Monday, October 20, 2014

Top 25 TV Characters of 2013


In order to prep for my upcoming 2014 Top 25 TV characters list, I realized, I actually have to post my top 2013 TV characters. Last year's list can be found here (http://sophomorecritic.blogspot.com/2013/05/25-characters.html). There's also my Top 10 of last year here.



1. Claire Danes as Agent Carrie Mathison, Homeland-She topped last year's list and is still the best character on TV. 
2. Mark Feuerstein as Dr. Hank Lawson, Royal Pains-Even if “Royal Pains” isn’t the most ambitious show on television, Hank Lawson is one of TV’s most relevant heroes considering the healthcare crisis that’s only intensified since this show premiered in 2009. He's such an uplifting character and has a maverick quality to him. He's just a desperado concierge doctor equipped with a scalpel, lightning-quick diagnosing abilities and the mysterious ability to constantly be around some of the rarest medical emergencies ever recorded
3. Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute, The Office-And the big winner of the "Next Michael Scott" sweepstakes is (drumroll) Dwight! This is a big turn from a couple years ago in which Dwight was not the best choice for a boss and several years removed from when Dwight was the most ridiculous guy in the entire office (It also inadvertently helped that Kevin got dumber).
4. Damien Birchir as Det. Marco Ruiz, The Bridge-Marco Ruiz is a new iteration of an American hero (and hey, considering the US will be majority Latin-American in 2050, it totally fits). He's the modern-day Gary Cooper had Cooper existed in as imperfect of a time and place as the Mexican-Texan border in the 21st century. An Oscar nominee, Birchir brings a great gravity to the role and his emotional showdown with Tate on the eponymous (hopefully I'm using that word correctly) bridge was one of the highlights of the series.
5. Vera Farminga as Norma Bates, Bates Motel-Farminga, an Academy Award nominee who should have scored a couple more nods by now, gives a very multi-layered performance without revealing too much beneath the surface as the mother of the future iconic knife-wielder. There are no easy diagnoses with which you can label Norma (or what Norma's inflicting on others) in this simmering psychological thriller.
6. Robert MacElhenney as Mac, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia-It's a testament to the great writing of this show that the five leads are continually being developed in interesting directions nine seasons in. Mac's massive weight fluctuation and his ambiguous sexuality, however, are just the writers toying with us. For more on the fluid nature of Mac's sexuality and other Sunny mysteries, read here.
7. Matthew Lillard as Daniel Frye, The Bridge-Daniel Frye is who I want to be as a journalist and as soon as I finish this column, I'm going to go to the nearest bar and develop a drinking problem. But in all seriousness, I love this guy: He has absolutely no regard for other people or for himself. The only thing keeping his life from unraveling entirely is that he's on the heels of his next story.
8. Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson, Homeland-Berenson is not just a static character: He's rock solid. I would want a man like this running the CIA. He's deeply caring about the people in his custory (Exhibit A: the woman from season 1 who negotiated with him for sunshine for a day), slow, pensive, and a host of other good qualities. 
9. Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, Scandal-Kerry Washington is a fantastic actress who has long deserved a breakout role like this. I haven't been a regular watcher of the show but I'm happy that a character like Olivia Pope---someone at the epicenter of politics and a gateway point to discussion about Washington's inner working- and an actress like Kerry Washington are becoming prime water cooler talk.
10. Corey Stoll as U.S. Rep. Peter Russo, House of Cards-Alas, poor Peter Russo, we knew ye too well. As the world within House of Cards becomes more and more hellish, we have the memories of the one idealist who almost made a difference in the system. 
11. Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans-I've devoted a lot of effort show to complaining about the show's realism and even went so far as to interview the head of Washington's Spy Museum to prove a point. While I might find her character absurd, I can see her as a great character (perhaps even the best character on television) under a hypothetical that her character makes sense. Keri Russell, who wins the award for biggest 180 from her previous TV role as an angsty college student in "Felicity", is fiercely committed to her ideology nd occasionally quite lethal as deep cover Russian spy Elizabeth.
12. Lucy Liu as Watson, Elementary-The female reimagining of Watson is a fresh twist on one of history's most iconic stock characters in TV and it's a great role for Lucy Liu as well. The chemistry between Liu and Johnny Lee Miller is a tricky one to navigate. In some versions of Sherlock Holmes, Watson is the caretaker to an idiot savant. Here, the pair is in a symbiotic and equal relationship.
13. Robert Lowe as Chris Traeger, Parks and Recreation-One of those eureka moments watching "Parks and Recreation" recently was realizing that Chris Traeger was the heart of the show. His positivity and warmth were indicative of the tone of a show that's considered one of TV's biggest hang-out fests. The abnormally positive person with a hint of sadness underneath made for a fascinating character and I responded well to the idea of him working on himself and his anxieties rather than just immediately finding a cure for loneliness. On top of this, Chris Traeger is far-and-away the best role in Rob Lowe's long career.
