Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Some Capsule Reviews of 2011

This holiday season, consider making a $1 donation to this blog.

Some links: What if the SAG Awards Didn't Exist?
An Open Letter to Dwight Howard and Chris Paul on Gunaxin

Some movie reviews of 2011 Films (rapid fire edition)
Cedar Rapids-Ed Helms plays a small town insurance salesman who goes on his first plane trip to the big city to attend a convention. This movie is an excellent example of "Funny cause it's true" comedy. Trade and professional conventions are treated by the people who put them on and many of the attendees as highly exciting. From an outsider's perspective, it's a bunch of people overly excited to be spending a weekend at a hotel listening to lectures. Thus, you have a perfect premise for a movie and with the point of view being told from the perspective of the greenest convention goer ever to exist, there's not a mean bone in the film's body. John C. Reilly does his best to channel Jack Black. If I have one complaint about the film, is it ends on too much of a high. Even the best convention experiences aren't THAT life-changing.

We Built a Zoo-Covered here in my retrospective of Cameron Crowe. A must read if there ever was one.

Horrible Bosses-That was one enticing trailer that "Horrible Bosses" offered. Unfortunately, many of the best jokes were in the trailer. Oh yeah, and the trailer was misleading. It's not a film about three people trying to murder their bosses. That's really just the first act of the story. Maybe it's because the film switches directions in so many spots, that the film feels kind of rushed.

Overall, the film is still pretty decent. Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, and Jason Bateman have some pretty good chemistry and Kevin Spacey and Colin Farrell have a lot of fun hamming it up as villains. Also, Julie Bowen of "Modern Family" pops up into the mix and gets kind of naughty.

Hangover II-Probably THE most shameless sequel to come along as of lately. It was enjoyable only on account of the fact that I was already in the theater (on account of other people) and did my darndest to forget I ever saw the first film. So if you try really hard, you can enjoy this film, but I do strongly believe that if a film has nothing original to say, then there's no reason for it to be made.

Cowboys and Aliens-This wasn't meant to have a shelf life beyond the two hours you spent watching it last summer, but this movie has proven surprisingly memorable for me. Several elements in the plot (i.e. why aliens would want gold, why Olivia Wilde's character wouldn't reveal her form, etc.) didn't make too much sense but it wasn't a movie that took itself seriously and I really appreciated it on the level of genre filmmaking (or more specifically, double genre filmmaking). The visuals, special effects and certain members of the cast (Adam Beach and Sam Rockwell made great supporting players) worked well. There was a sort of clash between Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford (One reviewer called the pairing a "peanut butter and peanut butter sandwich" and I ) both being the grumpiest guys you've ever seen, but I was won over by both of them even if I felt like it was a little too much friction.

Hugo-The main negative is that pretty much everyone says the movie starts off pretty slowly. It's over two hours and you could easily come in 45 minutes in and not miss much. This is somewhat of a problem because it's a mystery and the film works best on first viewing as the clues come together.

Other than that, it's an excellent film. The colorful cast of characters and excellent actors behind them are the film's biggest strength.

Descendants-This film is really two stories that don't connect as well as they should. It's not really a negative, though, because both stories work very well. One story is about a man coping with his wife's death and the other is about the responsibilities of the descendants of a land-owning clan to preserve the land. It's material that falls really well in Alexander Payne's ball park (co-written by Dean Pelton on Community of all people).

Both of the two central performances are overrated in terms of the Oscar buzz they're receiving. As I've written extensively, I'm finding the hoopla surrounding George Clooney to be overpowering of him whenever he is on screen. His performance is good but doesn't show many new notes in comparison to Up in the Air or Michael Clayton. Shalene Woodley is good but not great.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Directorial Progress Report

My annual progress report for 2011. New additions over the last two years added at end:

18 Alfred Hitchkock-Family Plot, Torn Curtain, Rebecca, 39 Steps, North by Northwest, Sabetour, The Wrong Man, Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, Topaz, The Birds, Psycho, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), Rear Window

14 Stephen Spielberg-Color Purple, Raiders of the Last Ark, Jurassic Park, Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade, The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can, Schindler's List, Hook, ET, Jaws, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
PLUS: Saving Private Ryan
14 Woody Allen-Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jaded Scorpion, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Small Time Crooks, Sweet and Lowdown, Mighty Aphrodite, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Melinda and Melinda, Ants, Sleeper, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Bullets Over Broadway

10 Billy Wilder-Spirit of St. Louis, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Irma la Douce, Double Indemnity, Sabrina, Ace in the Hole, Major and the Minor
PLUS: 1,2,3; The Front Page

9 Joel and Ethan Coen-Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Ladykillers, Man Who Knew Too Much, Intolerable Cruelty, Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading
PLUS: True Grit

8 Martin Scorsesee-Color of Money, Age of Innocence, Goodfellas, Aviator, The Departed, Gangs of New York
PLUS: Hugo
8 Mike Nicholls-Primary Colors, The Birdcage, The Graduate, Working Girl, Charlie Wilson’s War, What Planet Are You From?, Postcards from the Edge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff

7 Ivan Reitman- Ghostbusters, 6 Days 7 Days, Old School, Space Jam, Fathers Day, Beethoven, Beethoven’s 2nd
7 Rob Altman-Mash, McCabe & Mrs Miller, California Split, Buffalo Bill and the Indian, The Player, Dr. T and the Women, Prairie Home Companion
7 Rob Zemeckis-Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future I-III, Contact, Romancing the Stone
7 Steve Sodebergh-Erin Brockovitch, Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 12, Full Frontal, Good German, Ocean’s 13, Informant
7 Clint Eastwood-Mystic River, Unforgiven, Bronco Billy, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Invictus, Gran Torino
PLUS: White Heart, Lonely Hunter
7 Howard Hawks-Sgt. York, Bringing Up Baby, Big Sleep, Ball of Fire, Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday
PLUS: Gentlemen Perfer Blondes

6 Mel Brooks-Spaceballs, High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, History of the World Part I
6 Vincente Minelli-Meet me in St Louis, American in Paris, The Pirate, Brigadoon, The Band Wagon, Kismet
6 Frank Oz-Bowfinger, In and Out, Stepford Wives, The Score, What About Bob, Housesitter
5 Terry Gilliam-Time Bandits, Brazil, Fisher King, Monty Python, Brothers Grimm, Baron Muchenhausen
6 Barry Levinson-Tin Men, Rain Man, Sleepers, Good Morning Vietnam, Man of the Year, Wag the Dog
6 Peter Segal-Naked Gun 33 1/3, Tommy Boy, My Fellow Americans, 50 First Dates, Get Smart
6 Jay Roach-Austin Powers I-III, Meet the Parents, Mystery Alaska, Dinner for Schmucks

5 George Lucas-Star Wars I-IV, American Graffiti
5 Gore Verbinski-Pirates of the Carribean 1, 2, & 3, Weatherman, The Mexican
5 Stanley Donen-Take Me Out to the Ballgame (most sources insist that he really was the director, not Bugsy Berkley), On the Town, Singing in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade
5 John Huston-Treasure of Sierra Madre, Beat the Devil, African Queen, Man Who Would be King, Key Largo
5 Tom Shadyac-Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty, Patch Adams, Evan Allmighty, Ace Ventura
5 Sydney Pollack-Sabrina, Out of Africa, Tootsie, The Interpreter, Slender Thread
5 Joel Schumaker-Time to Kill, 8 MM, Batman and Robin, Batman Forever, The Client
5 Orson Welles-Citizen Kane, Lady of Shanghai, Othello, Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil
5 Ron Howard-Apollo 13, Beautiful Mind, Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Angels and Demons
5 Bryan Singer-Usual Suspects, X-Men, X2, Superman Returns, Valkyrie
5 Terrence Young-Wait Until Dark, 4 Bonds
5 John Glenn-5 Bonds
5 Brett Ratner-After the Sunset, Rush Hour 2, Family Man, X-Men 3, Red Dragon
5 Johnothan Demme-Silence of the Lambs, Melvin and Howard, Manchurian Candidate, Married to the Mob, Rachel Getting Married
5 Tim Burton-Batman, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factor, Alice in Wonderland
5 Roland Emmerich-ID4, Stargate, Patriot, Day After Tomorrow, 2012
5 Robert Rodriguez-El Mariachi Trilogy, Spy Kids and Lava Girl, Sin City
5 Peter Weir-Witness, Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show, Master and Commander
PLUS: Year of Living Dangerously
5 Rob Reiner-Stand and Deliver, Princess Bride, Rumor Has It, American President
PLUS: Ghosts of Mississippi
5 Tony Scott- Enemy of the State, Déjà Vu, Crimson Tide, Top Gun
PLUS: Taking of Pelham 1,2,3
5 Curtis Hanson- LA Confidential, Wonderboys, In Her Shoes, Lucky You
PLUS: 8 Mile
5 Cameron Crowe-Almost Famous, Jerry MaGuire, Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown,
PLUS: We Built a Zoo
5 Chris Columbis-Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Stepmom
PLUS: I Love You Beth Cooper
5 Sidney Lumet: Network, 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
PLUS: Fail Safe

4 Harold Lloyd-Safety Last, Feet First, The Freshman, Kid Brother
4 Guy Hamilton-4 Bond movies
4 Peter and Bobby Farrelly
4 Kevin Smith-Chasing Amy, Mallrats, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Dogma
4 D. Herek-Mr. Holland’s Opus, Three Musketeers, Mighty Ducks, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures
4 John Lynn-Whole Nine Yards, Trial and Error, Sgt Bilko, Trial and Error
4 Barry Sonnenfeld-Men in Black I, II, Wild Wild West, Big Trouble
4 Wes Anderson-Rushmore, Royal Tannenbaums, The Life Aquatic, Darjeerling Limited
4 Penny Marshall-Awakenings, Rennisance Man, Big, League of their Own
4 Ernst Lubitsch-Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka, Merry Widow, Trouble in Paradise
4 Lasse Holstrom-What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Hoax, Cider House rules, Shipping News
4 James Mangold-3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line, Kate and Leopold, Night and Day
4 Dennis Dungan
4 Sam Weisman
4 Christopher Guest-For Your Consideration, Mighty Wind, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman
4 John Lasseter-Lady and the Tramp, Toy Story 1, Cars, Toy Story 2,
4 Jon Favreau-Elf, Iron Man
PLUS: Iron Man 2, Cowboys and Aliens
4 Adam McKay: Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers
PLUS: The Other Guys
4 David Lean-Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Passage to India
PLUS A Passage to India
4 John Ford-How Green was my Valley, Stagecoach, The Searchers
PLUS The Hurricane
4 Michael Moore-Roger and Me, F 411, Sicko
PLUS Capitalism: A Love Story

Once Upon a Time....

