Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bad Teacher, Review and Playing House

Review was my favorite thing to watch this season aside from "Archer." Starring straight-man extraordinaire Andy Daly, the premise posits the show as a distant cousin of the "Truman Show" in the way that presenting a man's life choices being driven entirely by the demands of a media audience leads to some very deep satire. In this case, Daly is TV show host Forrest MacNeil who will review any life experience anyone tells him to without question.

Over the course of this season, he is forced to experience road rage (losing two cars in the process), become an overt racist, proposition and sleep with a celebrity, get addicted to crack, and more. Worst of all, he had to divorce his wife which led to one of the major thru-lines of the season of winning his wife back.

Why his wife is in the dark about the nature of his day job or why the production team doesn't filter out the more life-threatening requests seem like gaping plot holes at first but that's because the viewer is being inserted into the story midstream. The cleverest thing about "Review" is how it drops clues towards the genesis to the show-within-a-show and the larger storyline about a somewhat overeager broadcaster being manipulated by a ruthless producer. Viewers are challenged to decipher these clues and it's not until the end of the season that some of the blanks are filled in a season finale, which made the ending feel so cathartic.

The character of AJ Gibbs (Megan Stevenson) is an equally wonderful creation because it's so tough to get a handle on her: Is she equally complicit in Forrest's misery? How does she see Forrest and why won't she take one for the team and be his celebrity hook-up? Is she an airhead or is she more ambitious?  Stevenson never gets more than a couple lines of dialogue and a reaction shot to communicate these things about her character and uses it all pretty well.

Like "The Truman Show", "Review" is a very thinky show but the comic undertones of "The Truman Show" are amped up quite a bit here. It's hard to explain why watching a man destroying his life is hilarious. My best guess would be awkward shock value (kind of like "The Office"). Even if I can't explain why I laughed, I found myself laughing a lot. Five Stars.

Playing House 
I probably wouldn't have watched this show if the show's creators didn't personally beg me to watch their show. And I am thrilled to say that I'm not making that up.

Here's the story: As I finished watching "Review," the show's star, Andrew Daly, tweeted that everyone should check out his costar's new show "Playing House." I commented that I likely wouldn't watch:
This prompted the the star of the show, Jessica St. Clair (who I previously knew from her zingy jokes on the first incarnation of "Best Week Ever") wrote as follows:
 Which prompted quite a flurry of responses like these:

In which case I said I'll watch and got this: 
My twitter profile mentions my journalistic publication credits in the Mid-Atlantic. It's entirely possible that Jessica St. Clair  and Lennon Parham.mistakenly think that I'm some sort of influential TV critic instead of someone at the extreme bottom of the ladder in the pantheon of TV criticics.

Either way, it's been fun and kind of surreal corresponding with TV stars. The caveat, however, is that I've been hypercautious of writing anything about the show that isn't extremely well-thought out knowing that the people who create the show might read this (and just to be clear, they might read this because I am going to tweet this directly at them when I'm done typing it, having two TV stars read your blog post about their show is too good of an experience to not aggressively pursue).

My opinion:
The show stars Lennon as a pregnant woman (Maggie) who has just kicked out her husband over an affair and St. Clair (Emma) as a globetrotting businesswoman who decides to drop her career and move in with her friend to help her raise a baby. I know that show premises are generally gimmicks that are used to get the show greenlit and hook in the audience, but is there even much of a premise here? For one, the husband is still in the show's cast so it doesn't appear that Maggie really needs another co-parent. More importantly, the baby's not born yet, so it's not really two women raising a baby as it is two adult woman going on low-key escapades. Low key escapades isn't bad (see: "Legit", "It's Always Sunny", and "Broad City") but the show treats the pair as if they're doing something high-key (or whatever the opposite of low-key is). When Emma emotionally tells her mom, "hey, aren't you proud of me, I'm doing something important. I'm helping my friend raise a child," the proper response should be "Um, are you sure? Did you sign any paperwork as a legal guardian? It looks like you quit your job and are just crashing on your friend's couch."

I've heard the show described as UCB meets Gilmore Girls which sounds accurate enough. I'm not entirely familiar with "Gilmore Girls" but I was into Amy Sherman Palladino's follow-up "Bunheads," and can see the connection as both shows revolve around female characters without being seen as exclusive anthems of girl power. Some of my least favorite entertainment is created exclusively for women OR men. I'm an equal opportunity hater here: Neither "Sex and the City" or "Entourage"--in which members of the same sex get together and talk all day about the opposite sex and how to get those hunks for me-- qualify as anything but awful TV in my opinion.

