Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spring Round-Up Part III: Garfunkel and Oates, Comedians, 12 Monkeys, Bates Motel

Twelve Monkeys (SyFy)-Based on the Terry Gilliam film of the same name, this loopy time travel series got my attention out of the gate. It had a premise that kept me eagerly awaiting the next plot turn despite the fact that it's based on a story I'm already familiar with.

Aaron Stratford (Pyro from the X-Men) plays Bruce Willis' role of Cole and gets the dazed and confused stature of the action hero down (which isn't particularly far off from the war-weary and jaded thing he's going for). The chemistry between him and Dr. Railly (Amanda Schull) and Stratford has a certain electricity to it despite the fact that they aren't romantically intertwined (as of Episode 10, at least). They do a lot with wayward glances which makes a scene like Cole's attempts to dance at a cocktail party a lot less cringeworthy than originally written.

Credit: Cnet.com
Slowing down this romance is Railly's off-and-on-again boyfriend/fiancée who goes from disbeliever to uneasy ally. Part of this might have to do with the sort of trippy quasi-love triangle they're in wherein one side might have some extra special motivation to ensure that the other side gets erased from time although this isn't acknowledged (which is kind of weird).  Emily Hampshire (the MVP of Schitt's Creek, pictured right) plays the Brad Pitt character with a wild manic energy that's worthy of more of my adoration.

Unfortunately, the series gets bogged down in the middle episodes with plot lines set in the future outside of Cole that don't resonate. Dr. "Not Indiana" Jones gets into a power struggle with a faction that wants to cure the virus rather than do the whole time travel assassination thing. This virus cure strategy aligns more with the plot of the original movie but it's nowhere near as exciting as assassination via time travel, so what's the point? Even more questionable is the choice to add a subplot about Ramse's ex-lover and newly discovered child. This is way too much screen time to give to a character who exists primarily as a side character and confidante to Cole. This would be like if "It's a Wonderful Life" interrupted the main plot to bother us with story lines about Clarence and his domestic squabbles in Heaven.

The primary purpose of setting scenes in the future in the film was to provide the backstory and showcase Terry Gilliam's aesthetic which this show can't compete with. The scenes set in the present from Dr. Railly's point of view where she has highly imperfect information over what/where/when will happen next is when the series is at its best so let's hope we see more of the show set there. The show is still very enjoyable despite its complex plot and unpleasant deviations and I'm only at Episode 10, so let's hope things right themselves by the end of the season.

Garfunkel and Oates (IFC)-The brainchild of two actors that met each other performing at the UCB theater, Garfunkel and Oates originated from a song and dance act of two girls singing plain and dirty truths set to sweet harmonies and ukuleles. The musical numbers are undeniably catchy but there's nothing beyond that that isn't already being done by better acts that came along first. The first comparison that will come to mind is "Flight of the Concords" which is pretty unflattering considering that G & O does such a poor job of shoehorning their songs into plots.

Other than that, we have unflattering comparisons to "Broad City" in that the leads are two dense ladies with questionable abilities to navigate adulthood in a codependent relationship with each other. If not for "Broad City," there's also the "Live Prude Girls" web series (starring the AT&T girl) and Grace Helbig doing the dense girl shtick solo.

I'm not suggesting that these two actresses are falling short of the admirable goal of finding their voice and translating it into sitcom form. It's just that they have the awful luck of having a voice that's eerily similar to a number is shows already out there and what little there is that differentiates Garfunkel and Oates from Broad City or Live Prude Girls is a very small slice of demographic pie.

[Update: I watched a couple more episodes. The one with Ari Graynor is pretty solidly written]

The Comedians (FX)-Even if we admire the execution of shows like Louie, Episodes, Comeback,  Curb Your Enthusiasm, Life is Short  or The Michael J Fox Show we need to stop celebrating the same tired concept of a comedian or actor playing a thinly veiled version of his or herself. It comes off as vain and is becoming ad overused a genre as vampires are for teens.  At least Michael Judge or Jon Favreau had the creative decency to channel their creative frustrations into metaphors like tech start ups or cooking. To make matters worse: Billy Crystal already mined this territory in Mr. Saturday Night. For someone who's primarily known as a last minute resort for Oscar hosting with the same shtick he's been doing since the 90s, you would think he would use an opportunity like this to do something more inventive. On the plus side,  underrated character actress Stephanie Weir is now employed for a while. 

