Sunday, April 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

What makes the show so great is the same as what defines most TV comedies as great in the Golden Age of TV (in the old days, comedy was more punchline based): Well-developed comic characters and great interplay between those characters. Not to mention the running gags which have taken on more of a thru-line this season in the form of Pam’s crack addiction and the dwindling stockpile of crack (spoiler: those two factors are interrelated).

Everything from the minutiae to the large developments in the plot are satisfying here. Among the larger developments that are making me especially happy is seeing Cyrill finally develop some backbone and stick it to Archer. There are few characters I'd want to become a Central American dictator more than Cyrill and he does not disappoint. There’s also an overt declaration of friendship from Archer to Pam that’s the kind of character growth that this show greatly needs in small doses.  
What’s also worth noting is that there’s a more realistic scale of death in this season. In the past, Archer was like an 80’s action hero in the way he would be impervious to bullets and effortlessly kill nameless goons. In Archer’s first two missions of this season, the death toll was zero and the ISIS gang barely escaped with their lives losing considerable amounts of money along the way. If anyone's keeping score, the only major villain deaths to occur this season happened at the hands of a tiger and alligators rather than the ISIS gang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Grand Unified Theory on Portlandia's Comedy

What's most impressive about "Portlandia" in its fourth season is that the off-kilter sketch show has a fairly narrow focus and doesn't show any signs of wearing thin in its fourth season. Instead, the show has developed a very unique voice. Answering the question "What exactly is that voice and how does it make the show funny?" is the million dollar question.

Courtesy: Modern
The show can sometimes be striking in the way its sketches don't always seem like they're aiming for a punchline or even being comic. Take a couple sketches of the recent episode "Bahama Knights": One sketch involves a group of women talking about how much they rock while their significant others start embellishing their praises of each other in more flowery language. The opening sketch of the episode involves a couple getting listless at a rock concert and feeling increasingly out of place. Each sketch has a punchline-- In the former, the central couple don't know any of the guests; in the latter, the couple wants to go to a concert again -- but neither of them has anything joke-like in any conventional sense before the punch line. In a way, these sketches play like found art of amusing people. While a lot of the sketches are more overtly joke-like, these two sketches are a testament to the comedic style of the show: "Portlandia" is indisputably comic but the sketches don't necessarily feel a need to start out (or even end up) in a comedic place. Often, the musical score will veer to a darker place to add ambiguity to whether what you're watching is a comedic place or not. 

If there’s something that can be called a grand unified theory as to the nature of Portlandia’s comedy, I would say it is characters that are detrimentally self-conscious about being hip. 

This makes sense as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein both started out as musicians in a fringe music and likely lived in a world with constant pressure to be seen as cool. In interviews about his rock star days, Armisen often describes the period in his life in which he was a drummer for Trenchmouth as a failure, and it was his frustration with the punk rock scene that directly led to his start in comedy 

The main storyline of the first season episode "Aimee" involves Fred and Carrie coming home to find that they have singer/songwriter Aimee Mann as a maid. They become jubilant fan boys in her presence, but they also have a back-handed way of showing their appreciation. Carrie confesses to downloading all of her records rather than buying it legally (presumably, Mann has to work as a maid because the music industry suffers). To make matters worse, they're condescending to her as employers and even suggest that she stole their necklace. One can imagine Armisen and Brownstein are drawing from a lot of experience interacting
with music fans and satirizing their weird habits.

The characters in Portlandia range from people who are overly politically correct to people who are downright aggressive. In his first appearance, the character Skype (Fred Armisen going the extra mile to get his ears mutilated for the role) is downright aggressive towards a guy enroaching on his scene.

