Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top 12 of the year in TV

  1. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)-What was once a quirkily-structured universe of Hollywood has-beens and visual animal puns has now attained rare levels of multi-layered humor that will be collectively remembered, celebrated and memed for years to come mixed in with the kind of rare psychological insight from generational depression, to self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, to asexuality. When I wrote a piece on the critical community needing to break itself out of its limited view of diversity, this is the kind of show I was referring to. The fourth season saw BoJack coming back from his worst to achieve a cathartic level of self-moderations with hints that this sitcom has-been taking steps to becoming a better person.  Carolyn, Todd, and especially Mr. Peanut Butter and Dianne have had introspective arcs with the Mr. Peanut Butter/Woodchuck Coodchuck Berkowitz (that name alone should put this at least in any sane person's top twenty) race providing a hilarious government satire that is desperately needed in crazy times like these.
  2. Good Place (NBC)-Few comedies have ever aimed this high conceptually and managed to avoid melting their metaphorical wings after a few episodes. By the first season finale, this show had us all collectively by the by the balls (or whatever the female equivalent is) and the show has continued to give us only the most tenuous view of what’s in store for its four denizens of its rapidly fluctuating version of the afterlife. The comic tics for each character have become finely tuned in the second season: In addition to unpredictable Stepford smiler Janet, fussy Chidi, and self-congratulatory Tahani; Jason Mendoza can carry the episode's laugh content single handedly with his boundless stupidity; Michael has proven just as fan on the dark side as he was as a bumbling klutz and then there’s Eleanor Shellstrop. Credit Kristen Bell’s fine performance and the crafty writing, but Shellstrop is an anti-hero for the ages with a backstory that’s filled with endless stories of being a hilariously terrible person and the slowly creeping potential inside of her to redeem herself from all of it.
  3. Trial and Error (NBC)-This small-town courtroom drama burst out of the gate with a strong sense of place and hilarious characters to populate it with.  Seasoned sitcom pro John Lithgow plays to his strengths as the epitome of eccentricity with Jayma Mays doing her darnmdest to make you forget she ever played as prissy of a character as Emma Pillsbury in Glee. Nicholas D’Agosto, Sherri Shepherd, Steven Boyer, and even Krysta Rodriguez all are given a lot to work with and they all deliver characters that are memorable, comically sound, and endearing. 
  4. Bates Motel (A&E)- The idea of Norman Bates’s character spread out over five seasons must have been a tough sell but the show worked beautifully as an idyllic small-town concealing a cesspool of voice and a sweet young man with a psychopath brewing inside. Over five seasons, Bates Motel accelerated ever so smoothly from a simmer to full-on terror while remaining tonally consistent and keeping an eye out for the long game. The fifth season brought us up to speed with overlap from the events of the landmark 1960 with Rihanna unexpectedly connecting as Marion Crane and Dylan picking up the slack of the noirish detective. Would good or evil triumph and would either character make it out alive? With all deviation from the source material fair game, it was a nail-biting ride to find out. Hitchcock would have been proud. 
  5. Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)-Raise your hands if you even knew stand-up comedy existed in 1958? Me neither and that’s why this show makes all the other comedians-playing-themselves entries look vain by comparison.This show is all that and a bag of matzah brie. Yes, it’s a little heavy on the Ashkenazi Jewish stereotypes (and mazels to Tony Shalhoub on your recent conversion to Hollywood Judaism, was Alfred Molina taken?) but it also has an endearing cultural specificity and a strong sense of momentum. While the show is about comedians, it’s very comfortable with its dramatic beats. The stakes are high – the protagonist goes from being excited about landing the rabbi for Yom Kippur to losing her husband, her home, and getting arrested in the span of a few days—and that’s just the first episode alone. As a period piece, this show allows for relevant feminist overtones without being preachy and also creates a superhero worth rooting for.
  6. Glow (Netflix)-This show might be the greatest send-up to the joy of wrestling TV has ever produced but I’d have no idea either way as a complete noob to the sport. Instead, I see a show about raw pluck, girl power, and a docudrama about a ragtag group of underdogs (complete with the economics of constantly being screwed) all wrapped in a delightful 80’s time capsule. Like Jenji Kohan’s other main work of the Netflix era, “Orange is the New Black,” this show is a hodgepodge of diversity in the best sense with Indian and Cambodian characters and even a spoiled rich white guy worth rooting for. Make no mistake, though: Marc Maron (this guy was an actor??) and Allison Brie steal the show
  7. Black Mirror (Netflix)-Creator Charlie Brooker’s series works best when tapping into our luddite fears about the future’s advances in technology wielding as much potential to hurt us as it does to help us. This year Brooker really found his groove in terms of delivering consistency (for my money, there was a humongous dip in quality after Nose Dive and San Junipero last season) and infusing his twist endings with the kind of bittersweet poignancy that allows the themes to resonate. The show also mixes emotional tones and genres whether it’s a sci-fi send-up that will make Trekkies drool (USS Calister), a psychological thriller (Crocodile), a cautionary tale framed as family melodrama (Arkangel), a futuristic love story played straight (Arkangel), a meta-commentary on the horror genre (Black Museum), or a Coen Brothers/Soderberghesque look at dystopia (Metalhead).
  8. Crashing (HBO)-Pete Holmes is the kind of break from the mold to show us that not all comedians are degenerate, self-obsessed, foul-mouthed slobs. Well ok, some of Pete’s friends are, but that's what makes Pete Holmes (the character, although I'm assuming the person) such a breath of fresh air with his adorable naivety. It's a show about comedy but it is also a show about redefining your relation with your faith, parents, friends, and the concept of adulthood itself.
  9. Orphan Black (BBC America)-Full disclosure: As someone who’s not a hard-core binge watcher, I drove myself to exhaustion by the time I set out on my project to go from the pilot to Season 5 within the span of less than a month. By the time I got to the end, my head was spinning whenever I was asked to discern the difference between neolution, DYAD and CASTOR, so I’m not necessarily the most reliable judge of the 2017 portion of this series, but this show is a smart thriller that is both tightly-paced and capable of juggling multiple storylines. It’s mostly known for the superhuman acting feat of Tatiana Maslany playing multiple parts at once but it’s been one of the best stories on TV for the past five years.
  10. The Mick (Fox)-From the creators of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, this show engages in the same kind of duality of lovable yet deeply offensive characters as its sister show (which is still going strong, even if it didn’t make my list). The show started out as an unremarkable vehicle for Kaitlin Olson to reprise her role as a Dee-like character (maybe the producers will release her from  Charlie Work if she logs in enough hours?) and it’s now one of the most dependable sources of humor on TV. Carla Jimenez is a bona-fide scene stealer as Alba and Jimmy is equally funny as a guy who has no practical use to the Moing-Pemberton household but has managed to stick around thus far.
  11. The Real O’Neals (ABC)-A modern renegotiation of the classic sitcom mold that was really beginning to find its groove before the axe came tumbling down. Curse you, trigger-happy ABC overlords!  The show’s handling of its gay teenage protagonist (Noah Galvin) went under-acknowledged during its three-season run but the show also deserves credit for allowing its progressiveness to coexist with more right-wing elements. Like the new breed of smart sitcoms that’s been reinvented on network TV in the past couple years, this show has the edge to power through gooey sentimental plots with a healthy dose of irony, but it’s ultimately a show about togetherness that this country sorely needs.
  12. Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV)-With each season, this Canadian import becomes more assured in its characters and richer in its sense of place. As a result, the ( primarily character driven) humor is richer in Season three with Catherine O'Hara leading the way in the laughs department as the ex-soap opera star still coming to terms with her fall from grace. Season three is an unapologetically happy one with the Rose family finding themselves by embracing their adopted backwater town and at this point it's earned this cheesy feel good vibe.