[Update: I only watched the first episode]

Bates Motel (A & E)-I was incredibly pleased with this show over the first two seasons. Who would've thought that Hitchcock's most action-oriented film could be adapted into one of the best mood pieces on TV. This is like Dawson's Creek or another small town teenage drama except with a lot more rape,  arson,  manslaughter, corruption,  schizophrenia, and outright murder. But it's still a mood piece with a strong sense of place,  deep characters and great performances.

The problem if that the show might have run out of mileage by now. The reveal that Norman has a habit of losing his marbles has already happened, we already know Mama Bates is creepy, the town's dirty,  and we've already seen Norman fall in love and murder someone twice (On the subject of his murdering: Shouldn't he be put in a mental institution by now?) What's there left for the show to do?  

From what I've seen of this season,  they're now pairing him off with a new love interest in Emma and more shady people are rolling into town. Neither of these things are new. I'm not suggesting the show needs to shift it's identity but rather reconsider whether the show will have diminishing returns from here on out. I'm not saying "Let's cancel the show!" but there are some obstacles in place that need to be worked out if the show is going to tread in the same direction.

For other editions of my Spring 2015 review:
Part I: Glee, Togetherness, Last Man on Earth, Archer
Part II: Schitt's Creek, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Librarians 
Still to come: Daredevil, Better Call Saul, Fresh off the Boat, Empire, and possibly Modern Family, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Empire, and Silicon Valley

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Spring 2015 Roundup Part II-Schitt's Creek, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Librarians

The Librarians (TNT)-This show is reminiscent of the syndicated series I grew up with like "Sinbad: The Seven Seas" and "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" but times have changed and the show's attempts at building some grand mythology pale in comparison to the kinds of fantasy and historical fiction that TV is producing these days. 

The plot of "The Librarians" is so vague, it almost seems as if it was was created by a pair of hyperactive 9 year olds who were stuck in the library one day with nothing to do but let their imaginations run wild.  "Oooh, and let's pretend the librarian has a magical sword that flies!" "Oooh Oooh  and they have a secret portal to the minotaur castle!" 

Even the level of character development seems like it was written by kids. The thief character has absolutely no development beyond being a thief who lives thieving. He also has a cockney accent which is as lazy a characterization as you can get (Rattling off awful action films that use this trope: "Mortal Kombat", "Fast and Furious", "LXG" and "Tomb Raider"). We also have an exotic looking bad girl with a British accent and an inexplicable willingness to hurl herself at the good guys expecting different results along with henchmen that come straight from the "Mighty Morphing Power Rangers" school of attack. It similarly takes a special lack of competence to put Rebecca Romaijn alongside someone like Noah Wyle and produce so little sexual chemistry. 

If there's any fun to be had,  it's watching pros like Jane Curtin and John Larroquette dive into such inanity as if it's Shakespeare. To the show's credit, it has some self-awareness of its cheeky nature, but there's no harm in actually making the show good on its own merits.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)-There’s an old saying that comedy is tragedy from distance. Distance, however, can refer not just to the passing of time but the closeness of the viewer to the bad event in question. Wile E Coyote falling off a cliff, for example, would be a lot less funny if there were realistic close-ups of his blood splattering across the desert floor. 

Likewise, one has to wonder why Tina Fey and Robert Carlock made the odd choice to give the central character in this “Naïve Midwesterner Strikes out in the Big City” tale such a traumatic backstory. To recap, the titular Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) is a woman who was kidnapped as a young teenager by a psychotic pastor and trapped in an underground bunker for 15 years and subjected to “weird sex stuff.” This isn’t too much of a problem considering the talents of the writers to sidestep the whole probable PTSD issue and keep the tone comic. As the story arced toward the trial at season’s end, one just has to wonder why the season chose such a bleak starting point as the baseline.

