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The Righteous Gemstones Season One Episode 9 Review: “Better is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning”

With a strike of lightning and a bee’s sting, The Righteous Gemstones’ first season comes to a magnificently satisfying close.

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The Righteous Gemstones Better Is The End Of A Thing Than Its Beginning

For a series with a story spanning four decades of a family’s life, it’s surprising how neat and tidy “Better is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning,” The Righteous Gemstones‘ season finale, really feels. Whether Aimee Leigh’s legacy, Jesse’s comeuppance, or Judy’s complicated journey through adult emotions, The Righteous Gemstones is an hour of judgment, retribution, forgiveness – and ultimately hope, a long emotional journey “Better is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning” pulls off with unexpected grace.

“Better is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning” parts the seas of drama and violence, for pointed observations on the art of forgiveness.

It helps it is easily the most emotional episode of the series; opening on the Gemstone family falling apart literally twenty seconds after Aimee Leigh’s passing, “Better is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning” is a master class in tone, using a bee – a Biblical symbol of community and shared purpose – as a catalyst to jolt so many of its characters into their reality (which in Baby Billy’s case, is a very literal turn of phrase). The ability of a family to come together and fall apart gets condensed into the minutes-long cold open, a fantastic appetizer for the emotional roller coaster ride to follow.

The Righteous Gemstones Better Is The End Of A Thing Than Its Beginning

In the wake of Scotty’s fortunate passing, the Gemstone siblings are all facing exile from their homes; fired by their father, and deservedly abandoned by the ones they love, Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin seek out redemption in the usual, complicated Gemstone way. Kelvin, after briefly embracing the darkest voices in his mind, abandons his eye makeup and brings back the one person in his life he doesn’t share a last name with; Keefe, who immediately reintegrated himself with the strange Satanist clan of his younger life (which includes him in a latex suit that covers everything but his dick, submerged in a pool of liquid while getting high on nitrous).

It’s a bit of a stunted arc, one played more for comedy than anything emotionally evocative; but it works, mostly as an amuse bouche for the episode’s ruminations on identity, and the uncanny ability of each Gemstone to make everything about themselves, in their own special ways. For the most part, though, Kelvin’s been given the short stick in every episode, so his relative lack of soul searching in “Better is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning” doesn’t feel off balance, simply a matter of The Righteous Gemstones‘ allotting its time to two larger, more resonant stories of his siblings. There’s clearly more story to be told with Kelvin – on his sexuality, his ridiculous sense of self righteousness – but it’s obviously a story for another day, one Gemstones smartly nods towards, instead of diving head first into.

The biggest story of the finale is Judy trying to get back her man – in the process, turning The Righteous Gemstones into a one-woman highlight show. Though Jesse is ostensibly the center of the series, Judy’s become the easy MVP of the series, delivering heartfelt lines about unrequited love in the same breadth as describing the “snail trails” she left on her classroom seat. Patterson gives Judy so many dimensions, mixing her middle-child syndrome and rampant narcissism while giving equal weight to her emotionally stunted, spoiled upbringing. In a series full of vibrant characters, Judy is a step above the rest, straddling the line between disgusting and tragic in the single best comedic performance HBO’s featured since… well, probably McBride’s protagonist on Eastbound and Down.

The Righteous Gemstones Better Is The End Of A Thing Than Its Beginning

It also gives BJ a moment to shine in the light, giving a bit more shape to some of the show’s easiest punch lines; it is the un-emasculating of BJ, in a way, and it’s extremely satisfying to watch. If there’s a universal truth to the arcs of the finale, it’s the idea that honesty and happiness don’t occur simultaneously; the truth is a difficult thing to face, whether admitting failures to another, realizing one’s sense of self-worth (or lack thereof), or coming clean about mistakes. Judy does all three in front of BJ, but he’s still not ready to let her off the hook: we can seek redemption, from our loved ones and from the Lord, but those acts often only solve our own selfish needs of closure.