Ten Honorable Mentions:
13 Reasons Why (Netflix)-The show has some pretty heavy pluses and minuses (do high school students really talk like that? If Hannah was so self-aware that she'd do all that, it never occurred to her to get a therapist?) but it evens out to a TV show that's eminently watchable and provocative enough to at least launch a discussion.
Adam Ruins Everything (TruTV)-A friend who get better grades than I did in high school often told me that "it's all about appearance and presentation." This reminds me of how Adam Conover (AKA the guy with the funny haircut and pocket squares on TruTV commercials) and his cronies from College Humor manage to make this mythbusters-type show so engrossing: With visual ingenuity and a narrative arc (know-it-all educates a rube that they're initial assumptions about topic X are wrong) that's been perfected to a T.
Baroness von Sketch Show (IFC)-This IFC show isn’t just sketch comedy from a woman’s perspective but from a middle-aged woman’s perspective. Whereas many comediennes (Amy Schumer, Sara Silverman, etc.) make it a point to go blue to try to show they can be dirty in a man’s realm, these women are just organically comedic. What makes the show stick out as that this quartet-Meredith McNeil, Aurora Brown, Carolyn Taylor, and Jennifer Whalen- establish their voice and chemistry very quickly out of the gate.
Brockmire (IFC)-Adapted from a Funny or Die sketch, Hank Azaria plays a down-and-out announcer who's shown that out-and-out alcoholic misery can be fun or at least passable (and perhaps we're all going to hell for watching this)
Fresh off the Boat (ABC)-Constance Wu continues her reign as one of TV sitcomdom's richest mothers while the show continues to be one of the most dependably heart-warming and reliably funny on TV. 
Gifted (Fox)-A welcome entry into mutant lore that kept the momentum going from episode to episode.  
Ingobernable (Netflix)-Part Homeland-style thriller, part steamy Mexican soap opera, lots of Spanish subtitles to sort through. The basic plot is the President of Mexico is murdered, the first lady is the prime suspect, and she has to piece together the conspiracy behind it all while on the lam. Kate del Castillo might not be Clare Danes but she's not that far away.
I Love Dick (Amazon)-Set in a artist's collective in Texas that really puts the avante in avante-garde, this show is pretty out there but has a lot of wayward insight into everything in art from the male gaze to productivity and shines a window on the world of weird art.
Powerless (NBC)-A promising series cut veggie it had the chance to catch on. Although superhero spoofing is nothing new, the shows found a workable original angle and admirable casting: how often are you going to find a good sitcom vehicle for Vanessa Hudgins and Danny Pudi together?
Room 104 (HBO)-The Duplass brothers have used this loose platform to create some very intense and theatrical half hours of drama. The connecting thread between episodes is next to none which kept the show out of my top twelve, but hey, this is better than Togetherness (note to self: never watch Togetherness again)

Sorry folks, maybe next year (everything else I watched this year):

2 Broke Girls* (CBS), American Dad^ (TBS), Archer*^ (FX), Big Mouth (Netflix), Blind Spot* (NBC), Difficult People (Hulu), Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (BBC America), Emerald City** (NBC), Family Guy (Fox), Feud (FX), Friends from College (Netflix), Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS), Future Man (Hulu), Girl Boss (Netflix), Grace and Frankie (Netflix), Great Indoors (CBS), Hack My Life (Pop TV)* I Love You America (Hulu), It's Always Sunny^ (FX), James Corden (CBS), Jimmy Kimmel Live^ (NBC), Lady Dynamite (Netflix), Last Tycoon* (Amazon), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO), Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC), Legion* (Fox), Lost and Found (Netflix), Man Seeking Woman (Comedy Central), Making History (Fox), The Mayor (Fox), Me Myself and I (CBS), Modern Family^ (ABC), Mom (CBS), One Mississippi (Amazon), Orville (Fox), Ozark (Netflix), The Path (Hulu), Rick and Morty (Comedy Central), Scandal (ABC), Sense8 (Netflix), Star Trek Discovery (CBS All Access), Stephen Colbert (CBS), Superstore (NBC), Tarantula** (TBS),Timeless (NBC), Time After Time (ABC), Tarantula** (TBS), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt^ (Netflix), White Famous** (Showtime)

