Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Slow Burn: Getting out of Expositionland (with IMDB feedback)

If a YouTube clip is like a nosh, a half hour comedy is like a desert or fast food meal, and a drama is like a meal, a serialized drama is like going to eat at a fine restaurant (of course, this whole analogy rests on whether you truly believe that a $16 hamburger + tax and tip can top the divine flame-broiled goodness of Burger King which I don’t*).  The rewards are greater but the costs are high and by costs, I'm referring to a currency measured in your attention span. I’m sure there will be some disagreement here and there’s certainly a spectrum here, but I’d argue there’s little that’s inherently interesting about the first episode or two of a serialized drama.

By and large, the greatest rewards of watching a serialized drama are investing in the characters and their stories and in the first couple episodes when you don’t know the characters, it’s hard to grab onto some hook. Even shows I really grew to enjoy like "Orange is the New Black", "House of Cards", and "The Bridge" felt like expositionland drudgery in the first couple episodes.
Part of this effect is due to a shortened attention span on my part. There's no doubt in my mind that YouTube and instant access to entertainment options have gradually made me more stupid over the years. This is part of why it can be rewarding if I ever make it through the boring zone: The feeling of intellectual accomplishment.

Knowing this in advance, it's always best to stick with a drama for two or three epsiodes and bear with the exposition knowing that a boring first or second episode is not indicative of however many episodes later. After all, shows like "The Strain" or "Under the Dome" have strong pilots (one might argue that these shows have outlandish enough premises that a strong curiosity of how it will translate into film is enough to keep one glued through exposition) but (at least, in my opinion) lost their way soon afterwards.

On the other hand, a show like "Dollhouse" beat the expositional blues by making a conscious decision to frame the first five episodes into self-contained procedurals before getting deeper into the mythology.

I posted some thoughts on IMDB and was surprised to find a lot of people were with me:

User bwgood77:
"I kind of know what you mean. Part of it depends on how many shows I am watching. If I am watching like 15 shows, it is pretty tough to get into a brand new one at first. If I am only watching a few, I don't mind it as much, however, this summer I decided to let the shows get almost done before starting them so I can blaze through the first three quarters of them quickly and get really vested"

User MagnificentDesolation:
"I completely understand this. I have actually found myself sighing and begrudgingly starting something I was "looking forward to" like a chore or something to be endured. It's ridiculous and I don't think it even reflects on the project so much as it does on the near-burden of our new serialized drama trend. Not remotely "new", but you know what I mean?...........It feels like there is so much density to programming now, you know it can't be a light pop in but a real commitment. It engenders near dread if you're not quite up for it. The structure also allows the show to permit itself a slow build, it no longer feels the need to grab and hold you from episode one, you will be 'rewarded' by waiting. That can lead to a bit of a trudge, particularly if the promise never pays off.............If I sound as if I am against serialized drama, I'm not. I love it. But I have seen a change in myself as a show sits, unwatched, episodes piling as I struggle to start it."

User Asylumer:
"In my experience, when it comes to established soaps and serialized dramas, there needs to be SOMETHING beforehand that lures you to the show. In other words, there needs to be a specific character/actor/storyline/etc. that catches your attention and compels you to watch for that alone -- despite not knowing anything else about the show, or what's going on......I've tried to start watching already established or long running shows just for the hell of it, and it almost never works...it's like reading a complicated library book. There needs to be one special draw that is your reason for initially tuning in, then as time goes on you start to get into the other characters and stories."

User lbab9:
"I found this trend of episodes looking more like a piece of a gigantic movie than a proper episode of television quite annoying (I'm looking at you Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire). What happened to telling a good story in one hour?! I wish shows would try to be more like Buffy, Justified or The Good Wife in terms of structure. Tell a good story each episode while slowly building the seasonal arc. It sounds simple, yet some showrunners don't seem to understand it or execute it properly."

User Blue_Leaf:
"I had a tough time getting interested in Fargo, a series I was really looking forward to watching. After the third episode I stopped watching and then last week I finished the remaining episodes and LOVED IT! I think Fargo is definitely one of those shows that is more enjoyable as a "binge-watch".

