02 December 2011

New Girl's Jess: The Best New Female Character on Television

I didn't want to like it. I watched the pilot with a degree of negative prejudgment usually reserved for a Lars von Trier film, and that episode of New Girl really didn't do much to assuage my predisposition. Zooey Deschanel played a twee TV character appropriating tropes from both the stereotypical television female (post-breakup she sobs all day while repeatedly watching Dirty Dancing) and the unconventional kind of woman I relate to (her idea of flirting is lifting her glasses up while hooting "hubba hubba"), which just made me angry. I'd rather have her be a two-dimensional "girlfriend" character than one adopting some more relatable attributes, but in a way that feels tacked on and inorganic. This happened with Deschanel's character in (500) Days of Summeras Lindy West puts it: "(500) Days of Summer feels like it was written by a bunch of marketing executives who just took a class on indie quirkiness at the Learning Annex." Ugh. I did not want to enjoy this show. But the other castmembers were funny enough, so I watched another episode, and… I've found myself starting to get excited for it to be Tuesday just for the evening's New Girl.

Yes, Jess has a "quirky" TV/movie-job (elementary school teacher), an expansive wardrobe no one could afford on that salary (sponsored by Cotton), and looks like Zooey Deschanel, but she also obnoxiously sings at inappropriate moments, laughs at her own corny jokes, and is very uncomfortable with expressing herself sexually. Jess is far too flawed to be a male fantasy, and has too many interests outside of relations with men to be grouped with other "adorkable" characters Zooey Deschanel has played. Instead, she is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for awkward women; the pinnacle of what they could be with their off-putting personalities still intact, like an "everywoman" Liz Lemon lacking that unpopular girl dream-job that makes her somehow a less attainable female fantasy. Obviously there is still the appearance factor—Tina Fey and Zooey Deschanel have magazine-cover good looks—which could be even more detrimental for unpopular women than the MPDG: "If men are even turned off by Zooey Deschanel when she acts like that, then no one is going to like me!" However, I find this to make all the more empowering the times when Jess succeeds in the dating realm: "He obviously does not just like her for her looks! There is hope for me after all!"

Erik Adams of The AV Club recently did not at all enjoy a New Girl episode I quite fancied, "CeCe Crashes." Adams took umbrage with how New Girl has begun to introduce something of a "will they/won't they" between Jess and one of her three male roommates, Nick (Jake M. Johnson). Yes, this is an irritating television trope, but as Adams writes, "a show about platonic friends just doesn't have enough sizzle for modern television." New Girl is in no way something that I expect to be "groundbreaking television," eschewing the regular plot devices that assure viewership, so as Unresolved Sexual Tension has become inevitable in the sitcom universe, how this is introduced is what is important. And episode writer Rachel Axler (who also worked on Parks and Rec) has done so in a brilliantly awkward girl manner.

Jess does not pick up on anything but friendship between her and Nick until her friend CeCe stays for a few days, and hints that she thinks he's interested. The beginning of the episode parallels this later conversation—Jess (pyjama-clad) rescues a drunken CeCe from a club; as they walk to Jess's car, some men catcall CeCe, who giggles, "Jess, I think these guys are into you." Jess shrugs it off. This is furthered in a flashback in which a high school Jess cannot accept the advances of her classmate Eduardo, assuming he must mean to hit on CeCe. Jess does not perceive herself as a sexual object desirable to men. She does not pick up on any possibility with Nick until CeCe uses her tricky "mind games." Adams critiques CeCe as "less a character and more a dispenser of the worst romantic-comedy tropes," but I would say more that CeCe is the connection Jess has to the sitcom world in which she inhabits. "You can't be friends with guys," CeCe asserts. "No, you just think that everyone wants to sleep with everyone all the time," Jess retorts. Jess is an original character in that she does not understand the "sitcom logic" which governs most primetime romantic relationships, yet the show itself is not novel enough to do away with a reliance on that underlying structure, and so hence: CeCe as the introducer of this unavoidable UST.

