Tag Archives: TV Review

Lost in a Fairytale: Once Upon a Time and the Flashback Trend on TV

It was a pretty surprising moment for the show. Not as shocking as a death or pregnancy or any of the many events that usually make up May sweeps. But still, it was very surprising when in the second season premier of Once Upon a Time, a show that had become rather formulaic by the end of its first season, actually changed from something very procedural into a more serialized narrative. And it was in that moment that it became clear that the show could probably survive into more seasons to come.

The show, built on the conceit that fairytale characters are real and that a curse has brought them into our world, relied on a flashback formula during its first season to help explain that often confusing concept. The fact that the local schoolteacher is Snow White, the mayor is the evil queen and a pawnbroker is Rumplestiltskin is much more easily explained by showing the same actors in gowns and crowns, fighting off monsters and magic. And as the show veered from the accepted versions of fairytales that everyone knows, the flashbacks helped to create a world that was unique to the show, and that had its own rules. In essence, Once Upon a Time spent half of its first season on some very glitzy exposition.

But when the curse was broken at the end of season one and suddenly everyone remembers who they all really are, the time for explaining how and why was over. The time for the past was over, as the future was so uncertain for the characters. But how to change something that had worked for a whole year?

The premier did indeed flash between the fairy tale world and the real one, only not in a way that the show had ever done before. In fairyland we see Sleeping Beauty, a brand new character, awakened by her handsome prince who is accompanied by Mulan. They encounter a hooded phantom who marks his victims with a metal disk and then sucks out their souls. Aurora’s prince is marked and dies.

It all seems a little irrelevant until the phantom appears back in the real world. Although it still seemed a little unnecessary. Introducing three new characters just to explain what the scary hooded monster did? He was scary and hooded and so logic says he probably sucked out souls. But when in the real world they get rid of the phantom by banishing him back to fairyland, and the two female leads with him, they land right next to Aurora and Mulan. It wasn’t a flashback; it was a peek into the not-so-distant future. The show had introduced three new characters to move the plot forward, not back. And suddenly a whole world of possibilities emerges.

The flashback formula was made most popular by Lost, and when you think back to the first season of that show, you can understand why it was so good. It made a high concept, serialized show more procedural, and easier to watch and understand. It kept the show from having the entire series on a beach. The audience could see how the plane crash had changed the characters. It was a great way to bring those characters together.

But in that show, and others, the brilliance of the flashbacks just didn’t last as characters joined cults, got married randomly, and got strange tattoos in Thailand. And when the flashbacks started to falter the show started flashing forward and eventually “sideways” into the increasingly absurd. These scenes weren’t telling the audience anything about the characters or the plot of the present. They were just there to be there, because that is what the show had always done.

But now Once Upon a Time is not cursed to the same fate as Lost. It doesn’t have to flashback endlessly to fairytale characters who don’t last more than one episode, or create increasingly absurd back stories for the characters. And they can continue to flashback, occasionally. It never hurts to know more about the characters, even if we think we already know everything about Snow White. But inevitably the story matters more than the procedure.

Of course the showis still struggling with the transition. A few episodes in this season have gotten a little heady, sporting three separate plots in a short forty-three minute episode: the real world, the current fairyland, and a flashback. But as the stories converge over the season and the stakes are raised, the show ultimately has dropped the flashbacks in episodes where they weren’t needed. It has chosen instead to focus on the here and now, where all of the action is happening. This is a lesson Lost never learned.


Because One Identity is Too Mainstream…

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 2 “We Are Both” Review and Recap

Well, that was a little disappointing. The season premiere was so strong, with twists around each corner and genuine intrigue as the show stepped out of its straight flashback structure, but the second episode, “We Are Both,” regressed back to the flashback/current structure. Validly, it was all for the good of the plot, as much exposition and dealing with the intricacies of the post-curse world were taken care of, but all in all, the show felt lacking this evening.