^ Made my top 12 in a previous year
* Viewed in limited capacity (two or three episodes)
** Only saw the pilot

Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Week in TV: The Mick, Man in High Castle, The Mayor, Fresh Off the Boat, Ingobernable

The Mick-The Divorce:
From the creators of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” this show engages in the same kind of duality of lovable yet deeply offensive characters as its sister show. As the year closes, this has been one of my highlights and will likely place in my top 12 this year. This week (or rather, 2 weeks ago), Chip discovers his birth dad and tries to get close to him in a way that goes haywire, as should be expected in sitcom land here. Anyone familiar with my writing or the views I tend to espouse on Disqus knows I’m not generally one to overuse feminist arguments or analysis, but man, does Chip really cry out for it. White male privilege, masculine anger, toxic masculinity all seem to describe this misguided adolescent. Perhaps his only saving graces are his sheer cluelessness and loyalty to his family and the former is certainly emphasized here. To watch Chip undergo all the sexual frustration of an adolescent times ten, it’s nice that he finally got kissed on screen but the incest is still gross, and most importantly he might have blown his chance at a father-figure. Oh well, there’s always next week.
In other news, Alma, Ben, Sabrina, Mickey and Jimmy probably did stuff too though I can’t remember what.
The Man in the High Castle-The end of Season 2:
Keeping up with Peak TV is exhausting. My recommended strategy: 1) Make sure you’re not wasting your time on frivolousness 2) Watch a mix of stuff that challenges you and stuff you like 3) Watch some of the mainstream stuff so you can enter into a conversation or two 4) Don’t worry about the rest. Still, there’s  LOT of TV and it’s fairly easy to start something with the intention of finishing it and burning out in the middle. Sometimes the more complex shows can throw you off during season breaks (but those season breaks are necessary at the same time to stave off exhaustion so it’s “chicken and the egg”). Shut Eye (Hulu) was in my top 12 last year and when I tried to get back through the season premiere, I kept scratching my head so much, that it really wasn’t worth it. I’m proud to say I made it to the end of this series. Maybe this isn’t like I climbed Mount Everest, but I definitely feel like I climbed a bunny slope or two.
"Man in the High Castle"—Set in an alternate version of the early 1960’s where the Axis powers won the war and the US has been divvied up between Japan and Germany -- is one of many, many shows that would have dominated water cooler talk (or the vaping corner to update it to 2010’s terminology) ten years ago but it has since been squeezed out of here-and-now relevance as a consequence of peak TV. It’s not too far in quality from “The Americans” though when it comes to historical spy thriller and has a lot going for it. It’s produced by Ridley Scott’s production company and it might possibly be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen on TV and it lays out a tremendous amount of world building. If you’re a history aficionado who loves the “What if?” scenarios, this is your thing, but it’s good enough to transcend most of that because it’s rooted in so much of our everyday American experience and self-image.
The first and second seasons are both at their most entrancing towards the end with double and triple cliffhangers prefacing the season finale. The rest of the time, it’s been a pretty solid ride as a sprawling story is told out with several characters and locations. The second season involved significantly more of an “alternative universe” which I desperately wanted to discard (If I was ever tempted to fast-forward through anything it was this stuff) until it worked its way back through the plot but I still hated. Still not sure the how or the why of why it’s here, but it’s A-OK with me.
The Mayor-Here Comes the Governor-This show has been well-received but, to me at least, there’s a lack of star charisma that’s keeping this from becoming must-see. Lea Michelle and Yvette Nicole Brown have never done it for me and Brandon Michael Hall is uninspiring though I appreciate throwing in a lot of tension among his entourage with the bickering sidekicks (raise your hand if you can tell them apart. I can’t either). My proposed solution? Throw in better stunt casting a la Parks and Recration. Where would the show be without Ben Schwartz, Jenny Slate, Allison Becker, Patton Oswalt and the rest of that gang. Maybe they’ll even find a Chris Pratt equivalent here.
In this week’s episode, Courtney gets a visit from the state’s governor and the two engage in some serious politicking between rounds of golf and shvitzing. Structurally, this was a solid episode involving Courtney growing as a politician and playing the game. It was even laced with some insightful political commentary. The show is still not notable on the comedic end, however. It’s been a few days since I watched this, so if anyone remembers any laugh-out-loud moments please share.
Fresh off the Boat-Side Effect
Another dependable favorite of mine, this show is very much in the mold of family sitcom with the bonds between family members meant to be inspirational to the rest of us who might not be as appreciative of our parents, siblings, etc and might not spend enough time with them. It plays off our perceptions (possibly true, possibly false, verifying the accuracy is above my pay grade) that families from East Asia tend to uniformly have tight-knit families with children who overachieve to please their parents. Oldest child Eddie is the main character of the series, however, and as he is in adolescence, he’s a bit of the loose cannon of the family at this point. Does he still get A’s like his siblings?
This episode highlights Eddie’s downward slope as the apotheosis of adolescence. It’s a family-sitcom in the mold of the 90’s so Eddie is always programmed to do the right thing at the end, but he’s capable of sliding off quite a bit before the end. Eddie shows no loyalty to his friends and ditches them in a bridge-burning fashion for the second time this season. To be fair, they have developed some weird hobbies, but still. Part of Eddie’s character is he’s written as sociological commentary of the 1990s from the perspective of exactly two decades in hindsight. Eddie’s penchant for gangsta rap gives him a veneer of toughness.
Ingobernable-Season 4-Another candidate for my top 12, this is a Homeland-style thriller that’s also part steamy Mexican soap opera. The basic plot is the President of Mexico is murdered, the first lady is the prime suspect, and she has to figure out what’s happening as she’s on the rise.
This episode works in a stand-alone fashion. Emilia (the above-mentioned first lady) is kidnapped for ransom to extract some money out of her rich father. Then, big twist, one of the kidnappers re-kidnaps her (or perhaps the word is double-kidnap?) because he wants to make her pay for the death of her sister. He’s not so much evil with a twirly mustache but just a product of the lawless culture. Meanwhile, a sharp-looking woman is invited by the interim president to conduct an impartial investigation and she looks like she’s got things under control when she aces her introductory interview (choice nugget: There are no truths, only accounts). Oh, and the late president and security chief had lots of gratuitous hot sex.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

