Friday, August 29, 2014

Animation Round-Up: The Awesomes, BoJack Horseman, Fugget About It

Small disclaimer here: Not everything on my blog is created equally. Entries vary by how much thought into them, how confident I felt about my analytical and putting-words-together skills, and the simple matter of time constraints. In other words, I'm not entirely sure this entry measures up to my other ones and I especially am conscious of this because I told several AV Club commenters who I met in real-life (along w/my boss at my retail job) to check out my blog, and I advise them all (as well as potential employers) to skip to the next entry if they want to see me supremely pwn the blogosphere with my critical mastery. At the same time, I did go through the trouble of putting some words down and I view this blog as a sketchpad for my critical thoughts. Why delete them?

BoJack Horseman
The rap from several reviews I've read on this show is that it fits in more with the height of the Adult Swim reign of animation and not the intelligent cartoons of today like "American Dad" or "Archer" (I’d insert Bob’s Burgers in here except I personally don’t agree with the assessment of the show as amazing).

The show stars Will Arnett as a washed-up actor (who also happens to be a horse, more on that later. I promise) 20 years after his heyday (or should I have gone with hay day for the easy pun?) as the star of a TGIF-like sitcom.

"BoJack Horseman" suffers from a slow start out of the gate with a couple substandard episodes and that is generally all the time a critic can give a show in a TVscape as crowded as this one.

The pilot episode, heavy with exposition (which is understandable), zeroes in on protagonist BoJack Horseman before all the character development kicks in and he's as uninteresting as a seemingly irredeemable jerk can be. The jokes and pacing are somewhat awkward here.

The second episode tries to mine humor out of a taboo topic: Political correctness and how we regard the military as heroes and not only fails. When handled well (See "30 Rock") something like this kills but it just paints BoJack as somewhat of a buzzkill a la one of the Crane brothers (from the Frasier era, NOT Cheers) at a Tiki bar (or pick whatever plebian setting you want to complete this analogy).

The show's primary gimmick-- anthropomorphicizing (I wrestled spell check for a while on that one) the characters in subtly clever ways and mixing them into the human world-- is enough to pique one's interest during the early episodes but if one quits the series early, that's all they'll find: An only occasionally funny Hollywood satire that's been done before.

"BoJack Horseman" isn't particularly easy to get into, but a few episodes in, the show's pathos and interesting character dynamics shines through. Like Will Arnett's previous work, "Arrested Development," the show features characters who aim to be dynamic and get out of their ruts in life. Unlike "Arrested Development" however, the show dares to give them, and us hope, at actual improvement and toys around with the idea of whether the characters are going anywhere at all. Either way, there's a definite investment to the characters by season's end that gives the show life.

The satire also starts getting sharper once the hidden jokes and the parallels to ABC's TGIF line-up of the 1990's start to reveal themselves. People might not notice on first viewing how spot-on "Horsing Around" gets.

The character dynamics also offer a lot. Mr. Peanut Butter (another TV has-been who happens to be a dog and is a great people pleaser) as a mirror universe version of BoJack and the two have an odd rivalry that occasionally bleeds into friendship.

The latest to get in on the superhero parody trend is Seth Meyers who developed this show during his days in the writer’s room of SNL. Apparently, he still has room for the show in a busy schedule that has included running the SNL writer’s room and launching his own talk show in the last 12 months.

In the superhero universe of “The Awesome”, the world is overwrought with superheroes who are heavily regulated by a bureaucracy that subdivides superheroes into classes. At the bottom of the barrel class is our mild-mannered hero Prock (Meyers) who compensates for his lack of an effective superpowers through intelligence (Prock stands for Professor Doctor). When Prock's dad, a highly revered God-like superhero, announces his retirement, Prock begs him to take over but must build a team from scratch.                        

The superhero spoof genre is becoming pervasive enough that it's hard not to notice overlap between any number of movies or TV shows including "Sky High", "Mystery Men" and "The Incredibles." At the same time, the more superhero stories pervade our TVs and movie screens, the more room there is for entries in the superhero spoof subgenre to find their niche.