Our flashbacks took us back to good Regina, post-Daniel’s death but pre-magic. Looking to revenge her mother for killing Daniel, she calls on everybody’s most reliable resource, good ol’ Rumpy, to exact vengeance. Of course, all magic comes with a price. After giving in and pushing her mother through a mirror to a “handy little world” as described by Rumple (which we assume is our loverly Earth), Regina realizes how much she likes doing magic and her descent to the evil queen we know and love (admit it, evil Regina can be pretty BA). All of this info is sort of the cherry on top of the sundae from last season’s Regina flashback that showed us Daniel and young Snow, finally answering the question of how Snow “ruined” Regina’s life. This was more specific, showing that it was Regina’s mother (and this show is alllll about mothers) is really what did her wrong. But, really, I feel it was a two steps forward one step back kind of plotline.

It relates to the fact that Regina in Storybrooke is trying to regain her powers but must eventually turn back to the same book that originally gave her magic. She uses that magic to get Henry back, but eventually lets him go, choosing his happiness over her own. She almost burns the book but stores it in cupboard instead. We’ll see where this takes us. Is Regina possibly turning good? It’s all very interesting in light of tonight’s big reveal (more on that in a bit).

Meanwhile, in Storybrooke central, chaos reigns. Charming is desperately trying to find a way to get Snow and Emma back, everyone is trying to cope with their dual identities, and generally, yelling, a lot. It is here that we realize that it’s basically an anarchist little town now, with no central authority and no one doing anything normal. We find out with the return of the sneezing drug store owner that people who try to leave Storybrooke become re-cursed, forgetting their fairytale selves. Charming says he’ll fix it, but he has no idea how. He eventually turns back to Henry’s storybook, discovering it’s the Mad Hatter who controls the hat. On his way to confront Jefferson, Red convinces him to save everyone in the town first, leave Snow and Emma for later. He drives to the edge of town, gives an impassioned, if lacking in oratory eloquence, speech basically telling everyone to embrace their multiple personalities, to be sorta schizo. To learn from their Storybrooke personalities and embrace their fairytale personalities too. It’s interesting because it is this duality that drove the Jefferson version of the hatter insane. But we’ll see where this takes our friends.

And at the end of the episode several key things are revealed. Pinnochio/August is not in his hotel room; my bet is he’s gone to join his friend in Manhattan. Also Snow and Emma are around! It was interesting to see the show keep its two main actors under wraps for nearly an entire episode. They’re held captive by Sleeping Beauty and Mulan, brought back to the sanctuary they built in the Enchanted Forest. Locked up in a cell they encounter another prisoner…Regina’s mother Cora! Well now isn’t that interesting? I’m wondering where she’s been, if she was in the forest the whole time or if she was sent back from our world when the curse hit. Who knows? Who knows how good or bad Regina will be now that the biggest baddie of them all (I mean, as far as we know) is back in the mix?

The flashbacks to Regina made sense only when her mother was revealed at the very end of the episode, but they still didn’t really sustain themselves. The show needs to keep moving forward, keep changing up its basic procedural model if it wants to work through its post-curse existence. Because so far there’s just been a lot of yelling and rehashing of old information. But I’m hopeful. The trailer for next week looks like it will be focusing on the present in the Enchanted Forest. So we’ll see what happens.

Once Upon a Time Season Premiere Review and Recap

Just another day in Storybrooke. Oh wait, no it wasn’t. When we last left our fairytale characters, the curse had been broken and everyone remembered who they really were. And then Mr. Gold unleashed a big purple haze of magic on the whole town, changing the rules and blurring the line between fairy tale and reality. That’s what the whole episode was about, really. Blurring the set formula we had last season and transitioning to a place where the show can sustain itself without flashbacks. But let’s dive in.

We open 0n a horse and buggy, apparently in the fairytale land but oh wait no, we’re just in Central Park in NYC. And we follow a man, down the subway, up into his small apartment. we have no idea who he is until a bird delivers a postcard from Storybrooke with one word written on it: “Broken.” Omnious? Yes? Theories? My best bet is on whoever August/Pinnochio was in contact with, and that person probably is Baelfire, Gold’s son. But moving on.