While "Playing House" isn't entirely chick flick territory, I do find some elements hard to connect to as a male viewer. When Maggie and Emma are dealing with a strife in their friendship over a shared crush on a guy, it occurred to me that I rarely have conversations with male friends over our feelings (Not saying I wouldn't want to. It just doesn't seem to happen). At least not like Maggie and Emma. The only exception would be male roommates where we have to share living space an work really hard on those issue.

On the flipside, I can really relate to the idea of being in your hometown and navigating the dissonance of constantly bumping into people from various points of your past. For better or worse, that's my life right now and while it's great to see people from a relatively healthy past, there are all sorts of complications even from bumping into someone you remember fondly. All of the highs and lows of the process--finding out someone is more successful than you, hardly recognizing the person's personality anymore, maintaining the illusion in the present that you never really got along in high school, the arduous process of catching someone up on the last 10 years -- are captured fairly well here.

As for the humor, one gets the sense that the edges are a bit sanded off from network notes. The show creators do an excellent job of not going dirty just because they can. The plots seem somewhat  conventional and don't really stretch outside of the box. The shows on USA Network tend to be less ambitious and there's nothing wrong here with fitting the specifications of the USA Bran.

The supporting cast has a lot going for it. It's really nice to see Keegan Michael Key, who must feel pressure to live up to his label as an edgy sketch comic, sink his teeth into a nice zany sitcom character role that you would find on a TGIF-sitcom. Two of the three first episodes featured Key as a frustrated cop on superfluous errands which isn't even a bad idea for a spin-off. Zach Woods reprises his weird guy role from "The Office" and "In the Loop" in a way that screams "Please typecast me this way for life." As long as he's used well here, I'm OK with it. Then again, I'm not his agent. Lastly, the show has Jane Kaczmarek as Emma's mom who has some weird mother-daughter issues. Like the genesis for the show, the genesis of the Emma-Emma's mom riff doesn't seem very well though-out, but Kaczmarek is such an underrated actress who adds to every show she's in, I don't really care.

The show's enjoyable enough that I'll stick with it to see how it turns out. More importantly, even if the show isn't to my specific tastes, it's an intelligently thought-out premise that I'm happy to see add some life to the USA Network. It's fan-base is highly visible (especially the ones who attacked me on twitter) and it seems like Jessica and Lennon have found a niche that TV needs.

Bad Teacher

By earning its second season renewal, "About a Boy" demonstrated how one can build a TV-oriented world around a film: Step 1) Make sure your film adaptation has characters who have room to grow beyond ninety minutes and Step 2) World build to your heart's content. Bad Teacher was a fairly solid film that seems ripe for transplantation (a fancy word I just made up) to another medium. The  concept of a teacher who isn't really into the profession and wants to get by on as little work as possible is intriguing.

The bad teacher, in this case, is a gold digger with little to no moral code who starts the school year so depressed at having been dumped that she doesn't even have the energy to teach her class. She shows them movies and most of her effort on the school premises are spent trying to elude trouble and trying to court a wealthy substitute teacher.

Over the course of 92 minutes, Cameron Diaz undergoes sufficient transformations to becoming a better person and teacher. In the second act, she realizes that being a good teacher would strategically work out better for her short-term earnings so she can afford the boob job necessary to land a man. In the third act, she's ditched the boob job idea and genuinely has become a better teacher and person

The three act story structure isn't really working in this TV show. I was thinking that it would start with the bad teacher being awful and gradually reforming over the course of a season or two, but it seems like the show isn't up to the challenge of trying to separate the Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3 versions of the Cameron Diaz character. The result is a somewhat muddled character who is simultaneously showing signs of someone who's genuinely grown while continuing to do very stupid things.

That's pretty much the biggest minus in the show, but there seems like a lot of room for the show to surprise me. In the plus column, the sexual tension between Meredith (originally, her name was Elizabeth, not sure why it's changed here) and the Jason Segel/Ryan Hansen seems put to rest surprisingly early so that Elizabeth can go in different directions romantically or even go at no permanent direction at all.