Other than that and a highly irritating theme song (which I realize was deliberately annoying, but still), there’s little else to complain about here. Casting Ellie Kemper (the only actress who seemed like she was trying in the latter seasons of “The Office”) as the spunky and naïve lead is a no-brainer but the selection of Carol “Mrs. Latka Gravas” Kane and Tituss Burgess are both strokes of inspiration. Burgess previously appeared in “30 Rock” as the one-notiest of oharacters in flamboyant fame seeker D’Fwan on the show-within-a-show “Queen of Jordan.” Although the D’Fwan character’s flatness was part of the joke, it’s still surprising to see Tituss’s new character follow the same outlines as the old character and be expanded so richly.  Similarly, Carol Kane has never been on 30 Rock, but her comic gifts have always seemed like the perfect fit for the Tina Fey world as a batty old woman with clear Ashkenazi Jewish leanings whose paranoia and shady past are optimized for some of the show’s best quotes.
Credit: GeekBinge

Similarly, Fey and Carlock continue to mine humor out of the absurdly rich with Jane Krakowski as the polar opposite of financially normal.

If anyone’s given short shrift on this show, it’s the love interests (oh, and also the teenage daughter).  Love was never taken seriously on “30 Rock” beyond a superficial plot device that was always acknowledged with a playful wink. Jack Donaghy cycled through love interests in a way that rendered nothing beyond his courtship relevant, and I’ve never been convinced that Liz ended up with Kris for any reason other than that was who he happened to be with when the show ended its run. Similarly, Kimmy cycles through approximately three boyfriends with the first one getting shipped on a bus and the third one (one of the few interracial Asian/American pairings on screen) lacking in chemistry although they did get a lot of mileage out of the dong jokes.

The first season had a number of endearing plot lines as Kimmy found a place, a best friend, and a job in fairly short order.  
Schitts Creek (POP TV)– A fish out of water story between an absurdly rich family stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Co-created by Christopher Guest staple Eugene Levy and son Dan Levy, the series is highly watchable and gets a lot of mileage out of a winning premise.

What’s odd, however, is how little of the world is fleshed out. Part of this is intentional (like Springfield with “The Simpsons” or Camden with “My Name is Earl”, Schitt’s Creek could be a stand-in for anywhere) but specificity couldn’t hurt in a small-town comedy like this.
Similarly, the Rose family has a lot of blanks that no one seems to care about filling in. 

Credit: Variety
They’re not just wealthy but wealthy to the point of absurdity. The unrealistic arrested development of their kids is reminiscent of “Step Brothers” where there are expectations that you’ll suspend your disbelief about how people can get that old and know so little about the world. When Dave needs to get a job, he asks if there are any openings in this small town for art curating. 

An effeminate brat who’s likely gay but is restricted to asexuality at the moment (possibly because sex would get in the way of his daily sulking rituals), Dave is the weakest character on the show in that we know only what he doesn’t like (being around his sister, the town, daylight) and not what drives him. He would be more at home in the bratty teen comedies of the late 90s than he would in Doc Hollywood. The only thing that interests him is the equally sarcastic hotel worker (Emily Hampshire, MVP of the show) who bonds with him through their mutual love of being jaded adolescents (which, again, seems awkward considering he’s over 30).
Alexis makes out a little better as she transitions from a rich boyfriend to a local love interest gives her some reluctant interest in blending into the town [Ed.note: She now has a second local love interest which indicates that she might just be capricious and easily attachable].

Chris Elliott finds his footing here as the kind of oddball sitcom character that would only exist in a quirky world like this. Maybe it's just me because I saw more Chris Elliott in the '90s than any other decade, but I would have trouble seeing Elliott in a comedy without that old-school quirkiness as opposed to something set in the present day. On the whole, it's still an entertaining show and I'd be on board for a second season.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Me and Adam Spector Discuss TV vs Movies Part II

My friend Adam Spector keeps a column on film here and leads a film discussion group in DC every month. I've attended the group but I recently confessed to Adam that I like television a lot more these days which sparked the idea that we should settle the argument once and for all on my blog. This is part two of our no-holds-barred (True fact: I've never typed those words before on a screen, they look much funnier in this format) battle of wits between two intellectual giants with a lot of free time on their hands.

Part I was here and before presenting Part II, I will post the last few lines of Adam's post:
"But there’s still nothing like sitting in a movie theater, having the light go down, and being totally immersed in a film.  No cell phones and no distractions.  Just you and the movie. 

