Finale Round-Up: Underground, Jane The Virgin, Bates Motel and Empire

It’s been a really busy couple of weeks in TV between upfronts and finale season and it would take a long time to write extensive pieces about every big TV moment of the past month, but I did want to weigh in on how a few (very different) shows chose to wrap up their respective seasons. So here it goes….

Underground (WGN)
Season 1

I’m not certain, but if Underground operates like most cable series, I’m guessing the entire season was filmed before it ever began to air which makes sense. So much of the finale feels like it was designed to put a bow on this particular story but leave enough breadcrumbs to make sure there is something to play with in a possible second season. Hanging threads like how exactly Noah is going to get to freedom now and what sort of fate awaits Ernestine as she’s sold off to a new slaver are certainly pressing points to end on, but then you have Rosalee having to deliver a rushed explanation as to why she is going to immediately risk the freedom she’s worked so hard to acquire. It’s not that her motivations didn’t make sense, it’s just that her arriving at the conclusion felt more out of the necessity to set up a second season rather than a natural revelation.

That’s a minor quibble towards a show that has otherwise mostly defied expectations throughout its first season. Underground walks this very fine line where it functions as a thrilling action-adventure series that can sometimes be a lot of fun to watch, but it never forgets the very real evil and suffering in which these character’s stories are grounded. The finale, like most of the season, was positively harrowing from beginning to end, from Rosalee’s showdown with August (not to mention him facing punishment for crimes of his own at the end) to Ernestine (a superb Amirah Vann) shockingly murdering her master, there were no half-measures here.

Underground Season#1 Episode #1 Photo Credit : Sony Pictures TelevisionAt times in the season, there were obvious budgetary restrictions that would cause certain action sequences to really suffer. I feel like it’d be best if Underground made sure to live within its limits rather than attempting big moments it can’t pull off. Those few moments (Moses and Boo escaping onto the train being the biggest offender) made the show feel a little more like what people probably expect a cheesy WGN drama to be, rather than the deeper, darker and profoundly challenging work it was successfully pulling off most of the time.

The cast, by and large, was excellent though, elevating this work and really capturing the pain of the time. Jurnee Smollett-Bell has always been a good actress but has never been given material this meaty to play off of and I thought she was just tremendous. I was also in awe of how Reed Diamond (who is pretty good at playing the charming everyman or the aloof douche) tapped into something so complex, balancing the monster and the humanity that lived within Tom Macon. Underground surprised me often with how succinctly it wrestled with the different moral and political views of the time and its unflinching observation of the remaining dignity slaves had to sacrifice in order to attain true dignity and freedom.

Along the way, there were countless schemes and obstacles that ensure the Macon 7’s trip to freedom would be as gripping as possible, but the show mostly always handled this in a way that never sacrificed the gravity of the subject even while making a really entertaining show. I thought that the conditions under which Rosalee stabbed August’s son were a bit contrived and shifted the dynamic in a way I don’t think it needed to be messed with, but it also wasn’t some grave or asinine offense that truly upset me in any way. It just wasn’t my favorite choice.

Overall, Underground is an examination of America’s original sin cleverly wrapped in the package of addictive, escapist fare and it’s really an impressive feat to pull off. It had a few hiccups along the way, but was mostly a really admirable and enjoyable season of television.

FINALE GRADE: B
SEASON GRADE: B+

Jane the Virgin (CW)
Season 2

For a show with a premise that really shouldn’t have worked beyond the pilot, Jane The Virgin is consistently one of the best shows on TV. Its command of heart and humor is unmatched and stellar performances led by Gina Rodriguez solidify this as one of the brightest spots on all of television.

Look, are there a couple of times throughout the course of the season where one particular twist or turn feels like a bit much? Sure. But more often than not, Jane has zeroed in on a format that works, never letting the more ridiculous aspects (such as anything to do with the series’ multiple crime lords) to overshadow the very funny and sweet components that really fuel the show.

The finale ends with one of those notorious big twists when Michael is shot in the chest by Sin Rostro (who has been using Mission Impossible-esque technology to pose as his partner for the entire season, because of course she has) just moments after marrying Jane. That’s right, just seconds before the titular virgin was deflowered, her betrothed was seemingly Chapter Forty-Fourkilled (or was he???) on the way to get ice. Which, for those of us who feel anxiety when a show strays from its title, I’d actually be amused if the rest of series was just a bunch of increasingly absurd obstacles preventing Jane from ever doing the deed.

That final twist is a big one, no doubt, and I’ll have to see how they resolve it next season before I decide how I feel about it (this show, against all odds, made a baby kidnapping work in surprising and funny ways in the season two premiere, after all), but other than that, the finale was pitch perfect in my book. Jaime Camil (whose fictional telenovela never ceases to delight me) was fantastic as a father-of-the-bridezilla and his honest conversation with Xo about their complicated feelings was heartbreakingly effective (made even more heartbreaking by her unexpected discovery at the end of the episode).

I loved the little touches that were sometimes funny (like Michael saying he’d have to check with Jane about inviting Luisa to the wedding “because she did accidentally inseminate her”) or sweet (like Michael saying his vows in Spanish). I know there are some obligatory ship wars between Team Michael and Team Rafael, but I’m not particularly invested in who Jane chooses. I think the important part was that she make a choice and not keep twisting in the wind, so I was in full support of this wedding.

Another thing Jane The Virgin does well is that it gets me to accept contrivances I otherwise wouldn’t. Like when Jane has to stop at school on her way to the wedding to change her thesis? Ridiculous. But they sell these ridiculous sitcommy situations every time, and we’re rewarded by hearing her advisor gruffly tell her “I feel like I’m locking you into the patriarchy” as she helps her button her wedding dress.