“Once Upon a Time” is an interesting show to watch in a vacuum (what I call watching a TV show or a movie without having read any reviews, reading commentary, or internet message boards). So many questions are popping up that I can’t turn to the convenience of the internet for: Does Regina know that she’s an evil queen? So the bail bondswoman’s stated reason for being in town is to stalk the kid she gave up for adoption ten years ago against her mother’s wishes? Is that the crazy guy from Prison Break as the town sheriff?


Once Upon a Time is a show about the residents of modern-day Storybrooke, Maine, who previously inhabited the world of familiar fairy tales before being banished by the evil queen from the Snow White story.

In the modern-day world, that evil queen goes by the name of Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla) and she is the town's mayor. The narrative is complex and highly confusing which is due to the fact that the plot is dictated almost entirely by Regina's 10-year old adopted son, Henry. The other characters all have amnesia and somehow he is the only one to have figured this all out.

Thus, the story is told from two conflicting perspectives and that's a very interesting scenario that the show delivers on. From the point of view of everyone else, Henry is a troubled child with a big imagination and from the POV of Henry, these are lost fairy tale characters who haven't figured out their true identity.

Because Once Upon a Time jumps back and forth between Storybrooke and the actual fairy tale world (I'd estimate the screentime is split 70-30 between the two universes with Maine getting the 70%), the show is on the side of Henry and we know it's only a matter of time before the rest of the town starts seeing things from his point of view. This is the central conflict and that's reinforced by Henry's belief that the characters will all be happy when they discover their true nature. Thus, it's a show of characters awakening to their true nature and works on that level.

This also makes Henry the guy who's always right. He's also a giant exposition machine. The person who he's doing most of his expositioning to is Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison). Swan is a cynical 30-something bounty hunter who discovers in the pilot episode that she is Henry's birth mother.

Emma's a key figure in the story, but the reasons that she impulsively uproots from Boston to Storybrooke after the pilot episode aren't particularly well hashed out. There's not really a strong case for why she's there. Emma's concerned that Regina doesn't have her son's best interests at heart but, then again Regina doesn't want her to take an active role in the kid's life ten years later and Emma has no rights to do otherwise. It's a good thing the show's fantasy, because if we looked at Emma's rationale from a realistic ethical or legal standpoint, we might not really be on her side at all.

Regina is eventually revealed to be somewhat malignant, but the show starts off with some genuine thematic confusion as we're left wondering why we should be behind a woman who voluntarily gave up her kid in a closed adoption process, and is now upending everyone's life on a hunch that the boy's adopted mother isn't all she seems. This is made iffier by the fact that Emma reconnecting with her son is one of the key conflicts in the story. If you can discount the clunky set-up (the key to enjoying much of this show), it's not such a bad story either).

Besides, the pilot at least establishes Emma's motivation, although somewhat weakly. The "why" of what Emma's doing in Storybrooke, is more of a "Why not?". One of Emma's key characters traits is that she's being rootless and having close to no support system (she's adopted herself).

The show's biggest strength is that it works both as an overarcing storyline, and as a series of entertaining one-off episodes. The fairytale land sequences are having diminishing returns with me for each episode, but it frames the story well.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Chris Farley hosts Saturday Night Live: Season 23 Episode 4

I recently watched the episode of Saturday Night Live that Chris Farley hosted in October 1997. Inviting Farley to host at the time was a somewhat controversial decision because Farley was on a downward spiral at this point that would eventually lead to his untimely death.

As for my experiences with Chris Farley, I originally never had a special attraction to him when I used to watch old episodes. Perhaps, I was just used to thinking of the heavy-set guy as a stock character and not the main star. My fascination grew, however, as I began reading about how amazing of a performer he was from other sources.

In Jay Mohr's book "Gasping for Airtime", the former SNL recurring player of two years clearly thought he was the most talented member of the cast. He devotes a whole chapter to Chris Farley. The introduction:
"Chris Farley was the most beautiful person I have ever met. You wanted him around all the time. You craved his presence...."

More here:

Coupled with other pieces of high praise I heard about the late comic star, I gradually began to shift my focus on Farley whenever I saw an old SNL rerun.

The most obvious thing one can say about Chris Farley is that he followed in the transition of fat comedians who were unaware of their girth. The Chippendales sketch is an example of Farley acting so gleefully free in spite of his girth. In the book co-written by his brother Tom, Chris Rock says that the Chippendale's Sketch might have been pigeonholed Farley too much in the "fat guy falls down" type of sketch.

The way I see it, there were two basic components that defined Farely's comedic skill set and he simultaneously played both masterfully. He had a consistent intensity. In whatever sketch he was in, he went full-force with the character. On the flip side of that coin, he had a charming Midwestern affability buried underneath. He was essentially a sweet and naive kid and that would come across even as he would erupt into a hysterical fit.

I think one of the reasons Farley drew so much curiosity and the book written about him was such a fascinating read, was that he was an elusive figure. Chris Farley might have had a consistent screen persona but you never felt like you really knew him. He would not be a likely candidate for the Weekend Update chair. In fact, it dawned on me as the opening credits were rolling that Chris's monologue would be the first time I've ever seen him addressing the camera and the audience as himself.

In a highly anticlimactic turn of events, Chris's monologue was averted in place of a sketch where he (as a character, not himself) gets distracted by Ana Gasteyer (whom he seduces), Tim Meadows attempts to take over hosting duties, and Lorne Michaels decides to get Chris Rock to come in last minute. At the end of the sketch, Chris Farley shows up and goofily does the requisite "We've get a great show/ ____ is here/Stick around" lines. It was pretty much the least amount of involvement a host could have for his own monologue.

For a show that's supposed to center around him, Farley hides himself pretty well too. The second sketch of the night is a parody of a morning talk show where Farley plays Gellman to Will Ferrell's Regis equivalent and Cheri Oteri's Kathy Lee equivalent.

He's inserted into a Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) sketch and doesn't appear at all in a Martha Stewart sketch.

Because popular demand wouldn't have had it any other way at the time, Farley got to do the motivational speaker sketch and the premise was ramped up to new heights with the sight of Matt Foley on a stationary bicycle in the gym. In the same vein, the Bears superfan character is given an update wherein Coach Mike Ditka has relocated to New Orleans and Chris' character refuses to accept it.

All in all, some interesting stuff.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Sing-Off wrap up: Fixing the season length

As we hit the Christmas special tonight of the Sing-Off and look back on it once more, I'd have to say that the season for me with its 16-group format didn't work as well as I might have expected.

I obviously love watching the show and I can't conclusively say that more of a good thing is bad, but there were drastically diminished returns in the last three or four weeks.

For one, we basically knew what the groups could do after a certain point so there was little element of surprise in the last few episodes. Most of the breakthroughs and surprises (the big dramatic moments which non-scripted and scripted shows alike rely on) came in the first few weeks. It seemed to me like most of the groups came together and had their best performances at the guilty pleasure show. The judges tried to frame Urban Method, Delilah, and Afro-Blue as having narrative arcs of falling and coming back, but I felt like those were exxagerated. I thought Katey Turley of Urban Method sounded just fine in Love the Way You Lie and the Rhianna medley. Was it that humongous of a difference?

To me, it wasn't so much groups were having big comebacks and finally figuring it out. It was more of a matter of the groups being out of their element in certain genres or just rubbing the judges the wrong way.

With the more articulate Sara Bareilles filling in for Nicole Scherzinger, the judges had more credibility on the whole and when they're saying all those intelligent-sounding words, you are really sold on that. Ironically, this is all flying in the face of what look like baffling decisions.

I think the general consensus on the blogosphere is that Afro-Blue's dismissal was a big goof on the part of the judges. I'd even go so far as to say it hurt the credibility of the show. Those conspiracy theories I've heard that the judges being influenced by the producers seem possible with Afro-Blue.

More than that, I think it's more of a matter of the fact that if you have 5 or 6 groups who all have what it takes and it's apples and oranges and the judges are trying to make convincing cases for Afro-Blue or BYU or Delilah being sent home when they all sound great, the judges are not gonna look good no matter what.

My suggestion: Expand the final round to five groups. Keep it as one episode with viewers voting. The dangers of America getting it wrong might be a problem if there were more than one week of audience voting because they might believe they're favorite group is safe. In this case, they're still voting for a winner.

This will cut the season by a couple weeks and eliminate viewer fatigue. It will also allow groups that are capable of delivering by the judges' standards to have an equal chance to compete for America's vote. Most importantly, it will give those poor performers a break. They looked thoroughly exhausted.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Capitol Critters

Anthony Scibelli on had a particularly inspired article about the early stages of prime time cartoons. Apparently, the success of the Simpsons sent networks in a rush to develop cartoons for the prime-time landscape in the early 1990's but it took break away tonally from children's shows. As a result, the first batch of prime time children's shows occupied an awkward middle ground between preachy Disneyesqe and the animated shows of today which are indistinguishable from live action TV shows in quality and maturity.