2017 Golden Globes Reaction and Hopes for the Upcoming Awards Season


The first in-depth piece I read on the Golden Globes was by Richard Roeper who did an expose in his book about how the Hollywood Foreign Press Association was a near-fraudulent organization of some 80-something journalists who don’t represent anywhere near the cream of the crop in terms of film critics or reporters.

But looking over the lists of nominees, I hardly care: Despite having to go first, these guys generally manage to fall in the same region of adventurous mainstream artistry that the academy favors which is a lot harder to do when you’re up earlier in the season. But more than that, they’ve allowed people like Colin Farrell (In Bruges), Gene Hackman (Royal Tenenbaums), Dennis Quaid (Far From Heaven), Gael Garcia Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) to thrive that didn’t get recognition at the Academy or Oscars. Mozart in the Jungle is a solid show that will always get overlooked by best of lists considering the plethora of Golden Age TV, but it can always call itself a Golden Globe winner.

This year, Jason Bateman in Ozark, Katherine Langford in 13 Reasons Why, and Freddie Highmore in the Good Doctor (let’s call this collateral for his Bates Motel snubs) are surprisingly astute picks. Eric McCormack (the blandest cast member of an entirely unnecessary reboot) and SMILF are both pretty puzzling but when you have such a small sample size of 80 that’s part of the fun.

Other notes:

-Three of my four favorite films this year are all in the comedy category: Big Sick, Beatriz at Dinner, and Baby Driver so I had plenty of horses in this race and was somewhat disappointed. Selma Hayek gave a tender performance that went for big laughs in a wonderful movie that encapsulated the best of Mike White-style awkwardness. Similarly, the omission of Holly Hunter, Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, and the screenplay of Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are all extremely disappointing. Watching Ansel Elgort get nominated for Baby Driver was a small consolation prize. Overlooked in all the hype of the movie is Baby Driver isn’t just a great technical achievement but Edgar Wright’s most emotionally poignant story with Elgort at the center. However, I think Lily James might also have been deserving.

-For my money, the nicest surprise would have been Tom Cruise in American Made. The actor has been relegated to strictly low-risk action since Oprah-gate and this is the first role in years where Cruise is committed to creating an interesting character while letting loose. Tropic Thunder was a nice cameo, but Barry Seal was a fully realized anti-hero and he was a lot of fun.

-With the horror film Get Out (a film I’m not crazy about), the indie stylings of Sean Baker (The Florida Project), and the fantastical Shape of Water, this is an awards year in which genre ghettoization will be broken open and I predict that will be the story of the 2017 season.

-Though I’m a big fan of Jordan Peele, I worry that Get Out will displace a better film because it’s getting an exaggerated spike from a film criticism community that leans towards the social justice liberal end of the spectrum. At the same time, I’m not attuned or experienced in the horror genre to fully get the nuances of the film. I would recommend that awards bodies go for Mudbound instead (which got snubbed by the Globes). 

-While I think the idea of being unable to separate the man from his art in the case of Kevin Spacey is absurd, I can certainly respect Ridley Scott’s decision to remake the film and it’s a testament to his genius and efficiency that he reshot All the Money in the World in a week and it was wonderful to see him rewarded.

-For the life of me, I can’t understand the fuss with Mary J. Blige. It’s such an understated performance, I can barely remember her at all. Mad props to Blige for taking on a challenging project for her transition to acting, but if these awards bodies want to award the film’s fantastic acting, Jason Clarke or Jason Mitchell deserve the nod in the supporting actor category. 

-Ughh, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep. Of course, these are two very good actresses but the former is always getting slots for Oscar-bait (she's already been nominated twice for playing Monarchs including Victoria herself, Chocolat was lightweight and Iris was a dry biopic that had no appeal outside of the acting challenge of playing an aging author culminating in Alzheimer's) and Streep has just been nominated too many times to feel any joy for her 21st film nomination.

-Lastly, seeing your favorite films get love on awards ceremonies is nice but it also makes one wonder about the “what ifs.” Todd Haynes and Richard Linklater are both directors who rarely go wrong and one has to wonder what they possibly could have done differently with Wonderstruck or Last Flag Flying to get the critics’ attention. Are they deserving films? Both films were on my must list but by the time I got around to stopping by the theater to see them, I discovered that they both were quietly dropped within a week or two.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

My Week in TV: Mom, American Dad, Orville, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (AMC)-First three episodes
Step aside, all other shows about stand-up. You think a stand-up comedian playing themselves as a sad sack is novel? You think going all the way back to the 1970s is novel, you schlemiel Ari Gaynor show ( Try an Ashkenazi Jewish 1950s housewife who kvetches her way to stardom, with Lenny Bruce as a side character, and dialogue stylized courtesy of Amy Sherman-Pallanido (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads) and then come back to me. Raise your hand if you didn’t even knew stand-up comedy existed in 1958…my point exactly!

