Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Spring Review Part IV: Better Call Saul, Big Time in Hollywood FL, Fresh off the Boat

Better Call Saul (AMC) "Breaking Bad" was obviously a great show in later seasons, but it started out as an undiscovered gem and in its later seasons, the show was such a Goliath (as evidenced by the most boring Emmy Awards ceremony in history) that proclaiming its greatness was a joyless exercise. For this reason, I'm generally a huge fan of sophomore series (Off the top of my head: Angel, Treme, Raising Hope, Futurama, American Dad) because they allow the creator to rework his magic with a different concept. Most importantly, the creator can win the critics over again on the show's own merits while simultaneously enjoying the breathing room that his last success granted him.

Like Gilligan's last show, the joy of "Better Call Saul" is watching a protagonist do amazing things with his fight-or-flight instinct when he's in a tight spot. Jimmy McGill is a man of many talents: He can work a crowd of senior citizens like River City's Harold Hill ("The Music Man") he can talk a drug kingpin down from a death sentence, he can MacGuyver his way to locating a family of white collar runaways and he can outlawyer a bunch of snooty guys in suits and ties.

The show began with an implicit tease that McGill would descend into amorality like Walter White, but McGill's relationship with his conscience is one that is seeming to take a more interesting route so far. McGill was never a do-gooder but we also learn during a date interrupted by sudden bouts of vomiting that he has a conscience he simply can't ignore even if he tries. The reluctance of Jimmy's morals and his attempts to split the difference is what make him a fascinating character.

The show also benefits from a strong ensemble cast that includes Michael "Lenny Kosnowski" McKean as Jimmy's older brother Chuck (another curious casting choice with a primarily comic actor) and Rhea Seehorn as Jimmy's ex (although theories have floated around that the two were always platonic) who has an enduringly sweet bond with him in the present. On top of that, the city of Albuquerque is a vivid character in the show as well. It's good to be back in the ABQ.

Big Time in Hollywood Florida (Comedy Central)- This black comedy is marginally a show about struggling film makers (a genre I hate outside of "Be Kind Rewind") and it was advertised as such but the characters' filmmaking background is mostly used as a framing device which is something I can live with.

What we have instead is mostly a show two young adult brothers desperate to remain in arrested development. Standing in their way are a set of parents who want them to move out of the house and get real jobs.

The brothers decide to fake a drug addiction which becomes the first in a series of bad decisions that gets them into hotter and hotter water. The show can best be described as "Dumb and Dumber" meets the Coen Brothers.

Some noted scientist or philosopher or historian (or possibly a TV weatherman, I have no clue) said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting different results. This can also be said for comedy if one considers that insane people can be pretty funny. In the case of this show, these are certainly two characters who never consider doing the "right thing" which could be described as pathological and there's certainly a humor in that although it's on a very base level.

Needless to say these guys certainly aren't rootable characters. The prime example of this is how casually disrespectful they are of their father. This is partially understandable considering their dad is perennial punching bag Stephen Toblowsky, but it's indicative of the cartoonish broadness here that extends to the way manslaughter is treated with gravity of Zach Morris getting in trouble with Principal Belding.

At times, the casual moral decay of the world around these characters works tonally and has the makings of a deliciously twisted dark comedy. At the same time, the broad cartoonishness wore thin over the course of ten episodes (in my experience, at least). This goes back to that famous TV weatherman/scientist/philosopher's definition of insanity with a slight caveat: Characters doing the same thing over and over again can certainly be comedic but they are very often not rich characters.

This is particularly true in the case of the brothers' mentally challenged sidekick Del whose presence on the show is so misguided, it's not just a comedic concern but one of sensitivity.

"Big Time in Hollywood Florida" can best be described as an acquired taste with diminishing returns.

Fresh off the Boat (ABC)-The show is simultaneously a throwback to TGIF family-style sitcoms of the '90s with a modern edginess to it in the vein of "Everybody Hates Chris" or "Malcolm in the Middle." More than those two shows, however, the show approaches 90's sitcoms with an ironic self-consciousness without omitting that genuine sweetness that those sitcoms were known for. More often than not, 11-year-old protagonist Eddie Huang learns a lesson in a round about way.

Oh, and did I mention this show centers around a family of Taiwanese immigrants? That was pretty much the main selling point of the show and it's the first thing anyone knows about the show.  Considering it's been 20 years since an Asian-American family has been on TV ("All-American Girl" with Margaret Cho),  the novelty factor of being transported to an Asian-American household for a half-hour is exotic enough to give this show a reason to exist.

Fortunately, however, the show is more than that. Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan infuses the plots with labyrinthine storylines that are reminiscent of the looniness she brought to the sitcom with "Don't Trust the B----." Randall Park and Constance Wu are both ridiculously fun to watch and the show serves as a great crash course on what living in 1995 was like: Shaq, 90's rap, lunchables, Melrose Place and the OJ Simpson trial all make appearances here.

Constance Wu certainly qualifies as a breakout character as she gets some of the show's best lines and delivers them with a certain wry ferocity. At the same time, Randall Park (who I knew as Asian Jim on "The Office") is underlooked (by nearly every other review I've read) with his endearing doggedness to turn his restaurant into a success. Papa Huang has the classic immigrant-trying-to-make-something-of-himself arc and although it's laced with great comedic potential, the joke is never on him so much as it is on the incongruity of his understanding and circumstance.  It also helps that much of the humor in the Golden Saddle subplots revolves around the odd couple chemistry between Park and Paul Scheer as quite a bit of their MOs are lost in translation.

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