I just watched several episodes of Capitol Critters which first aired in 1992. Five minutes into the show, the protagonist's family is brutally murdered by fumigators which is very jarring. In his article, Scibelli seems equally jarred by this:

"It opens with what may be the most horrific scene I've ever witnessed in a cartoon. The series stars a young mouse named Max, voiced by a young Neil Patrick Harris, who lives on a Nebraska farm with his parents, grandfather and what appears to be about four or five brothers and sisters. After spending a day gathering corn, Max returns home to find an exterminator truck parked out front."

To be fair, Finding Nemo opens with one such tragedy and Bambi has a more tear-jerking scene. Unlike those two films, "Capitol Critters" makes the mistake of treating this opening passage relatively casually. The little guy lost his entire
family yesterday and it's treated as just a typical first act designed to move the plot along and explain Max's move to D.C. For comparison's sake, imagine how jarring it would be if a show with a similar premise, "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air", described Will's mom being killed and raped.

One of the show's strengths, to me, was the ensemble. None of the characters (with the partial exception of Jammet) were overly bland.

1. Max's cousin, Berkley, is a hippie mouse who calls everyone fascist. She has the least screen time of the five main characters on the show, yet the writers impressively mold her into a fully formed satire of the kinds of socially-conscious people I see in D.C. all the time (I live less then a third of a mile from the nation's capitol, I should know).
2. Trixie is a landlord and maternal figure of sorts with a Jersey-accent who gets some choice lines. Her vague resemblance to some regional New York/New Jersey/Boston stereotype (she'd fit in with the ladies from the SNL sketch "Good Morning Bronx")that somehow worked for me.
3. Trixie's son, Jammet, is the most broadly drawn character. Scibelli describes him as "streetwise" (because of his idiosyncratic speech patterns? he doesn't exactly sound like he's from the hood). Mostly, he's the bad influence on innocent Max. The group troublemaker, who inexplicably remains friends with the people who's plots he foils (think Shake in "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" or Dr. Smith in "Lost in Space"), is a long-standing sitcom staple that I'm a sucker for.
4. Lastly, there's the particularly inspired invention of Muggles. Voiced by Bobcat Goldwaith (who has a voice suited for comedy like no one else), Muggles is a former lab rat (or is he a mouse? he doesn't look like Jammet and Trixie) who still has the after effects of countless experiments. He goes on an LSD trip in one episode and in another he turns into the Manchurian Candidate. He also possesses an inordinate amount of knowledge like Chuck (from "Chuck") and regularly explodes like a popcorn kernel.

Like a kid's show, the episodes have moral themes and teach a lesson. One episode is about the danger of drugs while another is about cultural acceptance and so on and so forth. This didn't strike me as cleverly conceived satire so much as the remnants of a children's show which the art form hadn't yet transitioned out of.

To make a show about mice and rats in the White House be an effective satire about politics presented a lot of challenges anyway. The mice are primarily interacting with each other and have little to do with the lawmakers. If you wanted to overthink the premise, you might ask why Berkley is invested in the happenings in the White House when the legislators make laws that probably don't affect the lives of mice and if so, only inadvertantly. The show might have been better if there was something along the lines of a separate mouse congress.

When they get the mice interacting with the human world, it creates a few moments of effective satire. In one episode, Max gets stuck in the briefcase of a congressman, and he learns the truth about bribery in Washington. The show can also be kind of cute when it asks us to look at things from a mouse's perspective, although that's
what most Disney cartoons of that genre do.

Check out my examiner page!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

And we have a winner (and a foul!) on the sing-off

The Sing-Off season 3 left me with a feeling of disappointment.

As I previously stated, the advancement of the Dartmouth Aires over other groups never sat well with me. As far as I was concerned, the Dartmouth Aires were the weak link of a very strong final eight. It wasn't a matter of one bad decision along with seven very good decisions. It was a matter of the judges making the wrong choice in virtually every episode (Delilah did fall on their own sword, so I'll give the judges a pass that week) by simply not eliminating the Aires. I am aware that it's just my personal opinion that the Aires weren't that good and it's not some objective truth.

The elimination of Afro-Blue, however, went from my disagreeing with the judges over the quality of the groups, to just feeling cheated. For one, Ben admitted that Afro-Blue was his favorite group. Additionally, Sara Bareilles said she decided to vote with the group that she had a great emotional connection and ignored that the Afro-Blues moved her to tears twice. Lastly, Afro-Blue never sounded bad or technically defficient (and Dartmouth Aires continually got comments toward that effect). Their instructions from the judges to dumb down their sound and simultaneously still keep delivering their signature sound put the group in a hole they couldn't climb out of.

Ben Folds addressed the twitter haters about Afro-Blue's dismissal on his blog here:

It's with some shame that I admit that I was one of those haters. I tried to articulate this with some self-awareness that I was clearly getting too invested in a TV program, but at the same time I now realize that I was adding a lot of negativity to the blogosphere and twittersphere.

The Dartmouth Aires didn't end up derailing the season for me, because at the end of the day, the best group won. The Pentatonix were a cut above the other groups, but this season was sufficiently more dramatic in that they didn't emerge as a clear winner until a few weeks in.

Congrats to the Pentatonix, as well as the other groups with strong finishes. I even tip my hat to the Aires for persevering and improving

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The failure of Community

College is generally portrayed in popular culture as an experimental period following high school that serve as the best four years of your life. Portrayals of the college experience on TV tend to marginalize all the outliers to that experience such as:
-The commuters who simultaneously have a foot in the working world
-The people already in the working world who begrudgingly return to school because they have no other option
-Older students who don't get into the social aspects of college because they have little in common with the primary age bracket that comprises most of the campus
-The people who who view their current college as their safety school rather than shangri-la and subsequently view it as either a temporary stop or a necessary evil

"Community" is about marginalized types deciding to make the best of their second-rate lot by banding together to enjoy their college experience the way that they're entitled to enjoy it. It's an underdog story and the triumphant moments at the end of each episode revolve around the group uniting together. When Troy comes to Britta's rescue when she gets paralyzed up on stage at the dancing competition, or Britta and Jeff team up together to fend off some bullies, the group succeeds at being "the cool kids" on campus (or whatever it is their goal is in that episode) because their bonds to each other have been tested and strengthened.

From that point of view, the show initially had a good concept and framework that intrigued me and kept me going through the first season. While the show wasn't particularly funny and had some awkward kinks, it did have some genuinely gooey moments in the last couple minutes of the episode that would redeem the half-hour experience for me. At least that was the case in the first season.

Most of the people I know who love discussing TV, blog about TV, or write about it professionally, they have praised the show as one of the smartest and most enjoyable programs on television and that praise seems to have increased as the show goes on.

For me, it's been the opposite experience.

To me, the show's main crime is that it is so caught up at making the academic community salivate with its deft handling of filmic conventions that it forgets to be entertaining. In terms of the amount of conflict going on, the plots can be incredibly insubstantial. To their credit, Community is experimental so they take risks and sometimes miss. That's something I admire over a show like "Modern Family" (a best-case scenario) or "Two and a Half Men" but I think the show rarely ever has baseline episodes which follow the more familiar beats of a sitcom.

I also think for a comedy, the show's humor factor is very low. It's not a show that goes for one-liners often and relies more on character-based humor and I think your mileage may vary depending on how you find the characters, which to me is kind of a weak point.

For one, the characters on the show don't really get along as well as advertised. It seems everyone hates Pierce and the group routinely gets mad at Jeff. The show devotes much of its screentime to having characters arguing with each other, as if the writing room can't think of any way to build up to climaxes. I will concede that the show's magic is often how it comes to the other side on the denouement.

The ensemble as a whole feels vastly overrated to me. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) seems rather stereotypical and Annie (Allison Brie) can feel increasingly like a caricature. To her credit, Allison Brie infuses Annie with comic characteristics and even has a penchant for physical comedy but her heightened reactions don't really match the tone of the show. Joel McHale comes off somewhat awkwardly as the rebellious cool kid on campus, but I think that's the writing which asks us to believe that someone in his 30's could ever be the coolest kid on campus. Pierce suffers a little bit from being whatever the show needs him to be week-to-week. His varying levels of kindness are inconsistent.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How I've come to hate the Dartmouth Aires and other Sing-Off Thoughts

My apologies for not writing about the Sing-Off as I did last year in such winning fashion (also here: This season, I've been finding myself experiencing a feeling I normally don't have towards TV characters and that is borderline hatred.

Normally, I don't hate a TV character because it's pointless to hate a fictional character. In this case, my anger is directed towards real life people and that's also ironic, because they're a group of 16 guys who I've never met and I probably wouldn't mind so much if I did ever meet them.

When I initially saw this group of people on TV, I didn't have a problem with them at all. I didn't particularly like their song choice, but I didn't think they deserved to be axed. In the first week, they were in the same bracket as a group of Liberian refugees who were there for the sob story factor and sounded like the choir in the opening few measures of the Lion King's Circle of Life (I don't mean that as a compliment).

But the thing is that the caliber of talent on the show this season is amazing. If need be, I could make a good case for about seven of these groups to win the entire show because they are legitimately the best at what they do without those cases being mutually exclusive. In no particular order:
1. BYU Vocal Point (finished 5th)-Vocal Point deserves to win because they were arguably the best group at clearing the hurdles created by the wide range of genres. They also have the sharpest, most finely tuned arrangements out of any group and no one can touch them in terms of choreography. The reasoning from Shaun Stockman for their dismissal this past week was that they didn't have a star personality. I call BS on that. Aside from the edgy rock-tailored voices of McKay Crockett and Ross Welch, I thought Jake Hunsaker had the best voice on the show.

And keep in mind, I'm defending them to the death without being sure if I even like them as people**. It's not the Mormon thing, but they seem either whipped by their girlfriends and wives or strangely overeager to ensure us of their heterosexuality. In the worst incident of this, their introductory video* has one guy stating out of nowhere (I am not making this up) "Yeah, we really like girls, kissing girls also." Then he demonstrates his girl-kissing prowess by leaning down to a girl on the quad and kissing her (I hope that was his girlfriend and it's not a standing mandate at BYU that all girls must be on the ready in case Ben wants to kiss them).