The rest of the episode moves between fairyland and Storybrooke, much like every other episode has. The flashback to fairyland is to Sleeping Beauty being awakened by her handsome prince, a tale I expected to see sooner in the show (given Malificent’s importance to the storyline thus far). He’s accompanied by a masked soldier, who although they try to keep up the appearance of a man, the cut of the outfit and the liner on the eyes immediately gave away this new character as Mulan (Jamie Chung). They encounter a hooded phantom they call a wraith, who marks his victims with a metal disk and then sucks out their souls. Aurora’s prince is marked and he runs away to try to save the women. They run after him but are too late. The prince dies. It all seems a little irrelevant until Gold pulls the disk out of his cabinet and marks Regina, after he promised Belle (love her Australian accent, by the way) he wouldn’t kill.

Meanwhile, Snow, Charming and Emma spend most of the episode trying to convince people not to kill Regina, and then later saving Regina. It’s because they’re heroes and because Henry asked them to. There are also lots of awkward moments where Snow and Charming, full of their memories, try to connect with Emma as their daughter. It’s super weird, as Snow mentions, because they were equal adults before. “There are lots of things I shouldn’t have mentioned, like one night stands.” “One night stands?” “Whale. What we were cursed!”

When it comes down to it, the only way to defeat the wraith is to send it back to fairyland, which Regina swears is gone. She thinks sending it to an abyss will kill it. Everyone’s favorite portal device, Mad’s hat, is required and it doesn’t work until Emma touches Regina’s arm. Curious and curiouser. Of course, all magic comes with a price, and the wraith is sucked it, along with Emma. Snow jumps in after her and so does Charming, but the portal closes and he hits the floor. And where Emma and Snow land is back in fairyland, right next to Aurora and Mulan, and we realize that it was no flashback, it was actually a flash forward, the wraith appearing to Aurora, the prince, and Mulan after it had left Storybrooke. Whef, timelines have always been confusing in this show, but I think they’re going only going to get more so.

And there we leave it. Emma and Snow are back in fairyland, everybody else is trapped in Storybrooke with Regina and Gold magicking all over the place, and there’s a mysterious New York stranger involved. All in all it was a good premiere, holding onto the bomb that it wasn’t a flashback anymore until the very end. But there are many questions left unanswered, and people we haven’t heard from. Where is August? And Jefferson? They’re linked very intricately with the fate of our main characters, but we don’t know anything about them, post-curse. Also, just putting an appeal out there for Amy Acker’s fairy/nun to come back. Because it’s Amy Acker playing a fairy/nun, it’s so adorable I can’t even handle it. But alas, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Pilot Roundup Part 1: Revolution, Last Resort, and The Mindy Project.

Oh pilot season. Besides Christmas it’s the best time of year. Especially since it comes right along with my birthday. There hasn’t been a whole lot on the menu so far this year, but I’m here with my thoughts on what I’ve seen. I will stick with a couple new shows along with other old shows. Tonight I’ve got two high concept dramas for you, and one sitcom.


By far, the show I was most excited for when the trailer premiered in May. It’s an ambitious concept. All electricity suddenly stops working one day, and 15 years later this is what the world is like. That’s the big lens. Our small lens heros (as all apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories come equipped with them) is one family that seems to be intimately involved with the cause of the blackout. Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), our spunky young Katniss-esque heroine. She’s not a complete copy though, she uses a crossbow instead of a regular bow (side note, there seem to be a pletora of very well made bows, crossbows, and swords in this non-electric world). Her father, Ben (Tim Guinee), was killed in a gun fight after the Militia of the Monroe Republic attempted to take him (yes, all of those things I said happened). Her mother (Elizabeth Mitchell) died sometime earlier. They take her brother (Graham Rogers). Her only hope is to find her Uncle Miles (Billy Burke) who’s apparently “good at killing” and get him to help find Danny. Along the way she brings her father’s lover (Anna Lise Phillips), a British doctor from their “village,” and a dorky neighbor (Zak Orth) who Ben entrusted with an ominous looking flashdrive necklace. Add a couple of guys from the famed militia and you’ve got your cast of misfit characters. I was not as impressed by them and their interactions during the pilot as I was by the concept itself.