BJ, like Amber, isn’t satisfied with an apology, and the nepotistic justifications of their lovers’ actions; some pages just can’t be unturned, something Judy and Jesse both have to contend with. “Better is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning” places them at both ends of the spectrum, to great effect: BJ finally takes Judy back (with some of the most disgusting romantic lines I’ve ever heard; “You save that piss for my chest”), and Jesse gets kicked out of his home after he fails to bring Gideon home from Haiti; honesty is a two-edged sword, able to be soul cleansing and crushing in the same breath.

Seeing Jesse contend with that gives the finale a surprisingly strong back bone; his first and second trips to Haiti circumferencing a powerful emotional journey to acceptance Jesse has to face. Like Jesus when he saw his end coming, Jesse eventually stops resisting the inevitable, losing his job, family, and wife in one fell swoop, punishment served for all the lies he told around his night of gambling and cocaine in Atlanta.

The Righteous Gemstones Better Is The End Of A Thing Than Its Beginning

For Eli, the person he needs to forgive him isn’t around anymore; and if there’s an unexpected truth tucked away in “Better is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning,” it’s Eli revealing himself as the biggest hypocrite of them all. He banishes his children until they find his missing money, he cuts a deal with Johnny Seasons (telling him he works “with” the family, not “for” them; we’ll see how long that lasts), and he only escapes Baby Billy’s ultimate judgment of him when a bolt of lightning strikes his brother-in-law. While the Gemstone children face their inner demons, Eli continues to ignore his, nodding through Baby Billy’s frustrations and dismissing his children’s conflicts, in his attempts to re-secure his legacy, and financial standing, in the wake of the unmitigated disaster caused by Jesse’s behavior – and ultimately, his and Aimee Leigh’s parenting.

Some, of course, are the product of miracles: Baby Billy, ever the gambling man, continues to hold off his own cosmic debts, avoiding death and finding his newest con during his climactic fight with the Gemstone family. He may not have walked away with millions of dollars in tax-free money, but he got something even more meaningful to him: relevance, power, and the ability to see his sister one last time (or at least, imagine it long enough to turn it into something profitable for him). Some people seemingly escape judgment and bad luck through their entire lives; though Baby Billy’s won and lost his share of fortunes, his ability to be honest about who he is (a grifter living off the reputation of his beloved sibling) allows him to exist in a space between the Gemstones’ hypocritical morality and absolute capitalist anarchy – like Eli, he knows how to turn his family’s story into money, but he does it without lying to himself along the way about what a cheater and snitch he really is.

The Righteous Gemstones Better Is The End Of A Thing Than Its Beginning

For such a lengthy finale, none of “Better is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning” feels bloated or unnecessary: it is a rather tight script leaving just enough room for its lead performers to chew on scenery – and in Edi Patterson’s case, deliver some truly hilarious bits of dialogue along the way (her asking Jesse if all her future boyfriends would “go down on her butthole” had me in tears, and you can see the cast barely holding it together). More importantly, it parts the seas of drama and violence for pointed observations on the art of forgiveness: its value, its shortcomings, and its inherent selfishness, in a powerful, emotionally potent season finale of HBO’s next great comedy.

Other thoughts/observations:

If there’s one story The Righteous Gemstones doesn’t really deliver on, it’s Dot’s story. Her presence in the finale feels so random, and disconnected from everything else going on. Maybe more in season two?

Danny McBride dressing full Casablanca to go to Haiti and talk to his son is just perfect costume design.

While praying for Baby Billy, a bee appears and stings Baby Billy’s head; rather than be distracted into self destruction, Eli tells his family to pay it no mind, and it ends up bringing Baby Billy back to them. Maybe it is Aimee Leigh reincarnated, or maybe it is God giving the family a second chance, a metaphor for pain leading to salvation and clarity.

I love the montage of the Gemstone family gluing the plastic Jesus back together: it encapsulates their views on faith, family, and their business in such a beautiful, wordless way.

The wordless final scene is so perfect, such an understated way to finish out the season.

That’s it for The Righteous Gemstones‘ first season! Lord willing, I’ll be back whenever this fantastic comedy’s second season makes it to air (2020? 2021? All we can do is pray). Thanks for reading!

