Wednesday, May 13, 2020

TV Reviews: Hollywood (Ryan Murphy's latest), Upload, Waco

So much good TV! The list of what I'm watching is growing exponentially with Ozark's 3rd season and Dead To Me's 2nd season starting to jump into my rotation on top of Castle Rock's 2nd season.

The following YouTube video covers (in order) Unorthodox (Netflix), Hollywood (Netflix), Upload (Amazon Prime), Waco (Paramount Network), and Middleditch and Schwartz (Netflix). Two of these are covered in my last post. I'll cover the other three in more detail below along with "Never Have I Ever" which is a gem. 

Hollywood (Netflix)-Ryan Murphy's umpteenth flashy TV show tells the story of the Golden Age of Hollywood through the memoir of  (for lack of a better word) Hollywood pimp Scotty Bowers. Bowers opened a gas station in Los Angeles after the war where he arranged for discrete sexual liaisons for a number of men and women including many closeted celebrities. He wrote about it in a tell-all book that's a loose guide here. Key word is "loose" here. Bowers story is flattened in the service of the story that Ryan Murphy and crew really want to tell which is an intersectionalist revisionist story about how great inclusion is.

The series has been unfavorably compared to Tarantino's revisionist yarns because he's not as strong of a storyteller to pull off the difficult tightrope. Aside from bad storytelling, another charge is that his often-sensationalist bents have proved offensive here as he's dishonoring Rock Hudson by completely making up his backstory. Personally, I'm more shocked by Scotty Bowers who's pimping industry was more like sex slavery: His sex workers don't have the option of refusing down jobs that make them uncomfortable. When the Scotty Bowers figure (Dylan McDermott) makes the case to one of his straight workers that he should service gay people because they have to live in the shadows and this will make them happy (yes that really happens), it's a pretty egregious conflation between the kind of sex positivity and a progressive work space.

But the series suffers more from not having a deep focus. I can push aside the blatant progressive messaging but if it's not trying to say the kinds of things that have been said a hundred times in better ways ("Glow", "Orange is the New Black," etc.), this is a show that glides on the belief that just showing people in Hollywood of yore is enough of a story. It's borderline watchable but not highly memorable.

Upload (Netflix)-I've never particularly found the idea of human consciousness particularly appealing. "Transcendence" and "Ghost in the Shell" are among my least favorite films (you'd think I would have learned my mistake the first time) out and I found the gobbledy gook about how the mind works in "Lucy" to be dull. But if the mind isn't the sole focus of the show, then we're onto something.

From the guy who adapted the Office to American television (Greg Daniels), this show is so ironclad in its world-building that there aren't many plot holes to fish around in. Unlike "Star Trek", this is a world that broaches the topic of post-scarcity realistically.

The basic gist is a guy dies in a version of the future where people’s consciousnesses can get uploaded into a sort-of virtual retirement community.

Getting into this man-made version of heaven is like shopping for a retirement community and the dead rely on their living families to continually pay the bills.  Our protagonist (Robbie Arnell) is a man whose ticket to Lakeview (a place that looks like Alberta’s Lake Louise, see below) is sponsored by a rich girlfriend (Allegra Edwards) who’s um...let's just say she's got issues. His single mom can’t afford to pay his bills putting him in a situation where he's indentured to her. It's creepy. Like Alexander Payne's underrated film "Downsizing", this is a series that explores how a humanity-saving solution doesn't necessarily solve socio-economic disparity.

The series features a good love triangle and a solid group of supporting characters including a shallow self-proclaimed best friend (Kevin Bigley), a kid who died at the age of 11 (Rhys Slack) who is stuck in the afterlife that way, and typical office politics for the people who operate the system in the real world. It's not particularly funny, but it's breezy, thoughtful and deeply effective as light science-fiction.