14. Taryn Manning as Pennsatucky, Orange is the New Black-Some might feel she was overplayed, but I found her highly amusing. She wasn't the show's deepest character but she was an ideal foil to Piper and I saw a lot of depth in all of Pennsatucky's physical mannerisms and tics.
15. Alia Shawkat as Maeby Funke, Arrested Development-One can pick any number of characters from here, but in terms of a character really going in reverse yet spinning her wheels in exciting ways, Maeby was hard to top. In her latest ploy for parental attention, the 22-year-old voluntarily flunks her senior year of high school for five straight years.
16. Jim Jefferies as Jim, Legit-Like his Australian counterpart Jason Gann ("Legit" and "Wilfred" comparisons are unavoidable), Jefferies doesn't have any sort of gimmick like dressing up in a dog suit. In fact, Jefferies doesn't do much all day at all, but he goes about it in a charming way. It's also amusing how his attempts at life improvement mainly affect his roommates' life views (to the consternation of Mindy Sterling). In short, this is a show based on a stand-up comic that works because it's so congruent with his comedic vision.
17. Dean Norris as Hank Schrader, Breaking Bad-I thought that Hank would go the way of Skyler and call off his crusade once he realized Walter White was family. When the moment came, Hank surprised me and sharply defined the difference between being a good cop and being a man of integrity.  People rave about the show's final season and while it was "stunning" (I can't honestly tell you whether it was stunning on my free will as the critical mass has drowned out any capacity at independent thought on "Breaking Bad"), Hank's steadfast character was the one thing that really threw me for a curve.
18. Taylor Schilling as Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black-For all the attention, the show has gotten on its plethora of supporting characters, I'd maintain that a show based on a first-person memoir is only as strong as it's lead. Piper, front and center, is our audience surrogate to a unique and highly unfamiliar world. It's her slow transformation from naive waif to prison-hard that grounds the show. The character gets a lot of criticism for being everything from naive to selfish, but I'd argue that she would do exactly as well as any of us would in prison, if not better.  It's that relatability that makes the show work.
19. Freddy Highmore as Norman Bates, Bates Motel-Freddy Highmore came to prominence in child roles in the mid-2000's with "Finding Neverland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Now he's all grown-up and I couldn't be happier to see a child star nailing such an adult role. 
20. Chelsea Peretti as Gina Linetti, Brooklyn Nine Nine-I've written elsewhere that I don't enjoy Brooklyn Nine Nine anymore. In my opinion, the show suffers greatly from a balance issue: The charaters are too crazy for even a straight man of Andre Braughter's calliber. But Gina is such a well-crafted brand of crazy, her antics are almost immune to this balance issue. For me, there's no other reason to watch this show than Gina. For some of her golden dialogue, see this Buzzfeed article 23 Reasons Gina is the Best Character on TV
21. Diane Kruger as Sonia Cross, The Bridge-With all the "Orange is the New Black" standouts, I was thinking of including 3 OitNB cast members but at the end of the day, The Bridge had three very strong characters all of which should be honored. Aside from being one of the most realistic portrayals of aesperger's being shown on screen, Sonia is also a great showcase for Diane Kruger. All the social awkwardness of an aspie character is flipped when a beautiful woman has those traits
22. Julie White as Anne, Go On-A very strong bittersweet character from this gone-too-soon series. She was on last year's list and she got even richer as time went on.
23. Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright, Smash-The modern "42nd Street" reimagining is only as good as its Ruby Keelor.  McPhee plays the Broadway ingenue as a girl-next-door type who can amp up her sex appeal if the show demands it. There was something interesting about a hard working showgirl who's sex appeal was a professional afterthought. (full disclosure: I only watched approximately three episodes of "Smash")
24. Tom Greene as Kip Wampler, Camp-Although a series starring the aderrol-addled 41-year old comic as a junior camp counselor would have been entertaining, I'm referring here to a young Australian actor whose unique take on the angst-ridden teenager made for the highlight of an otherwise only mildly memorable series. Kip is a teenager experiencing adolescence for the first time as a summer camp counselor after being sequestered for his youth with leukemia, In his performance, Greene managed to steer clear of the repetitive tropes attached to this type of role and his storyline would have been effective on both a lightweight series or even a more dramatic one.
25.  Dan Bucatinsky as Jerome, Web Therapy-A highly entertaining pushover. Wasn't it ironic that he interacted with Lisa Kudrow with such a different power dynamic in "Scandal" when she guested.
(full disclosure: It is still really difficult for me to tell which episodes of Web Therapy premiered when and this is all complicated by the fact that much of the Showtime series is derived from a web series sold on ITunes that premiered two years earlier. It's entirely possible that 2013 Jerome perished or became satanic)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Some old reviews: Wedding Crashers, Lady in the Water, Frost/Nixon