This episode does have its flaws, with other roommates Schmidt and Winston regressing to douchey stereotypes in a clichéd competition to "get with" CeCe, but New Girl especially knows how to use Max Greenberg humorously in this context. (The best—Ben Kingsley is one of Schmidt's favourite things about India; Greenberg's reading of the word "chutney.") And this plot gave us Schmidt telling Jess on the roof, "I guess I'll always just be the fat kid with the big dreams." New Girl presents a somewhat hopeful, sitcom-realistic version of the future for those fat girls and boys. They won't be CeCe or her male counterparts, but they could be Jess or Schmidt. Also the way in which the budding romantic tension between Jess and Nick plays out resonated with the awkward romantic in me without feeling contrived. Jess's dream man: "Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men and I could be Girl Jack Lemmon." (She later lambastes Nick – "Why do you have to wear old man clothes all the time?!") She assesses Nick's potential attraction to her by checking in what direction his feet point, a technique seemingly developed by a gawky middle schooler. Their storyline concludes with Jess apologizing for being weird, and then them just silently brushing their teeth, side-by-side. This is a wonderful, quiet little moment, reminiscent of my favourite scene from Let the Right One In.

"I like moving slow," Jess tells CeCe. "I like being weird and taking my time. I'm not like you. I don't just jump into the potato sack with the first potato that I meet with diabetes." And thus I propose that Jess is the best new thing to happen to female characters on primetime television this season. Sure, we have Leslie Knope and April Ludgate*, but until Liz Lemon gets back on the air, it's really refreshing to have a lady character lacking complete self-confidence in terms of her sexual desirability. So yes, New Girl falls prey to classic sitcom UST, but Jess does not respond like other characters on TV right now. And thank god for that.

*Happy Endings is an interesting case in how terrible Jane has proved to be at flirting, but she is happily married, and the single characters appear to have no difficulty whatsoever in acquiring new bedfellows. And don't even mention Whitney or Two Broke Girls.

19 October 2011

Parks and Recreation S04E04, "Pawnee Rangers": Jerry Disappoints (But What Did You Expect)

Even more so than the introduction that unseen Eagleton is an over-the-top ritzville, or that all along Leslie Knope has been in a women's group or writing a history of Pawnee, or that Ron's first ex-wife is an IRS agent and his former schoolteacher, I just could not suspend my disbelief at the central conceit of this episode: that Ron Swanson would willingly lead a boy scout troop.

Sure, of course Leslie would form her own girls' troop after a young lady was rejected from the boys-only Pawnee Rangers. It's frustrating that this is retconned in as having been going on for several years (instead of this episode chronicling the Pawnee Goddesses' founding), that their meetings questionably occur at the Parks Department, and that April has somehow been roped in as being a chaperone, but I'll buy it. Ron, though? Ron Swanson is a staunch libertarian, and the Scouts are an organization famously accused of espousing communism. It's believable that as in "Road Trip," if forced into a situation with a youth, Ron would embrace it to share some of his anti-government values. But voluntarily take some kids camping? And then be sad when they leave him alone? Not Ron f***ing Swanson.

This essential issue with the A-plot is only exacerbated by how the storyline plays out: with one of the worst stock sitcom plots, "girls vs boys." Leslie decides that this weekend (even though the Pawnee Rangers and Goddesses have ostensibly been around for years now) is a great time for the rival troops to have at it, and decide once and for all, which one is simply "better." Every trite storyline has the potential to be freshened or twisted into something exciting again (think Community), but even with a Leslie Knope spin, the A-line cannot surpass its cliched origins. This rather goofy, unbelievable plot attempts to provide itself with some emotional resonance with a (what is becoming increasingly-requisite) "Ron and Leslie touching moment," replete with a little Ron smile. But this storyline has not earned that little Ron grin, and the connection between the characters feel as in-genuine and contrived as the idea that Ron would lead a boy scout troop.

This episode could be saved by plentiful jokes or adequate ancillary stories, but sadly no in both cases. As Andy, April, and Ann are relegated to background players in the Leslie vs Ron showdown - though I did enjoy Ann's constant rebuffs by the Goddesses - the other plots are left with secondary-characters, and put into uncomfortable pairings: Donna, Tom, and Ben, and Jerry and Chris.

Jerry has not had very many of his own plots, and justifiably: he almost always brings laughs, but he's a one-joke character. That being that he is everyone else's scapegoat for apparently no reason. But if we get to know Jerry more, he could give us some explanation for that unwarranted hatred, and the joke would stop being so funny. No fear, this story did not ruin the punchline by providing Jerry with characterization, but it also wasn't very humorous - just a lot of awkward facial expressions and "umms," as Jerry Jerries it up with no one to make it funny by calling him out, and Rob Lowe cartooning up the place with his increasingly-caricatured Chris. And the reveal that Jerry's daughter is gorgeous and normal - this does not add to his character, but just takes away some of that ambiguity of Jerry's home life, which is a large component of his character's joke (this story inevitably disappoints much like introducing Ron's mom in "Ron and Tammys"; an unseen/imagined off-screen presence will often be much funnier than the eventual reveal of that character can ever be).