The show glosses over the initial consequences of the blackout, merely showing a young Charlie eating all the ice cream in the house and a younger Miles walking after his car doesn’t start, but there’s no real answer to how we got where we were except an ominous voice over telling us that “governments fell.” The world looks a  little too put together just fifteen years after we lost all electricity. I kept asking myself, where did they get all of those candles from? The finer details aren’t really this show’s strong suit. But it does revel in showing Chicago landmarks covered in dirt and moss, and in teaching its audience how bad technology really is for us.

Moving forward the show needs to be a little less preachy and a little more character-driven, focuses less on the novelty of the world without electricity and more on how the characters deal with it. It’s already got the addictive intrigue with Ben’s involvement in the blackout, the dead mother and so much more. It just needs the characters to hold it up.

Verdict: Keep watching, but on Hulu when you feel like it.

Last Resort

Next we move over to ABC’s high concept attempt for the year. Despite the premise about a nuclear submarine that basically defects from the US after being ordered to bomb Pakistan for no reason at all, it’s actually  the most red-state show I’ve seen since NCIS. The plot of the pilot, which was completely revealed in the upfronts trailer, consists of a nuclear sub captained by Andre Braugher (the character’s name is negligible, it’s Braugher’s show) where at first everything is fun and games. All of a sudden an order comes through the Antarctic network (really guys?) which apparently would only be used if DC was completely wiped out, to fire on Pakistan. Captain Braugher, being not, you know, an idiot, wants to know why it came through back channels while he’s “sitting here watching Hannah Montana.” That was the best part of the whole pilot. Andre Braugher saying “Hannah Montana.” Blah blah blah, Captain is relieved from duty, blah blah blah, the US bombs the submarine, blah blah blah, they bomb Pakistan and start a war. Oh and during this whole thing there’s a sexy defense contractor who somehow knows about the whole conspiracy.

Anyway the sub pulls up on a South Pacific island and basically conquers it, sets up in the NATO watch station there, and declares on television that they want the US government to resign. End pilot. The underpinning behind the show is not that the US is evil, but rather that the true patriot is willing to turn on his own government when they have lost touch with the American way. It’s a little scary. Of course the viewer’s sympathies go to the plucky crew, who are only trying to Do the Right Thing, but we are led to believe the Right Thing is inherently American separtism. Woof. Like I said, super red-state, super tea-party, and super not subtle about it all. To top it off the characters are flatter than the screen you watch it on, and although it hasn’t surfaced (see what I did there) yet, there’s bound to be rampant racism on the South Pacific island. All in all, I wasn’t impressed.

Verdict: There are enough new shows this year. Pick a different one.

The Mindy Project

One of the first truly charming comedies I’ve seen in a long while, Mindy Kaling’s much anticipated solo act started off quite well. What could have ended up a little on the cliched side turned sweet and relatable, as we followed Mindy through a rather hectic two day period in her life, starting with a little backstory. Why did the show look a little cheesy? Because Mindy (now this is character Mindy, when I’m talking about the actress I’ll call her Kaling) is cheesy of course! Cue a series of flashbacks of young Mindy as a kid, in high school and in college, obsessed with romantic comedies and begging her life to be like one of them. All of a sudden, one day during her residency as an ob/gyn she gets trapped in an elevator with the seemingly perfect man (a hilariously guest spot from Bill Hader, hopefully recurring). They both drop files. Her hair falls down. Her voice-over tells us that only months later they moved in together. Months after that, he falls in love with the young, blonde, cafeteria girl. Typical. And that’s where Mindy’s life stops being a romantic comedy and starts being the adorable mess that gave the series its first (and ultimately dropped) name, “It’s Messy.”

The rest of the episode follows Mindy’s antics after she gives a drunk and incredibly inappropriate toast at her ex’s wedding, and then falls into a stranger’s pool. And it’s funny, it’s physical, it’s witty, it’s really everything you’d expect from Mindy Kaling. A lot of comparisons will probably be made to Fox’s other female-driven multi-cam sitcom without a laugh track, New Girl, but so far Mindy has succeeded where New Girl failed: Mindy is a character that I would believe is real, whereas Jess is so fake they made up the term “adorkable” for her. I’m excited to see where this show goes, how they deal with the obvious sexual tension between Mindy and her seemingly jerkish coworker Danny, and how they deal with Kaling in general, a really talented actress and comedian. As comedy alums leave known products to strike out on their own (Tina Fey to 30 Rock, Amy Poehler to Parks and Recreation, etc) Mindy has a lot of potential.