One of the tenants in the apartment building, where Lady in the Water takes place, is a crotchety old film critic who he feels he’s seen it all. “I have come to accept there’s nothing original left in this world,” he says. This is ironic because if this fictitious character knew of the movie he was inadvertently a part of, he would think differently.

It is hard to deny that if nothing else, M. Night Shamylan has a very unique voice. He certainly isn’t the only current filmmaker who’s original but everything in the tone of his films from the characters to the setting and plot feels a little bit off the norm.

In Lady in the Water, Shamylan conjures up a fantasy world that intrigues us in the in the way it intersects with a seemingly mundane group of tenants in an apartment. The lady referenced in the title (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a sea nymph who is discovered in the apartment’s pool* by the building’s super, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Giamatti reaffirms how underrated of an actor he is in the way he gives unforeseen depth to the character of Cleveland. Mourning the death of his wife and kids, Cleveland is a hesitant and uneasy man with a stutter. However, when the girl says her life is in danger, he is overcome with too much empathy and devotes himself to helping her find her way back home. A cryptic folk story told to him by one of his tenants reveals the identity of the girl as an otherworldly prophetic figure who seeks out three groups of tenants in the building and Cleveland must sift through the colorful group of characters that populate his building to find out who they are.

The film creates a constant state of suspense with shots reminiscent of Jaws that show victims being attacked from the point-of-view of the sharks, or in this case mythical beasts that Howard’s character is fleeing from. It’s main strength, however, is how Shamylan’s storytelling is different from anything we’ve ever seen before. Even when the film moves a little slow or gets bogged up in plot holes, we’re too intrigued by Shamylan’s vivid imagination not to want to follow along and see where he’s going.

*One quick potential plot hole to clear up in case you’re wondering how it could be remotely believable to have a sea nymph appear out of a swimming pool: this pool isn’t a concrete hole in the ground but rather it was built over some natural body of water and the sea nymph appears out of some chasm and emerges through a vent.

Frost/Nixon

Directed by Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon is on par with the most insightful of political dramas yet it plays out like a riveting sports film.

The arena of competition in this case is public perception and the “sport” is debate. The contestants? Ex-President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and B-level talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) who are trying to earn critical respectability over a course of public interviews. At the time (1977 to be exact), David Frost was trying to become respected as a journalist and earn bigger endorsement deals and Richard Nixon was trying to elevate his speaking fees as well as earn himself a place back among the Washington elite.

The way the public was so glued to their tv screens during the presidential debates the year this film proved that the film’s theme- public perception is everything- is as timely as ever. Is Frost/Nixon commenting on whether democracy’s imperfections can be weeded out through this medium or does the film apologetically state that politics are a zero-sum game? As Frost says in one scene when the President tells him how much alike they are, “I agree but only one of us can win.”

The film is an interesting commentary on the American political myth about the great political outsider who comes from nowhere to be the President of the U.S. and leads the country to greatness. Frost/Nixon is the story of a guy who’s an outsider whose dream of saving democracy and leading the U.S. foward isn’t to become president but to take down an illegitimate US President. Through this inversion, the film teaches us that it’s easier to build up a man than to expose him for what he really is.

The script, by Peter Morgan, made these thoughtful points but also made the film exciting. Even the mundane things- the adjusting of the participants’ ties before the interview, small-talk between staffers, the communications between the tv crew-  all became something to watch. Morgan, who also wrote “The Queen” and “Special Relationship” has an interest in the mores of political conduct and, sometimes he can’t translate his narrow interest in the topic to something exciting for the audience. This is one of those exceptions.