The show is capable at times of being clever which is what's to be expected from a self-professed comic book geek and SNL head writer.

The problem is generally that many of the characters are weak and uninteresting and those characters take up a lot of the screen time. Taran Killam plays a one-note redneck speedster, Keenan Thompson plays a mama's boy who sounds like Kenan Thompson always does, Rashida Jones is little more than the girl-next-door who makes the protagonist lovesick, and Bobby Lee plays a boy who turns into sumo wrestler. His character being the kid on the team seems like it has some potential to be any sort of character dynamic but it's quickly dropped (ed. note: I wrote this review before the Sumo-centric episode) .

Ike Barinholtz is moderately potential-filled as the sidekick, and a lot of the more interesting characters come from outside the superhero team: Bill Hader as supervillain Malocchio and Josh Meyers as rival Prock..

Interestingly enough, a couple of SNL's writers Emily Spivey and Paula Pell voice characters here. Pell's character is equally one-note with a moderately gross angle about an old woman being sexy and Spivey's character, a super-secretary of sorts with a charming Southern accent named concierge, is the kind of character who feels like she belongs in a more well-rounded cast.

The second season takes a few more risks and branches out in a few more directions. So far, none of the episodes have left any lasting scars like the episode last season in which Barinholtz's muscleman is dragged into a paternity suit with an alien race and it's revealed he has a thing for houseplan----oh God, I don't want to talk about it anymore (This episode made the 26 worst of the 2013-2014 season list by The AV Club).   The funniest running gag to date is Rashida Jones' Hotwire coming back to life in disguise and awkwardly attempting "Dudespeak" around former love interest Prock.

While the show is moderately watchable, it still has to work extra hard to convince us it's not just something that the "Saturday Night Live" cast threw together between the Wednesday night read-through and Friday's rehearsal.

Fugget About It

A hitman for the mob goes into witness protection and hides out with his family in Regina, Saskatchewan. The show gets down and squicky in a way that cartoons are allowed to get away with these days: Blood and guts usually feels more comic in animated form, although is it really necessary? The show is watchable and has its moments but the show suffers heavily from being in a genre where it's hard to differentiate oneself from the many imitators that have come before it.

Whereas "The Awesomes" gets away with genre humor (or rather genre parody humor) because the thing being parodied is continuing to evolve and comprise an increasingly large share of the cinemascape, the mob parody film has been done to death.

From "Analyze This" (or for that matter, everything Robert De Niro has done since "The Score") to "Kiss Me Kate" (I'm referring to the play, although I believe there's a movie or three?) to "Bullets Over Broadway" (once a movie, now a Broadway play, will probably get a movie eventually), mafia parodies are as old as time.

While the show even has some pretty ambitious plots (the elder daughter joins a menomite clan in one, the Queen of England accidentally comes to Jimmy's house, etc.) and delivers on them with satisfying comic execution but with a genre like this, the show falls well into the "comfort food" category of viewing.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Orange is the New Black Season 2 Review

When it first premiered, "Orange is the New Black" produced in me a strong emotional response. Watching Piper find herself in such lose-lose situations (i.e. be nearly starved to death just for accidentally insulting the food while no one cared) made me want to research prison abuse and take a stand against it. In other words, the show made me angry in exactly the way it was intended to.

In echoing the realities of the harshness known as prison, the show thrived on a tone of claustrophobic uncertainty as it was told through the eyes of a decidedly WASPY outsider in Piper Kerman.

This season marked a noticeable change in that Litchfield felt like a more comfortable place. Instead of a fish-out-of-water scenario, we now have a protagonist who has more fully accepted her fate and subsequently has a better handle on navigating her environment. As a result, the view of prison is one we see with a more hopeful tone. There's a greater focus on friendships (Poussay and Taystee; Morello and Nicky; Rosa and her young hospital friend; and strangely enough Healy and Pennsatucky) and Piper is no longer at the bottom of the food chain.