Verdicit: Watch live, it’ll be fun to watch with friends.

Okay so that’s it for now. In the next couple of days I’ll have my reactions up to The New Normal and others. Stay tuned! 

Let’s Take the Politics Out of This

Political Animals Episode 4, “Lost Boys,” Review and Recap

In this week’s fourth installment of the USA miniseries, our animals become a lot less political, and a lot more personal. Plot-wise, we actually didn’t cover a lot of ground. Elaine finally told Garcetti she was running against him, TJ backslid (again), and Bud gave up womanizing. Character-wise, this episode was all about TJ and, surprisingly, Georgia. She became an actual character this week, not just a device so that Susan could feel what it was like to get cheated on. Let’s dive in.

We open with Doug, Susan’s new pet monkey, recapping the last few weeks of Hammond family life, for Susan and for the viewer. Garcetti has sent Elaine all around the world to keep her from campaigning, TJ got a “sober partner” to keep him, well, sober, and Bud got a Hollywood publicist and did a tearful interview expressing his love for Elaine. Again, plot wise, not that earth shattering for a show with only two episodes left.

Elaine’s big hurrah was a security crisis in the form of a Chinese submarine sinking off the coast of California and disagreeing with Garcetti about how to deal with it, again. Eventually, after Vice President A**hole confronts her about it, Elaine tells Garcetti that she is running against him. She visits him late at night while he’s with his son to tell him that she’s running and she’s going to resign after he saves the Chinese men. I actually thought it was really interesting to show Garcetti with his son. This episode reminded us that that the Hamonds aren’t the only family in politics, and what they do can have ramifications against more than just their political rivals. But this was as political as the show got this week.

On the journalism front Georgia interviews Anne about her interior design business. Fascinating stuff. Until Georgia slips in a question about Elaine’s campaign and Anne confirms without meaning to. Anne has now moved up from the most useless character to the stupidest! I didn’t think anyone could out-dumb our pretty brunette blogger but, by Georgia, Anne did it! And here we see Georgia have some depth for the first time. Susan told her to take herself seriously, and she did. After Doug turns to Susan for help and Susan confronts Georgia, we see Georgia hold her ground and demand a shared byline with Susan on her story. When Susan says no and tells Doug this, he reveals something about Susan to herself: she wants Elaine to succeed. Not just professionally, but personally. This has been clear from the first episode, that Susan’s initial hatred of Elaine came out of jealousy and idolization. And now Susan knows it to. She bites the bullet and takes on Georgia as a partner.

But the real focus of the episode was TJ. Last week’s Doug flashbacks were replaced with TJ flashbacks, to right around the time he tried to kill himself. It’s the happiest time of his life. He’s sober, and he’s in love, with a closeted Republican congressman who is attempting to pass a bad bill. The Democrats find out about the affair and want to blackmail the Congressman into dropping his bill. When Elaine confronts TJ and tells him what the Dems are going to do, he says something I think about politics all the time: “we’re supposed to be better than them!” But Elaine is a realist, and knows they’re going to do it no matter what. TJ tries to convince Congressman Gay that the blackmail is a good thing, because he can finally come out. Unfortunately, Congressman Gay isn’t having it, he wants his career and his family and his power, and not really TJ anymore. He calls him a “national punchline” and dumps him. And now we know why TJ tried to kill himself. And we see him try it.

Back in the present, Bud is with his publicist, clothes off, talking shop. She informs him that he can’t go to TJ’s club opening, because he would appear sleazy. It’s not lost on Bud, or us, that he is sleazy, but hey, politics is all about how everything looks. When he tells TJ he won’t come, it turns into a family fight. Bud refuses to admit that he won’t go for himself, and blames TJ’s bad decisions. Elaine gets involved and soon the whole family’s arguing. TJ leaves for his club opening alone (well with his sober buddy).  For some reason said 24-hour sober buddy leaves him alone long enough for him to get free cocaine from one of his partners and then to snort it. When he finds TJ high, instead of taking him home, he lets TJ to convince him to get high and then allows TJ to OD. This guy should probably think of a different career path. The episode ends with Bud, having dumped his publicist both personally and professionally, rushing to the club and finding TJ passed out on the floor.

