Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spring 2015 TV Report Part I: Last Man on Earth, Glee, Togetherness, Archer

Last Man on Earth (FOX)-Sponsored by the Tuscon Chamber of Commerce, this comedy isn't so much high-concept as a hard sell considering no one wants to watch "Cast Away" (or "All is Lost" for those of you who weren't coming of age in 2000) as a comedy.

Credit: TVline.com
Will Forte, who co-created the series with "Clone High" cohorts Phil Lord and Chris Miller, believes himself to be the soul survivor of some biological epidemic until he meets Kristen Schaal, and the two deal with the realities of an Adam-and-Eve type situation in which Eve is a shrewish nag and Adam is the kind of adult slacker who sees the end of days as a prime opportunity to go bowling with cars and create a sweet margarita pool.

She's not quite "Flight of the Conchords" Kristen Schaal crazy, but crazy enough to think there's a reason to stop at a traffic light when there are no other moving vehicles on the planet. Schaal wants Forte to "marry" her and then do some hard-core repopulation to save the human race and Forte eventually relents because he's just plain horny.  But we have ourselves a love triangle when a third survivor turns up who turns out to be Forte's dream girl (a very down-to-earth January Jones) and he can't do anything because he's a "married man."

This isn't a show that has an interest in fleshing out any view of the apocalypse. Not even at a comedic level. How these people hijack cars at will, why there aren't dead bodies, or what the hell they're all doing in Tucson (where summer daytime temperatures average over 100 degrees) are questions the show isn't interested in answering. The show can best be described as a Twilight Zone episode wrapped up into the sensibilities of an SNL sketch. Forte finding himself locked out of his dream girls' pants because he quite reasonably married who he thought was the last girl on Earth is the sophomoric comedic equivalent of Meredith Burgess's bookworm character having access to all the books on Earth as its last survivor only to have his glasses broken.

Glee (FOX)-With the pressure of telling the story of a Glee club out of the way (it was supposedly dissolved and the writing room covered their bases by having all the underclassmen mysteriously transferred out), Season 6 had the potential to hone in on tighter stories. It was highly possible for the show to have a decent swan song, but instead Glee devolved massively. Why does everyone end up back in Lima coaching glee clubs when the overarching theme of the first few seasons was the first couple of seasons were primarily about high schoolers harnessing the power of song and dance to avoid being "Lima Losers"?

In the fifth season, the show's infrastructure fell apart as so many of the original characters were graduating and scattering in different directions. To hold the show together, "Glee" has employed every artificial coincidence imaginable. The show has gone beyond jumping the shark: It's almost as if Glee's writing room had determined that their last chance at cultural relevancy would be to jump the shark in such a memorably absurd way that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's "Nuke the Fridge" might be supplanted with "Hypnotize the  Chord Overstreet character" or "sex-change the football coach."

Nostalgic folks who look at the disaster of Season 6 and long for the days when Glee wasn't so erratic are forgetting that this show has always had a problem with burning through plot too quickly. If you remember, Finn and Rachel would quit or rejoin the show every other episode, and it was only a matter of weeks before big bully Puck was part of the gang and dating Rachel.

The show succeeded in stretches where the brand of crazy managed to be contained towards amusingly out there as opposed to batshit insane.This was one of show's few sensible long-term decisions Murphy and his crew consciously made. It was also the show's last good decision. 

Togetherness (HBO)-Although I suspect that the half-hour length will place this show-- about a couple of thirty-something lost souls simultaneously crashing on the couch of a couple undergoing marital decay-- squarely in the comedy category. who are we kidding here? The Duplass brothers' style has strains of what I believe is referred to as neorealism (think Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica, Noah Baumbauch, or Alexander Payne) where the story line is paced at the speed of life. Two of my favorite films in this mold that coincidentally came out in the same year are "Lost in Translation" and "Master and Commander." The former tracks a chance platonic relationship in a foreign country and the latter tracks a war ship in the Napoleonic Era. Neither film moves faster than the speed of life and that adds value to the storytelling. In reality, a ship in that era would go long stretches of time without seeing any significant action and by setting the story mostly during those lulls in action, the viewer feels an appreciation for the vast distances in time and space in the 19th Century.

Similarly, this show feels like watching an extremely lifelike view of a marriage as its dissolving. Up until the seventh episode when Brett (Mark Duplass) gets high on mushrooms and crashes his child's birthday party, very little happens on the show that's more eventful than, for example, my own life. When the characters I'm watching on TV are less interesting than me, I would say that's problematic but I'm willing to chalk it up to a curious phenomenon.