There are a number of pros and cons of how the TV version differs from the movie version, but that's what makes it interesting. So far, there seems a lot of room to play around and I'm on board the ride at the moment.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Remembering Anthony Minghellia and Sidney Pollack

News update: The content farm Helium to which I'd contributed some 150 articles between 2008 and 2010 announced that it is closing shop and deleting their sites from existence by December 2012. I think this is a great decision as it will allow its writers to find out their true worth and expand their content from something that pays them a few cents to someone that will pay them in dollars. It will also clean up the internet a little. The article-sphere is diluted by articles written to make (quite literally) nickels and dimes. In any case, I will share some of the articles that I wrote back in those days on this blog

As everyone was mourning Heath Ledger's death and considering the loss to future moviedom from pictures he never made, I found it curious that the Heath Ledger effect doesn't work for directors as well. Within the same four-month period, the two founders of Mirage died premature deaths this past year and while Sidney Pollack's funeral was one of the most widely attended events in Hollywood this past year, no one has had the discussion about whether there will be a loss to the world of movies that he won't be making any more pictures. I imagine Pollack might have had two or three films left in him. He was 74 when he died, which is pretty old, but Altman, Lumet and Scorsesee seem on course to make films into their 80s as does Eastwood.

Minghellia is an even more extreme case. At age 54, he could have done a dozen more films before his natural death and while Pollack could be uneven, Minghellia's films were usually Oscar-caliber. He won an Oscar as the director for the English Patient (1996), and earned a follow-up nomination for best writing on his next film, Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). His adaptation of the Charles Frazier novel, Cold Mountain (2003), was the most buzzed about film of its year, and earned Minghellia his highest box office take to date. In his subsequent film, he came very close to being nominated for a second directorial Oscar and earned Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for his directorial and writing work. Breaking and Entering (2006) was quiet and not widely viewed but it was well-received among those who had seen it. Minghellia usually tackled books and challenging adaptations and while they weren't necessarily topical, they had potential to be timeless.

Not only did Minghellia tackle books but he tackled the best: Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient and Cold Mountain had all earned accolades as novels and one has to surmise it was the scribe in Minghellia who loved the challenge of taking good source material and capturing the essence of a good novel.

One should also credit Minghellia and Pollack as producers for having an eye for good material. It's a tribute to them that their final picture before departing the planet, The Reader, upset the Dark Knight and Wall-E to grab an Oscar nomination. The credits are currently in dispute because I imagine they want someone who's alive to pick up the statue and represent the film at the Academy Awards Ceremony, but if Heath Ledger can be honored posthomously, it is my wish that Anthony Minghellia can be honored as well.

Update: Although "The Reader" lost to "Slumdog Millionaire", Syndey Pollack and Anthony Minghellia were credited as producers for their final film and had the honor of repeating as Academy Award nominees in the first Oscar ceremony since their deaths.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My advice to jornalism college students graduating today

If this falls under TL;DNR for you, skip the first five paragraphs:

A few weeks ago, I was invited be on a panel on journalism composed of my school's alumni to speak to current students and provide career advice. I'm not sure if my career trajectory was that impressive  but I have dabbled in writing and giving advice about journalism on my blog and I believe that stood out to them.

The experience was easily one of the highlights of the year: It was fun to take a road trip to a place I hadn't been to in over five years, I made a lot of beneficial contacts, it was fun to briefly see old professors who all remembered me to varying degrees, and it was really flattering that my college thought I was important enough to give a speech to their current crop of journalism students.

This might be called my first public speaking engagement and I picked up the challenge of trying to think about how I'd distill my successes and failures into bite-size bits of useful advice. Because I'd written on this but have never spoken about it, I tried getting people to ask me questions in advance so I'd have some idea if I would be articulate or not when asked questions on the spot.

The whole thing happened in a whirl and I didn't really get any of the questions in advance except for the moderator telling us the night before to prepare a response for "What do you wish you'd known then that you'd known now?" It's hard to say how I did for sure but it's likely somewhere between completely terrible and amazing. I'm pretty sure I didn't self-destruct on stage and likely said something that was useful to some of the people there so I was pretty pleased.

However, I'm now looking back as college graduations are prevalent in the news right now this and it just occurred to me that I had something really important to say and that important thing was an entirely unique message compared to the six other panelists that day. Furthermore, this message could save some people from being miserable in the following months after college, so I want to say this with more clarity now:


A lot of the career advice you're going to get is how to get a job. It's good advice and you should listen to it. BUT here's the thing:

Some of you will get jobs and that will be great. But some of you will take all of that good job advice and do everything right and either still not got a "job" or get an internship that will frustrate you because it's not a "job." OR you'll work retail or substitute teach or wait tables to keep you afloat in the interim and be frustrated because it isn't yet a "job." OR you might get a job that takes a long time to get a security clearance for. OR you might get a job that doesn't look entirely what you envisioned as a job (it might be with a start-up that can't pay you much as they are getting their operations off the ground). OR you might get a job and then get laid off (this happens a lot in this industry. I know someone who worked for CBS but was laid off and went to work for the New York Post. I also know someone at Newsweek who was laid off and went to work for CBS).

