Sunday, June 14, 2015

Episodic Highlights from 2015

Cory Barker's blog has a year-end roundtable where they ask panelists to name their favorite episodes. While I love the critical format of looking at a TV series on an episodic basis, it wasn't until I participated in Cory's roundtable last year that I ever thought of defining a year of TV by its best episodes. Although I don't plan to amass some big or definitive episodes of the year list, it seems worthwhile to put some thought into episodes that resonated with me as we near the midpoint of the year:

While I eventually got bored of the show and hobbled to the finish line of the show's first season, there's a lot to be said for how strong 12 Monkeys came out of the gate.  The show's first three episodes built up high stakes and set up the ground work for loopy sci-fi scenarios with promising speed and efficiency. The series' two main characters were also strongly established from the start and their chemistry intrigued me enough that I was still invested after the way-too-soon death of Leland Goines in the pilot episode.

Though Modern Family is seen by many as a show that has gone stagnant, I continue to consistently enjoy it and maintain my faith that the writers are able to bring it when the occasion calls. "Connection Lost," in which the entire story is told from a half-hour screenshot of Claire's laptop, is the kind of ambitious episode premise that's dynamite if executed well. Some might call the idea of using various apps to tell a narrative might ring to some of shameless product placement, but it's unquestionably innovative and has a high degree of difficulty. This episode reminds me of those art class assignments involving found art.

Fresh off the Boat's 5th episode, "Persistent Romeo". was one of those episodes with a comic hook-- the boys mistake one of those sexual harassment videos they show during orientation as a how-to guide for picking up women -- that was executed perfectly just as the series was finding its groove. The show harkens back to 90's sitcoms in both a meta way and as a stylistic preference. The innocent idea of a kid badly wanting to fit in with his friends and the suspense around whether he'll be able to pull it off with a halfway decent sleepover was also an idea executed well here. My review at TV Fanatic is here.

I've always been weary of praising bottle episodes. Are we celebrating your lack of a locations budget or your homage to some era in TV history few people care about when locations budgets were a big deal? Of course, that was before I saw Archer's bottle episode "Vision Quest" which plays off the character beats so masterfully and establishes new gags (Cheryl's claustrophobia, Cyril's masturbation habit, the uselessness of 911) that escalate enormously over the course of a half hour. My review at TV Fanatic is here. I also gave high marks to the episode "Pocket Listing" for dealing with the sexual chemistry between Lana and Archer so well, for letting Cheryl unleash her crazy, and for giving everyone someone to do in a grandiose comedy of errors.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia had another season that blew its competition out of the water. "The Gang Spies Like US" demonstrated the show's ability to mine tremendous comic depth out of a single comic misunderstanding with Dee causing such unparalleled destruction that it reminded me of some of the more well-executed set pieces in the Pink Panther series. "Charlie Work" was another one of those episodes that pushed the boundaries of a comedy and had the kind of innovative camera work that just won a film a Best Picture Oscar.

The inclusion to this list of Wayward Pines' second episode, "Do Not Discuss Your Life Before", is a testament to the potential it squandered by tipping its hand too early. The show is a mystery with an all-star cast and a solid premise, reminiscent of the best Twilight Zone episodes, about a sheriff trapped in a town where people have a habit of getting lost and staying in place for years. The show started out with promise and the second episode really heightened the tension by teasing out answers that seemed attainable but out of reach. The relationship between Juliette Lewis's Beverly and Matt Dillon's Ethan was also starting to give the protagonist a much needed sounding board. Unfortunately, the episode's end solved what I considered the most intriguing mystery (whether the town was in cahootz) and ended the storyline of the much-needed confidante. As a season finale it worked wonders, but the problem was it was the second episode.

I'm a fan of Silicon Valley but I'm generally enjoying it for the strong character work and sense of place and would disagree with an assessment that the site is consistently a laugh-out-loud comedy. The show's humor is generally long-form which can occasionally yield a home run like last year's season finale (which I cited on last year's list of favorite episodes). This year's "Homicide" was another such episode with a hilarious plot (Richard dealing with a client who secretly hates Ehrlich) and an even more hilarious side trip for Dinesh and Gilfoyle (although it's always a given those two will have the funnier plot) enhanced by another visual gag for the ages. On top of that, it was also a meaningful development moment for Richard as he first shows some backbone here. 

Inside Amy Schumer's "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" is an incredibly ambitious long-form sketch that pays off in droves. The key to the humor is the extreme attention to detail combined with the way accomplished actors Paul Giamatti and John Hawkes tackle the inanity of the subject with utmost seriousness.