2. North Shore (finished tied for 9th): Aside from being true masters at what they do from the standpoint of time spent on their craft, they are vitally important because they represent what is a lost art and despite the opinion of the judges who felt they looked dated on the "Power of Love," they succesfully take their old-school sensibility on pop songs. Not to mention, "Talk of the Town" coasted to the finals last year without putting an ounce of effort into modifying their style to accommodate different genres. "North Shore" was full of personality, humility, and appeared to be much more hard-working.

3. Delilah (finished 6th): A case can be made that Delilah is the best all-female a capella group ever assembled. Aside from the fact that this legitimate blogger thinks so, it makes sense considering you had judges scour the country for the best a capella groups in the country and this all-star super group is comprised of the best females from those groups. So if that's not good enough, than the judges might as well ban women from singing together and institute Sharia law. I mean, honestly, what more did these girls have to do? Yes, a couple of their performances had some problems, but if I'm arguing whether they had the potential to win the entire show and not shame the Sing-Off brand, then yes. You can also make a case for them to win based on the sheer number of home-run tear-inducing performances.

4. Afro-Blue (still in the final 4): In terms of musicianship, they are a step above the rest. Their music is indisputably solid, enjoyable and produced those "musical orgasms" (Nicole's term not mine) that Committed evoked out of Shawn last year. They have a deep bench, amazing vocalists (Christine Dashielle and Danielle Withers), and a priceless sound.

5. Urban Method (still in the final 4): Despite being pigeonholed as "the group with the rapper," Urban Method is strong enough as a group, that the judges deservedly have been hailing them all competition. They have a deep bench of great soloists, an excellent amount of cohesiveness for a group that just got together, and a very well-produced sound. They also are edgy and might be able to sell more records among non-a-capella fans better than anyone else.

6. Pentatonix (still in the final 4): They will likely win it all, so I shouldn't need too big of an argument here. They are highly innovative, fresh, and they produce an incredible amount of sound for just five people.

7. Sonos (finished tied for 11th with Kinfolk 9): Urban Method blogged that they listen to their record all the time and Scott Hoying of front-runner Pentatonix says "they're who we want to be." So if the point of this competition is making a record and building a following, what does it say about your group that one of the groups is already buying your CD and the winning group wants to emulate you? Hell, I even bought music from the Sonos on itunes*** and those are among my most played songs. The Sonos are otherworldly and are right up there with Pentatonix and Afro-Blue in terms of creativity when it comes to approaching songs. They only had five people but so do the Pentatonix and I'm sure they're talented enough to have worked out those harmony quirks if given the chance. The judges acted as if succeeding as a five-person a capella group was impossible.

The Dartmouth Aires, on the other hand, are entirely unremarkable to me (although I will concede their Queen performance was phenomenal). I've come to accept, however, that I'm in a small minority. My experience scouring the blogosphere and conversing with others on message boards indicates that people seem to very much like this group for legitimate reasons.

Now, I acknowledge that I have a more limited ability to analyze choral music and express that analysis than 90% of the people I discuss the show with, I could still argue that the Dartmouth Aires don't have what it takes to win it. To me, they're indistinguishable from the hundreds of 15-memberish all-male collegiate a capella groups from the country that rarely have any geographical reach beyond their campus and the schools where they tour. If I went to Boston University or Harvard or Brown, why would I consider buying a Dartmouth CD when I could get a similar sounding a capella CD from a group on my campus?

In order to make the case that they're champions, you'd have to make a convincing case that they're so much better than that humongous mass of a capella groups, that they could significantly sell records. Anyone have any idea how much Aires sell right now?

In the meantime, the Dartmouth Aires are eliminating groups who legitimately could win the competition. On top of that, the Dartmouth Aires are also eliminating groups who I happen to like better.

So while I didn't originally have anything personal against the Aires, it's gotten to become so. Case in point: One of the Aires has a very interesting wavy hair style (I believe his name is Clark). I used to think "hmmm, that's an interesting hair style." Now whenever I see Clark's hair, I think "that's a very stupid hairstyle." His hair style hasn't changed at all, but that's the inexplicable effect the Aires are having on me.

It's partially because I watch the show week after week and seeing this injustice committed over and over builds up that resentment. It's also partially because I feel like everyone I talk to about the show is ignoring the mediocrity of the Aires when they have debates over whether Delilah or Afro-Blue or Urban Method should have been eliminated in a certain week****. For me, everyone else in the top 7 or 8 are so amazing that if the Aires were out of the competition, it would be nothing but a win-win-win-win-win-win situation.

More importantly, it's because the show is doing a good job of building emotional attachment between me and the different groups. For example, the similarly-structured Yellow Jackets of the University of Rochester might also have some of the same weaknesses as the Aires*****. However, they had an eagerness and likability that won me over. So it would only be natural that if every group had an emotional connection to me that grew week after week, then eventually I'd feel strongly in the opposite direction towards the one group that I originally was apathetic to.

So, my apologies to the Dartmouth Aires and Clark's wavy haircut (which I still want to believe is a good haircut) for the inexplicable hatred I've come to feel. I'm not a hater of any of you and think you're perfectly pleasant people. It's just that reality TV has made me that way.

*As I wrote about the Whiffenpoofs a year ago, sometimes those intro videos can rub me the wrong way. I had a similar problem with the Del Tones of the University of Delaware. They were self-admittedly the fourth best a capella group at the University of Delaware and felt that they should be among the top 16 groups in the nation? Also, members suffering from home sickness when they first get to college and being concerned about making friends (yeah, that's pretty much everybody in the first two weeks of college) is really not much of an emotional hook

If you enjoyed this write-up, check out my internet column.

**But in all seriousness, I've grown to like BYU vocal point over the weeks. Too bad, you had to go

***Want to enable me to buy more itunes music or itunes epsiodes so I can continue to blog about the groups of the Sing-Off so entertainingly? Be sure to donate on the top right of the page. If you are a member of a group on the Sing-Off and write your name in the column, I will immediately start blogging about your group in a very positive fashion

****Note to judges and Sing-Off producers: Other than going back in time and eliminating the Aires during the top40/1960's week, you could improve the Sing-Off substantially by cutting the series short a couple weeks and having the audience vote on a final five.

*****Although unlike Ben, I could close my eyes and tell Aaron Sperber, Jamal Moore, and Danny Rubenstein apart. One of their strengths is having diverse and unique soloists

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

South Park's Butter episodes

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It wasn't until several years after the show had become a cult hit and I heard my fair share of my teenage peers doing Cartman imitations that I first watched an episode of "South Park."

As for whether I am a fan, sort of. Sometimes the show's gross-out humor and juvenille tendencies can be a little too high for my tolerance, but their current events parodies can sometimes be impressively sharp.

I did recently started to notice that every single episode starring Butters is a home run to me. I have no idea what the general consensus is over which episodes are great and which aren't great, but to me Butters episodes seem to be drawn from an almost entirely different and better show. Butters episodes are great comedies of errors. The kid is too sweet and innocent to understand the world around him and his parents look absolutely awful in retrospect. I even think it's a good satire on alpha-level parents in general and it fits into the whole theme of the show really well. That theme is that fourth graders are the sanest people in society and as you grow into adulthood, you don't get smarter but rather just screw everything up through overcomplication.

A show that was centered around Butters would wear thin pretty quickly, but as it is, South Park knows how to use the character to good effect.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Allen Gregory and dislikable characters

Allen Gregory-The show features Jonah Hill as a 7-year old boy genius who, despite having lobbied for fuel cell technology on Capitol Hill and having a circle of friends that includes Sandy Bullock, quickly becomes an ordinary outcast when he transfers to a new school.

I tend to give a fairly generous bye to anything appearing on TV that either looks remotely entertaining even if it might have some rough spots. Even if a show isn't entertaining me in the moment, I might be intrigued because it has a solid enough framework. In this case, you can envision a network of characters or scenarios in the case that if the writing got sharper it wouldn't be very hard for the show to hit its stride. Anyone who has watched the woeful first season of either "Parks and Recreation" and "American Dad" would know what I'm talking about.

"Allen Gregory" is a very rare case of the opposite. Despite having the ability to knock jokes out of the park here and there, the show is held back immensely by its framework. These are  ultimately unlikable characters that we don't want to spend time with.

It's true that some shows succeed immensely behind unlikeable characters with few redeeming qualities, but that's because they're interesting or inhabit an interesting enough world.

Allen Gregory had promise to be interesting because of its tension. It would be like if Stewie on "Family Guy" were ever confronted with the reality that maybe he wasn't one of the world's smartest and most charismatic people and forced to deal with that reality alongside other kids who could see right through him everyday. "Gregory" doesn't capitalize on that because the main character rarely acknowledges reality and there isn't a strong presence of the characters on the show who stand to prove him otherwise.

For example, his teacher Gina Wintrhop (a faaaar more ideal love interest than the 60-year old Principal Gottlieb who induces more of a gross-out effect than anything else) is an excellent character and would be a great foil because she only cares about Allen Gregory to the extent that he interferes with her attempts to run a classroom. Unfortunately, the interaction between the two is very limited.

The end result? The main conflicts (and potential for comedic tension) aren't dealt with in any interesting or meaty way. A typical scenario on this show is Allen being given a swirlie, passing it off as something that he voluntarily chose to do and being enabled in his behavior by his dad and a school superintendant who appreciates the money from the Gregory-DeLongpree name too much. Not much fun.

Another major problem is that not only is Allen Gregory delusional and emotionally abusive to those around him, but so is his biological dad (voiced by French Stuart). The father character is so morally backwards that his back story (yet to be fully explained) is that he coerced a straight man with a wife and kids to be his husband (sex included).

The end result of this is that the scenes with the family of four have a sort of weird dynamic where two people are the family scapegoat and the dialogue just doesn't flow as well. It's not convincing that two people would be able to have so much power that they can intimidate the other two into into just being quiet scapegoats.