User IndigoFlame:
"I love hour long dramas but most of what I watch hooks you from the beginning. There's a mystery or it's timeline is turned around. Stop watching broadcast series if the procedural set up doesn't suit you.....Too often people talk about cable drama being better because it has more violence and nudity. The best part of cable is they aren't constrained by the format of broadcast networks. They are edited for non commercial broadcast (even AMC & FX like channels use the seamless editing methods) and don't repeat dialog or explain the meaning of sight gags and props; they expect the audience to keep up....Your attention span isn't lessened, your ability to process information has increased. There's content out there for you but not on the networks."

*This blog is not sponsored by Burger King, but that's not saying I'm opposed to a Burger King sponsorship either

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: WilliamBruceWest.com
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 face 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 no 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.   

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bad Teacher, Review and Playing House

Review was my favorite thing to watch this season aside from "Archer." Starring straight-man extraordinaire Andy Daly, the premise posits the show as a distant cousin of the "Truman Show" in the way that presenting a man's life choices being driven entirely by the demands of a media audience leads to some very deep satire. In this case, Daly is TV show host Forrest MacNeil who will review any life experience anyone tells him to without question.

Over the course of this season, he is forced to experience road rage (losing two cars in the process), become an overt racist, proposition and sleep with a celebrity, get addicted to crack, and more. Worst of all, he has to divorce his wife which leads to one of the major thru-lines of the season of winning his wife back.

Why his wife is in the dark about the nature of his day job or why the production team doesn't filter out the more life-threatening requests seem like gaping plot holes at first but that's because the viewer is being inserted into the story midstream. The cleverest thing about "Review" is how it drops clues towards the genesis to the show-within-a-show and the larger storyline about a somewhat overeager broadcaster being manipulated by a ruthless producer. Viewers are challenged to decipher these clues and it's not until the end of the season that some of the blanks are filled in a season finale, which made the ending feel so cathartic.

The character of AJ Gibbs (Megan Stevenson) is an equally wonderful creation because it's so tough to get a handle on her: Is she equally complicit in Forrest's misery? How does she see Forrest and why won't she take one for the team and be his celebrity hook-up? Is she an airhead or a ruthless go-getter? Stevenson's performance is even more impressive when one considers she never gets more than a couple lines of dialogue and a reaction shot to communicate who she is. 

Like "The Truman Show", "Review" is a very thinky show but the comic undertones of "The Truman Show" are amped up quite a bit here. It's hard to explain why watching a man destroying his life is hilarious. My best guess would be awkward shock value (kind of like "The Office"). Even if I can't explain why I laughed, I found myself laughing a lot. Five Stars.

Playing House 
I probably wouldn't have watched this show if the show's creators didn't personally beg me to watch their show. And I am thrilled to say that I'm not making that up.

Here's the story: As I finished watching "Review," the show's star, Andrew Daly, tweeted that everyone should check out his costar's new show "Playing House." I commented that I likely wouldn't watch. This prompted the the star of the show, Jessica St. Clair (who I previously knew from her zingy jokes on the first incarnation of "Best Week Ever") wrote as follows:
 Which prompted quite a flurry of responses like these:

In which case I said I'll watch and got this: 
My twitter profile mentions my journalistic publication credits in the Mid-Atlantic. It's entirely possible that Jessica St. Clair  and Lennon Parham mistakenly think that I'm some sort of influential TV critic instead of someone at the extreme bottom of the ladder in the pantheon of TV criticics.

Either way, it's been fun and kind of surreal corresponding with TV stars. The caveat, however, is that I've been hypercautious of writing anything about the show that isn't extremely well-thought out knowing that the people who create the show might read this (and just to be clear, they might read this because I am going to tweet this directly at them when I'm done typing it, having two TV stars read your blog post about their show is too good of an experience to not aggressively pursue).