Waco (Paramount)-Like "People vs OJ Simpson" (one of Ryan Murphy's best projects), this story is written in history and the series is about revisiting something we already remember in the news from a distanced lens. Think prestige TV's version of I Love the 90s with better actors. And damn, this is a fine ensemble with Andrea Riseborough ("Birdman"), Paul Sparks ("Greatest Showman"), John Leguazimo, Melissa Benoist ("Glee", "Whiplash"), Keiran Culkin ("Succession") and the great Michael Shannon. At the center of it is Taylor Kitsch (Taylor who? Yeah, not sure who he is either) who plays cult leader  David Koresh.

As for portraying who's the good and bad guy, the show plays it relatively even-handedly. The show makes it pretty clear that David Koresh is a non-violent person. He and his followers horde guns which serves as a relevant commentary on how many Americans west of the Mississippi view gun rights. Michael Shannon's stand-out performance as an FBI agent in charge of the negotiation is also distanced from moral judgments because he's not the person who screwed up the situation in the first place. The central question with him is whether he'll be able to defuse the situation and that's a good ingredient to a thriller.

The show also attempts to ask what made Koresh so charismatic and I didn't leave with a clear answer. On the one hand, he unilaterally makes decisions for the group and he is the only person in the compound who gets to have sex AND that includes with all the other parishioner's wives. On the flipside, he's an ace at leading bible study. So who knows? At the end of the day, I felt that there was an answer that made sense to the characters but I didn't feel like I could actually live in those characters' shoes. That might have been the difference between a good and great show.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Never Have I Ever TV Review


Never Have I Ever (Netflix)-From Mindy Kaling (and some other non-Mindy Kaling entity) comes a teen show that’s, for lack of a better word, all that and a bag of chips. The protagonist Devi is an Indian-American and teams up with two other minority students (Fabiola and Eleanor) to form a trio of inseparable friends. But that’s not all they’re defined by and the show doesn’t suggest that this is about whites verse other. The token dream guy is Asian as well. Eleanor, who is East Asian, is also defined by a having a deadbeat mother which bucks the trend of that ethnicity. 

The world of this high school is also one that exists without overt bullying.  Some people are less cool than others, sure, but this is a far cry from the slushie-in-the-face trope of Glee (as far as we’re shown; there could be a serious battle royale in the back for all we know. It’s kind of refreshing to see a world where teenagers aren’t actively trying to make the nerds miserable. It’s also possibly a more accurate depiction of high schools in 2020 as anti-bullying campaigns have gone into effect.

The show won me over many times over by zigging where I expected it to zag. Devi resolves to break out of her sheltered Indian-American constraints and get a boyfriend and by the end of the very first episode, the hottest guy in the school agrees to have sex with her. It seems like the show has jumped the shark in the first 30 minutes but fortunately things don’t work out that easily.

Pretty much nothing in Devi’s life is predictable along the lines of a teen show. The biggest jerk in her social orbit suddenly becomes legitimately friendly and even falls for her while her two best friends turn on her for being a bad friend. But are they in the right? Is Devi a bad daughter or someone restrained by impossible cultural norms? The answers aren’t easy and the show isn’t the most hilarious on TV but it’s brilliant and emotional without being melodramatic or heavy.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Six Observations from Rewatching First Two Seasons of “The Office”

The beauty of the Pam-Jim relationship is that Pam doesn’t comes across as more office hot than a bombshell. 

Whatever natural attractiveness she has (although admittedly this is subjective) is masked by an unattractive meekness. That Jim is into Pam is more about how he connects specifically with her than being a player who'll set his eyes on the most attractive girl in the Dunder-Mifflin office.

Jim might have been better cast as someone who's not as objectively good looking (he was, after all, a member of the handsome men’s club) but at the same time, Jon Krasinski played the part very well. As Krasinski started to accrue more good-looking girlfriends (Amy Adams I can buy, but then Rashida Jones?) the illusion that Jim wasn’t good with the ladies was broken a little.  

It’s likely deliberate that we know so little about Roy.

He plays into the stereotypes of blue collar workers and his language is a little blue but it’s not out of the question that he’s a more well-rounded individual if one were to look closer. We know that Roy gets along with Pam’s mom so he can’t be a complete rube.  

The sticking point here is that we see things from Jim's point of view and he's just the other guy. He might be a good guy for Pam, he might not, but it's not for Jim to know.