It works much better if you have three or more people and one guy who's the punching back. Most shows employ this method (see Meg on "Family Guy", Jerry on "Parks and Recreation", Kimmy Gibbler on "Full House", Roy Biggins on "Wings").

Will Allen Gregory be able to right its wrongs with a few character tweaks? It might not have enough time to do so. Besides, if it gets cancelled, it would be a deserving move. Still, while it's on the air, there's always a chance.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fall Preview III: Up All Night, Prime Suspect, Terranova and the topic of originality

Up All Night-I am about as interested in this TV show as I am listening to some couple at a family reunion showing me baby photos and talking all about the cute little boy. Yes, I understand this show inverts that notion and explores how parenthood can be surprisingly difficult but that's not exactly news either.

Personally, I would much rather see Will Arnett taking creative risks with Mitch Hurwitz ("Running Wilde" is just on hiatus #Holdingout), even if the results aren't entirely satisfying. Arnett just feels creatively neutered here in generic sitcomland.

If the show is going to be this generic, my sensibilities might be less offended if a laugh track were put in. As it stands, the single camera format communicates to me that the show's creators think that what they're doing is edgy.

The show breaks from the A-premise occasionally with a B-premise that centers around new mom Christina Applegate as a production assistant at an Oprahesque talk show. Oprah is predictably played by Maya Rudolph (although it's nice to see her on TV again). The show would be better served by devoting more time to this world, except for the fact that you could then criticize "Up All Night" for being a lesser clone of "30 Rock" or the film "Knocked Up."

I hear other critics being quick to praise this, but the show doesn't show much promise to me.

Prime Suspect-Just like comedy, TV dramas like to play it safe. They stick to the same kind of professions for their characters (doctors, lawyers, and cops, oh my!) and emulate the style of other successful shows in that format. These shows are commonly referred to as "procedurals."

Procedurals create a marketing paradox of sorts: You don't want to advertise yourself as being entirely different from the other cop/lawyer/doctor shows but you don't want to make it look like the writer simply cut and pasted a script of Grey's Anatomy and just changed the names around.

What they usually do to navigate that different/same dichotomy is to present themselves as the same concept with edgier characters. The start of this trend might have been "The Closer" which presented itself as (imagine Don LaFontaine saying it) "A cop show..featuring a detective who's pretty, female, and tough and if that weren't enough, she has a southern accent."

Look at Prime Suspect's promotional materials on the NBC website:
"The series stars Maria Bello ("A History of Violence") as tough-as-nails NYPD homicide Detective Jane Timoney, an outsider who has just transferred to a new squad where her new colleagues already dislike her. Jane is confident and focused - and also rude, abrupt and occasionally reckless. She has her vices, and rumors of a questionable past follow her everywhere - but at the end of the day, she's an instinctively brilliant cop who can't be distracted from the only important thing: the prime suspect."

Mario Bello's Jane Timoney is far from the first or last character to copy the same sets of attributes of another successful character. USA Network has built a factory of shows modeled on Monk: Exiled [Profession: spy, doctor, cop, lawyer, investigator, white collar worker] who has [obsessive compulsive disorder/too much of a conscience/a crazy dad who scarred him/an unknown enemy in the CIA who burned him] which prevents him from entering his profession in the mainstream, so he must resort to doing his job on a freelance basis outside of the establishment while discovering [the identity of his wife's killer/how to build a better relationship with his dad/how to connect to his brother and find love again/the identity of the man who burnt him] so he can be complete again.

Ultimately, "Prime Suspect" exists so that you can pass an hour in front of the TV without expending too much brain power. It's like eating a protein bar in lieu of a homecooked meal (for this analogy to work, I'm suggesting the goal here is eating a hearty and tasty meal and not a nutritional goal. The protein bar could very well be more healthy for you than the meal).

Terra Nova, on the other hand, has an ambitious concept. That's already a step up from a procedural. The show initially takes place in the year 2149 where the planet has been sufficiently ravaged by environmental destruction due to the pressures of overpopulation. The frontier in this show isn't space but time. A portal is discovered in space-time that allows people to travel back several million years to the Mesozoic Era where our protagonist family goes to begin a new life. The theme of redemption is especially fitting for the father, a former cop who went to prison for overpopulating the planet (A wonder Lionel Richie hasn't already been arrested for this *rimshot*) (the max in this universe is two kids, he had three. Why the mother didn't also go to prison, I'm not sure).

With this blog post centering around the discussion of procedurals and originality, I find two things ironic about the dad figure. First, he's a former cop and in one of the three episodes I've seen him in, he's solving a murder. Second, the character is played by Jason O'Mara who's credits have consisted largely of procedural shows: "Life on Mars" (although that show did have a time-travelling twist), "In Justice," and "The Agency." If my thesis is that procedurals are bad for TV, I'd have to add a corollary that while it's bad for TV viewers, it's financially the opposite for the networks so it is touch to avoid getting a high-concept sci-fi show like this on the air without working in elements of a procedural.

Somewhat. It's family-centered but doesn't have a very strong family. Of the three children, middle child Maddy (Naomi Scott) seems the strongest so far. She's charming on screen and in terms of plot dynamics, she's believably inquisitive which can add tension in plots. In one episode in particular, Maddy was an effective Nancy Drew character. Other than her, the younger child doesn't have much to do except be cute and precious and the older child (Landon Liboiron) is the typical rebellious son who exposes his father's weaknesses.

What is intriguing is the concept, but I hope the show picks up the pace in terms of captivating plots and makes the family element more exciting.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fall Preview II: Pan Am and Playboy Club

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Two Shows which Often Get Reviewed Together:

Playboy Club:A lot of the special interest groups you might expect protested this ill-fated show and as strange as it may sound, I put myself in that category to an extent. I find any celebration of Hugh Heffner as a creative genius to be misplaced and tasteless. Heffner was a guy (even though he's not yet dead, I feel he's best discussed in the past tense) who lived out his sexual fetishes because he's rich and because (for a variety of reasons unknown to me because I'm not inclined to research it) he was able to get away with it. I don't think there is anything notable in that. There are a lot of guys who'd live Hugh's decadent lifestyle if they had the money and could get away with it too.

In short, it's hard to be invested in a series based on the debate over whether the Playboy Club was good or bad for society, when you just don't care either way.

So if you strip all that way, this is essentially a workplace drama (albeit a very odd workplace) and a period piece set in the '60s and not too bad of one at that.

With the exception of the male lead, who is so obviously trying to emulate Jon Hamm's stoic blankness, the characters were fairly interesting. Amber Head as the novice bunny Maureen is pretty decent casting and through her, one can see this show as a fairly gripping girl-trying-to-make-it on her own story. Laura Benanti, the playboy bunny with the most seniority, is a formidable foil to Maureen, but she's a little broadly drawn. Why does she care if the playboy bunnies hook up with her clients? If she has such an accute business sense, why does she want to be head bunny and sing up on stage, rather than remain behind the scenes or just start her own nightclub?

The sexual tension and relationship dynamics between the characters are surpriginsly interesting to me, since sex is present everywhere and in everything and I assume the guys have such easy access to it here. How do you define a menaingful sexual interaction or even a meaningful flirtation when it's already a paid commodity and accessible?

The pilot and the next couple episodes wisely focused on something that had nothing to do with the Playboy Club (since that doesn't interest me): Maureen accidentally murdered a mob boss and she has to cover it up.

Pan Am:
No matter how many times I've been on a plane, the experience of flying still remains glamorous for me and that even includes waiting in the terminal and going through security.

With that in mind, it's hard to dislike this show and I suspect a lot of people will latch on to that sense of glamour. Despite using an actual plane, the production values don't strike me as particularly amazing. It might be just me but the score seems too Hallmarkish, the plane's a little too well-lit, Berlin looked like it was shot in Toronto.

If the show is anything like the first and third episode I saw, then the show's format is as follows: The first act is the flight's outbound flight from JFK, the second act is the flight back to JFK, the third through fifth acts (the meat of the plot) consist of flashbacks to what the girls were up to on their layover, and the finale is the plot resolving back on the plane as they're landing at JFK.

Christina Ricci, the biggest name in the ensemble, plays an attractive character in Maggie. She seems to be into the countercultural movement and a sort of emblem of the free-spirited decade. It's because of her spunky and unpredictable nature that I enjoyed the subplot of her trying to meet Kennedy. I think we can all relate with similar experiences trying to meet famous people.

As much as stewardesses (particularly of old) were associated with sex symbols, the Berlin episode wisely makes a couple moves to show these woman as empowered but not dislikable. Maggie flirts and befriends a journalist in order to get into a press conference but makes it clear she won't trade sex for a front row seat. Also, newbie Laura (Margot Robbie) rejects the advances of one of the co-pilots.

The episodes provide an excuse for a hodgepodge of stories about these characters in a time and place which hasn't been particularly disappointing so far. More than a number of other shows, I do question how many plots they can derive out of this show, but if shows like "Chuck" or "Gilligan's Island" can stretch a thin premise, I'll wait and see.

One slightly awkward part of the third episode was how lightly it treated the plot wherin French stewardess Colette (Karine Vanasse) comes to terms with her childhood in World War II. This should have been "Sophie's Choice"-level drama and didn't fall short by a lot, but still. Likewise, when Kate (Kelli Garner) makes a life-threatening mistake in her espionage activities, I can't imagine the show will all of a sudden turn into 24.

All in all, a pretty decent show worth checking out.

Coming Up: Up All Night, New Girl, H8ters, 2 1/2 Men and possibly Murhy's Law

Ricci as Maggie is already a fairly well-developed character

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fall TV Preview Pt. I: Last Man Standing, 2 Broke Girls, Free Agents

Last Man Standing
My main preconception for this show was that its reason for existence was that TV executives feel the universe is severely misaligned if anyone who has ever helmed a successful TV show ever isn't currently on network television (see Bill Cosby, Jeff Tambour, Bob Newhart, Lucille Ball, etc.) in some form or another.