The Donna/Tom plot does not waste any big reveals, nor is it complicit in any especially malignant retconning (the "Treat Yo'self" was harmless), but it was just sort of irritating, with Tom spouting off more of his recent ridiculous idioms (has he become Jean-Ralphio?) and containing another of the worst stock scenarios: a montage of people trying on crrrrrazy outfits, culminating in Ben and a batman suit. Sure, he's dealing with his Leslie breakup, but though authentic to his relationship struggles, I couldn't help but thinking this entire mall situation was built around the punchline of Adam Scott in cosplay, not his character's current emotional conflicts. And yeah, that image is highly comic, but it's immediately spoiled by Tom's corny, predictable repetition of The Dark Knight's catchphrase.

Parks and Recreation has some of the most original characters on television right now, and with some of the most consistent characterization, but an effect of that freshness is a severe discordance and incompatibility with cliche. Every good show has some bad episodes, but it's especially disappointing when it's a series as generally exceptional as Parks and Rec.

-"Did they cancel Game of Thrones?"

08 October 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Catching Up

Up All Night S01E03 ("Working Late and Working It") - okay

I have ad-block on... which means instead of car commercials, I get two minutes of hulu telling me to turn it off.

This episode unfortunately focused on the two UAN aspects I am so far liking least: saccharine scenes about how relationships change once a baby pops in, and Ava. The former is requisite for this show's premise, so I can take the sappiness (and maybe even be touched by it) as long as there are enough jokes. There were a sufficient number, as Will Arnett attempted to sex it up, though Applegate got a bit too goofy with the "fanciness," and Arnett's scenes with Will Forte felt a little awkward -- as the first episode demonstrated, Will Arnett is a charismatic enough actor that hearing just one side of a conversation with an online friend he met on Wow is really enough, and Forte just felt a little unnecessary. Ava, too, is a superfluous character, promoted to lead after Rudolph's success with Bridesmaids. The show has gotten a lot of flack for this: is it a family comedy or a work comedy? I wouldn't mind UAN having these two incongruous aspects if only the Ava plotlines were a little funnier. Of course Jorma Taccone (who was also a second-unit director on this episode) as a 90s b-boy brings laughs, but the Ava story ended with a lesson about friendship and love, which with Arnett's little concluding speech, was just way too much sentiment for a half hour comedy.
-"I was on Gwyneth Paltrow's website, and she kind of walked me through it."

Community S03E02 ("Geography of Global Conflict") - good!

Community really wants you to watch Party Down.

When not drenched in pastiche or parody, the best Community is that that embraces full-on goofiness, while keeping its characters consistent within their broadly-sketched caricatures. I don't watch Community to "feel something" -- I watch it to laugh, and this episode delivered. The plots: the two Annies battling it out to be the best at Model U.N. (Election-esque stylistically, and MARTIN STARR!!), and Britta and Chang twisting the cop/criminal love story to a Greendale setting (accompanied, of course, by Lionel Richie). There was also a little Annie/Jeff dealing with the creepiness of the relationship. And everybody else mostly just got to make fart jokes. Breezy pacing, a lot of laughs, some audacious cinematographic choices, and a welcome lack of moralizing by Jeff. Yay, Community!
-"If embarrassment were bountiful zinc deposits, I'd be Zambia."

Community S03E03 ("Competitive Ecology") - okay

Chang's sort-of noir parody and the use of voice-over has been done better on other episodes of Community (though I did love the Conversation, Lars and the Real Girl, and Veronica Mars references), as has a mostly-bottle episode consisting of many group arguments about nothing, though David Neher really delivered as outsider-looking-in Todd. Nothing really new or exciting about this episode, but at least it has jokes.
-"And who the hell are you always texting? Everyone you know is here."

How I Met Your Mother S07E03 ("The Stinson Missile Crisis") - alright

The show's been missing something for a while now. Maybe it was cumin.

When was the last time we got a Robin-centric episode? Better yet, when have we ever had a Robin-narrated one? Using Robin telling her court-mandated therapist, instead of Future Ted talking to his future kids, made fresh HIMYM's characteristic storytelling structure. Even the A-plot's twist -- that Robin assaulted a crazed Barney bimbo, and not Norah -- was pleasantly surprising. Having Robin tell it somehow made another Marshall/Lily baby story not unbearable (perhaps because Dr. Kal Penn, Professional Therapist kept interrupting), and Ted actually made some jokes! That were funny! Though I'm still unsure as to where exactly this Robin-arc is going (she marries Barney, right? or do they stop being friends? does she get back with Don?), or whether it will end up working, this episode did.
-so the instructor had no qualms about a male couple attending her lamaze class?