The point being there's a lot of different things that could happen to you other than "getting a job" and while it's important to know how to land said "job," it's equally important to react to not getting your dream job. You have to know how to make lemonade out of lemons if said "job" doesn't come, because that will likely happen far more often.

The important thing is to have a strong mental constitution through the process and ability to adapt to professional rejection. Understand that there's a lot of randomness to who gets jobs and it's not as much of a measure of your personal worth whether you get one or not. Also, consider that when you apply for a salaried job, you're essentially asking someone to give you tens of thousands of dollars every year. Unless it's the government or a humongous company, people do tend to care about who they give that much money away to and they can't just do it for you unless they're pretty darn sure it will be a good investment. They can't just do it because you're a college graduate and society dictates someone give you that much money.

The other important thing is to reconsider your definition about what a job is. For example, in the field of journalism, what would happen if you got hired as a staff reporter for a newspaper?  You'd be writing articles for a living. This field is a unique one in that you can often write articles for money for a newspaper without being on staff. So take solace that you're doing the same thing you would be doing anyway. In the vast majority of scenarios, being a staff writer is a more ideal position to have but I'm talking about the life skill of adapting to not having a job. If you can't get a job on a staff, look into the avenue of writing articles freelance.

Similarly, what does a PR firm do? They handle PR accounts one at a time. It's entirely possible to get someone to pay you (likely a smaller amount at first) to do PR work for them if you don't belong to a PR firm. Opportunities can be found on Odesk or Craigslist. Again, I'm not suggesting this will necessarily pay as well, but it is an option. I've attracted some attention from clients by going to small business meetings. You're not completely cut off from earning money just because you haven't been hired for a PR firm is my point.

There are a number of ways to earn money out there, big and small, and I recommend seeking out both the big and small ones.

I essentially don't believe that finding a job is a full-time job. Sure, keep job searching, but it's not a productive use of your day to devote it entirely on finding a job that might or might not benefit you in the future when there's something you can do in the here and now. Spend at least some of it working on something productive in the here and now. You'll pick up experience along the way and you won't look back at 2014 and remember it as the year you sat around applying for a job.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Famous People I've Interviewed Update

I've always preached that one of the keys to writing success is to obsessively compare yourself to Kenny Herzog and think about your shortcomings in comparison to his. Kenny Herzog is a guy who's been published everywhere and occasionally talks to me on twitter. He has a list of famous people he's interviewed, so let me give you my list which is much shorter than his is. I'm also including guys who might be on the lower range of "famous" but want to include as a token of appreciation to them:

Category One: Famous People I've Interviewed

1. Jamie Escalante-The inspiration behind Stand and Deliver for the JMU Breeze

2. Kris Humphries AKA Mr. Kim Khardashian. I was attending a summer session at the University of Minnesota when I heard from this guy I was hitching a ride to class that he had been invited to some party Kris Humphries was throwing with friends and family. Without any prior experience writing for the Minnesota school newspaper or so much as a conversation with the editors (it was 6 pm at the time), I immediately bolted to that restaraunt after class and snagged Mr. Humphries up for an interview approximately a half hour after he was selected Number 14 in the NBA draft. One of the big highlights of my career. I also was incredibly lucky that he became even more famous afterwards. More on the story is here

4. Connaitre Miller-Director of Afro-Blue, a group that rocked it out on the reality TV show The Sing Off, for the a capella blog. 

5. Oren Brimer-Filmmaker for Front Page Films, Field director for the Daily Show-I was bored one day and started browsing College Humor's web pages and wanted to know who the heck all these people were that were making these comedy videos that were flooding the internet. I spent a good 45 minutes talking with Oren on the phone as an exercise in quenching my thirst for curiosity about internet filmmakers. Fortunately it wasn't a complete waste of Oren's time, because I did have some luck finding a newspaper to publish it pretty soon thereafter. Oren has since become a producer for the Pete Holmes show. 

7. Jazz Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis-It was a brief interview for the NBC DC Scene blog (or "Blahg"). I can't remember the degree of publication at this point but there was at least a preview of it on the DC Scene Blahg

8. Ari Lewis of The Maccabeats-The Maccabeats are the biggest thing to rock the Jewish world since Matisyahu and the guy from the Beastie Boys who just died. They are an Orthodox Jewish a capella group that's been invited to the White House and the Parliament to sing. I spent a lot of time in a close-knit Orthodox Jewish commuity in Richmond where one the Maccabeats was raised. I knew his parents and siblings and seeking to write an article about the Maccabeats, I decided to go with Ari Lewis.