My opinion:
The show stars Lennon as a pregnant woman (Maggie) who has just kicked out her husband over an affair and St. Clair (Emma) as a globetrotting businesswoman who decides to drop her career and move in with her friend to help her raise a baby. I know that show premises are generally gimmicks that are used to get the show greenlit and hook in the audience, but is there even much of a premise here? For one, the husband is still in the show's cast so it doesn't appear that Maggie really needs another co-parent. More importantly, the baby's not born yet, so it's not really two women raising a baby as it is two adult woman going on low-key escapades. Low key escapades isn't bad (see: "Legit", "It's Always Sunny", and "Broad City") but the show treats the pair as if they're doing something high-key (or whatever the opposite of low-key is). When Emma emotionally tells her mom, "hey, aren't you proud of me, I'm doing something important. I'm helping my friend raise a child," the proper response should be "Um, are you sure? Did you sign any paperwork as a legal guardian? It looks like you quit your job and are just crashing on your friend's couch."

I've heard the show described as UCB meets Gilmore Girls which sounds accurate enough. I'm not entirely familiar with "Gilmore Girls" but I was into Amy Sherman Palladino's follow-up "Bunheads," and can see the connection as both shows revolve around female characters without being seen as exclusive anthems of girl power. Some of my least favorite entertainment is created exclusively for women OR men. I'm an equal opportunity hater here: Neither "Sex and the City" or "Entourage"--in which members of the same sex get together and talk all day about the opposite sex and other sexy sex-related topics-- qualify as anything but awful TV in my opinion.

While "Playing House" isn't entirely chick flick territory, I do find some elements hard to connect to as a male viewer. When Maggie and Emma are dealing with a strife in their friendship over a shared crush on a guy, it occurred to me that I rarely have conversations with male friends over our feelings (Not saying I wouldn't want to. It just doesn't seem to happen). At least not like Maggie and Emma. The only exception would be male roommates where we have to share living space an work really hard on those issues.

On the flipside, I can really relate to the idea of being in your hometown and navigating the dissonance of constantly bumping into people from various points of your past. For better or worse, that's my life right now and while it's great to see people from a relatively healthy past, there are all sorts of complications even from bumping into someone you remember fondly. All of the highs and lows of the process--finding out someone is more successful than you, hardly recognizing the person's personality anymore, maintaining the illusion in the present that you never really got along in high school, the arduous process of catching someone up on the last 10 years -- are captured fairly well here.

As for the humor, one gets the sense that the edges are a bit sanded off from network notes. The show creators do an excellent job of not going dirty just because they can. The plots seem somewhat  conventional and don't really stretch outside of the box. The shows on USA Network tend to be less ambitious and there's nothing wrong here with fitting the specifications of the USA Brand.

The supporting cast has a lot going for it. It's really nice to see Keegan Michael Key, who must feel pressure to live up to his label as an edgy sketch comic, sink his teeth into a nice zany sitcom character role that you would find on a TGIF-sitcom. Two of the three first episodes featured Key as a frustrated cop on superfluous errands which isn't even a bad idea for a spin-off. Zach Woods reprises his weird guy role from "The Office" and "In the Loop" in a way that screams "Please typecast me this way for life." As long as he's used well here, I'm OK with it. Then again, I'm not his agent. Lastly, the show has Jane Kaczmarek as Emma's mom who has some weird mother-daughter issues. Like the genesis for the show, the genesis of the Emma-Emma's mom riff doesn't seem very well though-out, but Kaczmarek is such an underrated actress who adds to every show she's in, I don't really care.

The show's enjoyable enough that I'll stick with it to see how it turns out. More importantly, even if the show isn't to my specific tastes, it's an intelligently thought-out premise that I'm happy to see add some life to the USA Network. It's fan-base is highly visible (especially the ones who attacked me on twitter) and it seems like Jessica and Lennon have found a niche that TV needs.

Bad Teacher

By earning its second season renewal, "About a Boy" demonstrated how one can build a TV-oriented world around a film: Step 1) Make sure your film adaptation has characters who have room to grow beyond ninety minutes and Step 2) World build to your heart's content. Bad Teacher was a fairly solid film that seems ripe for transplantation (a fancy word I just made up) to another medium. The  concept of a teacher who isn't really into the profession and wants to get by on as little work as possible is intriguing.