I also felt that while Home Improvement entertained me as a 10-year old, it probably would not hold up to a grown-up audience which, for better or worse, I am now a part of.

However, ten minutes of this show changed my opinion pretty quickly. I now think that there's always room for a by-the-numbers family comedy in the prime time schedule (Modern Family is too clever and therefore disqualified form this category) and even if he's not treading in vastly dangerous waters with this familiar role, Tim Allen is giving me what I need.

It's odd that both this show and "Home Improvement" have Tim Allen playing roles of highly empowered middle men: They both have hiring and firing power but answer to a company owner. On "Home Improvement", Allen was the host of his own TV show but his boss was the head of the Binford Tool Company. Why a TV show would be owned by a single sponsor is beyond me. That would mean that every Tool Time commercial ad would be for Binford tools like the "George Burns and Grace Allen Show" had commercials and in-show promotions consist entirely of carnation milk.

The show is an interesting twist on "Home Improvement" in that Allen has three girls instead of boys. The dynamics are a little better this way with less of Allen's character revolving around his infections manliness and also has the benefit of positioning the mom (Nancy Travis) as less of a foil to be subverted (poor Patricia Richardson). The show has an even more interesting twist in that the oldest kid is a single mom. The show earns big points for downplaying this facet to her character rather than branding her as a Hester Prynne incarnate (Ellen Wernecke will be so proud of me for throwing in a literary reference!).

Lastly, the pilot episode seemed relevant to the economic climate of today with Tim Allen's job in danger. Here's hoping the show maintains that sense of instability. That would be an interesting ride.

[Update: Just have to mention that the show does not hold up after that many episodes. Quit watching this one about three weeks later]

Two Broke Girls:
My review for this show (after two episodes) will be short and simple, because there's not much to the show:
It really hearkens back to old-timey sitcoms which I would loosely translate as a TV show with little complexity in its humor.

Most good sitcoms today are loaded with multi-layered complexity with their jokes. Brick jokes, call backs, and running gags lead to punchlines that can take an entire episode to set up. In contrast, every laugh in a sitcom like "Two Broke Girls" never requires more than two lines of set up at the most (I didn't scientifically measure this, feel free to point out any counterexamples in the comments).

Still, while the jokes might not require me to focus on all 22 minutes but the story in the two episodes I watched were good enough to keep me glued.

I have to confess that because I didn't see the pilot, I'm not entirely sure why the rich heiress roommate is suddenly poor. No matter, the odd couple chemistry is sparking and the premise is a unique enough angle to induce my curiosity.

Besides anything with the wonderful Kat Dennings (from "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist") is worth a glance. The ensemble is pretty strong except for restaurant employee Oleg who's an all-purpose source of ethnic humor. [Update: What was I thinking when I wrote this and praised the backup ensemble? The entire ensemble is awful although it's hard to react that negatively to Garrett Morris (one of the seven original cast members of SNL). The show's Chinese restaurant owner character is equally as bland as Oleg, and while it's terrific that the show was able to snag someone from the Christopher Guest theater company in Jennifer Coolidge, I've never seen such a capable comic actor stripped of any of their potential]

Free Agents
I'm not familiar with what direction this show took after the pilot (yes, I know it was cancelled), but the first episode had a sort of artificial slickness to it that came off as schwarmy (fair warning: that might not be a real word. Perhaps, it could be?).

I can't think of a plausible reason why characters in Hank Azaria's office are talking about sex so much (including the board meeting) except that the company is a manufacturer of sexual innuendo. To the show's credit, a later scene in which a board meeting is called just to discuss Alex's (Azaria's) date is so ridiculous, you have to think that they're in on the joke (my third lampshading reference in a row!).

The show is also a little guilty of overly stylized dialogue reminiscent of "Studio 60." While the characters aren't nearly as homogeneous as that disaster of a TV show, they're all on the same page in trying to be as uber-hip as they can at all times of the day. Alex's secretary (Natasha Leggero) is too hip to actually act in any helpful capacity to him as it interferes with her lifestyle of being rude and snarky.

Hank Azaria is about as good of a choice for this role as you can get. His age and level of attractiveness are about right for the degree of self-doubt that the character is written with.

It was somewhat jarring that he'd elicit such curiosity about his sex life. As a character actor, Azaria is the definition of someone who's sex life you're supposed to be apathetic to because he's sharing screen time with a handsome leading man like Brad Pitt or Orlando Bloom whom you're supposed to be thinking more of as a sexual being.

To further illustrate this point, let's try this hypothetical: Do you think when Paul Giamatti goes to a cocktail party, people want to hear all about his sexual escapades? Whether he's having sex or not, it's certainly not something that anyone would be interested in knowing, which is exactly why he gets cast in awkward dramedies or John Adams and other meaty character roles.

Kathryn Hahn (not really a well-known actress and liable to be confused with Catherine O'Hara) is just a tinge too witty (not as bad as the supporting players) as Helen, but she's not far from being a great lead. She pulls off some very honest and relatable moments and brings about the pilot's funniest moment when she vents out her frustration at a seemingly judgemental grocery store clerk.

Most importantly, the romance here makes sense for the characters. It was also a nice touch that the romance only started to feel genuine when Helen's independent woman persona crumbles in the third act.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Family Guy Review: Meg Griffin Fights Back

I've often heard complaints about the character of Meg Griffin on "Family Guy" and I wanted to touch on how the use of Meg is an example of Family Guy's strength.

For those that don't know (READ: Skip this paragraph if you're already familiar) , Meg is the middle child on the animated family sitcom and she's inexplicably the butt of her otherwise decent family's jokes. Her dad won't openly admit that he even likes his daughter. Aside from being not as attractive as her mother, no reason for this is ever given, and that incongruity is the source of humor.

Speaking of incongruity, isn't it ironic that the girl playing Meg is played in real life by an actress beautiful enough to convince movie going audiences that heart throb Justin Timberlake would be swooning all over her? In fact, considering Hollywood's obsession with the question "Is a beautiful actress capable of truly embodying the soul of a not-so-beautiful woman?", then either a) Mila Kunis is more worthy of an Oscar than Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman because she's really nailing the whole ugly thing better than "Monster" and "The Hours" or b) perhaps, it's not that hard to play ugly and it says more about our male perception of outward beauty that it's such an issue.

OK, enough philosophizing* and let us get back to my theory on why Meg is written the way she's written:

*Yes, I enjoyed spelling that word wrong for stylistic purposes

Look at the E! Hollywood True Story of any family sitcom and you'll see that behind the scenes, the Seaver kids on Growing Pains or the Winslow kids on Family Matters (two of whom got written out of the show entirely) or the Taylor kids on Home Improvement were all battling for equal story lines (or rather their agents and parents).

When a sitcom is in development and the cast is getting hired, it's really difficult to tell which characters will be breakout stars and catch on with the audience. The writers will probably focus on the parents and service the kids by devoting an episode to each of them with care. For whatever reason, audiences will inevitably respond to different characters differently, and this could become especially jarring for the actors playing the kids. They are far less able to professionally or personally recover from failure than the actors playing their parents (usually established stars like Bill Cosby or Tim Allen). Already secondary characters, the kids could get written out of the show or usually significantly marginalized.

Meg was written poorly in the first couple seasons (to be fair, Chris hasn't really grown as a character past the obligatory Chris episode) and rather than try harder to develop her, the writers went the opposite way and decided to use her as a stand-in for every underwritten child character ever. It's what we in the TV blogging business call lampshading.

For reasons I don't entirely understand, "Family Guy" is a pretty big target of criticism when compared to the works of Matt Groening or the South Park boys. Comparisons aside, I always find McFarlane to be not just genre-savvy but consistently able to utilize it for laughs.

As for the last week's episode, "Seashell Seashore Party," it was highly uneven. Beyond a curiosity to see how well Family Guy's animation team could go all-out Tim Burton, the plot didn't start kicking in until the 3rd act. How weird was that?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Retroactively Looking at Five Episodes of Parks and Recreation

This blog entry is based on brief impressions of Parks and Recreation episodes on 2nd viewing. A lot changes the 2nd time around:

Pawnee Zoo:
I can’t think of any show that had characters intersect with each other so awkwardly in the first season and turned those awkward interactions around into such strong dynamics.

In particular, Leslie Knope is so annoyingly enthusiastic and wears her heart on her sleeve so much, that it’s hard to imagine her as anything more than mildly tolerable among the other department members. The show even got significant criticism at the start over the fact that Leslie Knope and Michael Scott were too similar. They were both aloof enough not to get that they are an object of ridicule.

While Season two deserves a lot of praise for gradually making Knope a more likeable person and charismatic leader without a complete retcon, the season premiere shows that the transition isn’t complete yet. More specifically, Knope’s tirade on the local TV station stretched credibility a little too much for me. Her other awkward moment, performing Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, is the most cringe-inducing thing I’ve ever seen Leslie do, but it was played with enough distancing irony that it came off a little better.

The episode also featured the introduction of April’s two boyfriends and reminds me just how ironically hip of a character she used to be. It’s amazing that even as April’s grown, those traits are still present in her character.

Andy’s relationship with Anne was originally a plot device to get Anne more involved in the pit. Now that we know more about Andy and Anne, it certainly raises the question of how Andy ever convinced Anne to go out with her in the first place.

Summer Catalog:
This episode was interesting to look at from the point of the series’ mythology and how much it expects us to realistically identify with it. In the episode, Leslie gets really excited because the four living Parks and Recreation directors are all going to meet at one place and time. Although Leslie treats these people as indistinguishable from US Seceretaries of State, it’s fairly apparent that at some point, the reality will sink in (at least for us, if not for Leslie) that these men are just ordinary guys without any pretensions of greatness.