I suppose this does count as motion in the TJ storyline. We at least learn why he is the way he is, even if he’s not changing at all. I admit that it is probably incredibly hard for people like him to change, but change is what stories are about, and he is in a story. We’ll see what happens next week, and find out whether the OD (I assume it’s an OD, he took a bunch of drugs and then passed out) was intentional or not. And possibly we’ll get a little more politics in this political show? Nah. Sex, drugs, and intrigue are way better.

The B*tch is Back

Political Animals Episode 3 Review and Recap

Holy political tactics, Batman! The characters on Political Animals are sure upping the stakes and what they are willing to do to get things done. In the third episode of the miniseries, aptly title “The Woman Problem,” the show tackles a problem head on that they’ve only subtly dealt with up until this point. Why would people vote for a woman? Why don’t people vote for a woman? Did Elaine lose two years ago because she is a woman? What does it mean to be a woman in really any profession? I don’t know if they really answered these questions fully, but they certainly took a big whack at them.

The episode centered on last episode’s big reveal, that Elaine would challenge the sitting president in the primary. But where last time the show focused on the familial ramifications of that decision, this time we get to look at the political side of Political Animals. Somehow, the rumor that Elaine is going to make this primary bid has reached President Garcetti, and his response is to attempt to get liberal Supreme Court Justice Diane Nash (Vanessa Redgrave, a delight as usual) to step down so he can appoint Elaine. Shrewd move Garcetti! But the most interesting aspect of this was Redgrave’s character, supposedly a openly gay US Supreme Court Justice. I love the optimism of this show. Elaine is loved for her independence and her divorce, and a gay woman is on the Supreme Court. I want to live in that world. It’s also a great move of the writers, who give their characters plenty of time to hash out the woman problem, but give us the woman solution I talked about in my review of episode 1 with the facts of life in their fictional world. It’s an impressive strategy.

However, this episode is really all about Doug. As Camp Barrish gets the wheels in motion for a run, he’s still not thrilled about the whole idea, and says so. But he still agrees to go away with his father and TJ on a Potemkin fishing trip to visit a pollster and find out Elaine’s odds. In the episode we get two campaign flashbacks that help explain the dynamic between Bud and Doug and between Doug and Elaine. We also learn that Doug isn’t quite as straight edge as one might have surmised. There are also two pointless Anne cameos. She is the flattest of flat characters and we’ve had no word on her bulimia since episode one. I wonder if she’s there only to create family events that Bud and Elaine have to attend at the same time. Doug’s development in this episode had nothing to do with her. It was really about him forgiving his father, and realizing that he’s not entirely a villain. Their reconciliation at the end of the episode was great, and made me for the first time not hate old hammy Hammond.

In other news the TJ-can’t-stay-sober-but-he-wants-to-run-a-nightclub drama continues. I’m getting a little tired of this storyline if only because nothing ever changes (but I did just notice over the weekend that Sebastian Stan played Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The First Avenger, talk about mind-blown).

Over in the land of journalists, everything is changing. Susan is hot on the trail of the story that Doug gave her last episode. She’s even lying to her cheating ex-boyfriend/editor about it, to keep it a true exclusive. When the Garcetti Supreme Court plan gets leaked to the paper, Susan turns tactical, telling Elaine about Garcetti’s plan so she can outmaneuver him and Susan’s story can be saved. When you think about the actual ramifications of this, Susan is potentially changing the outcome of a presidential election so she can get a good story. That’s kind of a big deal. But she didn’t bat an eye. In a side-story, homewrecker Georgia is sad because her new boyfriend shot down her serious news story. When Susan finds her crying in her office, she delivers my favorite line of the episode: “Don’t shit where you eat and then cry about it.” She’s back in form, over the hurt we saw last episode. We learn this in full when Doug meets her again to beg her not to publish the story about his mother, because he’s changed his mind. She agrees, and he breathes a sigh of relief…until she reveals that when she publishes after the announcement she’s going to use everything she already has, and everything she’s going to blackmail Doug into giving her.