07 October 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Alright, But No Parks and Rec

The Office S08E02 ("The Incentive") – painless

Fun fact: Jon Hamm taught Ellie Kemper drama in high school.

Unlike the past few seasons, which begot some horrendously unwatchable television, The Office's eighth year has so far been harmless enough. Like last week, this episode was the most basic, classic Office sort of plot, just with Andy in place of Michael: Dunder Mifflin-Sabre needs to double their sales, and Andy accidentally promises them he'll get an ass tattoo if they succeed.

This isn't bad TV, but it isn't good: it's comedy at its blandest; characters that once became caricatures and have come out the other side as washed-out versions of their former selves. It's innoxious, but it also isn't very funny.

-the opening Kevin tag was an interesting meta-reflection on this (and lets us know they're well aware how terrible the show has been)
-Dwight became such a supervillain in the past few years that I'm not even sure how I feel about his decision to completely reinvent himself around the office, but he was actually pretty funny, if saying things entirely un-Dwightish: "Your friend Neil Patrick Harris really made me laugh the other night." (And his response as everyone else guffawed: "Laughter.")

New Girl S01E02 ("Kryptonite") – alright

Every fiber of my being doesn't want to recommend this but... here you go.

Against my better judgment, I actually found myself enjoying this episode. They nixed the cutaways and instead put all their jokes into dialogue, and you know what, it was actually funny. I still find Zooey Deschanel grating and twee, but I also have no bad associations with the the other cast members -- I actually really like Jake M. Johnson and Max Greenfield, and they and the rest of the cast have good chemistry.

This episode was pretty spare plot-wise: Jess breaks the TV and being broke, is coerced by the guys into getting her flatscreen, fixie bike, and other stuff back from her ex's. Simple, but at least not stupid, and it's dealing with issues set up in the pilot (and Damon Wayans Jr.'s departure), which bodes well for the show's ability to grow.

I wish I hadn't, but I kind of liked it.

-seriously: why are there lockers in their apartment??
-who knew Max Greenfield was so good at playing a borderline-douche: "Rosh Hashanah '06... nothing orthodox about what we did that night."; "It's so nectar." ("It's a volleyball term.")
-I did like the casting of a non, um... Gosling-type to play Jess' ex; "Jess, take your shoes off, we keep an Asian household!"
-true fans own Curly Sue on VHS

How I Met Your Mother S07E03 ("The Ducky Tie") – alright

Ads in old eps of HIMYM that I do not remember!

Good HIMYM-style pacing with interweaving Ted's story in with the goofy Barney/Marshall bet -- which as an A-plot would have been as insufferable as last season's "The Incredible Meatball Sub" -- this kept the episode light and breezy, even with Ted's requisite prolix talks about fate.

After Robin, Victoria is the least-irritating of Ted's exes, and if this whole "you're not over Robin" thing pans out, then using her will seem justified beyond "here's someone who's not Zooey" (which, well, is actually a fairly reasonable excuse). But Robin still pining for Barney, and now Ted mixed up in this relationship-nostalgia seems to only be the opposite of a forward direction for this show -- like Victoria, if it doesn't end up having a larger consequence, it's like HIMYM just wants to remind us of times when it was better, instead of actually being good again. Though at least there was no Zooey.

Parks and Recreation S04E03, "Born and Raised": YES!

This episode had me from second one. I was already cracking up just from the opening background music parodying that of public radio, as Leslie makes a guest appearance on "Thoughts for Your Thoughts" to promote her new book, Pawnee: the Greatest Town in America. This book A-plot was pretty much just non-stop hilarity: the radio spot; the few pages shown*; the appearance on Pawnee Today and the ensuing scandal. Definitely the funniest episode this season.