The bad teacher, in this case, is a gold digger with little to no moral code who starts the school year so depressed at having been dumped that she doesn't even have the energy to teach her class. She shows them movies and most of her effort on the school premises are spent trying to elude trouble and trying to court a wealthy substitute teacher.

Over the course of 92 minutes, Cameron Diaz undergoes sufficient transformations to becoming a better person and teacher. In the second act, she realizes that being a good teacher would strategically work out better for her short-term earnings so she can afford the boob job necessary to land a man. In the third act, she's ditched the boob job idea and genuinely has become a better teacher and person

The three act story structure isn't really working in this TV show. I was thinking that it would start with the bad teacher being awful and gradually reforming over the course of a season or two, but it seems like the show isn't up to the challenge of trying to separate the Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3 versions of the Cameron Diaz character. The result is a somewhat muddled character who is simultaneously showing signs of someone who's genuinely grown while continuing to do very stupid things.

That's pretty much the biggest minus in the show, but there seems like a lot of room for the show to surprise me. In the plus column, the sexual tension between Meredith (originally, her name was Elizabeth, not sure why it's changed here) and the Jason Segel/Ryan Hansen seems put to rest surprisingly early so that Elizabeth can go in different directions romantically or even go at no permanent direction at all.

There are a number of pros and cons of how the TV version differs from the movie version, but that's what makes it interesting. So far, there seems a lot of room to play around and I'm on board the ride at the moment.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Remembering Anthony Minghellia and Sidney Pollack

News update: The content farm Helium to which I'd contributed some 150 articles between 2008 and 2010 announced that it is closing shop and deleting their sites from existence by December 2012. I think this is a great decision as it will allow its writers to find out their true worth and expand their content from something that pays them a few cents to someone that will pay them in dollars. It will also clean up the internet a little. The article-sphere is diluted by articles written to make (quite literally) nickels and dimes. In any case, I will share some of the articles that I wrote back in those days on this blog

As everyone was mourning Heath Ledger's death and considering the loss to future moviedom from pictures he never made, I found it curious that the Heath Ledger effect doesn't work for directors as well. Within the same four-month period, the two founders of Mirage died premature deaths this past year and while Sidney Pollack's funeral was one of the most widely attended events in Hollywood this past year, no one has had the discussion about whether there will be a loss to the world of movies that he won't be making any more pictures. I imagine Pollack might have had two or three films left in him. He was 74 when he died, which is pretty old, but Altman, Lumet and Scorsesee seem on course to make films into their 80s as does Eastwood.

Minghellia is an even more extreme case. At age 54, he could have done a dozen more films before his natural death and while Pollack could be uneven, Minghellia's films were usually Oscar-caliber. He won an Oscar as the director for the English Patient (1996), and earned a follow-up nomination for best writing on his next film, Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). His adaptation of the Charles Frazier novel, Cold Mountain (2003), was the most buzzed about film of its year, and earned Minghellia his highest box office take to date. In his subsequent film, he came very close to being nominated for a second directorial Oscar and earned Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for his directorial and writing work. Breaking and Entering (2006) was quiet and not widely viewed but it was well-received among those who had seen it. Minghellia usually tackled books and challenging adaptations and while they weren't necessarily topical, they had potential to be timeless.

Not only did Minghellia tackle books but he tackled the best: Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient and Cold Mountain had all earned accolades as novels and one has to surmise it was the scribe in Minghellia who loved the challenge of taking good source material and capturing the essence of a good novel.

One should also credit Minghellia and Pollack as producers for having an eye for good material. It's a tribute to them that their final picture before departing the planet, The Reader, upset the Dark Knight and Wall-E to grab an Oscar nomination. The credits are currently in dispute because I imagine they want someone who's alive to pick up the statue and represent the film at the Academy Awards Ceremony, but if Heath Ledger can be honored posthomously, it is my wish that Anthony Minghellia can be honored as well.

Update: Although "The Reader" lost to "Slumdog Millionaire", Syndey Pollack and Anthony Minghellia were credited as producers for their final film and had the honor of repeating as Academy Award nominees in the first Oscar ceremony since their deaths.