Langella and Sheen are fantastic in their roles and with so little drama in the film outside of their interactions, it’s fair to say they make the movie (although Kevin Bacon provides a highlight in one of the character actor’s more intense supporting roles to date). As someone who’s never seen the original Frost/Nixon debates, I can’t say with authority how they compare to the original, but they two create very deep characters upon which the drama transpires.

 The film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and fully deserved it.


From the same comedic team (more or less) that brought you Zoolander, Dodgeball, and Old School, the latest annual installment of a comedy has arrived about people who don’t actually exist (frat boys who technically aren’t college students, professional dodgeball players, etc), but could very easily exist when you think about it.

The comedic team that I’m talking about is combination of at least one guy with the last name Wilson, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell who rotate playing the lead, playing the sidekick/rival, not being in the movie at all, and providing a much loved 2-minute cameo. Owen Wilson and Vaughn take the leads as two more characters that guys could easily enjoy vicariously living through for a couple hours: John Beckwith and Jeremy Klein (Wilson) are two divorce lawyers who spend their spare time crashing weddings solely to meet girls.

After years of practice they’ve refined it down to an art. One of the best running comic gags, in fact, is that they have a lengthy rule book that they memorize and regularly cite from in various situations.
The story begins when after a very successful wedding season, shown through a well-made opening montage; the two buddies decide to end off the season with a bang by crashing what will be their most high stakes wedding to date. Why this wedding is a bigger deal to them than any other wedding is beyond me, but nevertheless, the two go to the wedding and both find themselves with bigger messes than they can clean up by wedding’s end. Jeremy falls for one of the bride’s sisters, Claire, and all is going well until he meets her boyfriend. Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) plays Claire a little too lackadaisically charming to come off as anything but clichd.

John, meanwhile, has such good luck with the bride’s other sister that he manages to have sex with her before the wedding is even over. Unfortunately, she mistakes his love of the chase for true love and his efforts to flee the scene get foiled by his love-struck partner in crime who insists they stick around. This is the point in the movie when, like John, it would be best to flee the scene ourselves.

While the film is lined with sharp and hilarious snippets of dialogue throughout, the story is unevenly paced and it never really gets back to that screwball comedy feel it attains in the film’s first half hour.

If not for the fact that these guys will probably be appearing in movie theaters again in some cameo or comedy vehicle before I even finish mourning their failure, I’d have been disappointed because with a few minor tweaks, I could have seen this movie working. For example, one of the downturns that are used in these types of romantic comedies to prevent the guy and girl from getting together before working things out takes up almost a year of the story and one of the characters gets depressed to the point of feeling suicidal. In this scene and in general, the movie too often drifts a little too far away from lighthearted-comedy mode. Considering how with characters that revel in the joy of taking advantage of girls at weddings, the movie’s tone is quite cynical when you think about it, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get the audience taking the film too seriously at all.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014 Review Sans Fall Season



A moderately exhaustive catch-up of pretty much everything I've seen this year before the Fall Season rolls around and I cover those shows. Some reviews will be very brief or I'll link you elsewhere. The shows are broken into categories:

