about "Veronica Mars" is how it can convey a lot of information very quickly in an entertaining way. The second season opener spends a lot of time catching us up on what happened over a very eventful summer, and how Veronica's status in Neptune has changed for the better. And after some relentless teasing, we learn the state of her love life too. Best of all is the big shocker ending, that sets up the season's ongoing mystery.

8. "Not Pictured" - And now from the first episode of Season Two to the finale, where the cultprit is revealed. The plot machinations are pretty ridiculous and unconvincing, particularly the way so many different bad actions are attributed to the villain in the end. However, the way the events play out is tense and thrilling in the moment. I also liked how the Wallace and Jackie storyline wrapped up, the awful graduation ceremony with Weevil, and seeing Aaron Echolls get what was coming to him.

"7. Like a Virgin" - The purity test website episode is a standard first season case-of-the-week for the most part, but it's a great example of how "Veronica Mars" can do unexpected things with familiar material and how its lead character is very much a moral relativist. Her tactics and final revenge are terribly mean, but fitting in context. Major recurring characters Meg and Mac are both introduced here, which I was glad to see, since "Veronica" was a little too light on female roles prior to this episode.

6. "Spit & Eggs" - One of the few episodes of Season Three that matches the level of dramatic intensity of the earlier seasons. It's the episode that brings the first major arc of the season to a close, revealing who has been behind the rapes that have been plaguing the campus, and then goes right on to set up the next mystery. We get a good action sequence with Veronica in real physical danger, Parker saving the day, and Logan being a reckless badass in one of his best moments ever.

5. "The Wrath of Con" - The case stuff is all fun, especially Veronica in cosplay and figuring out how to get around a perp's heavy duty security measures. However, what I like this one for is the flashbacks that establish what Veronica's life was like a year before and everything she's lost. It's a big character building episode, not just for Veronica, but for Duncan, Lilly, and Logan too. Logan in particular gets to advance significantly and show that he's not really such a jerk - at least not all the time.

4. "Pilot" - My favorite part of "Veronica Mars" is Veronica Mars herself, a cute blonde teenage girl with a fearsome brain and fearless attitude. The pilot establishes how she operates day to day, while gradually filling us in on her complex home life, school life, and the multiple mysteries that plague her. It also shows off the creators' penchant for dense plotting, clever zingers, and pop culture references. The moment the show won me over was when it was revealed that the dog was named Backup.

3. "Ain't No Magic Mountain High Enough" - Few of the second season's epiosdes stand out individually, but the school carnival episode is a highlight. Veronica is continuously foiled trying to investigate a theft and turns out to have been right all along. Logan woos a new love interest, but perhaps not for the reasons we think. And then there's poor Jackie, newly appointed school pariah, trying to keep her chin up. And boy is it satisfying to see the real villain get some well-deserved comeuppance.

2. "An Echolls Family Christmas" - Who loves a locked room mystery? I do! I do! Logan holds a poker game and the money goes missing. Veronica is recruited to interview the suspects and go over everyone's version of events. It's a standard mystery plot, handled in true "Veronica Mars" fashion, commenting on class divides and family values on the way to uncovering the truth. Keith Mars also finally gets in on the action in a subplot, investigating a stalker who may attack Aaron Echolls at his Christmas party.

1. "Leave it to Beaver" - This is one of my favorite finale episodes, bar none. The whole season and all its mysteries and conundrums are wrapped up in one, big, exciting hour with car chases, fights, revelations, and Keith Mars saving the day in spectacular fashion. The pace was fast, the turns were sharp, and yet there were enough bittersweet moments to remind you that the show is a noir at heart, and there can't ever be a truly happy ending. But it can sure deliver a great time.
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Minor spoilers ahead.

Veronica Mars goes off to college, and "Veronica Mars" the show goes through even bigger changes, swapping its usual format of one big season-long mystery for two smaller arcs and assorted one-offs. Two new college buddies for Veronica are added to the cast, Stosh "Piz" Piznarski (Chris Lowell), and Parker Lee (Julie Gonzalo), the new roommates of Wallace and Mac, respectively, at Hearst College. Tina Majorino as Mac and Mike Muhney as Sheriff Lamb are also finally added to the opening credits, though neither of them have any more screentime than in previous seasons. Not many members of the supporting cast appear consistently, and several of them disappear for multiple episodes at a time. Meanwhile, the writers keep trying to strike out in new directions with mixed success.

The consensus is that the third and final season of "Veronica Mars" is the worst, and I have to agree. The stakes are lower than ever, events are starting to feel repetitive, and I wondered a few times if the writers were just stalling for time. However, I still enjoyed watching this season and didn't have any trouble getting through this last batch of episodes. Sure, Wallace and Mac and Weevil don't show up as much, but they all get interesting things to do when they do show up, and I was glad that the writers didn't try to shoehorn them into plots where they didn't belong. Heck, even Dick Casablancas grew on me, becoming the show's most reliable comic relief. And while the year's two big ongoing mysteries don't achieve anything near the level of the epic stories that the show has delivered before, they're still entertaining and well executed.

My biggest complaints boil down to two characters and one relationship: Veronica and Logan. The third season may have multiple mystery arcs, but there is one major storyline that runs through the whole year, and that's the up and down, on again, off again, ever-more-complicated love story between these two crazy kids. After years of flirting and hinting, we finally get to see what Veronica and Logan being together in a real relationship looks like, and then how things between them go downhill fast. I like the pairing and the volatility makes sense. Veronica is paranoid and Logan is a bad boy, and it's no surprise that they would have a heap of issues and mismatching expectations to work out. However, the drama between them is not handled well. Veronica acts like a jerk. Logan acts like an idiot. Reactions don't make sense and events contradict each other. In the end I'm not sure if I want them back together or as far away from each other as possible, to prevent further character warping.

I thought Veronica's transition to college life was handled pretty well otherwise. Things are looking up for her, and she's got new career possibilities, new people in her life, and a whole new institution of higher learning to learn the ins and outs of. I like that she got to grow up, no longer the underdog in a world of 09ers, but on the verge of gaining some real power and authority, and all the responsibilities that come with that. It's nicely mirrored by Keith Mars' shifting roles this season, where he has to balance his professional and private obligations in a few different ways. I called the second season of "Veronica Mars" a transitional one, and the third feels even more so. Then again, maybe this is the natural state of the show. The characters are always in flux, so there's no permanent status quo aside from the fact that Veronica will always have a new mystery to solve every week. It's a rare genre show that embraces this, and I'm glad for it.

The fact that the third season is the last one is a shame. It renders a lot of the character development from this year moot, because it doesn't have any payoff, and the finale isn't nearly as good a capper as either of the two season finales that preceded it. Also, I thought the show finally had all the players positioned in a much better way than at the beginning of the season, and I would have liked to see a fourth year be able to build on that. Logan is interesting again, Mac has fully recovered from last year, and Weevil's finally edging back toward a life of crime. Year three had a lot of rough spots, including two really blatant social justice episodes that were so obvious as to be off-putting. However, I've grown to really enjoy this group of characters, and that's what spurred me to keep watching.

And that's why I'll be keeping an eye out for that Kickstarter-funded movie next year. I'm hoping it'll give the gang a proper sendoff this time, because they deserve one. "Veronica Mars" is one of those shows I'm sorry I didn't start watching a lot earlier, but the upside is that I'll have much shorter time to wait until I get to see more.

Top ten episodes list is forthcoming.
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