Holy crap, I forgot Michael Scott was a terrible person.
The writing staff had certain obligations to connect Michael Scott to David Brent so this could be considered a true spiritual spin-off. That included putting a pilot that was shot nearly line-for-line from the British pilot (a move that Greg Daniels would later regret). That episode includes the extremely thoughtless ruse of Michael Scott play firing Pam which crossed a line. Although the writers intended to gradually improve the character so that he’d have more longevity than David Brent (a man designed to be fired over the course of twelve episodes), they started from a pretty low point of awfulness. While it made good cringe-comedy, Michael was not just unsympathetic but just a terrible human being at first and I wouldn’t have blamed most viewers for quitting the show in the first season.

Even if the #metoo era hadn't come along, he should have been fired for the way he treats Pam and hits on Ryan (even if he isn't gay) and sends inappropriate content.  He also comes off as worse in today's era not just because of inappropriate behavior but he was a gaslighter before the term was coined. He denies truth whenever convenient and continually avoids responsibility for the things he says and promises.

Daryl is an undefined bully. 

 On two or three occasions in these two seasons, Darryl just tries to intimidate Michael physically which just made me plain uncomfortable.

In the basketball episode, it is somewhat justified considering Michael cheated but it also hints at a lack of definition in their relationship that no chain of command or authority is established between the two. When Michael gets back from vacation with Jan and Craig distributes pictures, there is no punishment. Michael is shown to be more lenient to people he thinks are “cool” but there’s almost no oversight between Michael and the warehouse and I’m chalking this up to a lack of world-building.

In a Season 2 episode where Darryl intimidates Michael to join a union, he comes off as worse, because he knows that Michael is weak-willed and wants to be popular and Darryl is consciously milking that weakness to get what he wants.

Toby is awful at his job
I would argue the biggest failure in Dunder-Mifflin is Toby. In “The Merger”, Michael repeatedly humiliates an overweight man, puts him in the uncomfortable position of explaining his grievances in front of a room full of colleagues, and then fires him after he clearly says he quit (more gaslighting). Toby is a witness to all this and does nothing. There’s also simply letting Michael’s alternative diversity sensitivity workshop to happen for more than 30 seconds or allowing Michael to talk about his relationships so publicly or give inappropriate awards at the Dundee’s multiple years in a row.

It’s understandable that Toby is too reticent to deal with Michael half the time because it paints his character well as a pushover but the early seasons needed a foil.  Occasionally, when Toby is on his game—Quite beautifully shooting down the idea of inviting boy scouts to casino night or confiscating inappropriate material in “Diwali”- the show is working much better as Michael has a substantive foil to react against.

The show does occasionally highlight being a leader is tough
It’s true that a lot of the disasters are Michael’s fault but he does get placed in a lot of unwinnable situations. In “The Alliance”, Oscar enlists him to donate to a fun run without properly informing him that his donation is per-mile and not a one-time fee. When Michael discovers the error, Oscar calls him distasteful for reneging on a pledge knowing full-well that Michael wants to look good in front of the cameras and that Oscar rushed the form in front of him. Nearly the exact same thing happens when Carol sells Michael an apartment as a condo with misleading information about whether he’s paying a one or a three-year mortgage.

In some instances, Michael just can’t win to start with. When Jan entrusts him to fire someone, it’s almost as if they want to torture him. Surely, they could just ask Michael for his feedback and make the trigger-pulling decision at the corporate level if they know that Michael doesn’t like firing people.