Orrin, you and I have both noted the talent that has worked in TV.  But many of them, including Scorsese, Fincher, McConaughey and Spacey also work in film.  They haven’t focused on one at the expense of the other, and neither should we. "

Round II
Orrin-- That's true that TV in the 1950's was a significant threat to the movies as box office receipts dropped. It's also a fitting parallel that just like JJ Abrams and Joss Wheedon ascending to the elite as movie directors rather quickly, so did John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and Sidney Lumet after cutting their teeth in television.

But I think there's a key difference. TV didn't threaten the movies by being a superior art form. They threatened movies simply by existing and being novel. TV was actually behind the times in terms of quality. While films were getting risque with "The Seven Year Itch" and "Pillow Talk" (and well over a decade after "Gilda" "The Big Sleep" and "Double Indemnity"), TV's most progressive show at the time, "I Love Lucy" shied away from even suggesting that a husband and wife could sleep in the same bed. In the interim "Leave it to Beaver" and "Andy Griffith Show" (which debuted in 1960) reinforced conservative American family values while Douglas Sirk was tearing the image of the American family apart in films like "Imitation of Life" and "Written on the Wind." And that's not to mention other 50's films like "Splendor in the Grass," "Searchers," "Three Faces of Eve," "Salt of the Earth," "Defiant Ones," and "Night of the Hunter" that deal with murder, racism, mental illness, the red scare and economic depression. As the code was being broken in the movies, it was being reinforced on TV.

Movies evolved by innovating. They tried some nutty ideas like smell-a-scope and 3-D but more to the point, cinema also evolved through delivering what TV couldn't: Epics. "Ben-Hur", "Ten Commandments" and "Lawrence of Arabia" were all highly successful films that came about in the decade after TV started to hit homes and couldn't be replicated on the small screen particularly easily. It also seems that talent always had something to do with the equation. I mentioned last time we met that I thought Blake Edwards defined the '60s as a director and was responsible for my favorite films of that decade. If we had one less Blake Edwards, film would have been changed.

While you mention that many talents navigate both film and television, I can't help but feel TV talent might be exerting a toll on film. If you check Kathy Bates' filmography, she's pretty exclusively in TV and Jane Fonda, who hasn't been very prolific as an actress since the '80s, has devoted her time to "The Newsroom" and her upcoming Netflix project. Similarly, another talented actress Maggie Gyllenhaal has nothing on her slate after acting in "The Honourable Woman." Actors have the freedom to navigate both mediums nowadays but they might choose TV over film when making a decision and become known as a TV actor like Ted Danson, Kelsey Grammer or Julia Louis-Dreyfus and that makes TV more glamorous.

You're right that moviedom isn't dead and I'm not suggesting good movies aren't out there. I think a smaller percentage of movies that are released are worth watching as opposed to a decade ago, but I'm not suggesting that movies as a medium are dead. I'm wondering though what's left in filmdom's bag of tricks. What's their 3-D/cinemascope grand plan? (I'm just remembering as I typed that last sentence that 3-D movies are back in style these days). In that sense, television might be a greater threat to movies today because TV is innovating faster than movies in everything from economics (With ITunes and TV on Demand, the pay models are evolving whereas movies are forced to ride demand out with increasing ticket prices and ridiculously priced concessions) to the actual content itself.

Adam – You have caught me at a bad time Orrin.  It’s growing more difficult to defend cinema in the face of articles such as “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA” (http://flavorwire.com/492985/how-the-death-of-mid-budget-cinema-left-a-generation-of-iconic-filmmakers-mia) and “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s Toxic (and Worsening) Addiction to Franchises Changed Movies Forever in 2014” (http://grantland.com/features/2014-hollywood-blockbusters-franchises-box-office).  In the latter article, Mark Harris writes that “In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period.”  It’s probably not a coincidence that the late Mike Nichols did not direct a movie for the last seven years of his life.  It’s growing more and more difficult for filmmakers to make non-franchise character driven films unless they are able to do so with a very small budget.  Younger filmmakers just starting out can do this, but for older, more established, filmmakers sometimes it’s just not worth it.  That’s why, as you have noted and the Flavorwire article describes, more of the established filmmakers are turning to TV.    

We differ in that I often enjoy franchise films.  As I noted before, the last Captain America film was a smart thriller and Guardians of the Galaxy was a fun ride.  I can’t wait for the next Bond movie and eagerly gobbled up the trailer for the new Star Wars film.  But it’s frightening to realize that Hollywood’s reliance on these films can crowd out everything else. 