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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Watchmen Season One Episode 4 Review: “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”

A thick metatextual layer coats an episode of enigmatic introductions and underwhelming mystery building.

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Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Near the end of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” trillionaire Lady Trieu accuses Will Reeves of employing “passive-aggressive exposition” and tells him he’s being “too cute by a half-measure” teasing out his identity to his granddaughter. It is one of many meta moments in a Watchmen episode where Damon Lindelof’s anxieties and fears constantly bleed through the text of dystopian superheroes; and while that certainly makes for fascinating television to dissect and theorize about, it doesn’t exactly make for a neat, satisfying hour of television. In fact, much of it feels like its explicitly doubling down on its most esoteric qualities, drowning out much of its interesting character work and world building, with an ungodly amount of narrative winking and hand gesturing in the place of a coherent, driven plot.

Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments.

It’s not necessarily bad television; but many of the bread crumbs it drops throughout the hour make “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” feel both bloated and empty through most of the episode. Even Lady Trieu, whose introduction is unsurprisingly strange and intriguing, falls victim to this by the end of the hour, becoming the author’s overt mouthpiece in perhaps the most strained exchange of the young series. After a fascinating introduction, where she convinces a couple to sell their house and land by bringing them a test tube baby (one she had made from their DNA), Trieu’s later scenes are a bit more grating, the farther they move away from defining her character, and closer to becoming a sounding board for self-critique.

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Lady Trieu’s arc through “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is emblematic of the entire hour: rich subtext obfuscated by an unwieldy amount of foreshadowing and stalling. This is obviously by design – Will establishes we’re three days away from whatever event is coming, and Veidt’s timeline reveals his scenes are three years from the present – but instead of leaning on character and theme to pass the time, the fourth episode of Watchmen doubles down on objects nodding towards what’s to come. An object falling from the sky, a mention of a horseshow Veidt “doesn’t need yet,” the direct mention of nothing being able to take down the Milennium Clock, “save for a direct hit from a nuclear blast”; every object and line in “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is a nod towards what’s to come – which, in retrospect, may make this the most important episode of the series.

But in the present, it just makes the whole affair feel a bit clumsy in its deliberate, straightforward delivery; to borrow from the episode’s symbolism, we never see any of the acorns grow into trees in this hour. We learn facts like Looking Glass is a conspiracy theorist, and Trieu’s daughter is probably some kind of lab creation who has her mother’s memories of Vietnam, and Veidt pull babies out of the water to make his clone servants in a steampunk machine; all enthralling imagery, all stepped in some of the show’s deeper thematic material about identity and purpose – but it feels laborious, and hollow, in the isolated context of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.”

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

At some point, all of this will mean something; even the vigilante who lubes himself up to slide through sewer grates will hold some significance in this world, even if it’s only a cheeky side note across this hour. I just wish I felt more emotional purpose to this episode: in those terms, most of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is just inert, a middle-chapter episode that makes no qualms about its position as the episode positioned between the series’ beginning, and the start of its climb to the season’s dramatic apex; but that honesty comes at the cost of everything feeling just a bit trite.

The most interesting parts of “If You Don’t Like My Story” end up being in the margins; details like Angela and Lady’s shared Vietnamese heritage (and language), Will’s fears about what’s to come, and Looking Glass’s questionable living quarters stand out among the episode’s always-lush aesthetics. Even more interesting are the metatextual connotations; Lindelof as “master and not the maker,” the cheeky episode titles and closing conversations, and the synchronicity between timelines, as the episode ends three days from whatever is about to happen on Earth, while Ozymandias’ escape is clearly nearing its own apex (and with each episode suggesting another year interned, suggests he’s three years away from his own release).

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

It all amounts to a collection of interesting moments, stranded in a forgettable episode unable to mark any important narrative shifts; it’s all intrigue and ominous language, muting the impact of Lady Trieu’s showy introduction. Piles of bloody clone bodies and Will’s pointed disappointment in “betraying” Angela makes for fascinating images and moments, but as a part of Watchmen‘s whole, feels a lot more weightless than what came before it, and what appears to be coming on the horizon.