9. Frank Calliendo-Formerly of Mad TV and The Frank Show on TBS-This was a big deal for me at the time. I 
set up the interview through his agent and first spoke to his brother on the phone. I happen to know 
something interesting that was never printed because he said "off the record" so I'll have to keep that secret

10. Pullitzer Prize winning writer Dave Barry-He's here in Washington every year for a treasure hunt I participate in. I've interviewed him twice. The first interview was hastily dumped on NBC's blog 4 months after I interviewed him and the interview got aggregated by Washington City Paper in a most amusing way. The second time, he was used as a secondary source on an article for Connection newspapers on the scavenger hunt's winning team. I also bumped into him at an airport and said "Hey, you're Dave Barry, I've interviewed you twice" and he still didn't recognize me 

11. American record holder and 1976 Olympic participant Matt Centrowicz Sr. and World Championships bronze medalist Matt Centrowicz Jr. (and 4th place finisher in the 2012 Olympics)-Centrowicz Junior would have been an Olympics bronze medalist if the Olympics were held in '11 instead of '12. a great article on the father-son tandem while I was on my way out the door of the Connection Newspapers, but hesitated because I didn't think it would become localized enough. I later found a place for the article at Arlingtoncounty.com. The article is currently published at Pacers New Balance

12. Seseame Street's Abby Cadaby and Gordon (Roscoe Orman)-Abby Cadaby is a puppet, by the way. And she's really cute. 

13. Greg Garcia, creator of My Name is Earl and Raising Hope-I'm reediting this list because I just landed an interview with Greg Garcia tomorrow. He comes from my hometown so there was a lot of impetus among the newspapers in the area I write for to get a Greg Garcia interview.

14. Sam Reich, director-in-chief of CollegeHumor and Elaine Carroll, actress-A while ago, I interviewed Oren Brimer in an effort to get to the white whale that was College Humor. I once discovered that one of his actresses and his wife was a Richmond native so I randomly e-mailed her and was put in touch relatively quickly with CollegeHumor's publicist who was superpsyched to get Elaine in her hometown newspaper. I honestly didn't think an actress like that would care but they pushed pretty hard for me to get published and I got to talk to both Reich and Carroll. Reich, the actor, I was more familiar with, was a humongous amount of fun to talk to, and he even listened to my crazy screenplay idea. I asked him how come so many different actors appear in his videos. Is his circle of friends that wide? and he said "I have a lot of sleepovers." I published the Elaine Carroll interview in the Times Dispatch of Richmond but I'm still looking for a home for the Sam Reich interview. Any takers?

15. World-Class miler David Torrence-This interview is currently in process. He's a friend of a friend and I chatted with him on Facebook a couple times. He's definitely an interesting guy and finished 5th or 6th in the last 3 World Championship/Olympic trials. He's also a national record holder in the 1000 meter run. 

16. Congressman Jim Moran-Got some quotes from him for Arlington Connection when Senator Webb spoke at an Arlington Chamber of Commerce lunch and got a picture with him. I have seen him multiple times. 

17. Christine O'Donnell's campaign manager-Got a secondary source from him at a Newt Gingrich rally for AOL Patch last December. I think I might have also interviewed Gingrich's campaign manager or his Virginia campaign manager. I sat at a bar with him and talked to him about what it was like to have her parodied on SNL and such too.

18. Jamey Turner, world-renowned glass harp-This person was on the Tonight Show four times and plays the saw as well as the glass harp. I can't take credit for the initial story, however. At a newsroom meeting at the Connection, one of the interns suggested writing a story on a guy at the end of King Street who played a glass harp. We didn't know much about him and we walked all the way down King Street (our office was on the other end of Old Town) and the two interns decided to break for either lunch or another story, so I asked if they still wanted to explore the story about this guy and they shrugged it off. I got a fantastic story out of it 

19. Patrick Burn, location scout for films and TV shows such as House of Cards, JFK, Nixon, the Firm, J. Edgar, Bourne Identity, and National Treasure-I found Burn in a circuitious way. I was on a media list for DC and they were shooting a film that I was thinking of attending but it was last minute, so they told me to call the location manager about where they were filming that day. When I started talking to Burn, I realized he was worthy of a story. 