Top tier: Shows that are firing on all cylinders

  1. Archer, FX-Even by today’s standards, Archer did something pretty bold by flipping the entire premise of its show. The ragtag spy agency previously known as ISIS (they allegedly sold the naming rights to a real-life band of Jihadists in Iraq or something like that) got disbanded and the characters became criminals for a full season. Comic possibilities quadrupled. (longer review)
  2. The Bridge, FX-The Bridge-Last season, "The Bridge" was a suspenseful ride, but the two aimless episodes between the conclusion of the first season and the actual season finale had me wondering where the show would go once the bad guy was put away. What I didn’t anticipate was that the show’s rich characters and sense of place were more than enough to carry the show regardless of the villain. What’s more, the second season nicely wove the aftermath of the David Tate plot along with the disparate side plots into a larger picture. The show continues to have a lot going for it: A well-paced plot, a touch on topical issues, and some of the most underrated characters on TV (Daniel Frye is who I now want to model myself after as a journalist. I even plan on going to the nearest bar and developing my own drinking problem after I finish writing this)
  3. Orange is the New Black, Netflix-As Piper became more comfortable with her environment and even began to take command of her surroundings, the show took on a more self-assured tone that could even be called optimistic. In the first season, pretty much everyone Piper bumped into at Litchfield was some version of your worst nightmare. The second season got interesting in the way it kept redirecting audience hatred towards a number of temporary villains (Mendez, Fig, Healy, Alex, Crazy Eyes all did despicable things at some point or another) before making themselves sympathetic once more and eventually redirecting us to one big bad. This show has also written and rewritten the textbook on ensemble pieces, both from the narrative (balancing focus on several characters) and the acting sides. (longer review)
  4.  Review, Comedy Central- 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. 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 makes for **SPOILER** a cathartic ending.  (longer review)
  5. The Knick, HBO-Every medical procedural (from Grey's Anatomy to E.R.) should just be set back 100 years in time where medicine was more like alchemy than an exact science. "Patient is not responding! I want some leaches and epoxy salts under his nose stat!" That Clive Owen only got nominated for one Oscar astounds me.
  6. Quick Draw, Hulu-It’s understandable that this TV show would be underappreciated considering: 1) It is on a network that really hasn’t had any visible hits, and 2) the creator’s last show was on TBS during an era when they proved just how little they know about comedy with those annoying “very funny” commercials. It’s worth believing in second chances because while John Lehr’s previous show “10 Items or Less” was a mixture of slightly inventive and bland, “Quick Draw” is in that sublime zone of comedy where the comic climate is so well-established that as long as the characters stay reasonably in character, every attempt at humor is a joke that hits and every joke that hits is a home run.
Second Tier: Shows that are getting it done in style:

  1. House of Cards Season 1, Netflix-Lots of interesting tension and great characters. I soured on this show on Season 2 so I'll cover that more there (longer review)
  2. John Oliver-When he took over as host of the Daily Show last summer, it was a breath of fresh air that led me to believe he should take over the show. The second best thing happened: Oliver's carved out a niche for his comedy on HBO. Due to the novelty factor, John Oliver is my favorite late night comedian to watch at the moment.
  3. Manhattan, WGN-The show isn’t groundbreaking but is certainly watchable. It’s an intelligent historical drama that has a firm grasp of what makes its designated period of history interesting and utilizes that for some good juicy drama. The show manages to touch on social issues from a bygone era from an ironic distance without coming across as overly preachy. The show’s ensemble has mostly unknowns outside of Rushmore/Dollhouse’s Olivia Williams but there are a lot of interesting characters and the ensemble has enough tension so that there’s enough inter-group conflict for a tense World War II pic without a single Nazi. 
  4. Legit, FX-The aimless life of an Australian comedian with too much free time on his hands could rival Seinfeld in terms of low-impact storylines (or as Seinfeld called it “nothing”). with  The second season has Jim becoming no worse or better than before, but relatively succeeding at growing up by virtue of the fact that his two roommates have become far more depraved by comparison.
  5. Bojack Horseman, Netflix-"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. 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 (longer review)
  6.   Royal Pains, USA-I have always maintained that even if “Royal Pains” isn’t the most ambitious show on television, Hank Lawson is one of TV’s most relevant heroes considering the healthcare crisis that’s only intensified since this show premiered in 2009. As medical procedurals go, few are more uplifting than this one. There are no McSteamys and McDreamys here: Just a desperado concierge doctor, a scalpel, lightning-quick diagnosing abilities and the mysterious ability to constantly be around some of the rarest medical emergencies ever recorded (OK, maybe it’s a little more than a scalpel he has). This season’s main thru-lines—The discovery of the Lawson clan’s long-lost sister, the navigation of newlyweds Evan and Paige through a rocky first year, the desire for Jeremiah to step out of his comfort zone—all gibe well and pleasantly focuses on underrepresented dynamics (i.e. siblings, adult-father-and-son) in television. It should also be noted that the series is total scenery/lifestyle porn: People might be falling into comas and strokes in Hank’s presence but they’re having near-death experiences in style. 