This is all well within the mold of the Duplass style but at the same time, previous efforts such as "Jeff Who Live at Home" and "Cyrus" had hooky scenarios. This show's scenario seems to have potential as two adults are navigating a weird situation but many of the episodes focus on low-key activities. The episode where Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) tries to spice up her sex life with Brett was even tame by the standards of today's television landscape.

This isn't to say that the show isn't watchable. Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peete are excellent actresses who truly elevate the material and the chemistry between Steve Zissis and Duplass as two lifelong friends has a lot going for it. Similarly, there's nothing emotionally unfulfilling about the main storyline of this marriage on the rocks. There's just a little bit of energy lacking at times.

Archer (FX)-I analyzed this show to death over at TV Fanatic this past season so it's best to read my reviews there. To give a brief summary on my views of this season, Archer Vice was a bold experiment that paid off tremendously, but this season took us back into the old groove of Archer. I know going into the season that unless something drastic happened to Adam Reed's brain chemistry (I learned over the course of this season that Adam Reed writes nearly every episode of the show himself), that the writing would be as steady as it had always been. The difference is that without the overarching through lines, each episode had to sink or swim on its own merits.

The season was largely one of regrouping as the gang welcomed Slater into the fold as a sort of surrogate Mallory (leaving Jessica Walter with less airtime). Slater has spent quite a bit of time with the gang at this point and has managed the remarkable feat of spending time with the gang and not getting a little bit batty himself. As we've seen with Cyril and Lana, the descent from sensible human being to can amusing miscreant is inevitable when you spend enough time with Archer and company.

The bottle episode and the mansion listing episodes were the season's strongest outings and demonstrated that when the gang gets together in one place and all of their various ineptitudes are combined in pursuit of an outlandish goal, the possibilities for humor are endless.

Too often, however, the show broke off the main group into an action-oriented A-plot and highly forgettable B-plots which carried out their designated function of breaking up the action and that was about it. Most of the B-plots revolved around Baby AJ who was a pretty questionable addition considering Archer and Lana were already on a collision course anyway and we already had the wee baby Seamus (a definite fan favorite, ok, not really, but...). It's also worth noting that this is a baby Lana had using Archer's man juice (I spent a while thinking up a good word there) without his permission which is a pretty bizarre thing for anyone to do who isn't a psychotic stalker. That's pretty far away from what Lana is.

Write-ups to come on: Fresh off the Boat, Modern Family, Empire, 12 Monkeys, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It's Always Sunny, The Librarians, Schitt's Creek, Daredevil
[Ed. Update: Part II is here http://sophomorecritic.blogspot.com/2015/04/spring-2015-roundup-part-ii-schitts.html]


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Discussing Movies vs TV with Adam Spector Part I

My friend Adam Spector is the head of DC Film Society's Discussion Group Cinema Lounge that meets once a month at the Barnes and Noble by Metro Center in DC. He also keeps a column called Adam's Rib.

I recently had a cross-blogging project with Adam about the state of films verse TV in six parts. The first two parts of the post are listed here:

OK -- Adam, I've enjoyed discussing movies with you this past year but I have to also confess that while I love to discuss film as much as ever, I'm not really watching a lot of films. While I eventually managed to watch 8 of the 9 Oscar-nominated films by Oscar night this past year, I doubt I'm on pace to equal the 24 films I saw last year, as I have only seen 8 films this year [Ed. note: I managed to squeeze in 25 films by Oscar night including 4 of 8 nominees]. What's more: I really don't mind. I've seen most of the films I've wanted to see and there are only a handful of films that have caught my interest. Last time I checked the redbox, there seemed to be mostly sequels, blockbuster films (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Maze Runner) based on source material I'm unfamiliar with, uninspired comedies (Tammy, Jingle all the Way 2) and animated films.

What I'm pouring my efforts into instead is TV because let's face it: This is the Golden Age of TV and whether it's a procedural, a serialized drama, or a multi-layered comedy TV has so much to offer these days. And I'm not the only one who thinks so: Oscar-winners like Halle Berry (Extant), Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Dustin Hoffman (Luck), Jon Voigt (Ray Donovan) Octavia Spencer (Red Band Society), Francis McDormand (Olive Kitteridge) and Jane Fonda (Netflix's upcoming series) as well as directors like Frank Darabont (Walking Dead), David Fincher (House of Cards), Steven Soderbergh (The Knick), Michael Apted (Masters of Sex) and Barry Sonnenfeld (Pushing Daisies) are all flocking to TV in droves. Conversely, some of TV's most iconic show runners a decade ago--J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, and Seth MacFarlane, for example-- are all wildly successful on the big screen.

As for the advantages of movies, I love the idea of leaving my home to support and experience the arts and those new seats are really comfortable but that's about it. My style of viewing has changed. 

