Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bad Teacher, Review and Playing House

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

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

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

The character of AJ Gibbs (Megan Stevenson) is an equally wonderful creation because it's so tough to get a handle on her: Is she equally complicit in Forrest's misery? How does she see Forrest and why won't she take one for the team and be his celebrity hook-up? Is she an airhead or a ruthless go-getter? Stevenson's performance is even more impressive when one considers she never gets more than a couple lines of dialogue and a reaction shot to communicate who she is. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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