Famous people I've interviewed that are currently looking for an outlet:
20. David Wallechinsky, world's foremost Olympic historian-In my Olympics articles, I've always referenced this guy's books and everyone else references his work. I tracked him down and he agreed to an interview. We had a highly fascinating chat and a former editor advised me that this was a national story. I went everywhere with it: The LA Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and no one bit in time. A couple people said they were interested but the news cycle was no longer timely. I started several weeks early. It was a shame, but next Olympic cycle, this guy's in.
21. Ben Relles, founder of Barely Political-When I was writing for Reel SEO (an e-magazine that writes about YouTube trends, I e-mailed their site seeking some clarification and then wound up speaking to Ben himself. I then scored an interview. Relles was the person who created the Obama girl character from the 2008 presidential election and has one of the most viewed comedy channels on YouTube including the Key of Awesome. He's currently the head of YouTube's Next Lab. The initial publication I interviewed the person for changed their mind about the demographic.

Famous people I've sort of interviewed
22. Nick Clooney-George Clooney's dad but more than that, he's a television game show host, broadcast journalist, and film historian. We had a lengthy 70-minute conversation but there's little reason to brag here because the article did not get published through my own fault. 

23. Olympic gold medalist and world record holder (as of last week: congratulations Aries!) in the 110 meter Hurdles Aries Merritt. I asked him two questions on a media teleconference call that I never used for a blog but possibly other people used who were in on the call.

24. Chris Gethard-A fascinating Kaufmenesque comedian who I tracked down on twitter the morning a big piece was written about him on cracked.com and talked to him for a good 45 minutes. I planned to write the results of the interview on the blog in exchange for publicity, but I lost the file upon which the interview took place and this is my first time admitting it out loud. Chris is getting bigger now and gets a lot of coverage on Splitsider over his new book, so this would have been good. Sorry Chris. 

25. Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation-I covered him when he shot here and took pictures. I asked him approximately 1 and 1/2 questions, none of which went into the article, but the pics and the story was the most important part.

26. American mile record holder Alan Webb-Webb is a semi-famous person I sort of know through other people (he's a good friend of a good friend of mine) and always wanted to interview him. I used him as a tertiary source on a track meet he attended but his quote got cut from the final article. Wonder if that still counts. I later asked to interview him in 2007 when he was ranked #1. He said "sure" to an email interview but I sent him the questions too close to the world championships and he lost the championships, so he was probably not in the mood to participate

People who've rejected me for an interview (no hard feelings):
Tennis player Johnny Isner (nice guy, though. I caught him on his way out), Jake Hurwitz of College Humor (also a great guy. Just had a busy schedule), Who's Line is it Anyway's Greg Proops (a colleague of mine at DC Scene interviewed him first), Author Joel Garreau (as far as I know), the prince of Bhutan (this was at the D.C. folk life festival and I garnered interest from a local paper. I was a number of people who requested an interview with him and got turned down because he doesn't do interviews. For some inexplicable reason, NPR got to interview him, which made the whole incident kind of wierd), SNL cast member Jimmy Bhutan

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Notes from House of Cards 1st Season Eps. 1-6

-Neither the degree to which Frank Underwood is rotten nor the root causes of his evil ways are questions the show has that much of an interest in answering and rightfully so. It reflects a broader theme that people in Washington operate the way they do through long-standing habits. Frank has played the political game so long that playing it well has become a means to to its own end. As it stands, I'm more content to just sit back and watch Frank's mind tick.

-Things really started to become interesting when it seemed like Underwood found a respectable nemesis in lobbyist Marty Spinella in the 6th episode. Spinella was not a big-name power player but he managed to make Underwood look like an idiot on national television and had little interest in playing any political games. It was a big mistake on the show's part to have the showdown end in an implausible assault framing. Characters that always win aren't particularly interesting and it looks like Frank might be taken in this direction. If the show's smart, Spinella will be back and his vowel gaffe will have some residual damage

-As a journalist, I can't say I endorse the Zoe Barnes school of thought that your best route to becoming a prestigious reporter is to latch onto a powerful person and print whatever he says. Realism seems to take a vacation in general when it comes to the Zoe Barnes storyline which doesn't help the show's blatant attempts to satirize the broken state of today's media (the politician and media incarnate are literally in bed together, get the symbolism?). Still, I appreciate certain aspects of the storyline: This is one of the few shows I've seen that dramatizes the struggle of a reporter trying to get a scoop and that's worth something.

-Frank and Zoe ending up in bed together was a  bizarre turn of events but TV shows can thrive on moments like that if handled well. So far, it's not looking like a well-advised move but I'll wait for the long game.

-The other shows I've seen involving politicians in Washington -- Veep, West Wing, and Scandal-- have highly stylized dialogue that I find insufferable. Who knew we'd get to the point where a show with remotely natural dialogue would be in the minority. If you pay close attention, there's a lot to appreciate about the subtle ways in which the dialogue of the show's four main characters -- Frank, Peter, Claire, and Zoe-- are different from each other.