The perfect scenario is a mix of the two: In “Health Care” Michael makes the ill-fated decision to pass the buck on health care to Dwight (not a good choice), but as the employees’ demands on Dwight show, there’s no such thing as a health plan that would satisfy everyone.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Eight More of My Favorite Journalism Stories-Gig Young, It's Always Sunny, Parkour and more

1. The Strange Case of Oscar Winner Gig Young-The Film Experience (2020)

Gig Young won the 1969 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for "They Shoot Horses Don't They." Eight years after winning the award, he shot his fifth wife in his New York apartment and himself two minutes later. This makes him the only person to win an acting Oscar and commit murder (that we know of. Maybe Julie Andrews secretly went on a murder spree after her "Mary Poppins" win). Because both witnesses are dead, we don't have all the answers but I've always found his story compelling and have wanted to publish it for nine years. When the 50th Anniversary of his Oscar came up (April, 1970) I shopped this around and was paid a kill fee from one publication and than got another one to publish it. An added bonus was that the publication (, an excellent one-stop source for Oscar news and more) had just done an excellent retrospective on the April 1970 Oscars so my piece fit in really well.


2. Sometimes Waiting is the Hardest Part-Zebra Magazine (2020)

Occasionally, editors send you messages on Facebook which seems kind of weird at first but it does allow for faster communication. In this case, it was fortuitous because I had just posted a status message that I tested negative for COVID-19 and my editor jumped on it immediately. She wanted me to do a personal story. I decided to write something more personal about my fear of time and how not having anything to do suddenly made me a more free person. I veered into talking about this magical summer I had when I was 15 with my grandparents in the Florida Keys and did very little.  This was one of the very few pieces I've written where I get to go personal.


3. Did the Writers Initially Intend for The Character on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia to be Gay-Screen Prism (2016)

There is an amazing YouTube channel called the Take that used to be called Screenprism and was more article-focused at the time. I was paid a small amount to contribute articles but was really attracted to their form of academic writing. I'm a big fan of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and the subject of Mac's sexual orientation has often been a big topic of debate. Like many things in "It's Always in Sunny in Philadelphia" the character depth is extremely deep and clever, but Mac's orientation feels like a slightly sloppy directional shift and I thought this was worth exploring.

4. We Won't Stop Racism by Blacklisting Liam Neeson-The Federalist (2019)

At the Federalist (which I'm not sure is still present tense for me, haven't had as much editor communication), I had the chance to express my opinions on the excesses of woke thinking in front of an audience. In times of such polarization it felt very cathartic to opine on how I think the world could be fixed. While this is a very right wing site (the commenters, in particular, are extreme), I don't see my publication on the site as an endorsement of their other positions and I think those readers benefit from my centrist views. This article's headline is a bit non-evergreen as people reading a year later will have no idea what Liam Neeson did but hey I didn't pick the headline.

The article spoke of a personal experience I had at a convention of people who I assumed would have opposite views of me.  In person I was surprised to find that these same simplistic platitudes I'd heard yelled over twitter were coming from people I had more empathy for when they expressed their voices in more than 140 characters. That formed the basis of my article against both parties that we needed to stop creating headlines out of twitter squabbles. This article was rejected twice by the same publication before they accepted it which is a first for me.

5. Local Chefs with Ties to Louisiana Bring Mardi Gras Celebration-DC Line (2020)
This was just an excuse to go to a happening Mardi Gras festival. People worried about the ethics of using journalism for a free admission needn't worry because I still had to pay a (reduced) fee but often journalism is a great excuse to get out of the house and experience something fun. I'm not necessarily confident enough in my dancing to just bust out moves during musical celebrations, so I felt a lot more comfortable observing from a distance and taking pictures.

This story was originally pitched in 2017 for the Washington Post Magazine when I knew an editor there and it wasn't until 2020 that I published it and it's always nice to use an idea that's been waiting in the pipeline.

6. Cherry Blossoms Come Under Threat-The DC Line (2020)

The impetus for the story wasn't really impressive: I saw a blurb about it somewhere else and thought it would be ripe for pitching somewhere else. After circulating it around, the DC Line picked it up. I started out walking to the Jefferson Memorial where the action was and this was a great idea because I got a great feel for the place by being on the ground and got 3 of my 5 sources on site. I talked to a jogger really quick and got a quote from her and found a couple tour guides who were generous with their time. Sometimes when I go on site, I don't necessarily plan it and this was one of those times where it was equally as likely that I could have come back with nothing and had to go back to the traditional route of waiting for phone calls and PR people who will take too long to get back to you.