That role goes to chatterbox Brooke Soso who, although a relatively minor character, is perhaps the biggest target of injustice from an audience surrogate point of view: She's largely disliked and shunned for being naive and having a little too much hope. Like Season 1 Piper, Brooke makes the mistake of trying to navigate prison based on her past experiences unwilling to acknowledge that the rules of conduct in prison are completely alien to anything outside of it. One wonders whether Piper is doing Brooke a favor by chewing her out early in the season and stooping so low as to pimp her out for Miss Claudette's blanket (I can't imagine Claudette saying upon her departure "Piper, be a doll and get me my blanket back and don't worry about tricking someone into getting prison raped").

The rather sudden twist here is that "Orange is the New Black" managed to sneak in a happy ending: By all accounts, the season closes out with everyone worth rooting for enjoying a slightly better peace of mind and every big villain defeated.

The emotional roller coaster of good guys verse the big bad was a rather loopy and especially satisfying one this season. Counselor Healy, Pornstache, Morello's boyfriend, Alex, Fig, and Vee have all taken turns as my most hated character and often found themselves in my good graces a couple episodes later. In some cases, a character like Pornstache elicited empathy when it was apparent that they were genuinely lovesick and, more importantly, completely duped. In others, it was a clearly flawed character taking action to do the right thing. This connects with the the larger theme that the penal system as a whole is seen as largely a quick-fix solution to solving a problem: Demonize the culprit, justify locking them away and keep empathy to a minimum, If one had told me that I'd feel any empathy for Pornstache and Healy, I would have doubted it but getting the viewer to suddenly reverse loyalty has been one of the great strengths of this show.

It's also worth noting that the ensemble is such a strong and well-rounded one that the narrative can zoom in on or out on a large tapestry of characters without losing the bigger picture (or more importantly, our interest).

Of course, there's one character to whom the entire season hinged on the anticipation of her demise. Vee's Shakespearean rise and fall from power came off a little bit melodramatic, but it led to the earned happy ending where every inmate and officer banded together to do the right thing and lock Vee away. The reason this had any meaning at all is because the first two seasons established that prison is a world where right and wrong are abstract terms with no relevance to the only thing that matters: survival.

Meanwhile, Fig's warning to Caputo (the closest we get to a hero in the administration though the last episode left him on shakier grounds) on her way out hinted at the possibility that the dark side can be difficult in a closed-off bureaucracy like this. "Orange is the New Black" closes on a happy note with a hint that the good times are extremely fragile. One can definitely expect this detente to unravel in 2015 but the cathartic ending of Season 2 is worth enjoying.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Catching Up on Two Broke Girls

It's a well-known fact that we don't love everything we watch on TV. There are shows that qualify as hate watching where the unpleasant aspects of the show are outweighed by the positives so we take the good with the bad ("Studio 60" is a popular choice here and although I'm in the minority, I view "The Americans" that way). There are also guilty pleasures where you realize that the viewing isn't particularly wholesome but you can't help getting caught up in the hooky nature of the subject matter. Lastly, there's the sort of campy viewing experience like watching an episode of "Batman" or (at least I'd argue) "Glee" where you're watching the show ironically.

Enter "Two Broke Girls" which stars Kat Dennings (Max) as a foul-mouthed lower class waitress and Beth Behrs (Caroline) as a trust fund baby and MBA who's financial assets have been suddenly dissolved. The two work as waitresses at a diner and team up as roommates and business partners to jump start a cupcake business from no capital with Caroline as the brains and Max in the kitchen.

Photo Courtesy:
In no way does this show qualify as good TV. When the show premiered, the critics were so offended by the lazy racial stereotypes (particularly the Chinglish-speaking diner owner pictured on right, and the libidinous Central Asian fry cook), they derailed a press conference in the show's first season lobbing accusations of racism at the show's co-creator Michael Patrick King. Three seasons in, the show does not appear to have made any great tonal changes.