Third Teir: Pretty Alright
1. Key and Peele, Comedy Central
2. Crossbones, NBC-Thoroughly enjoyed this pirate saga that has many of the elements of “Pirates of the Caribbean”: beautiful shots of exotic Caribbean locales, swordplay, and the kind of plot twists that come from a pair of mischievous Jack Sparrowish characters who both possess a near-endless capacity for on the fly.
In one ring, we have Blackbeard (John Malkovich), who in this alternate take on history, faked his death and is now living large as a semi-peaceful ruler of an off-the-grid pirate kingdom of his own making. His main foil is combination doctor/spy/ tactician/lover Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) who is originally sent to expose/kill Blackbeard but ends up in an uneasy alliance with the semi-erratic despot.  There’s also a love triangle between Lowe, free-spirited quartermaster Kate Balfour (I could easily write another paragraph about how enchanting Claire Foy is here) and her handicapped husband (Peter Stebbings).
As for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” comparison (a compare/contrast angle is inevitable considering that is the only other pirate film I have seen), this isn’t the movies but an NBC show that’s relegated to the summer schedule (AKA low-key filler) so adjust your expectations accordingly. It is worth pointing out, however, that while Johnny Depp anchored the Pirates series with a meticulously crafted iconic comic character in Jack Sparrow Jon Malkovich’s humor is unintentional: His interpretation of Blackbeard’s accent is suspiciously Malkovich-like (worth mentioning other than the accent, Malkovich is fine here). But hey, written history can only tell us so much about the accents of 18th Century pirates. Maybe Blackbeard did sound like John Malkovich?
3. Portlandia, IFC-A solid sketch show about the art and science of looking cool. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein still find ways to reinvent themselves and refine their concept four seasons in. The show is also a great haven for guest stars whether Steve Buscemi, Bobby Moynihan, Kumail Nanjiani, Kyle MacLachlan, and the Portland Trailblazers. (longer review)

4. Colbert Report, Comedy Central-The announcement that he was going to take over for David Letterman alerted me to the fact that he's been on the air nearly ten years. That's a long time to stay in one character and I have full confidence that he could do another 10 if he wanted. 


Also the Third Tier: Shows That Took Me By Surprise (in a good way)
1. Suburgatory, ABC-After sporadically watching in Season Two, I caught onto the back end of the third season and found a more satisfying and complex entity than I had previously seen. When the show premiered, it had bite to it in its satirizations of suburbia in the form of city folk George and daughter Tessa, who had moved from Manhattan to the uber-suburban town of Chatswain. As sitcom characters are prone to do, Tessa and George found love interests, friends and frenemies which resulted in a dampening of the edge as George and Tessa were no longer outsiders and overly connected to the town they were supposed to be making fun of. I was highly pleased to find a happy medium between these two poles in Season 3 and all the more heartbroken that the show was cancelled.
2. About a Boy, NBC-The pilot episode and the difficulties of adapting a TV show gave me plenty of doubt, but the show was successfully stretched to a longer-term format. These characters are worth investing for in the long run and from an episode-to-episode perspective, it's  nice charming low-key comedy that offers the same thing the book and movie did: unique character dynamics. (Longer Review)
3. Playing House, TBS-The female-centered comedy initially seemed like chick flick territory, but the two leads are charming and have enough chemistry together to sell the show. (Longer Review)
4. Gravity Falls, Disney-It's difficult to put my finger on what makes the show work considering it defies categorization in this animated TV landscape. It's not really a show for kids (thematically too dark) which is especially bizarre considering its on the Disney Channel which is the new Nickelodeon. At the same time, "Gravity Falls" isn't a direct satire of kid's shows and is unironically steeped in the style of a classic kid's show itself. It will take me some thinking to figure out exactly why this show is working for me, but in the meantime, let me report: This show has hooked me and it's seeming to hook quite a few of my peers. Also, let me report: The spunky protagonist Mabel (Kristen Schaal AGAIN) Pines is one of my favorite characters on TV.
5. Glee, Fox-Its been a while since Glee's heyday when it was water cooler talk. That's understandable as the show cycles through characters, romances and plots at high velocities. In that sense, the show is more about style than substance and inevitably the novelty factor wears off without substance. This past season, some of the substance came back into the show as the character development decelerated. Sam, Tina, Artie and Blaine's senior year was split in two giving the cast a bigger chance to gel. (Longer Review)

To be covered in more detail:
I'll Watch It if It's On:
Bad Teacher, CBS; New Girl, Fox; Modern Family, ABC; The Awesomes, Hulu; Fugget About It, Hulu; Parks and Recreation, NBC; American Dad/Family Guy, Fox; Broad City, Comedy Central

What Was I Thinking??: Shows I've Soured On
Under the Dome, Fox; House of Cards (Season 2), Netflix; Deadbeat, Hulu; Halt and Catch Fire, AMC; Mindy Project, Fox

Shows I just never got into:
Hannibal, NBC; The Strain, FX; Turn, AMC; The Middle, ABC


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.




Awesomes:
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


*SPOILERS AHEAD*

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.