An example of that was a park ranger I talked who referred me to the communications office for the National Park Service who never got back to me over the course of the entire article's length. Fortunately, I went to a park ranger and asked him to talk to me about it off the record. This was one of the last pieces I did before Corona went into effect. Aww, how I miss on site reporting.

7. Beast Coast Returns to Rosslyn-Arlington Magazine (2019)

I was walking around Rosslyn a few years ago when I noticed people doing flips and stuff. The difference between me and someone who's not a reporter: I dropped what I was doing and asked what was going on. This story resulted. I only got to do the preview but I later got to go to the event and it was a lot of fun to see people running and jumping.

8. Larry Hogan's Plan to Widen Toll Lanes Stalled by Opposition-Washington Times (2019)

This one was a bit exhausting because it involved driving approximately 45 minutes (over an hour and a half in rush hour traffic) to a couple meetings. I lost my phone in the first instance and had an expensive zipcar ride trying to get it back with no results. Because the pictures were on the phone, I had to go a second time to the middle of nowhere to get pictures.

I am eternally indebted to some activists who gave me a ride. On the way over, I tried to explain that I had the information I needed but I soon realized there was a tremendous amount of new information to absorb. When writing the transportation beat for the Washington Times, I rarely think about transportation but I come into contact with people who are very passionate about the issue. It's slightly inspiring to see people civically engaged in a matter you don't think about very often. We often are troubled by traffic (and I can imagine in Maryland, it's even more of a problem) but how many people actually do anything to fix it?

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

What I'm Watching April edition: What We Do in the Shadows, Unorthodox, Kidding, On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Middleditch and Schwartz

What We Do in the Shadows (FX)-One of my serendipitous discoveries last year, this Taiki Wahiti adaptation shows no signs of losing its edge. The series premiere kicked off with Haley Joel Osment in a stroke of divine inspiration. By the third episode, there's some legitimate character development as Guillermo realizes that maybe vampiring has some negative side effects (i.e. humans getting the blood sucked out of them) in a revelation that parallels "The Good Place"'s Michael. While the show works episodically, it could go next level with an arc. Fingers crossed!

Kidding (Showtime)-Is Jim Carrey known as a sad guy? I don't know his biography but in the wake of Robin Williams' death, the publicity for Louie CK's instability, "Honey Boy" (which details the abuse of stand-up-comedian-turned-actor Shia LaBeouf), it's an increasingly common perception that comedians are dark people. Oh yeah, and there's "The Joker." While the show centers around a Mr. Rogers expy named Jeff Pickles who is losing his marbles and doesn't have the capacity to express it, it treads in the same "sad comedian" trope and it's surely no coincidence that Jim Carrey is cast here.

The basic synopsis of Pickles's problems is he lost his son in a car crash and the incident drove him and his wife (Judy Greer) to the point of his divorce. The beauty of the series is that his personality and affectations are so much more complicated: He can't see the forest for the trees when it comes to his desire to be kind, he represses his emotions, and his inability to creatively control his program is compounded with how much of a control freak he is. Joining him for the ride are Diedre (the ridiculously talented Catherine Keener) as his sister who is also a puppeteer for the show. She's not as far along the edge of dysfunction as Jeff and functions as an interesting counter-example for if Jeff dealt with his grief much better.

The show isn't afraid to blur the fourth wall in the show-within-the-show segments and there's a certain psychedelic mood. This is a show that feels like LSD was either involved in the making of it somehow or intended to play into the target audience. In other words, it's a show that's bold and that's something worth watching.

On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Showtime)-Anti-heroes in TV's Golden Age are generally built from the same Elizabeth Jennings or Walter White (or now Marty Byrde of "Ozark") mold: Master chess players who constantly have to answer with their back against the wall to various dangerous people who want opposite things from them. This show presents us with a protagonist who might succeed based on moxey and spunk alone but it’s equally likely she'll shoot herself in the foot first. Krystal’s lack of certainty makes for a show that’s sublimely unpredictable. 

Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) is a water-park employee who becomes widowed in the pilot episode by a man who threw all their money in a pyramid scheme. She needs some form of financial relief and neither her water park employee, her misogynistic neighbor, her debt collector, or her late husband's pyramid scheme "family" is willing to give her much leeway. The first couple episodes show the glimmers of good news that are stretched between dark spells and that's a bit hard to watch. Tragedy is all well and good at the movies but when you're watching a character get beaten up week in and out, what's the point?

But when Stubbs tricks her husband's lackey into giving him stage time (locking him in a closet under the guise of seducing him; a strangely cathartic scene) at the pyramid scheme convention, she discovers she has the power to influence people. The problem is her foil (Ted Levine in a high water mark) has a scam of a company to begin with and she can't do much within his rules.

The show is set in the 1990s when pyramid schemes were at their most popular with period appropriate details. The FAM pyramid scheme is portrayed as a tragic cult (laid on pretty heavy) but, hey that's capitalism in a nutshell. At least that's the thesis of this series. 

Source: Time Magazine
Unorthodox (Netflix)-As someone who has spent time on the fringes of an Orthodox community in Richmond, Virginia, I have seen modern Orthodox Judaism up close and have had a billion questions about it but those questions are entirely different than the practitioners of the religion themselves. I've always wondered why these people are stuck to such a regimental lifestyle and if there are any potential dangers if they took such restrictions too far. The people I met were mostly concerned with how to best observe the Torah without critically going beyond that. Still, these people had connections to the outside world and choices. I had heard stories about communities in the American Northeast where the rules were even more rigid and that's where I had legitimate worry about how my own religion could have some messed-up consequences for the people born into it who might not want to participate at their parents' level of observance. In essence, that's what this series is about: The uglier side of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and it's very effective at shaking up our doubts.

Source: Vulture
Middleditch and Schwartz (Netflix)-Ever go to a long-form improv and feel like it wasn't your thing? It's probably that you just didn't see the art form with people who know what they're doing. 

Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz are freaking geniuses at this art form. They effortlessly switch characters; incorporate comic tics very early on so you're laughing sooner than later; and thing several steps ahead to where the story should go. It's not too far-fetched to think that they could write a sitcom pilot on the spot. Jesse David Fox wrote an excellent article about how this could resurrect the often maligned form of improv, but the problem is that most improv shows you see don't feature people with these abilities. 

Watching these two only makes me want to watch more of these two and their unique spin on the form. The only problem is that Middleditch and Schwartz only have three episodes. Doesn't Netflix give everything a minimum of six episodes? Were production costs that high for filming two people playing pretend on stage?

Friday, April 17, 2020

Modern Family's Affluence Problem

When "Modern Family" premiered 11 years ago, it offered a "modern" take on the typical American family: a May-December marriage, two mixed-race families, characters with disabilities (Luke), and characters on the LGBT spectrum. But for all its attention to align with the "modern" family today, "Modern Family" differs from the typical American family because the Pritchett-Dunphy-Delgado-Tucker clan's amount of disposable income isn't so average.

Consider that:
1) The family has taken vacations to Hawaii, Italy  and Australia in between spontaneous trips to Vegas, dude ranches, Florida and the Pacific Northwest

2) Gadget enthusiast Phil tends to buy whatever home improvement devices or toys he wants without a second thought
3) When Jay and Gloria have an accidental pregnancy, they don't consider the economic costs of it because it's presumably something Jay can handle
4) There are few discussions about out-of-state verse in-state college costs with Claire and Phil's kids. The logistical need to keep the show's child actors as main cast members rather than recurring cast members, but the decisions of the children to return home throughout college range from being expelled to not getting into college to getting homesick.
5) Characters like Cameron, Mitchell, and Claire have quit or drifted out of jobs to follow their bliss without considering economic consequences. Granted, they might have nest eggs or savings but these economic considerations aren't necessarily alluded to.

The disconnect between "Modern Family" and its audience on the wealth issue marks a desire to embody both sides of a TV contradiction that has gone on since the beginning of the family sitcom: 1) The need to be both aspirational (to show an upward version of the American family) that TV advertisers prefer and that is alluring to viewers and 2) the need to mirror the American family viewing at home. 