Conniving? Maybe. But it is a total microcosm of what the pollster said was Elaine’s problem in the debates of her first run: when she held back she seemed meek and womanly, but when she attacked, she seemed like a vicious bitch. The Woman Problem, in a nutshell. If Susan had taken a dive on a career-making story so that Doug could feel better, she would have seemed like an emotion-driven woman. Her tactics may seem harsh and yes, “bitchy,” but they were the right thing to do from Susan’s perspective. Glad to see that things are finally heating up.

Everybody Gets a Second Chance

Political Animals Episode 2 Review and Recap (Warning: spoilers ahead). 

Watching this week’s second installment in USA’s political miniseries, entitled “Second Time Around,” I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, by how the series has started to grow and distance itself from its Clintonian source material, and achieve a thematically resounding second episode, and secondly, by what would possess anyone in any universe, real or fictional, to vote for Ciaran Hinds’ pork belly buffet of a President Bud Hammonds.

But seriously, who is this guy? I was so excited for this episode in all aspects except him. We learned a bit more about Elaine, got to see her at her most vulnerable in flashbacks to Bud’s affairs in the White House. Ellen Burstyn’s Margaret got to shine and move past the alcohol swilling cliches her character was weighed down with in the first episode. TJ’s story was fleshed out more. And it would have been so good, if not for a drawling ex-President bringing a pretty journalist to a “top-secret” meeting with the President of Iran because he wanted her to like him. But more on that later.

This episode focused with Elaine making her first true power play versus President Garcetti, in forcing him to send Bud to Iran to deal with the hostage crisis. This all of course led up to Elaine’s confession to her son, and later to Bud, that she was planning on making a primary challenge to Garcetti in the next election. Doug, both her son and chief aide, obviously thinks its crazy. His confrontation of Elaine is a perfect microcosm of the point the entire series is trying to make. First he talks about the political ramifications, dividing the Democratic party, losing, etc. Then he moves to the personal. She barely survived the 18 hours days of the last campaign, with the stress and the medication it required. Then he goes for the sucker punch, the familial. What could possibly possess her to put her family through that again?

When Doug pries out of Elaine that she slept with Bud again, the argument between them is truly heartbreaking. They’re not the first family anymore. They’re just a mother and son, with the son desperately trying to prevent the mother from being hurt again by his cheating father. It’s not a political motivation, it’s one of love. It was a humanizing moment for Doug, who has been exhibiting automaton-like qualities up until this point. I was glad to see the human side of him.

The episode was about the second time around, and not just for Elaine. The full effects of the story about his suicide have finally reached TJ, who dashes shoeless out of the window of a random lover’s apartment in his first appearance in the episode. I was excited to see his character expanding as well, as he displayed behavior that made him more than just an addict and a poor little rich boy. In a scene with Ellen Burstyn’s extremely entertaining Grandma Margaret, the duo resolves to perform at Doug’s party. After he steals a check from her she turns the tables on him, dropping her loving Grandma act to straight talk with a kid in trouble. “I know your story, and I know how it ends.” Ouch. Quite a sentiment to hear from your grandmother. (Also, three cheers for Ellen Burstyn, who was great even when the role was cliched. Note to the writers: More Grandma Margaret please!) Later in the episode he shows up at Doug’s apartment looking for a second chance. He gets it, with the condition that he gets treatment. We’ll see what he does with it.

Bud also got a second chance, in his case to make a difference in the world. His whole trip to Turkey was the most annoying part of the episode, what with his blatant come-on to Susan and then his incredibly unprofessional and unrealistic negotiation with the President of Iran. I suppose it would be hard to make realistic storylines for an unrealistic character, but still, they could try.

The best moment of the episode was at the end when Doug took a step that reversed the family’s relationship with the media. He leaked to Susan that Elaine was planning on running again. He wanted her to publish it to stop his mother from getting anywhere on her plan, to save his engagement and his younger brother. This is an interesting flip on the conceit of the first episode, where the media used the family for its benefit, instead we see members of the family using the media to change their own lives and work their relatives. Somehow it evens the scales between the family and the media, which is an interesting dynamic. We’ll see where it takes us in episode three.