This show is all that and a bag of matzah brie. Yes, it’s a little heavy on the Ashkenazi Jewish stereotypes (and by, the way, mazels to Tony Shalhoub on your recent conversion to Hollywood Judaism, was Alfred Molina taken?) but it also has an endearing cultural specificity and a strong cast. While the show is about comedians, it’s very comfortable with its dramatic beats. The stakes are high – the protagonist goes from being excited about landing the rabbi for Yom Kippur to losing her husband, her home, and getting arrested in the span of a few days—and the episodes so far end on icy cliff-hangers.

The show is feminist but not in a way that hits you over the head but it has more leeway to do so without being cloying as a period piece. There’s less debate that gender norms were pretty crappy in this era, so it’s more easily read as an examination of this decade in all its facets. More so, it’s a testament to the pluck of a woman trying to do something extraordinary when pressed in from all sides. Midge Maisel (Rachel Bronsahan)

The show also works as an interesting examination of the end of Jewish self-isolation in the United States. As someone whose father was within spitting distance of these communities on Long Island and whose own generation marked the bridge between the old guard and a current state of Judaism that's desperately trying to hold off the next generation's apathy (exhibit A: Birthright), a lot of the tension between the titular Midge Maisel (Rachel Bronsahan) and her parents (Shalouhb and Hingle) is not just laced with the typical radicalized-60s-generation-rebelling-against-their-parents overtures, but tells a much more specific story about these people.

The electric Alex Bornstein (Mad TV, Family Guy) also does great work here.

The Mick (Fox)-The Teacher
Sabrina has a crush on her teacher. Because this is Sabrina, we know she’s going to go after him like she owns him. Because it’s The Mick, we know something disastrous in a boundary-pushing way is going to happen from Point A to Point B. Because a great comedy is about subverting expectations, I can admit to being thrown for a couple big curves.

In this case, Mickey tries to stop Sabrina by wagging her finger at the teacher but he seduces her. That this happens before the episode’s first commercial break is the cleverness of the episode. It’s no longer a sexless comedy of errors (although I’ve often read that ALL screwball comedies are primarily based on romantic attraction without sex) but rather a game of Mickey trying to rub it in Sabrina’s face that she had sex with her teacher and using everything at her disposal to get the teacher to admit it. That and it’s a comedy about a crazy ex-girlfriend from the POV of the confused teacher. The episode also demonstrates the growing rapport between Mick and Sabrina: We’re past the phase where Sabrina thinks she can simply roll her eyes past her aunt’s existence.

The B-plot involves Chip paying Jimmy $200 to enhance his reputation after he gets listed #42 out of 50 among the hottest guys in his grade. The idea of Jimmy charging $200 to a child when he’s living rent-free in his great-grandmother’s mansion for no discernable reason (being an occasional sex partner of Mickey doesn’t seem to qualify) is a perfect summation for what makes the guy a comic stand0out.

Mom (CBS)-Fancy Crackers and Giant WomenIf a show like “Superstore” can attain semi-respectability by portraying working class people, that audience needs to check out “Mom.” Detailing the comings and goings of an AA group and a mother-daughter pair (Allison Janney as Bonnie and Anna Faris as Christy) within that group, it’s truly about people who have a long way to go before they can achieve relative normalcy.

Case in point: Christy has to apply for law school but the application fees are so high, Bonnie has to cut the internet bill. Sizeable plot holes abound: If the price of an application is going to bankrupt Christy, how big of a hit will the cost of law school be? Do law schools have financial need applications?

I’m personally most curious what most of us would do in the neighbor’s (character actress Amy Hill) shoes if my landlord explained to me that they had to forgo internet for such a noble cause. Would we expend a free resource  and fork it over? It's underlooked how often the show asks us to critically examine the lack of breaks that befall people in this echelon of society

The other plot is all about Jill (Emmy winner Jaime Pressly) and her new weight gain, which has now segued from an excuse for a bunch of fat jokes into an actual emotional moment. Jill is now aware that she’s put on weight. I’m not sure the show handled it particularly delicately, but what’s more pressing to me is the whether the actual line jokes of this show are up there with the rest of golden age TV standards for humor. This show has very sophisticated character work for a multicamera sitcom and the format allows the show to aim for zingy one-liners in a way that single camera comedies would be more reluctant to pull off, but I wonder if those zingy one-liners don’t have room for improvements. 

American Dad (Fox)-The Long Bomb, The Bitching Race, A Nice Night for a Drive, Casino Normale
Since purchasing an episode on a whim last week, I started rediscovering this show and realizing it’s a pretty dependable source of sophisticated humor although it still tends to live or die by the episode.
The “Nice Night for a Driver” sounded like a knight rider parody but was more a retread of the Klauss-Stan relationship. Stan started out as a flanderized aloof unemotional dad who openly disliked certain members of his family (Hailey, Klauss, Roger) but has gradually come around on Hailey (“Long Bomb” is a wonderful example of this) while considering Roger a worthy foil. Klauss is still an outliar for the family but it’s nice they occasionally have a bonding episode.

“The Bitching Race” was a surprisingly enjoyable half-hour despite the curious fact that I’ve never seen the source of the parody “The Amazing Race.” It follows classic sitcom tropes of an aloof dad learning to be more intuitive to his family. It’s ironic that Sean O’Neal, in an essay on the mothership, called Home Improvement (the godfather of the aloof dad sitcom trope) casually misogynistic when shows like American Dad generally have character arcs that spin the other way.