As a result, many shows like I Love Lucy, the Cosby Show, the Brady Bunch and Friends have had disparities between how the characters well off the characters should be verse what we're seeing on screen. So which TV shows have been the biggest sinners?  

The very first shows to attract a following in the late 40s and early 50s were actually focusing on the ethnic and poor. Shows like "Life with Luigi" (Italian-Americans), "Mama" (the Swedish community), "The Goldbergs" (the Jewish community) and "Amos n Andy" (the black community) documented ethnic or racial communities in America and highlighted their struggles (my friend Christine Becker has a useful link). Part of this was that some of these were holdovers from radio and part of this was inertia. 

The biggest show of that decade, "The Honeymooners" , followed in that template and so did "I Love Lucy" but the latter had a flaw: Ricky was somewhat of a B-list celebrity in-universe who casually knew Bob Hope and John Wayne, yet Lucy still had to manage a tight budget in a small apartment with no domestic help. 

When sitcoms focused on the WASP clans like "Leave it to Beaver" and later "Brady Bunch" they generally tilted towards the high life. In the former, the patriarch of the clan belonged to a country club and had his own secretary, and in the latter, the family had their own maid. A factor that was starting to play with TV sitcoms more than other genres is that the family sitcom directly reflected families at home so advertising wanted the shows to depict more inspirational pictures. The "George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" was sponsored by Carnation Milk and they went so far as to constantly remind the audience (with the subtlety of a mallet) in character of how they were having a great time enjoying Carnation Milk.

In the 1970s, social justice started to seep into the picture with "Good Times", "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" which resonated with an audience that was interested in seeing socio-economically imperfect families. The Jeffersons' theme song "Moving on Up" depicted upward mobility but the show also asked whether they belonged there and explored that class tension. More modern  examples that explore that race and class tension might include "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Black-ish"

In the past twenty years, both formulas have largely worked with a different distinguishing factor of sorts. Family sitcoms generally have become endangered in such a competitive environment for eyeballs. The ones that have evolved are the ones with with strong voices.  In shows like "Raising Hope", "Everybody Hates Chris", and "The Middle", firm choices are made over what kind of universe the characters want to inhabit. 

"Modern Family" largely falls into this category too but because it's not really accounting for its characters wealth and financial privilege, there's something on-the-fence about it's approach to the issue. 

As for whether the show is the biggest sinner?
I would argue yes, because this show 
1) exists in a more realistic era of TV or one and  2) This show has run in an era where we have a heightened concern about economic security. It debuted in 2009 at the advent of the housing bubble and restructurings of the economy in this decade have all been things Americans are more conscious of.  

Thanks to Sheri Ciscell for the research assistance

Sunday, April 05, 2020

March-April Edition: What Am I Watching: Miracle Workers, Superstore, Tales from the Loop, etc

Shows I'm watching live:

1 Miracle Workers: Dark Ages (TBS). The first season was an extremely clever show from Simon Rich (Man Seeking Woman) who is an extraordinarily witty outside-the-box writer. It involved three angels (No offense, but I’m not counting Lolly Adefope’s character as part of the team, more of a last-minute convert) who are trying to work around the fact that God (Steve Buscemi) is an idiot. An errant decision of his dooms the planet Earth and the seven-episode season revolved around a two day clock. "Miracle Workers Dark Ages" uses the same sense of humor and cast but it's a completely different scenario.

Not only does the second season lack the stakes of a doomsday scenario, there’s a potential-squandering lack of direction here. Alexandra (Geraldine Viswanathan) wants to avoid the profession of her father (Steve Buscemi) Edward Shitshoveler. Within the first three episodes she leaves the profession twice only to land back at square one like a Road Runner cartoon. The next episode involves the difficulty of her brother (Jon Bass) in making friends and then there’s an episode that’s an allegory about dealing with political nut jobs at the Thanksgiving table that’s a little thin. It’s only in the last two or three episodes that an arc forms. Still, there are plenty of jokes that land and the characters are very likable. With the creative team behind this, I’m confident that this can be a great third season with a reset button.