In the old days, the only social experience of watching a film was talking about it as you leave the theater, but with TV you can have dialogue with people all around the world while you're watching something (through Twitter), right after the episodes (through week-to-week reviews) or between episodes of a longer arc (on message boards). There's no water cooler discussion like trying to figure out where the plot will take you on a show like "Homeland," "Lost" or "The Bridge."

I'd even argue that the actual form of TV is better. The latest program I started catching on TV is "Silicon Valley" which is the work of Mike Judge of "Office Space", "Idiocracy", and "Extract." His comedic films satirize the absurdities of the American professional sphere with an eye on the razor-thin differences between those in power and the underlings through elaborate plots in which each of these two classes tries to cheat the other. Imagine watching "Office Space" [spoilers ahead] and waiting a week to find out that Michael Bolton's plan to steal pennies off the company backfired or that Milton's frustration over his paycheck would result in the building being burned down. The viewer has time to guess and ruminate at each stage of the story's development.

Granted, TV didn't reach its potential until just recently when shows figured out how to master these long-arcing stories like "24"or "Lost" a decade ago and now there are dozens of shows I can point to in the past 7-8 years alone that I just can't get enough of narrative-wise. In the face of all that, why see a movie?

AS – You may be surprised that I agree with much of what you wrote.   Your insights about the way television has advanced, both in the narrative form and in the talent attached, are on target.  I’d say the start of this change goes all the way back to the 80s with shows such as “Hill Street Blues,” that started telling stories and developing characters over seasons, not just single episodes.  The show that moved television storytelling to another level was “The Sopranos.”  It took the “antihero’ concept from 60s and 70s film and used the time and space that television offered to really explore how this type of person thought and felt.  Everything from “Mad Men” to “Breaking Bad” to “House of Cards” owes “The Sopranos” a great debt.  Television has broken free of many of its historic shackles, such as being beholden to ratings and advertisers, and the idea that every dramatic situation had to be tied up neatly by the end of each episode.  With cable TV, also gone was much of the language, sex and violence censorship, thus providing much more freedom of content.

More recently, television has also shed the time constraint.  With Netflix, viewers of “Orange is the New Black,” “Arrested Development” or “House of Cards” no longer have to wait until next week to see what happens.  This allows for even more innovation in storytelling and character development.   It also gives the audience more control than they have ever had before.   

You noted the actors and directors that have worked in television.  Gone is the idea that television is somehow beneath film talent, that it would only serve as a last resort if a film career is floundering.  Martin Scorsese helped develop “Boardwalk Empire” and is now working with Mick Jagger on an HBO show about the ‘70s rock scene.    The same year that Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar he also starred on “True Detective” for HBO.  Fincher directed "Gone Girl" while still working on “House of Cards.”

Television’s recent success does not portend cinema’s death.  Film’s demise has always been greatly exaggerated.  I remember attending a seminar at the Kennedy Center in the late 90s when a panelist proudly proclaimed that film was dead.  Ever since television first became popular in the 50s, some have been ready to pour dirt on movies.  But movies are still here.

It’s taking nothing away from television to acknowledge that there is still exciting work on the silver screen.  Just look at Richard Linklater’s innovative "Boyhood."  In less than three hours you see a boy grow up.  That would be very difficult to do on television, if only because no network would want to pay development money for a show it wouldn’t see in 12 years.  Another example is "Birdman", where the entire film unfolds as a long jazz riff, with the camera seemingly gliding through a struggling theatrical production.             

Sure, much of what you see at the local multiplex are sequels or franchise films.  First, that doesn’t always mean these are poor quality.  The latest Captain America film took some chances with the story and the casting, and was a successful homage to 70s conspiracy thrillers.  Knock Guardians of the Galaxy all you want, but its irreverent take on superheroes was fun and refreshing. 

Like television, films offer a wide range in content and quality.  Judging movies by their derivative efforts would be like me judging television by its stale sitcoms and mindless “reality” shows.  Sure, if one would only select films based on the box office charts, it would be very uninspiring to say the least.  But if you look at the art house theaters, you can still find plenty of movies that are worth your time.  In the DC area we are very fortunate, with the Landmark theaters here, the Angelika in Fairfax, and the AFI Silver.  We should take advantage of these offerings.

Watching movies and TV shows at home is wonderful.  Much to my wife’s chagrin, I own more than 500 DVDs.  Between Netflix, my DVR and On Demand, I can and do enjoy many quality TV shows.  But there’s still nothing like sitting in a movie theater, having the light go down, and being totally immersed in a film.  No cell phones and no distractions.  Just you and the movie. 

Orrin, you and I have both noted the talent that has worked in TV.  But many of them, including Scorsese, Fincher, McConaughey and Spacey also work in film.  They haven’t focused on one at the expense of the other, and neither should we.