However, even though the A-plot was hilarious enough to carry the episode, the other stories suffered what seem to be becoming recurring problems. The Ben/Tom pairing, repeated from last week, resulted in some humorous "nerd" conversation, but never seemed to go anywhere (it ended up Leslie didn't need them to "seduce" Joan after all... like poor Jerry and his errand), and had such a strange, awkward, rushed climax. ("Where the hell am I?") The Ann plotline, too, was uncomfortably lacking in purpose. As April and Andy have married, and the UST between him and Ann has been Rd, the character Ann has become more and more obsolete in any context other than her friendship with Leslie. Even with her formal promotion to civil servant, she feels out of place and extraneous to the Parks Department. It was even more awkward that this story involved her trying to engage in conversation with Ron and April... just: why? Ann explains in a talking head that she's know these people for three years now and they've barely exchanged hellos, but that's hardly motivation enough. April/Ron vs Ann is a pairing comedy gold is mined for, but there's no character-consistent reason to justify this happening. April hates Ann and Ron hates everyone -- unless Ann is a masochist or is "doing it for Lesie," why would she bother? Like the Chris PSA story last week, I just couldn't buy it, and this sort of spoiled the ensuing Jenny/Lester/Steve goof. I do deeply love Ron and April together, though. Oh, his little smile when she made him proud.

Many laughs were had this episode, but Parks and Rec definitely still has some character-kinks to work out.

*I have some screencaps for those of you who didn't have a chance to pause on the pages, but HOLY KNOPE IT ACTUALLY EXISTS!!!!!! I already placed a hold at my local library... where it is suspiciously/hilariously titled Pawnee : the greatest town in American [sic] / written, compiled, researched, typed, collated, proof-read, and run through spell-check by Leslie Knope. Super excited.

-"A non-profit group that puts umbrella hats on homeless people when it rains."
-"But they are lesbians."
-"Usually I only read nautical novels and my own personal manifestos."
-"Mine just says 'Get well soon.'" "Aren't you sick?"
-"You might as well be from China!"
-I noticed early on that Joan seemed to be wearing more makeup than usual... and with the divorce reveal, was shown to be a conscious character choice and not just another example of the media's exploitation of females. Yay, Parks and Rec!
-"Is she gonna powder her vagina?"
-"Nerd culture is mainstream now, so when you use the word 'nerd' derogatorily, it means you're the one out of the zeitgeist."
-"Well, let's just say the message boards are going nuts."

05 October 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Too Many Tammys

Now that the academic quarter has started, I'm a little behind on my television watching.

Parks and Recreation S04E02 ("Ron & Tammys") - meh

Don't let me down next week please!

Two cliffhangers from the end of the third season came to fruition in this episode -- Tammy I's return and Entertainment 7Twenty's inevitable bankruptcy -- but these plot continuations/conclusions felt ill-conceived and frankly, a let-down. Patricia Clarkson as Tammy I out-intensified everyone in the cast, which really made me unable to buy anyone's reactions to her. The characters seemed just very goofy, and acting like the writers thought "oh this would be funny" rather than scripting what felt genuine to the situation (like Ron's rapid regression to an obedient schoolboy, or that scene with Leslie drunk - the latter likely inspired by the positive response to the intoxicated scenes in "The Fight"). But though there were lines I laughed at (I'll list below), this episode largely wasn't funny - just trying too hard, and I was very disappointed that this is all we got after a summer of Tammy-anticipations. The Tammys are funny characters, but they need to be written actual material -- just the fact that there is a Megan Mullally cameo is not sufficient, and it was comedy-overhaul to include Tammy I, Tammy II, and Ron's mom all in one ep.

The Ben/Tom plot was innocuous enough, but felt like filler -- it didn't build anywhere except to reveal the company crisis we've been aware of since last season, and there were no new or surprising jokes (Detlef Schrempf's cameo this time couldn't be considered unexpected), just reiterations on "Jean-Ralphio and Tom pay a lot of money for useless stuff!!" (Also, when did Jean-Ralphio become such a silly klutz?) The Ann/Chris plot was equally purposeless: Ann forgets and then remembers why she likes Chris, and to reach this epiphany, the viewer has to be subjected to Rob Lowe literally acting like a obsessive-compulsive tweeker -- "STOP POOPING" was funny, but Chris has passed the limits of mental stability on his path to eccentricity. Ann told much of this to the camera, and there were copious other redundant explanations of what was happening in a scene (Ben summarizing his and Tom's friendship; a Leslie cutting head telling us about the Ron situation), with little actually happening outside the narration. I do like the idea of these plotlines (especially meeting Ron's mom), but there were too many, and they were all too clumsily done.

-"In terms of shirts, I can wear white..."
-"We don't have any pens because we're afraid it's gonna leak on our shirts."
-Nick Offerman looks kinda like Jon Daly without his moustache
-Who was that John the delivery guy??
-"Could we take a peek at it?"

27 September 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Baldwins and Horses and Bears, oh Sigh

Saturday Night Live s37e01 – hm

This and the All My Children sketch were funny I guess.