Source: Time Magazine

2. Nora from Queens (Comedy Central)  The star vehicle for Awkwafina is about an immature late 20-something who has a really strong personality. Watching this makes me wonder how "The Farewell" could be considered a success when it squandered such a great comic talent.

Her comic personality is primarily one of childlike impatience and over-eagerness to spread her brand of fun to strangers, but she has a lot of gears she can go to. The central question of the show (it’s about a 27-year-old living at home and taxing her dad’s lifestyle) is about how to adult on your own terms. Also of note, Jennifer Eposito rocks an eccentric wardrobe and personality and shines in general as a love interest for Awkwafina’s father.

3. Superstore (NBC)-Business as usual. America Ferrera's Amy Sosa as the boss makes the show much better.

Credit: TV Line

4.Zoey's Infinite Playlist (NBC)-Jane Levy is a young computer coder who just got a promotion as a manager to a team of programmers including her best friend who has a crush on her (Skyler Astin, Pitch Perfect) and an engaged programmer she has a crush on. She also has misfortune at home because her dad (Peter Gallagher) had a stroke and is possibly terminally ill. Her chaotic home and work life are thrown for a curve when she discovers that she has the unique power to hear other people's emotions in song and that apparently the universe won't leave her alone unless she helps the people singing with their life problems. 

The show has a great cast with Mary Steenburgen as Zoey's mom and Lauren Graham as her boss. It's kind of ironic because 95% of Peter Gallagher's screentime is just sitting in a chair. Poor Peter.

The show isn't amazing and the love triangle is highly predictable (and problematic...Zoey's pretty casually ok with breaking up a marriage) but it's certainly watchable and like any musical, when the choreography and music works, it increases the rewatchability. 

6. Tales from the Loop (Amazon)-The show resembles "Wayward Pines" or "Castle Rock" in that it's a mysterious New England town [Correction: It's in Ohio, but seems very New Englandish and is actually based on concept art from Sweden] with conspiracies or scientific anomalies (in the case of the former or "Once Upon a Time") to uncover. It's mostly serialized with a "Twilight Zone" element. 

The show moves on a new level of slow and requires a conscious downshifting of gears on the part of the viewer to take it in. There's enough time to take in the scenes but there's a lot of dead space that isn''t necessary. Still, it can be chalked up to an apt stylistic choice.

"Twilight Zone"-type shows like this work through an Earth-shattering twist at the end that inverts your perception of what you thought you know and hopefully sparks a deep thought or two. The leisurely stroll of the show prevents such a dramatic twist. In the first episode, the twist occurs about halfway through the episode which is a major pacing mistake that causes the epilogue to drag on to mind-numbing lengths.

The second episode (in which two teens from different socio-economic backgrounds switch bodies) is a little more clever about misdirection but then all of a sudden a robot shows up which is neither here nor there. The main question of the plot was how the kids would react to their new lives (Answer: one of them would use it to take advantage of the other). Again, the epilogue is an answer to a question that the viewer never asked.

Slow shows take a while to click and the third episode seems to be where things fall into place. It builds on previous installment and there are multiple twists that are well-timed and build on top of one another. The third episode (two kids decide to make a forbidden romance a reality through the stopping of time) finally starts to get the hang of it.

7. Good Girls (NBC)-The first season and change had the problem of Rio being too powerful and Beth not having enough leverage. I say this often but tragedy has less of a place for my appetite in TV than in film: To watch the same character be beaten up over and over can be highly dispiriting whereas to see someone make the wrong choice and have them pay for it in a two-hour span is a fine bit of poetry. "Good Girls" started to get good when Beth started to figure out Rio and play as his equal.

For some reason, I fell off viewing this show and planned to catch up but it became more daunting as the increasing number of Season 3 episodes meant I would have to invest more hours. A week ago, I started randomly watching (because of the "Zoey's Playlist"lead-in) and found the show to be nice and easy to jump back into. The Beth vs Rio interplay is still there and grounded in a sense of healthy reality and there is sufficient side plot fodder for Annie and Ruby.