I have recently been studying some of the greatest film years in the '70s.  The first Star Wars film debuted in 1977 as did the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, but so did Annie Hall and Looking for Mr. Goodbar.  Two years later brought the start of the Alien and Mad Max franchises, but also Being There, Norma Rae, and The China Syndrome.   Let’s look at the best of the '90s.  In 1997 Titanic, the biggest blockbuster of all, came out along with Men in Black.  But so did L.A. Confidential, Boogie Nights and Eve’s BayouThe Matrix franchise launched in 1999, but it was joined by American Beauty, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Insider.  At Hollywood’s best, there was room for all.  Are those days gone?

You described the studios’ response to the TV threat in the 1950s.  It’s eerie how similar the response is today.  Back then, films eagerly embraced 3-D technology.   Today, most blockbusters are done in 3-D.  In the 50s it was Cinemascope, today it’s IMAX.   Plenty of biblical films then, and this year we had Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.  The other major response comes from the theaters, which are increasingly offering plush accommodations, a wider variety of concessions, and the ability to pick your seat.  

Innovation flourishes more easily on TV, with its greater array of platforms, than it does on TV.  But, even there, we need to specify matters a bit.  There’s no doubting that cable networks, Netflix and Amazon offer much greater freedom then Hollywood studios.  However, on network TV, sports events dominate the ratings leaders.  Mindless reality shows still abound.  Networks have also tried to go back to their past, with live specials such as “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.”

Of course most TV networks and Hollywood studios are owned by the same huge multinational corporations.  They can spread franchises, such as the Avengers and Star Wars over both TV and movies.   You and I both talk about movies vs. TV, but every day there is less difference between the two mediums. 

With all of that, I try to remain hopeful.  Maybe it’s my lifelong love of cinema, or maybe it’s just naiveté, but I can still find reasons to go to the movies.  While TV takes more chances than most movies do, I already cited the exciting, groundbreaking work of Richard Linklater and the Alejandro González Iñárritu this year.  Another example is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which used 3-D not as a gimmick, but a method for a new kind of immersive storytelling.   Unfortunately, actresses “of a certain age” have always had problems getting good film roles.  But I’m encouraged that Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore, and Susan Sarandon still appear on the silver screen regularly.

In the end though, it’s up to us: The viewers.  Hollywood always follows the money.  If we only go to the big franchise films, studios will have every reason to continue down their current path.  If we want filmmakers to take chances, if we want thought-provoking films made for adults, then we need to support those films with our ticket-buying dollars.  So see Boyhood, Birdman, Selma, Wild and Foxcatcher and do not just wait for those films to come out on DVD or appear on TV.  If we do not support the films we say we want to see, then we can only blame ourselves if those films disappear from our theaters.      

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spring 2015 TV Report Part I: Last Man on Earth, Glee, Togetherness, Archer

Last Man on Earth (FOX)-Sponsored by the Tuscon Chamber of Commerce, this comedy isn't so much high-concept as a hard sell considering no one wants to watch "Cast Away" (or "All is Lost" for those of you who weren't coming of age in 2000) as a comedy.

Credit: TVline.com
Will Forte, who co-created the series with "Clone High" cohorts Phil Lord and Chris Miller, believes himself to be the soul survivor of some biological epidemic until he meets Kristen Schaal, and the two deal with the realities of an Adam-and-Eve type situation in which Eve is a shrewish nag and Adam is the kind of adult slacker who sees the end of days as a prime opportunity to go bowling with cars and create a sweet margarita pool.

She's not quite "Flight of the Conchords" Kristen Schaal crazy, but crazy enough to think there's a reason to stop at a traffic light when there are no other moving vehicles on the planet. Schaal wants Forte to "marry" her and then do some hard-core repopulation to save the human race and Forte eventually relents because he's just plain horny.  But we have ourselves a love triangle when a third survivor turns up who turns out to be Forte's dream girl (a very down-to-earth January Jones) and he can't do anything because he's a "married man."

