Friday, May 27, 2016

Lady Dynamite, Masters of None, and Comedians Playing Themselves in Peak TV

"Lady Dynamite" is so zany and out there that it was a little difficult to get a grasp on it when I first watched it. Ironically, my difficulty with the material wasn't because there's nothing like it on TV but because I saw traces of nearly everything else on TV: The cutaways of "30 Rock", the awkward attempts at social justice statements from "Master of None", the use of a comedic veneer to mask trauma that's shown on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt", the 4th wall randomness of "Man Seeking Woman" or "Family Guy", and the feminist celebration of woman as proudly dysfunctional adult from "Broad City". 
Welcome to Peak TV: Where the overabundance of innovative voices on TV makes it harder to stick out and a comic voice as original as Maria Bamford is penalized for not coming out on the airwives five years ago.
Besides the myriad of recognizable influences there's the obstacle that Bamford's show can loosely be classified into the most overused genre on television: Comic actors playing thinly veiled versions of themselves trying to make it in showbiz inevitably providing a satirical take on Hollywood along the way. It started with "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the idea has gotten so saturated that it seems like the go-to template for anyone wanting to stretch their act into a TV show if they don't want to put much energy into the pitching session. The genre is starting to rapidly sour with unique acts like subversively sexually explicit music duo Garfunkel and Oates and hyperobsessive pop culture freak Billy Eichner getting shows that add zero value whatsoever to what started out as great acts.  
The good news here is that any initial complaints about the show are a lot less valid after a scattershot pilot that's loaded with every gimmick imaginable. The show gradually starts to even out and make more purposeful decisions over when to break the 4th wall. By the fifth or sixth episode, Bamford starts to deploy these gimmicks with a mastery that makes "Lady Dynamite" one of the most wall-to-wall enjoyable shows on TV.

It helps to separate the show from other entries in the "comedians playing themselves" genre in that Bamford isn't trying to advance her show business career at all. At times, she seems blissfully ignorant of exactly how well she's doing (her faux sister Susan is alarmed at how much she makes at a studio session as if she heard it for the first time). In another episode, she turns down Judd Apatow because in that particular episode, her new focus on life is about doing as little as possible in life. After a few episodes, one can better make the argument that this even if it's a clich├ęd genre, Bamford's work is the ultimate personal statement: Maria Bamford is simply figuring out her life and way of expressing it on screen as she goes along.

It also helps that so many of the plots are loopy enough to match Maria Bamford's personality: Her uncertainty is matched by characters that either swing towards an extreme opposite (Mo Collins as pushy childhood friend Susan, Ana Gasteyer as Karen Gillam, Annie Mumulo as a highly aggressive dog trainer) or similar aimlessness (Fred Melamed is highly enjoyable as an agent who reeks of casual desperation, in the second episode she dates a bisexual recovering meth addict who can't distinguish the difference between bisexuality and polygamy).

Masters of None

In the era of Peak TV, shows are being given out like cars to the Oprah studio audience and one consequence is that while there are a lot of great comic voices out there, not everyone is exactly qualified to sustain an audience as the lead of a television show. Whereas Maria Bamford can will her way through a hackneyed premise on sheer personality, Aziz Ansari (assuming he doesn't have the acting abilities of Peter Sellers up his sleeve) would be questionable as a lead for a high-concept series.
It's not that Ansari isn't a deservedly successful comedian. He was an excellent addition to the mix on "Parks and Recreation," he is a successful author, and has a worthwhile stand-up show worth watching. There's just very little variation from Tom Haverford to "Master of None" lead Dev and that character was originally created as a foil to the altruism of Leslie Knope.
What also doesn't help is that it seems like Aziz Ansari's vision for his show is as bizarrely uneventful as the in-universe pitch for "Seinfeld." Yes, technically things happen, but it seems as if the show's goal is to drain as much dramatic tension as possible so that the show is as close to nothing as possible. In other words, Aziz/Dev just wants to be chill but there's a such thing as overdoing it. The show also doesn't seem to have any game plan for making you laugh: The long-term setups lack comic complexity and the short-term jokes are more at a dramedy-level than an actual comedy.  
Oddly enough, the show did get great reception but I suspect that has more to do with the increasing prevalence of the social justice movement among TV critics. Ansari is a minority that's not often seen on TV and his episodes tackle such hot button issues as tokenism in casting, sexism, and the issues that come with being the children of immigrants. In some of these cases, the show comes off as overly preachy because Aziz's take on those issues is the only memorable thing about the episode.
For contrast, "Fresh Off the Boat" is a show I immediately latched onto because of the unique cultural perspective of a minority family. I could see people being attached to Dev for the same reasons, but that doesn't excuse such a show from phoning it in everywhere else.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tweeny-Bopper Fare: Lost and Found Studios Review

I have great regrets that of all the TV that I've watched lately, this is the only one I had time to review. Hopefully, more stuff to come.
“Lost and Found Studios” is about a group of teenagers in an “elite music program” of people of indiscriminate age in an indiscriminate mid-sized city, with an indiscriminate means of paying for it all.

It’s one of those shows where it seems like I'm putting more thought into it than the people who created  it. Does Mr. T's exclusive program consist of letting kids just hang around his studio all day and what's in it for him when studio time is at such a premium? Does the program offer instruction other than Mr. T sternly crossing his arms and playing referee in disputes? Why do the parents (especially those of introverted Eva) trust Mr. T?

But that’s ok because to try to answer these questions would involve icky things for this tweeny-bop genre like involving parents and as the kid with the red headphones learned when his mom crashed his audition, parents are not allowed! The creators of this show know that it’s a cash cow for tweeny-boppers so long as they populate it with an array of diverse vanilla personalities and produce a queue full of songs on iTunes where they can get a juicy second stream of revenue. On this note, it’s curious how the combined song writing talents of a group of some two dozen kids produces songs in the exact same genre.

The characters are all filled out by uniformly mediocre actors (they’re likely teenagers so I’m not expecting big things) but it’s also curious that the adults on screen (John and Luke’s piano teacher’s widower) exhibit that same lack of ability.

Which begs the question (One I’m still trying to figure out as I write this): Why did I gobble up all fourteen episodes  if I was able to see through it so immediately?

My initial answer was that I thought it might give some insight into modern-day songwriting and working in a studio and there’s a certain amount of that there. On the whole, though, the show is just plain hokey like the songs themselves. The story is both written and acted broadly for a teen audience, but it wasn’t enough to detract me from wanting to know what happened next.

If I had to pinpoint one factor that kept the first season from getting drab, it’s that the show had some edgier plotlines than one might have expected. One of the main characters, John, is dealing with the death of his mother which puts a dark twist on what  is the season’s only major romantic pairing (which is pretty curious in its own right since this show is playing to a demographic that thrives on hookups in fiction). Another, Clara, gets outright depressed and nasty despite the fact that it seemed like the show bible was “keep all the characters uniformly bubbly and cheerful.” Eva, a noticeable introvert, seems to hide some insecurities that begs one to want to know more. Leah (who perhaps has more screentime than anyone else), starts out as a ditzy girl blind to an unrequieted crush, but she’s gradually revealed to be a villainess of high proportions.

Whether, these plotlines might have been stuff that slipped through the cracks or were part of the grand scheme of things, it takes the show above standard teeny-bop fare.