Episodes: Friday mailbag (April 7)


I spent the whole day preparing for a vacation, then seeing a couple of my favorite movies at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (this is a must if you can afford it and/or get volunteer/media access). So this might be more perfunctory than usual! But we'll see because I'm really into these questions.

Adam asks:

I just found out that the Fate of the Furious has a review embargo for Monday April 10, just four days before it comes out that Thursday. Can I assume that the studio's feeling insecure about the quality of the film, or is that standard for big blockbusters? I think I recall the reviews for Star Trek Beyond coming out far earlier.


Ah, this is a question after my own heart, because critics love to read embargo tea leaves. And, yes, there are times when the embargo is so nuts that it's clear the studio/network doesn't think their product is going to hold up to critical scrutiny. The vast majority of critics, for instance, only got to see Ghost in the Shell two days before its official opening date, and only one day before Thursday preview screenings. (Most critics still consider a film to "open" on Friday, even if a lot of diehards will go see the preview.)

But this can cut both ways. What's more important, almost, is how early stuff gets sent out to critics. A Ghost Story, for instance, is very quietly screening around NY and LA, after a big Sundance debut. It doesn't come out until June, but its studio's early confidence about it says a lot. (I haven't seen it!) Similarly, many of the Laika animated films would screen a month to six weeks in advance of open to get the word of mouth growing. (It, uh, didn't really work.)

This backfires, too! Fox, for some reason, screened X-Men Apocalypse super early last year, and then lifted the embargo early, too, even though the movie was awful. And there have been plenty of times (especially in TV) when a late-to-lift embargo doesn't indicate much of anything. What's more, plenty of TV networks, especially, sometimes won't quite know what they have (I maintain to this day that Netflix was a little surprised by the level of fervor from critics for Orange Is the New Black's first season, but they quickly pivoted to embrace it).

TV is also subject to plenty of situations where episodes just aren't being produced quickly enough or something similar. For instance, only two episodes of Fargo season three have been made available to critics so far, when FX usually sends out three to five episodes of a new season or series. In some circumstances, this would be worrying, but in these circumstances, it's not, because Fargo is still shooting until early May, which means its production and airdates are going to overlap more than usual for a cable series. (I was on set in late March, and they weren't even halfway through shooting the season's 10 episodes -- when they debuted just a few weeks later.) This is even more true of network TV shows, where sometimes, the network will get a cut of an episode the morning it airs.

Finally, to more specifically answer your question: I do not believe that Fate/Furious embargo date (which is wrong, btw -- the actual embargo that I got is 4/9) is indicative of anything other than that Universal wants to maximize the coverage of the film across the week it opens. Lifting the embargo on Sunday achieves that effect. Maybe the movie stinks -- or maybe it will be subject to the gravity of mild critical/audience backlash (probably inevitable after Furious 7 was so huge) -- but I don't find that embargo particularly worrisome.

tl;dr: It's tempting to read too much into embargos or other tea leaves, but it's, at best, an inexact science.

Billy asks:

In Vox's recent ranking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, Constance Grady said your favorite Buffy love interest may very well be Riley. Is that true? I actually liked The Initiative (it was flawed, but cool as sort of a TV-lite version of that organization from Cabin in the Woods), but haven't seen many people make an argument for him.


(First, you should go read that article. It's a lot of fun.)

Is Riley my favorite Buffy love interest? No. I mostly enjoy trolling my readers and colleagues. (Buffy love interests ranked: 1.) This is a trick question. Buffy should choose herself.)

But I do think Riley gets a bit of a raw deal from fans. I love the show's very intentional choice to set him up as a Gary Cooper-style hero in the increasingly dark Buffy world, and I think that plays to one of his strengths as a character and Marc Blucas's strengths as an actor: sunniness. And because this is Buffy, the deeper you delve into Riley's sunniness, the more tortured it becomes. He's clearly using that to mask some deeper, darker shit, and he becomes one of the show's better metaphors for how toxic masculinity can hurt even otherwise stand-up dudes.

I do think that the way the show kept insisting, "No, you should love Riley!" hurt it in the end. But I also think that fans were too quick to compare Riley to other Buffy love interests when he was far more interesting as a conceptual character. But I'm well aware that telling fans that their favorite TV show works better in theory than in practice is rarely a great idea.

Anyway, the fact that the best Riley episode is "As You Were," his one-off appearance from season six, probably indicates that he was a character who would never fit all that well in the Buffy universe proper. (I mean, he's good in "Hush," but everybody's good in "Hush." Also, if we had to pick one of the big three Whedon concept episodes to top our list, it should have been "Hush." But I always tell people "The Gift" is the best Buffy episode. Then I learned a lot of people hate season five. Madness! This is a long parenthetical.) But I think he let the show get at some of the straitjackets masculine ideals can place on men, and for that, I think he deserves a fairer shake.

Todd asks:

Todd, where are you going? Are you going to be around for the next couple of weeks?


No I am not! I am headed to the European subcontinent for nearly two weeks of Not Working. Specifically, I'll be in Amsterdam and then Copenhagen/Denmark. (I'll have access to a car in the latter; not so much in the former.) Your next newsletter will arrive April 21. It will be a mailbag, so keep the questions coming! And if you have tips for what I should do on my vacation, please send them along!

I'll see you all later! If you miss the newsletter, please remember that there are lots and lots of installments in the archives. Tell your friends!

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Our Friday mailbag feature is a lot of fun! Please email me your questions over the course of the week, and I'll pick a few to answer. I'll always answer at least three per week, unless I just don't have the material. For ease of inbox search, please put "mailbag" somewhere in the subject line of your email. Thanks!

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Episodes is on hiatus until April 21. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.