“The Long Bomb” mixes action and humor adeptly enough that I think it’s fair to say Seth MacFarlane doesn’t get enough credit for. The characters introduced solely for this episode – the singing guy on the trapeze, Johnny Concussion, etc—reminds me of one weakness of this show: By being overly dependent on Roger (in an interview, the show runners mentioned they realized the potential of the show when they figured Roger could be the guest star of the week), the show doesn’t have as many recurring characters as some of its cartoon cohorts which requires too much comic buildup for many of the characters we see each week.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (BBC)-Little Guy Black Hair
Watching season two is kind of like when my dad attempts a humorous anecdote at a party or other family gathering. Because he’s my dad and I have a good relationship with him, I want his story to succeed but I also am cringing with embarrassment when he tries to be funny.

DGHDA is undeniably ambitious but when it falls flat—when the female deputy who wears her hat backwards (honest to God, I made a solid effort to look up her name) overemotes, or when someone in the realm of normality has to react to the weirdness of Bart or Dirk-- there’s a cringe to bear. The show can feel tonally jarring, especially now that Dirk and Todd are being thrown into a fantasy novel this season (or as Todd aptly puts it “a murder acid-trip ren-fair nightmare”). There’s also a far-off blackwing plot which provides little of interest unless guys in military outfits speaking in conceptual techno-babble (to borrow a Star Trek term) is your thing.

But lo and behold! Dirk ties everything together in this episode with a rousing speech that pieces together all the disparate parts of the season thus far. About 90% of our “huh?” questions have been solved at this point and the explanation (that Windemoor was dreamed up by telekinetic traumatized kid a few decades back) is actually quite groovy. If only they peppered in the hints a bit more heavily, I might have been more invested at this point, but this hasn’t been the worst investment of a season I’ve had this year. The core commitment of the show to abstractist absurdity is still there. Plus, the growth of Todd as a friend to Dirk and a sibling/caretaker of Amanda has been quite sweet.

The Orville (Fox)-New Dimensions

This show pretty much falls under “What were they thinking!?” and rather than engage with  it years later on a podcast like “How Did This Get Made” or Nathan Rabin’s “Year of Flops” it’s hard to deny how interesting it is to watch a train wreck as It’s happening. The show’s main crime is not putting enough jokes in what is supposed to be a comedy and mirroring Star Trek way too closely but I’ll call BS on that: Galaxy Quest, the occasional Saturday Night Live skit, Thank God You’re Here and 10 Items or Less (off the top of my head) all had pretty exact Star Trek parodies,  and no one cared whether it mirrored the source material too closely.

But yes: The show is mostly boring and oddly focused on a bickering domestic couple at the center without being unaware that they are getting tired. At the same time, it’s kind of nice to re-imagine a version of Starfleet where people will get drunk and pull pranks on each other. The distant cordiality between the seven principals on TNG, and the exponentially greater emotional distance between the senior staff and everyone else on the ship, made for an extremely stuffy adventure.   And hey, Penny Johnson (who was great on Deep Space Nine) is here and she seems to have joined the cast voluntarily rather than, say, being kidnapped.

The last time I reviewed this show was an episode in which John LaMarr (aka the token black guy) got into trouble with the local populance of a social media obsessed planet for humping a statue (honestly, it wasn’t as crude as it sounded). I thought it was the high point of the troubled series to date and went over to the AV Club and one other site’s review of the episode and people couldn’t get over how dumb it was that Lamarr would go out and hump a statue, and my main reaction is: What show did you think you were watching?!

This show has mostly been muddled in its execution, but when it does work, it shows that Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its air of stuffiness, is pretty ripe for mockery. MacFarlane is not particularly well-liked among the critical community but he clearly has an intelligent voice and I can see this as a platform that tells solid science fiction stories with a nice comic distance from the TNG format. At the same time, if it were cancelled tomorrow, I wouldn’t lose any sleep.

This week’s episode is another John LaMarr episode and I know I’d be the laughing stock of the critical community if I were writing this for a Rotten Tomato-accredited site, but the episode actually had some salient dramatic moments: LaMarr’s speech about how it’s his responsibility that the group screwed up and that makes him not a leader was actually a powerful and insightful. I’m still not saying this is a good show, but credit where credit is due.

It’s also worth mentioning that they somehow managed to snag Norm McDonald to play the part of a (I’m not making this up) ball of slime who’s up for the position of chief engineer. I can’t ever say McDonald is miscast in anything, so it’s a plus.

This is also a good episode if you’ve gotten tired of Adrianne Palicki’s character being walked all over by the Captain for cheating on her once. Why are these two in a toxic relationship with each other?

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Themes of all 2017 Films I've Seen To Date

All films, even schlock, have thematic messages. In that spirit, I'm challenging myself to see if I can draw out three themes from every film I've watched in 2017. Incidentally, this is also my ranking of these films from best to worst.

1.       Florida Project-Invisibility of the lower class; lower class stretches across color lines; incredible and unexpected capability of children to maintain innocence

2.       Baby Driver-Possibility of redemption; neither criminals nor life in general can be trusted rendering future planning pointless; nature vs nurture (Baby’s influenced by being raised by a deaf man and having no parents, yet has natural ability)

3.       Big Sick-Religious tradition vs. decisions about marriage are never easy; effect of family/parents is inescapable; power of camaraderie/comedy to combat suffering

4.       Dinner with Beatriz-Capitalism as inevitable enemy of good; complicitness vs obedience of social mores; female intuition vs. male capitalist-based thought 

5.       American Made-The universality and thinness of the American Dream (Seal's life is so exciting because everyone can envy what he has), draconian nature of American bureaucracy; opportunity favors the bold (and perhaps a better chance at fortune as the original proverb states)

6.       Beguiled-Sexuality as a legitimate danger to youthful development; underlying violence behind sexuality; emasculation

7.       Lost City of Z-The pursuit of new knowledge can be worth even more than human life; challenging the Euro-centric view of the third world; sacrifice of greatness (in this case, the protagonist is an absent husband and father)