On the opposite end of spectrum, there are characters like Peter and Nance who are overtly polite but so absorbed into the little details that they drive characters around them to equal points of insanity. In the pilot episode, Peter and Nance are incredibly polite in their tone of voice when grilling a waitress about every detail about the organic and free-range nature of the chicken they're ordering. They likely drive her mad (some characters react with frustration to the offbeat characters of this universe, some are accomodating, it's a nice mix) as they keep her waiting for what appears to be several months before deciding they’re not interested in ordering. In the middle of this process, Peter and Nance get themselves indoctrinated into a cult (run by Jason Sudeikis) while investigating the organicness of their meat. Here Peter and Nance show they can be equally dangerous to themselves through sheer timidness.

The general theme is that people who are overly concerned about their own image are either making lives for others more difficult or just plain foolish. In the former category, think of the couple who go to the outdoor film festival and loudly set up an entire gazebo in "Baseball" ruining everyone else's experience. In the latter category, think of the Kumail Nanjiani character in "Celery" who decides that he wants to abandon his blue collar job and go to begging. In a Portlandian twist, the punchline is that the two street beggars are really white collar people like him as Nanjiani and one of the beggars bonds over shared experiences on rival high school tennis. Again, being cool is revealed as a facade and trying to be cool is shown to be counterproductive.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The value of journalism and film writing

Prominent film critic Matt Zoller Seitz just wrote a blog post in reaction to the firing of long-standing Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gilberman that is a must read for anyone trying to understand how the age of new media is detrimental to our society.

I've long written and advocated for greater awareness among consumers about that state of journalism and magazine writing today, and it's a highly welcome addition to have someone like Matt Zoller Seitz taking up the fight.

I often ask myself why I do what I do (freelance as a journalist and writer) when it doesn't pay as much as a standard 9-5 job in the government or some non-profit or government contractor.

I live in Washington D.C., a town where people seem to all work in labyrinthine series of organization each designed to compete against each other for defense contracts and lobbying influence. I've dabbled in that world and for simple tasks like building spreadsheets, performing quality control, and keeping track of donor lists one could make a lot more money than I'm making now. 

I'm not suggesting that holding titles and fighting for your next GS grade couldn't be meaningful under the right circumstances. But at the end of the day, I think what I do is important. Journalism and even culture writing has been an essential part of American society since it was founded. Thomas Jefferson once said, "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." 

I do see the industry changing and getting worse, but I don't believe that's the fault of journalism itself. 

That is the popular mantra these days: That the media is not doing their jobs correctly. One of our most popular comedians, Jon Stewart, is regarded as the "voice of our generation" and he spends every day "exposing" the media as an incompetent circus of clowns through clever editing. It's a comedy gag, but no one seems to question Stewart or ask whether he would do a better job running CNN. I've heard more people saying "I don't read the Washington Post anymore because it's awful"  than I've heard people who can legitimately tell me where the paper is at fault.

Even worse, people don't seem to take into account that the paper has less resources than it used to. We didn't complain some years ago when airplanes started charging us for meals because we knew that profit margins are thin. 

Andrew Keen, someone who has profoundly influenced my way of thinking on this topic, wrote the Cult of the Amateur approximately 8 years ago in which he argued that Web 2.0 was eroding civilization. He argues that our economies have simultaneously been reconstructed to value knowledge-based industries while driving a wedge between the makers of knowledge and their work through web 2.0 which encourages anonymity and discouraging people to pay for knowledge. 

Keen argues that the only way this current state of chaos will finally end when society as a whole recognizes the value of knowledge again. I agree and think that we have to preach to the consumers of art and encourage them to pay for what they consume. After all, it's not out of our realm of thinking to recognize the value of someone else's work and voluntarily compensate them for it. We are in the practice of tipping waitresses. We do this because we recognize the value of their work and feel they deserve money for it. If we can recognize the value of someone whose job consists of picking up a plate of food and dropping it off somewhere else, why can't we recognize the value of people who tirelessly work to collect stories to keep us apprised of news or write things we enjoy reading. 

Seitz is starting to come to this conclusion as well that my generation has been spoiled to expect that writing should be free. I couldn't agree more.