The best one can say about the racial stereotypes is that their screen time has been reduced, but that's less worrisome than the pace of the humor. The show feels like a 2010's version of vaudeville. The entirety of the plot or any character development is secondary to the never-ending routine in which Caroline, the straight one, sets up a joke, and Max delivers a one-liner without any situational awareness over whether it's the time for a joke or not. This isn't just a comedy structured around the laugh track: It's a comedy that is flat-out addicted to the laugh track. Nothing is more important than preventing 30 seconds from going by without getting laughter which results in a fairly low hit-to-miss joke ratio and undermines any attempts at a larger truth underneath the jokes.

In spite of all this, I can't deny I frequently enjoy this show. Curiously enough, I find it's a combination of all three things (hate watching, guilty pleasure, and irony) that keeps me glued:

Hate Watching: In spite of the show's shallow style of joke telling, there's something resonant to the premise. The two protagonists have a relatable problem being out of money with Caroline and Max arriving at poverty from two different perspectives. Additionally, whereas past comedies about the lower class ("Roseanne", "All in the Family", "The Jeffersons") have come off as pretty depressing, this show has a pretty fun take on poverty with characters who don't feel down about their lot in life. At the end of the day, I might even suggest the show is important.

Guilty Pleasure: The show qualifies as a guilty pleasure because there's something refreshing about watching an old-school sitcom with easily set-up jokes. It's a change of pace and it's comfort food. It also helps that Kat Dennings and Beth Behr are great actresses and can transcend hacky material.

Ironic Watching: The show's bad elements are so outrageous and misguided that they're just fun to laugh at. Again, part of the key here is Dennings and Behr: They deliver the jokes with a sort of punctuated wink. There's a self-awareness (and quite often with Behr, a visible giggle) that they know how awful some of the humor is.

At the end of the day, "2 Broke Girls" is weak but it's weak with style, consistency and heart.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dont Trust the B--- Says Goodbye to the Airwaves

This article was originally written over a year ago and I just happened to stumble upon it and realized it was unpublished even though it will appear in August 2014

Don't Trust the B----- in Apartment 23 was a show that stuck out for its outlandishness. It truly was a unique show on TV and was certainly worth a watch, but I tended to drift off a little in the show's second season as the escapades got a little wacky for me to the point where the comedy started to lose any sold foundation.

One of the last shows I saw was the Thanksgiving episode in which Chloe (AKA the crazy one) convinces June (AKA the Midwestern sweetie/the sane one) to pretend to be handicapped so her mom doesn't feel threatened by the fact that she slept with her dad. It all turns out to be ****SPOILERS**** entirely superfluous because June didn't even reveal to her mom that June slept with her dad. This should come as a major surprise but it just feels like a cheap twist like the 30-minute version of one of M. Night Shyamalan's later movies.

Curious to know why June slept with Chloe's dad? In a first season episode in which Chloe was trying to improve June's sex life, she encouraged her to sleep with her dad without revealing it was her married dad in what can best be described as a full-on Oedipal crisis in the form of a casual comedy.

With the exception of functioning as a Murphy's law for Chloe, there's close to zero rhyme and reason to Chloe's actions as she'll frequently derail her own plots mid-episode. This is kind of fine for a fun half hour if you want to see something different. I'm actually glad that the show had a run of a couple season because there was quite a bit to admire with it. A great character like James van der Beek as James van der Beek provided a lot of where this show could have gone had he balanced out better by Chloe.

Chloe certainly wins an award for out-crazying anyone else on television and I'm glad the show ran a couple seasons because anything with a unique voice deserves a chance to shine on television. Beyond that, the show was certainly enjoyable as well. .

Still, there's more to be said for the multi-layered crazy characters you see on shows like "30 Rock," "Wilfred," or "Arrested Development" where you can map out the future, present, and past of their antic exploits.