8.       Murder on the Orient Express-Illegal isn’t always wrong; the ripple effect of an evil act (one man’s kidnapping plot has destroyed so many lives); Inevitability of being caught for a crime (more of a fictional trope than something that happens in real life)

9.       Logan Lucky-Creating your own luck in the face of socio-economic expectations;  Karma/morally relative universe; challenging red-state stereotypes (the idea that the family is cursed fits in with our idea of how red staters are disadvantaged)

10.   Mudbound-Prejudice is cyclic and inherited like poverty; war buddies as a metaphor of understanding through shared experience; the scarring effect of racial hostility (in this case, the metaphor is enforced literally)

11.   Wind River-Invisibility of Native Americans; the danger of male sexual aggression when left unchecked; Community can be adopted and that can be good

12.   Dunkirk-War makes human life fragile; war as a time and place that creates heroes for those who step up; honoring the greatness of those who fought and contributed to the war effort (if these themes don’t strike you as very complex, it also should be noted, I didn’t think Dunkirk had much to say outside of special effects)

13.   Circle-Beware of utopia; the costs to emotional connection in living your life online; the addictive nature of sharing yourself and the dangerous consequences 

14.   Wonder Wheel-Love and morality are two different spheres (taken to its logical conclusion, Allen argues in favor of wronging someone if you’re following your heart); the promise of a better future as a driving force to get one through the day (it worked positively for Humpty and Carolina and led to Carolina’s downfall); love and jealousy being intertwined

15.   Cars III-How a heroic figure deals with aging; self-determination vs corporate interests; power of self-belief in victory

16.   Wonder Woman-Women as keepers of security; fruitlessness of war; maturation through the classic odyssey (as in leaving your homeland and going into the unknown a la Homer’s epic)

17.   Deidra and Laney Rob a Train-The increase in pressure to succeed when you’re in poverty; the cyclical nature of poverty vs the power of family (in this film, sticking together as a family and being supportive helps them fight poverty); legally wrong vs morally wrong

18.   The House-Legally wrong vs morally wrong; the stifling financial burden placed on the American middle class; the thrill of illegality

19.   Colossal-He who brings peace to himself brings peace to all the universe (this comes from a Hebrew prayer); cross-culture cultural consumption as an alien force; redemption

20.   Little Hours-Destructive libido can appear in women as well as men; questioning whether human sexual suppression has matured throughout history; be careful what you wish for  

21.   Get Out-The limits of white allies to the black rights movement; the reduction of blacks in the genre; the American black experience being fundamentally different than the white experience through perception of others

22.   Kong Skull Island-The dangers of the militaristic mindset; the essential goodness of nature (even though, in this case, it’s presented through laughable means); human inclination to fear nature when it’s large and foreboding

23.   Atomic Blonde-The capability of the female as action hero; betrayal as part of human nature; war begets cynicism

24.   How to be a Latin Lover-Valuing love for your family (of birth) over romantic goals; value of sincerity in courting; don’t be defined by age

25.   The Great Wall-Challenging history from a Euro-centric view; contributions of both genders in war; positive power of cultural assimilation (the Matt Damon hero is empowered in war through learning Chinese ways of warfare)

26.   The Discovery-Dark side of scientific progress; possibility of love in dark times; genius is blind (the man who invented the afterlife couldn’t foresee the effects)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Better off Ted: The Importance of Communicationizing

A typo on a company-wide memo dictates that “Employees must NOW insult each other” and off we go to a relatively simple concept that produces a great breeding ground for humor and displays the way this show can juggle humor at multiple levels. This might possibly be my favorite episode of the show not just because it’s the most hilarious at the dialogue level, but because the jokes serve the screwball comedy between Linda and Ted that’s the heart of the show. The slow moving collision of Ted and Linda romantically was stretched out for the entire run of the series and in the interim, the two enjoyed a sweet platonic rapport.

Mirroring these two is the platonic report of Phil and Lem as oddballs in relationship to the world around them. Watching these two conquer humor using math (The sheer volume of wonderful quotes from this episode is so staggering I’d be here all day if I listed every one but let’s just go with this: “Math my friend, she’s always been there for you” “If she ever took physical form, I’d leave my wife and marry her” “Stand in line, my friend”) is priceless.

Speaking of memos, Veronica Palmer starts to feel guilt over the fact that she was promoted to her current position at the expense of another employee, Walter, (Chris Parnell, who was a go-to for guest star roles in the late aughts), whose life has gone downhill as a result. It’s when speaking about this guilt that we see Veronica so devoid of emotions that she comes off as a psychopath. It’s a character trajectory similar in nature to Dennis Reynolds on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and it’s played equally as well here. Veronica’s attempts at an apology lead to guilt sex and just when you start to feel sorry for her (which is pretty immediately), you know that when the time comes to break up with him, she’s going to tear him to pieces with her trademark iciness. Surprisingly, she shows him a little mercy with a nice little corner office. Who knows if Walter (who seems incompetent and only made progress with Veronica because she was guilty) deserves a promotion to a better office, but one of the themes of the show is humanity vs bureaucracy and it’s a nice little touch that Veronica chose to do something oddly human.

The cast has a solid core of five but they rotate in and out characters as needed for the episode. In addition to Chris Parnell, there’s also the shy bespectacled Asian Debbie and the HR lady. They’re all funny characters who gracefully made their marks and exited (at least, as far as I know) but one hopes if the show went past two seasons, we might have seen a return of these guys in an expanded universe sort of way.

Speaking of the “what ifs” if this show continued past two seasons, it’s interesting to wonder if Ted might have gotten more developed as a comic creation. Let me preface this by saying that A) Jay Harrington has done some good work (particularly on “Benched”) as a comic actor and B) the straight man can often be a thankless role. However, there’s some room to be the straight man and add to the comedy (think Dave Foley in “Newsradio”) and there’s some room for improvement here (I know I sound like a kindergarten teacher, sorry).