This highlights a balancing act that “Parks and Recreation” has to achieve. The show is an exploration of the trials and tribulations of government. To be effective towards that end, the happenings in Pawnee can work as a parallel for the happenings in Washington that we read about in the news. But this only works to an extent. The people in the national news are public figures and using Leslie’s inflated opinion of her department to justify the heightened scandal-like drama in certain episodes only goes so far before it strains the show's credibility.

In this case, the fact that it hit Leslie rather early on that these guys were big jerks helped restore that balance fairly quickly.

The best two things about this episode is how quickly they established the three other parks directors as comic characters and how they didn’t overdo it. Only one of the three Parks directors (the misogynistic one) could be classified as a bona fide wacko. The apathetic director was close to normal and the pot head that pushed his philosophies a little too forcefully into conversations fell somewhere in the middle. I got the general feeling that they didn’t just treat these characters as a game of Party Quirks on “Who’s Line is it Anyway.”

94 Meetings:
It’s tough to say which episodes of a series are standout and I can’t imagine there’s ever much consensus in the same vein that great movies or TV series are more agreed upon. I suspect different plots will hit people different ways.

Personally, I thought this episode was fantastic because it was a clever plot that leant itself to a lot of great situations. At various points, the show pushes storylines beyond the realm of believability. April actually fooling a complaintant with the line "Come back at 2:65"? Or worse, angry citizens being content to meet with a nurse not affiliated with the department or the shoeshine boy.

The way that Anne is worked into plots so often is something that I think the show deals with through lampshading (defined as drawing attention a plot hole so you let the audience you know you’re in on the joke).

Both the A-plot and the B-plot are strong here. Leslie’s fight for historic preservationism is right up her alley, and I preferred the confrontation with Leslie and the former Ms. Pawnee to cold tension. Her final scene of crashing the party once more was a step backwards in her evolution. Leslie’s chaining herself to the fence would have also been a little extreme except for the fact that it had no consequences in terms of future hostility between her and the citizens of Pawnee: Her friends (combined with the nature of the fence) saved her from making too much of a fool of herself.

Just like April, I’m reminded of how little Tom Haverford has changed. Even if he’s married or has a girlfriend, he still embodies that same persona of the guy who wants to be the club VIP. He’s redeemed from being a sad character through the fact that it’s obvious he has strong friendships.

Viewing this episode, I’m also reminded of executive producer how Mike Schur's sediment that he loves romances and feels a show has to have them. Parks and Recreation has dealt with romance incredibly well. The Ben-Leslie relationship was thankfully dissolved before it started [ed. note: I must have fully not caught up to the show on itunes/netflix since this was written, because this isn't the case]. I don’t know if I can forgive the show for allowing it to be given so much focus in the first place, but it also made sense retroactively since we discover that Ben is really a shy dork which makes him perfect for Lselie. I also love how quickly the relationship dissolved.

Another good example: Marrying off Andy and April. Typical boyfriend/girlfriend relationships are a dime a dozen but newlyweds like Any and April who are barely functioning adults?  That’s another story.

Anne’s three boyfriends, on the other hand, seem to have occurred solely because the writers wanted to add a romantic relationship and she was the odd man out. She had little to no organic connection between Andy, Mark, and Chris and it didn’t further the plot along at all. One possible excuse for these relationships, however, is it allowed her to be involved in office affairs more. I’m hoping that in this coming season, she might just be allowed in Office affairs on the basis of her best friend working there. Ironically, Rashida Jones has stated in interviews that she was attracted to the show for the strong female friendship between Anne and Leslie. I could see the show functioning just as well if Anne was asexual or had her relationships off-screen.

Watching these episodes over again reminds me just how much Ben is a fish out of the water. There are a number of subtle signs to this effect that I gleamed on second viewing. He’s not sure about the culture of the department and whether he should take Leslie’s request seriously that they all brainstorm ideas. He doesn’t really know what to do with downtime on the camping trip as opposed to Tom (the guy who's most comfortable anywhere) who’s off making fondue and watching TV. .

The dynamic between Ben and Tom works really well here. Ben’s just a passive grounded guy who observant of what’s around him (he’s somewhat of an audience surrogate) and Tom’s the most ridiculous character he sees.

Chris is a little cartoonish but he worked in terms of providing comic relief and mixing things up. I wouldn’t classify him as a character to be taken with the same level of realism as the core group in the Parks and Recreation Department.

Again, the “What’s Ann doing here?” problem is apparent here.

This episode also had some really funny moments. Ron and Jerry’s conversation definitely was out there. The humor also picked up nicely in the third act (as it’s traditionally supposed to) with the bed and breakfast and the elderly proprietor's extremely early breakfast time (which April wouldn’t have any of). The episode's most memorable moment was once again comes from the burgeoning Tom-Ben bromance: The entry in journal that united Tom and Ben in a nice little moment of shared horror.

Fancy Party:
For my money, this is the high-water mark of the series. Typically wedding episodes are big and all the emotional grandeur of the wedding episode is here. When April sheds tears at her sister's speech (note to self if you ever get a chance in hell to interview Aubrey Plaza: Ask how she summoned those tears), it was a moment we genuinely felt. At the same time, the tone was small and casual. It was even a little claustrophobic.

Andy was such a sweet guy and if he hasn't won you over, how about his cute grandmother?

Even though the episode functioned primarily dramatically, in the sense that it was all about the emotional uplift, it never ceased to be funny. Tom and Jean Ralphio attempting to make the perfect toast was a high point in that department.

Also, it was Ben's finest moment to date. In Season 4, he's become the socially stunted dork. In season 3, he was the only sane man in the room and consummate outsider. A guy asks him if April is available and his reaction along with the line, "Her? She just got married twenty minutes ago. You were right here." Priceless.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Four-time Oscar nominees Most Likely to be Five Timers

Here's my list and rankings in order from most likely to least likely
The Actors:
1. Ed Harris (nominated: Apollo 13, Truman Show, Pollock, Hours) He does so many character parts and still is prolific and is gaining a great reputation in Hollywood after having directed more of his own stuff. He still hasn't won and he's historically been able to score noms for very small and minor stuff. He also chooses roles wisely.

2. Ben Kingsley (nominated Gandhi, Bugsy, Sexy Beast, House of Sand and Fog) He's too brilliant, too prolific, and is getting too many juicy parts not to have something happen soon. He doesn't overdo it but he's had a leading rule in at least one film a year.

3. Geoffrey Rush (Shine, Shakespeare in Love, Quills, King's Speech)-There's a big danger of him being overshadowed by other Brits like Collin Firth, Clive Owen, Jude Law or whoever the next big one is but I think he's fairly hot again after being in the King's Speech so in the next year or two he might get #5 (and I say that with no clue what he's doing next)

4. Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, Gangs of New York, There Will be Blood)-He's clearly capable of brilliance that makes everyone's jaw drop. The argument against is he's so sporadic and he can turn in a brilliant performance and just have it be in a highly competitive year or whatever. He's not making as many proverbial plate appearances

5. Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, Runaway Train, Ali)-He is a little bit over the hill, but I'd say he's one of the 2 or 3 most capable actors over the last decade for someone of his age range. He's in a lot of films and while a lot of them are Blockbusters (i.e. Transformers, National Treasure) I don't see him selling out to the levels of Robert De Niro (unless you consider his comedic acting a virtue). Also, unlike De Niro or Pacino, he doesn't have to fight a former image of himself and run into the wrap that he's doing a caricature of his former self. As a character actor, he gets better as he's less tethered than those two, and on top of that he acts pretty regularly and even in mediocre movies (Enemy of the State, Transformers) he steals scenes.

6. Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs, Remains of the Day, Nixon, Amistad)-I see it as unlikely. Even though he's been prolific and chooses varied roles, he hasn't got any buzz for anything he's done since nomination 4. I suppose it's not his fault that Bobby, Hearts in Atlantis, Proof, or All the King's Men didn't pan out well.

7. Robin Williams-I think he's already done dark performances and comic performances and inspirationally uplifting performances and there's not a whole lot he can do. There's not the same novelty to Robin Williams bringing out his (still incredible by any standard) rapid-fire multiple-voice comic persona that got him his first nod for Good Morning Vietnam.

8. Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde, Heaven can Wait, Reds, Bugsy)-Already had his Oscar and lifetime achievement award and as Bullworth showed, he's more likely to get it in the directing or writing category these days.

Of the Actresses:
1. Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights, End of the Affair, Hours, Far From Heaven)-Way overdue for a nom on top of being overdue for an Oscar. Great actress who is regularly doing quality work and usually one of the 3 or 4 people anyone producing a film with potential Oscar buzz will go to first.

2. Helen Mirren (Madness of King George, Gosford Park, The Queen, The Last Station)-She's highly popular and is still getting prime roles and she's not as old as people think she is (she's just 66). Her being positioned up this high on my list, however, signifies my lack of confidence for anyone on this list other than Moore.

3. Annette Bening (Bugsy, American Beauty, Being Julia, The Kids Are All Right)-She's still due for an Oscar but I don't they'll nominate her unless there's a good chance she'll win. I also don't think it's likely that her next project will get her a nomination. It might might be a couple years before she's on the radar again.

4. Frances McDormand (Mississippi Burning, Fargo, Almost Famous, North Country)-She's still doing really good work and working with lots of inventive directors. She's older but hasn't been held back in any way by aging as some actresses are (i.e. Michelle Pfieffer, Meg Ryan).

5. Emma Thompson (Howard's End, Shadowlands, Remains of the Day, Sense and Sensibility)-Thompson was much bigger in the 90's than she is now but she still does quality level work, although it is now in films that are less visible (see "Brideshead Revisited). If the Academy is all of a sudden willing to go back to women like Redgrave and Close who haven't been considered for an Oscar in years, then there's no reason that if Thompson does something really impressive, it will go unnoticed

6. Holly Hunter (Broadcast News, Piano, The Firm, Thirteen)-She's been nominated far more recently than Thompson and is a favorite of the Coen brothers (who have lately been producing more Oscar nominees) but she works pretty infrequntly and is drawn to indepedent below-the-radar films. It was a wonder many people caught on to her fourth nomination in "Thirteen" at all.