This isn't a show that has an interest in fleshing out any view of the apocalypse. Not even at a comedic level. How these people hijack cars at will, why there aren't dead bodies, or what the hell they're all doing in Tucson (where summer daytime temperatures average over 100 degrees) are questions the show isn't interested in answering. The show can best be described as a Twilight Zone episode wrapped up into the sensibilities of an SNL sketch. Forte finding himself locked out of his dream girls' pants because he quite reasonably married who he thought was the last girl on Earth is the sophomoric comedic equivalent of Meredith Burgess's bookworm character having access to all the books on Earth as its last survivor only to have his glasses broken.

Glee (FOX)-With the pressure of telling the story of a Glee club out of the way (it was supposedly dissolved and the writing room covered their bases by having all the underclassmen mysteriously transferred out), Season 6 had the potential to hone in on tighter stories. It was highly possible for the show to have a decent swan song, but instead Glee devolved massively. Why does everyone end up back in Lima coaching glee clubs when the overarching theme of the first few seasons was the first couple of seasons were primarily about high schoolers harnessing the power of song and dance to avoid being "Lima Losers"?

In the fifth season, the show's infrastructure fell apart as so many of the original characters were graduating and scattering in different directions. To hold the show together, "Glee" has employed every artificial coincidence imaginable. The show has gone beyond jumping the shark: It's almost as if Glee's writing room had determined that their last chance at cultural relevancy would be to jump the shark in such a memorably absurd way that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's "Nuke the Fridge" might be supplanted with "Hypnotize the  Chord Overstreet character" or "sex-change the football coach."

Nostalgic folks who look at the disaster of Season 6 and long for the days when Glee wasn't so erratic are forgetting that this show has always had a problem with burning through plot too quickly. If you remember, Finn and Rachel would quit or rejoin the show every other episode, and it was only a matter of weeks before big bully Puck was part of the gang and dating Rachel.

The show succeeded in stretches where the brand of crazy managed to be contained towards amusingly out there as opposed to batshit insane.This was one of show's few sensible long-term decisions Murphy and his crew consciously made. It was also the show's last good decision. 

Togetherness (HBO)-Although I suspect that the half-hour length will place this show-- about a couple of thirty-something lost souls simultaneously crashing on the couch of a couple undergoing marital decay-- squarely in the comedy category. who are we kidding here? The Duplass brothers' style has strains of what I believe is referred to as neorealism (think Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica, Noah Baumbauch, or Alexander Payne) where the story line is paced at the speed of life. Two of my favorite films in this mold that coincidentally came out in the same year are "Lost in Translation" and "Master and Commander." The former tracks a chance platonic relationship in a foreign country and the latter tracks a war ship in the Napoleonic Era. Neither film moves faster than the speed of life and that adds value to the storytelling. In reality, a ship in that era would go long stretches of time without seeing any significant action and by setting the story mostly during those lulls in action, the viewer feels an appreciation for the vast distances in time and space in the 19th Century.

Similarly, this show feels like watching an extremely lifelike view of a marriage as its dissolving. Up until the seventh episode when Brett (Mark Duplass) gets high on mushrooms and crashes his child's birthday party, very little happens on the show that's more eventful than, for example, my own life. When the characters I'm watching on TV are less interesting than me, I would say that's problematic but I'm willing to chalk it up to a curious phenomenon.

This is all well within the mold of the Duplass style but at the same time, previous efforts such as "Jeff Who Live at Home" and "Cyrus" had hooky scenarios. This show's scenario seems to have potential as two adults are navigating a weird situation but many of the episodes focus on low-key activities. The episode where Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) tries to spice up her sex life with Brett was even tame by the standards of today's television landscape.

This isn't to say that the show isn't watchable. Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peete are excellent actresses who truly elevate the material and the chemistry between Steve Zissis and Duplass as two lifelong friends has a lot going for it. Similarly, there's nothing emotionally unfulfilling about the main storyline of this marriage on the rocks. There's just a little bit of energy lacking at times.

Archer (FX)-I analyzed this show to death over at TV Fanatic this past season so it's best to read my reviews there. To give a brief summary on my views of this season, Archer Vice was a bold experiment that paid off tremendously, but this season took us back into the old groove of Archer. I know going into the season that unless something drastic happened to Adam Reed's brain chemistry (I learned over the course of this season that Adam Reed writes nearly every episode of the show himself), that the writing would be as steady as it had always been. The difference is that without the overarching through lines, each episode had to sink or swim on its own merits.