Annually, I go through the same debate: should I watch SNL this year? I usually make it about halfway through the season before giving up (last season the Dana Carvey episode was just too painful (he used to be so good!)), but when fall rolls around, I trick myself using the same warped optimism: Maybe it'll be good this year! (It isn't.)

This year is so far not proving my hopefulness wise, with a season premiere full of long, mediocre sketches and lots of pee jokes. Fortunately, there was only one recurring sketch (that I know of) -- Top Gun's 25th anniversary DVD release, in no way as funny (or unexpected) as its Back to the Future counterpart -- and host Alec Baldwin's performance was thankfully a few pegs above phoning it in, with only a few cue-card goofs. Weirdly, most of the roles alongside Baldwin were being filled in by featured players, and there were minimal sketches with the main cast; hopefully they've taken the week to channel their comedic talents into something more deserving.

2 Broke Girls s01e02 ("And the Break-Up Scene") – bleh

This is the only picture CBS had on their website... and I'm not doing a rewatch for screencaps.

Ugh. More racist caricatures at the diner; more over-the-top hipster patrons; more cartoony characterizations. The cupcake store plot at last seems to be vaguely going somewhere, which gives it some seasonal-arc points above a lot of sitcoms, but the snarky "quips" got to be way too much for me:
-"I'm afraid I'm going to be late... every month."
-"If I were going to be a lesbian, she's the last les I'd be in."
-"What are you, the relationship ghost?"
-"I wasn't crying... I was masturbating."
Every conversation an abuse of wordplay... this is the type of "crass comedy" that takes any humour out of profanity (like The Whitest Kids U'Know) by having straight up lewdness stand in for innuendo, which will just never be as funny. Also: constant reminders that they're keeping a horse in Brooklyn ("I forgot again that we have a horse.") -- a horse that creates a lot of bodily waste that a person could slip in. And does. This is the last episode for me.

Ballykissangel s04e05 ("The Odd Couple") - blergh

If only they were in this episode...

Oh, the requisite "wild animal" episode. I was hoping Ballyk was above that stock sitcom plot, but it's become a different sort of program after its two protagonists departed at the end of the third series. I mean, it's traded in its agnosticism for mysticism -- I would put hardly anything past it at this point, but at least the animal in question wasn't a monkey.

So basically, by some unclear means, Donal acquires an ex-circus bear named Susie. Liam (who's feeling neglected and lonely, drinking pints by himself at Fitzgerald's) convinces Donal to participate in some sort of scheme to get money out of Quigley -- which involves scaring poor, innocent Eamon, and making it appear as though Susie is threat enough for Quigley to pay them to capture her. Blah blah blah, also Brendon wants to be more of a father to his daughter, but Siobhan is being kind of a bitch... Kevin hangs out with Sean Dillon in a thankfully non-creepy capacity, until his dad gets mad... Fathers, and babies, and bears, oh geeze.

A weak, unengaging episode, brightened only by opportunity to finally see the inside of Donal and Eamon's houses. This expansion in sets, the fancy camerawork, and the new score are indicative of a higher budget this series -- but you're too late! Your money won't save this show now that its thematic heart has been ripped out! It's bleeding all over the place! Go call Doctor Ryan!

Clearly, I wasn't impressed by this episode. But at least Colin Farrell didn't make an appearance, or his budding teen romance. Which, in retrospect, makes it easier to "bear" this episode's plot.

-Guessing the identity of the "Odd Couple" before the start of the episode: "Sean Dillan and his daughter?" "Ewww." "No, not like that! I meant 'odd couple' like the teevee show!"

What Movies I've Been Watching Lately: The Gos and Some Poop

Bridesmaids (2011)

Bridesmaids is not a "female Hangover," but a film of complex characterization about a woman, Annie (Kristen Wiig), who feels that she's regressing further and further away from the adult ideal, while her best childhood friend (Maya Rudolph) has somehow become a real grown up and is getting married. The film does have its share of scenes dealing with bodily functions, but those are just box office dressing on a really sweet, subdued story about friendship and growing up.

What friendship looks like.

Most of the big comedic sequences stem from a rivalry between Wiig and one of the other bridesmaids (Rose Byrne) at the various pre-wedding gatherings. These other bridesmaid characters are not developed much beyond a sentence of back-story, but regardless of the title, this isn't a movie about Rudolph's wedding party. This is Annie's film, and Kristen Wiig carries it beautifully. She's not afraid to go broad during the "comedy moments," but otherwise Wiig plays Annie very subtly; excluding those fecal scenes, Bridesmaids is really very heartbreaking. Wiig has romantic interests in Jon Hamm and Chris O'Dowd, but this isn't a romantic comedy, either, and Annie, though flawed in her relationships with men, thankfully exists independently of them.