-Watching Frank's brain tick is one of the key reasons to watch the show. Even more exciting is watching Claire and Frank interact and seeing a husband and wife whose minds tick in sync. I've seen her referred to as a "Lady MacBeth" but at this point in the series, it's really hard to figure her out which is a good contrast to the other characters on the show. I've seen comments that there's an asymmetry between Frank and Claire signified by the fact that Claire pulled out of her extra-marital relationship in the same episode that Frank decided to pursue one. I don't agree: The two seem to be in mutual agreement that sex is a useful tool to add to their array of weapons. It's hard to tell whether there's an implication that extra-marital affairs are just a fact of life in Washington but I hope not as that would be kind of a been-there done-that theme to  explore.

-A character with my first name ("Orrin") makes an appearance on TV! Finally, I feel a little less alone in the world. So far, I like him more than the "Parks and Recreation" character who's popped up at house parties here and there.

-Our first glimpse of Christina is as she's being sexed up by Congressman Peter Russo. We half-expect her to be an accessory to the main story as many of the women involved in sex scandals are. The twist is that she's actually his monagomous (as far as she knows) girlfriend and a whip-smart political climber. In fact, she might be the sanest character on the show.

-I'm not convinced that the all-it-once-viewing method of Netflix has a single advantage to it. The episodic format still relies on cliffhangers and these cliffhangers need breathing room.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Cameron Crowe's Modern Capraesque Vision

This article first appeared at my writing outlet at Examiner.com as part of the review of "We Built a Zoo"
"We Built a Zoo" is the latest installment of Cameron Crowe who is best known for "Say Anything", "Jerry MaGuire", and "Almost Famous."
A former rolling stone journalist, Cameron Crowe is a product of equal parts Capraesque optimism and rock and roll as seen through some nostalgic lens.
Through these viewpoints, Crowe aims to present his own version of the American spirit, akin to Norman Rockwell, channelled through sensitive men who wear their hearts on their sleeves. This is a class of men who impulsively disregard real world responsibilities to follow their heart. Jerry MaGuire quits his job and the young journalist in "Almost Famous" quits school (temporarily, at least) for a school assignment. Furthermore, if the characters aren't quitting their responsibilities, it's a big given that work is a drag that's tearing them down. In Elizabethtown, for example, Orlando Bloom's job pressures nearly lead him to suicide.
Because Crowe's movie worlds exist to provide moral fables where characters follow their heart, there needs to be a strong dichotomy between good-bad and wrong-right. Right is following your heart and wrong is being influenced by "the man" (some of that rock mentality*) and doing what he wants you to do. Thus, you have painfully flat villains who exist solely for the hero to rebel against: The impersonal sports management company in Jerry MaGuire, the three-minute cameo by Alec Baldwin in "Elizabethtown," and the company that Tom Cruise inhereted from his dad (the ultimate "Man") that he detests for some insignificant reason that isn't given.
The only poignant interpersonal conflict in a Cameron Crowe film in all five films I've seen is between the protagonist and his mom (played by Frances McDormand in a brilliant Oscar-nominated performance) in "Almost Famous." Crowe's inflexible structure dictates that the protagonist is supposed to rebel against some out-of-touch square, but then again, this character is based on his mom who Crowe obviously has a soft spot for.

It's  also a natural choice that  Cameron Crowe's greatest muse is Tom Cruise who is a passionate romantic (in 2005, his career was momentarily damaged by being a little too passionate and a little too romantic for Katie Holmes).  Crowe's idealistic worlds are a little abnormal and it takes a larger-than-life, but also slightly abnormal guy like Cruise to fill that in. In "We Bought a Zoo," Matt Damon doesn't know how to get loose and silly (why he'd never fit that well in a romantic comedy)

*It also might be part of Crowe's rock star influence that he's into highlighting certain phrases and repeating them. Catch phrases have included "Show me the money", "Help Me Help You", "Every passing minute is a chance to turn it all around" and "all it takes is twenty seconds of courage."

Friday, April 18, 2014

State of My March III: Archer, Portlandia, Broad City

I reviewed my Spring watching this year and called the series State of My March despite the fact that it's now April. Roll with it, folks

Archer- An attempt to quantifying just how much fun I’m having watching Archer would just be a gushing spew of hyperbole at this point. Suffice it to say, it’s the best  show on television right now.

The show has made some waves among TV critics this season for changing the form of the show from a spy agency to a group of illegal drug smugglers.  The truth was that things haven’t changed that much.  It’s still a ragtag group engaging in dangerous activity in exotic settings.  The only thing that’s changed is the moral alignment of the group and, come on guys, it’s not like if Captain America started devoting his efforts to Ponzi schemes. These guys were never paragons of good to begin with.