The season was largely one of regrouping as the gang welcomed Slater into the fold as a sort of surrogate Mallory (leaving Jessica Walter with less airtime). Slater has spent quite a bit of time with the gang at this point and has managed the remarkable feat of spending time with the gang and not getting a little bit batty himself. As we've seen with Cyril and Lana, the descent from sensible human being to can amusing miscreant is inevitable when you spend enough time with Archer and company.

The bottle episode and the mansion listing episodes were the season's strongest outings and demonstrated that when the gang gets together in one place and all of their various ineptitudes are combined in pursuit of an outlandish goal, the possibilities for humor are endless.

Too often, however, the show broke off the main group into an action-oriented A-plot and highly forgettable B-plots which carried out their designated function of breaking up the action and that was about it. Most of the B-plots revolved around Baby AJ who was a pretty questionable addition considering Archer and Lana were already on a collision course anyway and we already had the wee baby Seamus (a definite fan favorite, ok, not really, but...). It's also worth noting that this is a baby Lana had using Archer's man juice (I spent a while thinking up a good word there) without his permission which is a pretty bizarre thing for anyone to do who isn't a psychotic stalker. That's pretty far away from what Lana is.

Write-ups to come on: Fresh off the Boat, Modern Family, Empire, 12 Monkeys, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It's Always Sunny, The Librarians, Schitt's Creek, Daredevil
[Ed. Update: Part II is here http://sophomorecritic.blogspot.com/2015/04/spring-2015-roundup-part-ii-schitts.html]


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Discussing Movies vs TV with Adam Spector Part I

My friend Adam Spector is the head of DC Film Society's Discussion Group Cinema Lounge that meets once a month at the Barnes and Noble by Metro Center in DC. He also keeps a column called Adam's Rib.

I recently had a cross-blogging project with Adam about the state of films verse TV in six parts. The first two parts of the post are listed here:

OK -- Adam, I've enjoyed discussing movies with you this past year but I have to also confess that while I love to discuss film as much as ever, I'm not really watching a lot of films. While I eventually managed to watch 8 of the 9 Oscar-nominated films by Oscar night this past year, I doubt I'm on pace to equal the 24 films I saw last year, as I have only seen 8 films this year [Ed. note: I managed to squeeze in 25 films by Oscar night including 4 of 8 nominees]. What's more: I really don't mind. I've seen most of the films I've wanted to see and there are only a handful of films that have caught my interest. Last time I checked the redbox, there seemed to be mostly sequels, blockbuster films (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Maze Runner) based on source material I'm unfamiliar with, uninspired comedies (Tammy, Jingle all the Way 2) and animated films.

What I'm pouring my efforts into instead is TV because let's face it: This is the Golden Age of TV and whether it's a procedural, a serialized drama, or a multi-layered comedy TV has so much to offer these days. And I'm not the only one who thinks so: Oscar-winners like Halle Berry (Extant), Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Dustin Hoffman (Luck), Jon Voigt (Ray Donovan) Octavia Spencer (Red Band Society), Francis McDormand (Olive Kitteridge) and Jane Fonda (Netflix's upcoming series) as well as directors like Frank Darabont (Walking Dead), David Fincher (House of Cards), Steven Soderbergh (The Knick), Michael Apted (Masters of Sex) and Barry Sonnenfeld (Pushing Daisies) are all flocking to TV in droves. Conversely, some of TV's most iconic show runners a decade ago--J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, and Seth MacFarlane, for example-- are all wildly successful on the big screen.

As for the advantages of movies, I love the idea of leaving my home to support and experience the arts and those new seats are really comfortable but that's about it. My style of viewing has changed. 

In the old days, the only social experience of watching a film was talking about it as you leave the theater, but with TV you can have dialogue with people all around the world while you're watching something (through Twitter), right after the episodes (through week-to-week reviews) or between episodes of a longer arc (on message boards). There's no water cooler discussion like trying to figure out where the plot will take you on a show like "Homeland," "Lost" or "The Bridge."