7. Dianne Keaton (Marvin's Room, Annie Hall, Reds, Something's Gotta Give)-She already got her nod for showing that old people can be attractive, sexy, and appealling in movies. She can't play that card again.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Season Premiere Catch-Up: Random Thoughts on Glee's "Purple Piano Project"

Some random thoughts on Glee after waching the season opener:
-I did not expect Schuster or anyone in the New Directions to confront Santana's dual alleigance because it's already the white elephant in the room. In other words, it was already implausible that Santana would still be in the Glee club after sabatoging them at regionals the first season. Sue's 3-year long vendetta against the Glee club isn't really plausible either, so at this point, it probably would have been better to run with it rather than call attention to it.

-I thought the only real good part of the episode was the change to Quinn. Very interesting and intriguing things going on with her, although who knew such wierdos existed at that school. Weren't Tina and Mercedes the absolute biggest outliars in the school season 1? And if the "skanks" existed in the Glee Universe that early, they were the same kinds of people Tina and Mercedes (and Zicsees) would have befriended. Plus they looked like Zizes and Mercedes.

-Sam (Chord Overstreet) really balanced out the cast as the most normal kid. I hope that's not the last we see of him.

-I think the main problem is the reset button is going on too much, which is somewhat similar to complaints I've heard before. There's only so many times the resolve of the Glee club and Will's patience against Sue can be put to the test and have the drama hold up.

-Blaine transferring is really troubling to me. Does he even have parents? No person, gay or straight, would or should ever succeed in convincing their parents to let them go through the trouble of transferring schools just so they could be wth their significant other, given how volatile high school romances are. Or ESPECIALLY NOT to be in a different glee club, there are 7 periods a day of actual school, that parents would also base that decision on.

-As for the girl who wasn't good enough to sing, isn't there an entire music department with a choir class at the school to accomodate her? Just like any other school? I also don't think it's as morally interesting of a case as Mr. Schuster makes it out to be: If you have auditions and you're not cutting people, than what's the point of the auditions? That's what they call sign-ups and that means anyone can join. To have a program where anyone who meets a certain bar is admitted is already a pretty generous policy, anyways.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Premiere Week: Sunny's first two episodes

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's opening two episodes both highlighted different ways the show can succeed.

The opening episode took a familiar plot (the "Pretty Woman" prototype) and gave it the Sunny treatment.
In the Sunny version, Frank wants to propose to his whore and the guys think she'd bring down the standards of the gang (not particularly easy to do, mind you). In classic Sunny style, there's no real charitable purpose other than the image problem.

Rather than try to make the whore into a lady, Dennis gets distracted by Mac's weight and Dee decides midway through that perhaps the life of a whore has its upsides.

I've praised the show in the past for being written so well that each scene could stand alone as a textbook great scene. One of the B-plots, involving Charlie trying an elaborate scheme to get Frank a better woman, didn't get enough time to get off the ground, but we got one knockout scene out of it that made my whole night. Similarly, the other B-plot (or maybe we'll call it a C-plot) had little to offer other than that one hysterical scene at the doctor's office. While the show does great comedy set pieces, the fact that both B-plots were essentially excuses to lead into one awesome scene shortcutted any sense of narrative.

As for the second episode, the Jersey Shore narrative had all the makings of a winner. Unlike the first episode, this one had a sense of hope to it. The first episode was about depraved characters seeking to bring someone into their depraved world (under the pretense of improving her) while this episode began with two characters attempting to recapture their childhood nostalgia. In both real life and on TV, attempting to go back to some earlier time in your life is usually a bittersweet experience that hits some somber tones when it's more bitter than sweet.

The twist here is that while some characters do indeed have a magical time in Jersey Shore, it turns out to be the other three guys. Charlie bumps into the waitress and she's actually nice to him for once. He has the night of his life with her. Wery wisely, the reset button is pressed on that subplot. Sunny's strength is that the characters are too far entrenched into their own purgatory for happy endings to occur. Mac and Frank have a great time with a rum ham and a ship of guidos. I can't imagine any other series on TV being able to work a rum ham so well into an episode: the ram ham is the comedic version of a Hitchcockian McGuffin.

Dennis and Dee make some new friends only to find out that they're pretty decrepit and this evening soon morphs into what seems to be the most terrifying night of their lives. There's a slight problem here: Because Dennis and Dee usually associate with people at the bottom of the barrel, this experience doesn't seem too atypical. Fortunately, the night of terror is glossed over in montage and intercut with the great night the other
guys are having.

For such an optimistic outing (consider this the Sunny equivalent of the "Disneyworld" or "Hawaii" episode on most family sitcoms), I was pleased to see it wasn't an episode that ended with a crowning moment of misery for all characters involved. Three of the five characters had the time of their lives, the twist being that it wasn't the characters who you expected.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Catching up on premiere week: The boss situation on "The Office"

Check out my latest article on Helen Hayes

The Office
My main problem with the new season (as gleamed from the first episode) is that James Spader's new boss isn't too different than D'Angelo Vickers or Michael Scott: Uniquely weird and unorthodox. In the first season and a half, Michael Scott being the boss of the branch was an "informed ability" (thanks TV tropes!): The viewer was told that he was worthy of being a boss but there was little evidence of him being a good leader. In fact, the story arcs of many episodes (Diversity Day or
The Fire
) were reliant on a 3rd act that culminated in Michael Scott screwing everything else.

Spader's character, Robert California, is being played this way. His skills are being talked up heavily: He apparently talked the CEO of the company into an early retirement and he talked himself up in his own interview. At the same time, he only seems good in a so-offbeat-it-just-might-work kind of way. His idea of making a list of who's a winner or a loser is something that I would give 90/10 odds on failing horrifically if a boss tried it in the real world. I theorize it's that 10% room for doubt that has historically made the Michael Scott era work: The Office relies heavily on realism and while we thought the shenanigans of Michael Scott were most likely unrealistic, they were very plausible schemes that didn't require that much suspension of disbelief.

Getting back to the problem at hand, my beef with this season is that James Spader is seeming to play out the same way. Why remind the audience that Steve Carrell is gone by putting in someone even remotely comparable to him? Also, if the show's main asset is realism, I think it's kind of stretching it that the employees of Dunder-Mifflin-Sabre have suffered three of the weirdest bosses ever.

The Office had a great tonal change for the better when authority figures like Charles (Idis Ebra) and Jan (before she became a bit nutty in the 4th season) were there to contrast Michael Scott's antics. I understand that if you have a straight-laced boss and no crazy Michael-Scott-like element, you don't have anything remotely resembling what the show was in the first seven seasons.

However, I'd like to suggest that Michael Scott rubbed off on some of the characters: Oscar's a little less uptight, Pam's let loose a little more and has more confidence, Jim embraced wildness and fun (stemming from the "Murder" episode), and Ryan went from being a straight-laced business student to being supremely lazy and having an inflated ego. The new show could've work with a relatively straight-laced boss and the Dunder-Mifflin crew (in the form of Andy or Jim) wanting to preserve the don't-let-work-get-in-the-way-of-goofiness attitude that Michael Scott pioneered in the face of that nemesis.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Looking back on 2010-2011's TV failures and one success

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Last Fall, I eagerly jumped into the new TV offerings and proudly backed a number of losers: No Ordinary Family, Running Wilde, (*# My Dad Says, and Outsourced. All four shows appeared problematic from the outset to most critics and I valiantly defended them based on either potential or the fact that they were already pretty good.

Some of these shows I slowly watched decline in quality and took too long to admit to myself that they were lost causes. No Ordinary Family initially had some flaws (TGIF-levels of family mushiness) and some strengths (great sidekicks, cool special effects) and strengths but the weaknesses got more annoying as it became more apparent that the writers were incapable of fixing it.

Outsourced faltered in the last couple of episodes but was a good run. I still think the critics, the audience, and other assorted pop culture pundits didn't give it a chance. #$)* My Dad Says never had a lot to offer and I never expected much from it beyond some pleasant one-liners, so I was never disappointed.

Running Wilde, on the other hand, was somewhere in the middle. I never found it unenjoyable to watch but if you put a gun to my head, I might be forced to admit against it's detractors that it ran into a bit of a holding pattern with its characters. Defending the show was made a harder task by the fact that even Mitch Hurwitz wasn't even on my side: He later admitted that the network stifled his vision.

I still never have found any middle ground, however, with the TV show "Mister Sunshine." This show has not generated an ounce of enthusiasm in pop culture from anyone: The critics and blogosphere basically shrugged it off as mediocre and, unlike some shows, no one has even suggested in response that it's worthy of some kind of "brilliant but cancelled" status.

The show stars Matthew Perry as a caustic GM of a sports arena in San Diego with Allison Janey as his zany boss (and she achieved a pretty unique tone of zaniness, I might add). Perry's mild brand of droll pessimism is countered by the annoyingly optimistic James Lesure. He also has a friend-with-benefit-turned-ex played by Andreas Anders, and another cloud cuckoo lander in the form of his boss' estranged son played by Nate Torrence.

Looking at potential reasons why this show didn't take off, one explanation might be that two other recent series-"Better off Ted" and "Archer"-took workplace craziness to further extremes and with more effectiveness.

I'd argue that while "Mr. Sunshine" isn't' the sharpest satire of the bunch, it has some very strong characters. A number of the side characters-the creepy yet sexy assistant played by Portia Doubleday, Torrence, Janey-were all big scene stealers and they were usually stealing scenes from someone you liked watching.

It's true that the characters all seem borrowed from other places:
Perry's character wasn't that far off from Studio 60, Janey's characters are usually nutty, and both Liesure and Andreas Anders were playing those same kinds of characters on other shows as well.

Still, this was a show that was one of the ones I most looked forward to watching week after week.