What makes the show so great is the same as what defines most TV comedies as great in the Golden Age of TV (in the old days, comedy was more punchline based): Well-developed comic characters and great interplay between those characters. Also, lots of running gags which have taken on more of a through-line this season in the form of Pam’s crack addiction and the dwindling stockpile of crack (spoiler: those two factors are interrelated).

Everything from the small stuff to the larger developments are making me happy. Among the larger developments that are pleasing me are seeing Cyrill finally develop some backbone and stick it to Archer. He even becomes a Central American dictator at one point. There’s also an overt declaration of friendship from Archer to Pam that’s the kind of character growth that this show greatly needs in small doses.  
What’s also worth noting is that there’s a more realistic scale of death in this season. In the past, Archer was like an 80’s action hero in the way he would be impervious to bullets and effortlessly kill nameless goons. In Archer’s first two missions of this season, the death toll was zero and the ISIS gang barely escaped with their lives and lost considerable amounts of money. The only major villain deaths to occur this season happened at the hands of a tiger and alligators rather than the ISIS gang.

Speaking of villain deaths, I’ve always lamented the fact that the rogues gallery of Archer consisted of just Katja and Barry. In this light, it’s been a highly pleasant surprise that some of the villains previously thought dead have survived (handwaved relatively easily) and are back on the show including the gay hitmen in Miami and George Takei's Yakuza character. 

Broad City-Abby and Ilana narrowly win my vote for two most depraved characters on television and that’s saying something with "Legit", "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia", "South Park", and "The League" still on the air. These ladies make Sara Silverman look like a Victorian era lady-in-waiting. And it’s to their credit that the show doesn’t feel like it’s being gross just for the sake of being gross. My take on the show's grossness is that the duo is playing around with gender stereotypes . In a recent episode where the pair is checking out guys on a basketball court and being told that the players are made uncomfortable by their ogling, we're being challenged to reimagine sleazy male behavior if it were exhibited by women. 

The show has a distinct voice culled from a visibly apparent improv background that I suspect is long-form based on the fact that the laughs-per-minute is relatively low and it doesn’t seem to match any sort of sitcomey perspective. The season finale, involving the duo lavishly dining out in an expensive seafood restaurant despite allergies to sea food, was my favorite of the season so far. It's winning premise was marginally enough to overcome the odd comic style and general grossness, but it's usually a close call whether an episode will be worthwhile. 

If I was a 1st grade teacher (in my school district before 2nd grade, you'd get need improvement, improving, or check mark rather than the standard letter grade), I would grade this show "needs improvement" and send it back to the drawing board but since I don't have the power to change the creative decisions made by this show, I'll likely tune out.

Portlandia- His latest turn as Seth Meyers' band leader is confirmation Fred Armisen is positively weird when unleashed to do his own thing and what's impressive is that his idiosyncratic brand of comedy doesn’t show any signs of wearing thin in its fourth season.

One thing I’m now learning is that nearly every time we see Fred and Carrie on-screen, they are playing recurring characters. I’m familiar with feminist book store owners Toni and Candice (whom I love) and the gender switch of Lance and Nina (whom I loathe) but beyond those two pairs, I can rarely tell one from the other. Peter and Nance strike me as the baseline Potlandia characters. Self-conscious, politically correct, highly particular in their tastes, and many people seem like a variation on those two (my last blog post was an effort to beak down what exactly the ideal Portlandia character was). The Lance half of Lance/Nina and Skype seem to be the exceptions on this rule. In this sense, it's disappointing that they haven't thinned out Lance and Skype's screen time. I still haven't gotten the joke to Lance and Nina other than the initial revelation of the gender switch.

I’m not sure if I’m in the minority in the respect of not knowing who's who but it’s not lessening my enjoyment. It's jut worth noting that the show’s “characters” aren’t particularly succeeding at being distinct from one another.

Still, a lot is working this season. Toni and Candice are being unleashed this season in mindblowingly awesome ways. As a basketball fan and a Toni/Candice fan, the Trailblazers episode was like a Christmas-comes-early present for me. The show is great at stuff that's only slightly comical in tone and "Celery" was a wonderful mixture of styles to create something vaguely comic (which sort of hammers the funniness in its own way) but wonderfully unique. The show is also sticking with guest stars that blend in whether Kumail Nanjani or Steve Buscemi. Is Aubrey Plaza gonna return? I'm hoping so.