I'd even argue that the actual form of TV is better. The latest program I started catching on TV is "Silicon Valley" which is the work of Mike Judge of "Office Space", "Idiocracy", and "Extract." His comedic films satirize the absurdities of the American professional sphere with an eye on the razor-thin differences between those in power and the underlings through elaborate plots in which each of these two classes tries to cheat the other. Imagine watching "Office Space" [spoilers ahead] and waiting a week to find out that Michael Bolton's plan to steal pennies off the company backfired or that Milton's frustration over his paycheck would result in the building being burned down. The viewer has time to guess and ruminate at each stage of the story's development.

Granted, TV didn't reach its potential until just recently when shows figured out how to master these long-arcing stories like "24"or "Lost" a decade ago and now there are dozens of shows I can point to in the past 7-8 years alone that I just can't get enough of narrative-wise. In the face of all that, why see a movie?

AS – You may be surprised that I agree with much of what you wrote.   Your insights about the way television has advanced, both in the narrative form and in the talent attached, are on target.  I’d say the start of this change goes all the way back to the 80s with shows such as “Hill Street Blues,” that started telling stories and developing characters over seasons, not just single episodes.  The show that moved television storytelling to another level was “The Sopranos.”  It took the “antihero’ concept from 60s and 70s film and used the time and space that television offered to really explore how this type of person thought and felt.  Everything from “Mad Men” to “Breaking Bad” to “House of Cards” owes “The Sopranos” a great debt.  Television has broken free of many of its historic shackles, such as being beholden to ratings and advertisers, and the idea that every dramatic situation had to be tied up neatly by the end of each episode.  With cable TV, also gone was much of the language, sex and violence censorship, thus providing much more freedom of content.

More recently, television has also shed the time constraint.  With Netflix, viewers of “Orange is the New Black,” “Arrested Development” or “House of Cards” no longer have to wait until next week to see what happens.  This allows for even more innovation in storytelling and character development.   It also gives the audience more control than they have ever had before.   

You noted the actors and directors that have worked in television.  Gone is the idea that television is somehow beneath film talent, that it would only serve as a last resort if a film career is floundering.  Martin Scorsese helped develop “Boardwalk Empire” and is now working with Mick Jagger on an HBO show about the ‘70s rock scene.    The same year that Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar he also starred on “True Detective” for HBO.  Fincher directed "Gone Girl" while still working on “House of Cards.”

Television’s recent success does not portend cinema’s death.  Film’s demise has always been greatly exaggerated.  I remember attending a seminar at the Kennedy Center in the late 90s when a panelist proudly proclaimed that film was dead.  Ever since television first became popular in the 50s, some have been ready to pour dirt on movies.  But movies are still here.

It’s taking nothing away from television to acknowledge that there is still exciting work on the silver screen.  Just look at Richard Linklater’s innovative "Boyhood."  In less than three hours you see a boy grow up.  That would be very difficult to do on television, if only because no network would want to pay development money for a show it wouldn’t see in 12 years.  Another example is "Birdman", where the entire film unfolds as a long jazz riff, with the camera seemingly gliding through a struggling theatrical production.             

Sure, much of what you see at the local multiplex are sequels or franchise films.  First, that doesn’t always mean these are poor quality.  The latest Captain America film took some chances with the story and the casting, and was a successful homage to 70s conspiracy thrillers.  Knock Guardians of the Galaxy all you want, but its irreverent take on superheroes was fun and refreshing. 

Like television, films offer a wide range in content and quality.  Judging movies by their derivative efforts would be like me judging television by its stale sitcoms and mindless “reality” shows.  Sure, if one would only select films based on the box office charts, it would be very uninspiring to say the least.  But if you look at the art house theaters, you can still find plenty of movies that are worth your time.  In the DC area we are very fortunate, with the Landmark theaters here, the Angelika in Fairfax, and the AFI Silver.  We should take advantage of these offerings.

Watching movies and TV shows at home is wonderful.  Much to my wife’s chagrin, I own more than 500 DVDs.  Between Netflix, my DVR and On Demand, I can and do enjoy many quality TV shows.  But there’s still nothing like sitting in a movie theater, having the light go down, and being totally immersed in a film.  No cell phones and no distractions.  Just you and the movie. 

Orrin, you and I have both noted the talent that has worked in TV.  But many of them, including Scorsese, Fincher, McConaughey and Spacey also work in film.  They haven’t focused on one at the expense of the other, and neither should we.