It’s also interesting to note that all four women in this episode have had or have an unstoppable attraction to Ted. The HR lady drops her guard almost instantly; Debbie apparently is shy because she is tongue-tied in sexual frustration over Ted; Linda has the resolve to intellectually challenge Ted but she never has the resolve to ever pretend she’s not attracted to him; and while Veronica isn’t making googly eyes at Ted, she’s never been emotional anyway. It’s almost as if being superhot is his main character trait (although one could argue that A LOT of women have been painted this way in sitcom TV).

Also, when you stop to think about it, the way Ted doesn’t even acknowledge Debbie’s awkward burst of “WILL YOU GO OUT WITH ME” is kind of cruel. She probably won’t open her mouth in meetings for another year or two out of shame. Poor Debbie.

Star Trek Discovery Episode Review: Lethe

Since experiencing Star Wars fandom firsthand with the audience disappointment in the prequels, I’ve always felt a strange sense of sympathy for George Lucas whose rabid fan base jump on his later mistakes without seeming to appreciate that their whole obsession would never exist without George Lucas in the first place.

Who knows what would have happened to Gene Roddenberry if he lived past 1991?

Perhaps, it takes an outsider to the phenomenon to admit that his original vision seems outdated, na├»ve, and somewhat thin. Like any pop culture phenomenon that’s had a few reinventions, the Star Trek brand has gone in several directions at once, yet even a quality stand-alone film like Star Trek (and for the record, I like both sequels) can be derided by fans of the original simply because it’s different from the (perhaps unrealistically optimistic) version they’re attached to. What those fans might take for granted (let’s assume there’s some heavy overlap between the JJ Abrams series haters and Discovery cynics) is that Star Trek was dying before 2009. Enterprise was a massive flop, Voyager massively overstayed its welcome, and not all reboots were sure things. The series was dying for a new angle.

Discovery does have the same ambition behind it, but perhaps it aims a bit too much for the dark side and although I haven’t seen BSG, it does seem derivative of something else which cheapens the reinvention. An analogy is that some people felt Daniel Craig’s James Bond, while a solid reinvention, was too much a flavor of the moment by borrowing from Jason Bourne. Personally, I’m not sure how much of a need I have for Star Trek in comparison to the version of me in the 1990’s that gobbled up DS9 and gave Voyager a solid chance. For now, I’m taking it episode by episode rather than committing to a full season.

It’s possible that “Lethe” was the one that will hook me. It’s the first time a cliffhanger occurred that made me want to know what’s next. For a long time, Star Trek was a show that relied on the same molds (the curious outsider, the family man or woman, the by-the-book officers, the Captain who wrestles with morality the most) and there’s a lot of new here.

The lower deck angle with Sylvia is getting progressively better but the senior staff isn’t particularly present outside of Saru and Stamentz, considering Burnham is sort of a highly trusted temp at this point. There is a guy in sick bay who Stamentz was sort of hate-flirting with, but I’m not sure if he’s THE doctor or just a doctor. Because of that, it’s nice that we have a new crew member in Ash Tyler (either the actor or the character’s name, I’m too lazy to look it up now) join.
There’s also a sexy sex scene which hit me completely by surprise: I didn’t get a sexual vibe from those two (won’t spoil it) at all. There’s still a disconnect between how interesting the show thinks Lorca is and how interesting he actually is but provided the right story arc, it’s possible he could carry the show. What’s interesting to note is that Lorca might be pretty low on the anti-hero scale because his redeeming qualities are mostly about how he might win the war in a Machiavellian way and viewers at home might not care that much about winning a war as it seems hostilities with other alien races are fairly constant in the Star Trek universe. Why didn't Picard or Sisko compromise their principles completely if it was an option for Lorca?

Dirk Gentley's Holistic Detective Agency: Start of Season 2

This show might have gotten unfavorable "the book was better"comparisons, it might have gotten lost in the shuffle, or critics pain didn't like it, but this was one of my favorite shows last year. It was wonderfully bizarre, the characters were outlandish and well-cast (they strike me as inhabiting a universe where everyone’s just a little out of tune, like the types who pop up in Terry Gilliam films) and the serialized plot built towards something. But this series is more anthology-like, so it’s really a more a question of whether lightning can strike twice than a continued interest.

So far, I have no idea what to expect and the exposition is more like homework. You need to absorb the information of seeing and characters before you can them intermingle, but then again that's standard (at least for me). We're not at the proverbial drop point in the roller coaster, but it’s getting close.

Dirk Gentley desperately needs some forward progress. Like Dwight of The Office successfully demonstrated and Dina on Superstore is failing to do, there’s nothing particularly pleasant about watching an annoying character continue their irritating ways without gradually becoming aware of how annoying they are. We see Todd bending towards Dirk, but that doesn’t fully break the illusion that Dirk is getting any less useless. At the same time, Douglas Adams’ work is rooted in exposing the ridiculousness in our world (or, rather, a slightly off-center fantasical version of it) and Dirk solving crimes while doing godawful detective work is one of those oxymorons this kind of material thrives on.
Elijah Wood’s screen persona is that of a blank slate a la Tobey MaGuire: His go-to acting move is reacting with wide-eyed wonder with
a little more frustration laced in.

So far, it’s hard to tell what’s going on and this is a series that relishes in taking a while to connect the dots. I can barely remember anything plot-wise except the character work. The two stand-out characters that keep things interesting so far are an oddball police officer who somehow see things on the same bizarre spectrum of causality as Dirk; and Suzy, who is a submissive housewife and secretary to a white trash husband and corrupt boss that is suddenly on the grips of getting some superpowers.