It’s a small misstep, but an important one: Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments. Tick tock, tick tock, I suppose – hopefully next week’s episode offers a bit more clarity and cohesion than what “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” has to offer.

Other thoughts/observations:

Who would’ve thought Watchmen would challenge Mom for the title of “most engaging, mature female lead characters on the same show”?

Lot to pull from the meaning of the episode’s title: it could hint to characters taking control of their own narratives (Ozymandias reframing his imprisonment as a challenge, Angela learning about her family’s history and grandfather’s mission, Laurie’s legacy running around “yahoos”in her past), or it is a middle finger to Lindelof’s critics. Or it is what Lindelof probably told himself every day that Alan Moore would tell him if they ever got to speak to each other.

Few scenes on TV are more disturbing than watching Veidt casually discarding infants around in the open water. Or making them into very nude adults in his steampunk magic machine.

“So you’re building the eighth wonder of the world?” “No, we’re building the first wonder of the new world.” THAT’S NOT OMINOUS OR ANYTHING.

Senator Keane clearly knows he shouldn’t be naming Angela while she’s in her Sister Night uniform… and yet he keeps doing it. Almost like he’s making a point about it… it is most certainly too clever, by at least a half-measure.

So if Ances-Tree was able to trace the “unknown” Will to his parents, why would the program think the whole family died in the fire? If Will died, he wouldn’t be a grandfather – and since her family tree shows no siblings for him, it would seem natural that he, in fact, did not die in the fire. Not a big thing, but it’s a point of logic that stuck out in the moment.

So either Lady Trieu is trying to kill Dr. Manhattan or create time travel? Those are my best two guesses, as if I have any clue what the fuck is actually going on here.

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‘Sesame Street’ at 50: A one-of-a-Kind Tradition

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Sesame Street, as of this weekend, has been on the air for 50 years. Like no other work of popular culture, with the possible exception of Pixar Animation Studios, the show has cracked the very difficult task of appealing to the sensibilities of both adults and children, with the same bit of entertainment. 

Between the Sesame Street 50th anniversary – occasioned this weekend with a somewhat underwhelming TV special– and the arrival of the new biopic of Mr. Rogers, this is a big month for nostalgia about beloved, long-running children’s entertainment of the past. 

An educational show that’s also entertaining, having created indelible characters human and Muppet alike, Sesame Street occupies a place unlike anything else America has ever produced. 

Many people experience Sesame Street exactly twice: When they first watch it as children, and then again, decades later when they watch it with their own children. This is due largely to the show’s style, underlying values and general sensibility being so timeless, but also because the show re-uses old material so often. It doesn’t hurt that, in the modern era, many of the best Sesame Street moments live on YouTube. 

At its best, the series’ scenes have the timing of the very best comedy sketches, such as “mystery box” bit with Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster: 

And of course, there’s also stuff to make you cry. Most notably, of course, the Mr. Hooper scene: 

And the famous Snuffy reveal from 1985: 

The 50th anniversary, of course, means that Sesame Street began in 1969, and yes, this show that nearly universally found its way into the homes all over the world was very much a creation of the counterculture- one of its most enduring, in fact.

Street Gang, Michael Davis’ 2008 book, is the definitive history of the show, depicting how Jim Henson, Joan Ganz Cooney and the rest of the original crew developed and sustained the show. There was also the 2015 documentary I Am Big Bird, in which Spinney told the stories of his years in the Big Bird suit, his sometimes contentious relationship with Henson, and the episode in which he was considered for a spot on the doomed Challenger space shuttle. 

And while Sesame Street has been much parodied, no one has ever done it better than the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which debuted in 2003. Featuring Muppet-like puppets and a Sesame Street-like setting, the show may have been uncommonly raunchy, but its underlying values of acceptance and friendship ultimately weren’t that different from those of its inspiration. 

'Sesame Street' at 50

While Sesame Street has endured for a half-century, its future is somewhat in flux. In 2016, the show’s first-run episodes moved from their longtime home of PBS to the premium channel HBO, although PBS still shows the second run, arriving there nine months after the first. 