My favorite episode of the year, to date, would be "The Gang Beats Boggs" from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  The show's black comedy elements-Frank practically murders a kid, airplane security is jeopardized- were next level uproarious, the confined space of the airplane lent to a great comic intensity, and the running gag (of keeping score) held up throughout. This was the gang at their unruliest and the show at its most hilarious.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Quintessential Minnesota Film: The Mighty Ducks

This is part of a series I worked on at one point combining my geography major with my film writing to discuss the quintessential film for each state. 

The Quintessential Minnesota Film: The Mighty Ducks

My Minnesota Credentials:
I spent a summer studying in Minneapolis and visited my sister multiple times when she lived in St Louis Park for 6 years. This is the same Minneapolis suburb that the Coen brothers are from and my sister's synagogue (where my niece was christened) happened to be the shooting location of "A Serious Man". My time in Minnesota was spent as a gangly 20-year-old trying to get a new start halfway around the country (my hope was to finish college there) and as such I became acutely aware of the differences between myself as an East Coaster and the nuances of the "Minnesota nice" mentality. While I was never able to convince my parents to pay the out-of-state tuition to restart my life in Minnesota, I will always have an appreciation for the state where I learned to roller blade, where I learned what it means to be be resourceful in Wintertime, where I rode a rollercoaster indoors, where the evil eye of Walmart is replaced by the mildly conspicuous conglomerate of Target, and where no one gave me weird looks for cross-country skiing.

My Pick:
The films of Joel and Ethan Coen have a strong sense of place as evidenced by their portrayals of Mississippi ("O Brother Where Art Thou"), Hollywood ("Intolerable Cruelty"), a quasi-modern day Louisiana ("The Lady Killers"), Texas ("No Country for Old Men") and Washington DC ("Burn After Reading"). They are perhaps best known for their portrayal of their home state of Minnesota in 1996's "Fargo."

The Oscar-winning film veers towards the darker end of the Coens' dark comedies with graphic images of murder juxtaposed by the offbeat and cheery nature of the characters involved in the case. Since premiering, it has been claimed by many in the state as a quintessentially Minnesotan work of art. When Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura got into a public feud with another state cultural institution, Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion", in 1999, he offered up "Fargo" as a better example of Minnesota humor than Keillor who he described as "high-brow and boring."

In "Fargo", there's much to appreciate in the spot-on accents and the portrayal of the bitter cold of Winter. It truly is a kind of cold that demoralizes the population and one gets the sense that these people are committing murders because they have nothing better to do. That's where "Fargo" goes wrong: The portrayal of Minnesota as a bleak and dull winter land is inaccurate.

Minnesotans are among the healthiest, happiest and most civically active people (they actually rank #1 in voter turnout) in the nation. Minneapolis as a breeding ground for backwater hicks also seems incongruous with the version of Minneapolis I've experienced as one of the most urban and fast-moving cities I've ever lived in.

In light of these virtues, what could better representative Minnesota than a sports film about Minnesota's most beloved sport? "The Mighty Ducks" is not the only film ever made about hockey but it might as well have been if you were growing up in the early 90s. For a kid like me, few things would have made me (a kid who always got assigned right field in Little League) feel more fulfilled than bonding to my peers on a diamond or ice rink as a valuable member of the team. I didn't find my athletic niche until 10th grade but in the interim, the movies of the 90's seemed pretty hell-bent on selling me fantasies I could live vicariously through. There was a a high school outcast who suddenly becomes eligible for the Chicago Cubs on a freak accident ("Rookie of the Year"), a kid who unites his broken home through enlisting heavenly aide to help his beloved Angels ("Angels in the Outfield") a boy who becomes a hero on the Iditarod because he's good to his dog ("Iron Will"), and most beloved of all, that kid from Notre Dame who just wanted to play ("Rudy").

Labatt Blue US Pond Hockey Championships
In "The Mighty Ducks," Emilio Estevez's Gordon Bombay, is a disgraced ex-hockey player ordered by the court (see the civic pride tie-in) to coach a youth hockey team. This is a state in which nearly every Minneapolis suburb (that I saw) has its own community center with a hockey rink so it's more than fair to say that many a Minnesotan defined themselves as a budding hockey star before moving onto adulthood.

A lawyer on the go with only a tinge of Minnesotan drawl in his speech, Bombay seems like the archetypal Twin Cities urbanite but he's contrasted with his mentor Hans (Joss Andros) who is an ambiguous Upper Midwestern version of Yoda or Mr. Miyagi if green alien or stereotypical Japanese was replaced with stereotypical Scandinavian.

It's also worth noting that in the land of 10,000 lakes, ice skating isn't just done in the ice skating rinks but on frozen lakes as well. Minneapolis has hosted the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships annually since 2007. It's an ubiquitous part of state culture and Bombay first meets his time as they're playing on a pond. It also must have made many a Minnesotan must have swooned when the film's primary romantic spark occurs as as Bombay is stroking his love interest's hair as the St. Paul's ice carnival is featured in the background.