Because of all the moving parts, it’d take forever for me to chime in on every development (which includes the bonkers scenario between Petra and her evil twin in which Yael Grobglas is doing absolutely terrific work), but needed to say, I’m a fan. There are so many high concept shows that lose the heart of what they’re doing in an attempt to outdo themselves over and over as the years go by. But 44 episodes in, Jane The Virgin hasn’t turned down the crazy, but it has such a firm grip on what the show is, who these characters are and what makes it all so very special. It really is a joy to tune into every week and this was a great way to wrap up this season.

FINALE GRADE: A
SEASON GRADE: A-

Bates Motel (A&E)
Season 4

Bates Motel continues to astound with its best season yet, leading up to what has already been announced will be its final season next year. By the end of episode nine (with all doubt extinguished in the finale), Bates has set the table for a full-on Psycho final season now that Norma has killed his mother in a ghastly murder-suicide attempt. He survived, she wasn’t so lucky.

"Forever"To be honest, if you’ve had any experience with death, I imagine this final hour was difficult to endure. It was one of the most unflinching depictions of grief that I’ve ever seen, first with Norman’s raw emotions dominating the first half of the episode and then later as he actually dug up Norma’s corpse and demanded that she wake up. Vera Farmiga did a horrifyingly good job playing dead in a scene that was gut-wrenching and disturbing on a number of levels. Throughout the finale, it was hard to decipher whether Norman didn’t remember what he had done or if he simply didn’t understand; it’s hard to tell with this damaged young man played with unsettling intensity by the Emmy-deserving Freddie Highmore.

Speaking of Emmy-worthy, I’d love to see Nestor Carbonell nab a nomination as well for his tremendous work this season, culminating in desperate outbursts and threats towards Norman. From their scuffle at the hospital to Alex showing up to berate him at the funeral, it’s such a great visual. To everyone else, he looks like a scary, angry man towering over and screaming at a child when we know he’s actually staring down a monster. The finale ends with him tied up by the DEA for a bit but I anxiously await to see how he (and Dylan and Emma, for that matter) deals with Norman next season.

The finale was creepy and devastating and really hard to watch, but it never lost its grip of that dark humor Bates so often possesses. From Norman’s strange interactions at the funeral home to the appearance of Chick and his chicken enchiladas as Norma’s corpse lay on the couch, the show’s oddity gives it an extra edge. And as strange and offputting as Chick so often is, him sadly saying to Norman “Do what you gotta do….but you understand she’s dead, right?” was kind of hauntingly beautiful in the way Bates Motel so often is.

FINALE GRADE: A+
SEASON GRADE: A

Empire (FOX)
Season 2

I wish I could say that I am loving Empire’s particular brand of crazy as much as I did in season one, but season two has tested my patience far too many times for that to be the case. And I don’t even know if “tested my patience” is the right turn of phrase to use. That implies that I’m getting riled up or frustrated with Empire; possibly worse, I’ve just grown indifferent.

Season one hinged on these larger-than-life characters facing one outlandish situation, betrayal or scandal after another and as much as we all gobbled it up, I don’t think anyone was in denial about what a fine line the show was going to have to walk to succeed for multiple seasons. And honestly, commercially speaking, it’s just fine–tons of people still watch this thing. But creatively speaking, every major plot development–no matter how asinine–is just beginning to feel lazy and desperate. Like the writers have somehow lost the plot; they know the show is supposed to be insane but they forgot how to make it fun.

finale 4It’s hard to point to one particular factor, but everything from the return of Lucious’s mother to his criminal past coming back to haunt him to Jamal being shot and Hakeem’s wedding being ruined and Lucious rushing into a marriage with Anika to protect himself after she’s just been found out for pushing Rhonda down the stairs and causing her miscarriage…..I mean, is there a single bit of that that you care about it? The show has never been especially consistent when it comes to character motivations or loyalties, but it’s gotten a lot more obvious now that all the shine has worn off. Even the music has been lackluster most weeks.

The show’s over-reliance on guests stars has been a problem as well. Earlier this year, they opened a can of worms by having Jamal hook up with Skye and she was never seen again after the hiatus. So, now, all of a sudden they’ve kind started to delve into this complex situation in regards to Jamal’s sexuality and now they’re forced to just brush it off in dumb and awkward ways (it doesn’t help that Jussie Smollett had better chemistry with Alicia Keys than he’s had with any of his male co-stars). A few weeks later, Marisa Tomei’s character was killed off screen in a set-up that felt silly and rushed, especially considering what a major role she had been playing for the most of the season. I don’t know the ins and outs of all of these particular casting issues, but it seems like they may be having an impact on the show’s writing.

This isn’t to say I hate everything about the show. Taraji P. Henson still lands every single line, I like the idea of wild card Hakeem trying to settle down with a good girl and I enjoyed the Jamal/Freda friendship and the ways Lucious’s secret complicated things….up until they decided to handle it in the most overwrought fashion and have her accidentally shoot Jamal on the red carpet. But even the areas that are working suffer from inconsistent storytelling and character’s moods changing at a whiplash-inducing speed. Like, you can’t have Lucious put his homophobia on the backburner for most of the season only to shift gears from all the hokey drama and have him tell Jamal he hopes he dies of AIDS. I mean, you can, but you shouldn’t. That scene would have played pretty powerfully in season one but it just feels like a cheap grasp towards shock value now.

The finale continued the trend of underwhelming messiness and I find it hard to believe I’ll remember or care much about any of these story lines by the time season three premieres, however, I am hoping it gets its issues worked out by then. There’s still enough of what made it fun embedded into the show’s characters and style to make it a rather painless way to spend an hour every week, but I miss the A-game of early season one that expertly harnessed the power of no-holds-barred melodrama like no other.

FINALE GRADE: C
SEASON GRADE: C

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