This led to some hand-wringing back when it was first announced, although it’s pretty clear the show’s main target audience of preschoolers doesn’t know from first-run and second-run episodes,  the series always includes lots of vintage material even in its “new” episodes. Also, the new Sesame Street material that goes viral – most notably, its frequent kid-friendly TV parodies- always go up on YouTube immediately, along with so much of the classic stuff. And the HBO deal gave Children’s Television Workshop a cash infusion that allowed them to produce more episodes per season. 

Next year, another change is planned, per an announcement last month: The first-run Sesame Street episodes will debut not on HBO proper but rather on HBO Max, AT&T and Warner Media’s new streaming service that will launch next May. For those who care about seeing first-run episodes, this puts the new shows not only on a streaming service, but the most expensive one. 

'Sesame Street' at 50

On the bright side, the HBO Max deal includes streaming access to the entire 50 years of Sesame Street’s back catalog. Plus, the service is planning spin-offs of Sesame Street including, per The Verge, “a live-action late-night parody hosted by Elmo.”

However it’s consumed in the future, Sesame Street occupies a place that’s all by itself in the history of children’s entertainment, one enjoyed now by three generations of children, along with their parents.

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Sesame Street Celebrates 50 Years with an Underwhelming Special

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Sesame Street 50 Year Anniversary

Sesame Street turns 50 years old this week, and for the occasion the show’s current home, HBO, showed a special Saturday night, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the show’s human and puppet casts of the past and present. 

The anniversary show, while it contains some decent nostalgia moments, feels somewhat underwhelming. It was barely promoted, feels thrown together and doesn’t really have the ambitious scale that’s worthy of the magnitude of the show’s half-century anniversary. 

The gimmick of the anniversary special, which runs just under 50 minutes, is that Gordon-Levitt, a longtime fan, is visiting Sesame Street, and really wants to get his picture taken with the characters, under the Sesame Street sign. The sign, however, has gone missing, and Elmo and friends must distract him to keep him from discovering that it’s gone. They all reach the honorable but not-so-earth-shattering conclusion that Sesame Street is less a physical place than a state of mind. 

sesame-street-50th-anniversary-special

Throughout, we get some surprise appearances by Sesame Street‘s human characters of old such as Luis (Emilio Delgado), Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Maria (Sonia Manzano), and also long-absent muppets like Guy Smiley and even Kermit the Frog, who was a mainstay of Sesame Street‘s early days but has mostly been absent from the show since the 1980s. 

Kermit duets his signature Sesame Street tune “Bein’ Green'” with Elvis Costello, one of several musical numbers in the special. Norah Jones shows up to sing a song, and is visited by the talking letter “Y,” a callback to the time she remixed her song “Don’t Know Why” as “Don’t Know Y,” and there’s also a montage of famous Sesame Street songs. Patti LaBelle also shows up, as do Nile Rodgers and Meghan Trainor, and the show’s longtime mainstay Itzhak Perlman plays his violin on the show again as well. 

Non-musical cameos include Sterling K. Brown (from This is Us) eating cookies with Cookie Monster, as well as an appearance by Whoopi Goldberg. 

One of the more underwhelming aspects of the special is the relative lack of classic footage. The 50th anniversary could have occasioned an hour-long clip show, featuring some of the show’s most significant moments, celebrity cameos, and other Sesame Street touchstones, in a way that tells the story of the history of the show. 

Instead, we get Joseph Gordon-Levitt spliced into footage of classic Sesame Street moments, such as the Mr. Snuffleupagus reveal from 1985 and Grover’s “This is near/this is far” routine. 

The show chooses not to address the incongruity of young-seeming characters like Elmo and Big Bird not actually being 50 years old. And while it’s understood that the characters’ voices aren’t going to say consistent as different performers cycled through the roles, whoever is currently voicing Big Bird sounds nothing whatsoever like the recently retired Carroll Spinney. 

SesameStreet-50-Years

Those who are longtime Sesame Street devotees, whatever their age, will likely find some elements to enjoy in the new anniversary spell. But the special doesn’t feel anything close to definitive. 

The special will head to PBS on the 17th, the same day the show debuts its 50th season. 

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