So just ignore the poop or embrace it, because wrapped up inside this big Hollywood romp is actually a rather touching film.

Drive (2011)

Drive has been compared to film noir, but is more reminiscent of a cheesy action movie as filmed by a Danish auteur.

Ryan Gosling is ruining my indie-crush cred.

Ryan Gosling plays Drive's stoic, unnamed protagonist, a daytime Hollywood stunt-driver, and get-away car man for hire. After exchanging rides home for longing looks with his harried waitress neighbor (Carey Mulligan), Gosling takes a job driving for this woman's ex-con husband, and becomes entangled in a bloody, messy world, of which he may or may not have previously been a part. The characterization does not extend much beyond these vague outlines of people—Gosling is good at driving and always wears a Scorpion jacket; Mulligan wants her son to be safe—but this seems intentional, as though director Nicolas Winding Refn is acknowledging that action film roles tend to be underdeveloped. Instead, Refn wisely focuses on mood, manufacturing intense, wordless scenes with 80's pop songs in place of dialogue; the center point always Gosling driving, tightly gripping the steering wheel and gazing ahead silently. When there is dialogue, especially that between the mob boss antagonists, it often feels clumsy and reiterates the faults of this genre Refn is seemingly subverting, but still not able to transcend.

Drive is a poetic film, but very violent and ultimately pointless. It's pretty to look at, but not any more impacting than most summer popcorn fare.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Ryan Gosling is quiet loner Lars Lindstrom, for whom being touched burns and social interaction is a chore. Lars' neighbors—his brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer)—are elated when Lars not only comes over on his own accord, but gleefully shares that he has a female visitor named Bianca whom he met on the internet. Except she's an anatomically-correct sex doll. But Lars seemingly doesn't realize this, and expects everyone else to consider her as real as he does.


Lars and the Real Girl could easily turn either very twee or crass, but is instead a sweet, sincere story of family and acceptance. Bianca is rarely used as a joke—more so the townspeople's reactions to her—and neither is Lars, who has Bianca stay in his brother's spare room, and does nothing dirtier with this sex doll than whisper that she looks pretty at breakfast. The small Midwestern town's positive reaction is a bit unbelievable, but Gosling sells it as Lars, making a compelling character out of this socially- and sexually-inept man, and keeping this strange, but endearing film from veering into preciousness.

50/50 (2011)

Interestingly, my friend officially stopped fancying J G-L after seeing this.

Early in 50/50, Adam Learner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), recently-diagnosed with spinal cancer, is advised by his friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) to use his medical condition as a pick-up line. It works for Adam, but doesn't for 50/50, which employs its cancer tag to attract viewers to an ultimately uncompelling film about another twenty-something urban professional. Though Joseph Gordon-Levitt does his best with the role—and the rest of the superb cast with theirs—it is hard to feel anything for Adam: he's upper-middle class; has a good job at Seattle Public Radio; has supportive friends and family. The one sympathetic thing about this character is that he has cancer; his only other external struggles are that he can't drive and pushes people away.

Cancer is a shrewd plot choice to lure viewership, but like someone using a pick-up line, 50/50 routinely eschews any opportunities to make an emotional connection in favor of wooing the audience with one-liners and awkwardly-placed romance.

24 September 2011

BUFFY TIME: Too Much Drama and Not Enough Dancing

I'm slowly-but-surely working my way through Buffy (and now Angel) whenever my sister comes over.

Angel s02e02 ("Are You Now or Have You Ever Been") – hm

Here's a dodgy edit that someone made for your displeasure.

Angel definitely received a bigger budget along with its renewal, and I spent the second season's first two episodes being consistently impressed by stylistic improvements: its slick new camerawork (transitions without looking schlocky! a widescreen aspect ratio! a drastic quality upgrade in film stock!); its high production design (especially with those period sets). Herbert Davis and Stuart Blatt have definitely upped their game.

However, Angel continues to have issues in taking its dramatic stories way too seriously while simultaneously making its comedy over-the-top campy. It's unsettling to be forced to frequently travel between these two television extremes in forty minutes, and Angel has trouble establishing any sort of tone without immediately destroying it at the start of the next scene. The writers still know how to script some Buffy banter, but the comedy flings up so unexpectedly that it's hard to know how to react. This isn't aided by the weird pauses that often occur after jokes, which it took me until the second season's premiere to realize replicate the spaces during which there would be a laughtrack. And the dramatic moments usually relate to the Mystery of the Week, which means the audience has no emotional investment with the characters involved. The most egregious example of this is season one's "She" -- we have both the tortuously preachy story about female circumcision, and Angel dancing.

"Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" suffers especially from the latter of Angel's two recurring tonal problems, with the introduction of a woman erstwhile Angel condemned to a life of suffering, but this story plays out clumsily with too many "lessons" about racial tolerance and mob psychology that bore us out of caring before its emotional conclusion. The period sets look very nice, and I'm glad this hotel looks like it'll be a recurring location, because otherwise I'd say that money was wasted on an attempt at a glimpse into Angel's past that quickly becomes just another excuse for moralizing. (Also with the mysterious set-up, my sister and I actually rewound and watched the first scene again because we couldn't tell whether we weren't supposed to know why they were investigating the hotel, or whether the scripters were just failing at exposition.) It looks like Angel's setting on some sort of path to avenge his past wrongs or live life while he can or something, so hopefully that'll give this season a sense of direction that was sorely lacking in the last. Also: less Lindsay please!

-"It's cinnamon."
-I was really (pleasantly) surprised at the Faith tag in "Judgment," and the fact that they're addressing this previously-unconcluded plot bodes well for the season

Buffy s05e03 ("The Replacement") – good

TOO MANY XANDERS! Just kidding: not enough Xanders!

I started watching this episode with very low expectations after the two that came before it. First we had the Monster of the Week Dracula plot (okay, you're trying to hook in new viewers, I get it), and then the terrible Michelle Trachtenberg retcon (which I knew was going to happen due to accidental spoilage, but was still could never be prepared for) and the Harmony story that felt leftover from one of the weaker episodes of season one. So I had no idea that "The Replacement" would be so good!

Like season three's "The Zeppo," we get to see a usual Buffy story (a random demon wants to kill the Buffs), but from a Xander perspective -- and he's seein' double. Though quite a few Buffy episodes have dealt with identity and doppelgangers, they are often my favourites, and "The Replacement" is no exception. The "two Xanders" was bursting with goofy moments that made me laugh (the Snoopy dance!), and had a surprisingly heartfelt conclusion -- both the happy revelation that Xander's suave twin was just his better half (he's not so bungling after all!), and Riley's somber confession that he knows Buffy will never be in love with him. I still am not adjusted to the retcon (so they're seriously playing it off like she's lived there all along and wasn't just with Buffy's dad or something? will this at least be revealed as a "Superstar"-like alternate reality? and why is Buffy living at home again?), but throw me a Xander episode every once in a while, and I can get through anything.

Well, maybe not a "double Dawn" plot, at least not yet.

-"I've got it covered from A to Z -- from axe to... zee other axe."
-I didn't even realize Debonair Xander was played by Kelly Donovan and that Nicholas Brendon has an identical twin until RIGHT NOW when I was looking up the name of this episode! I formally retract my awe at their mad greenscreen skills.

What Did I Watch Today: Quick Thoughts on Returning for Third Seasons and Second Episodes

Community s03e01 ("Biology 101") – good

Trannies, Monkeys, and Toys, oh my! What current actor does this refer to?

It's hard to get over my exuberant joy that Community is back! and actually analyze this episode, but that seems intended in its construction. It has some stylistic allusions (the opening musical number; the 2001 bit) but nothing that's really commenting on the story on a deeper level (like the My Dinner with Andre/Pulp Fiction episode) beyond just a pastiche. The story, too, does not really "go" anywhere — the group has a little tiff with Jeff but resolves it by the end; Pierce may or may not have been accepted back; Chang is living in the vents and the Dean needs money. The really only "plot" development is that Chang becomes a campus cop, and this lack of lasting story is actually sort of perfect for the first episode back: we're all too excited to analyze any deeply symbolic references, and just seeing the characters again is enough without introducing any big story arcs. So I'm glad to see you back, Community, and can't wait to watch what new innovative use of television airs next week.
-Cougarton Abbey! (Though of course Abed would have already heard of this.)
-"If I wanted to run a monkey hotel, I’d install a banana buffet. I’d use vines as elevators, I’d put tailholes in all the bathrobes, and I’d lower all the shower heads."

Up All Night s01e02 ("Cool Neighbors") – good

I should really get around to seeing Bridesmaids.

The ending verged on sappy in its requisite moment of reflection on being a parent (and with the Ava holding the baby scene), and the "trying to impress the new, cool neighbors" plot has been done before, but there were enough funny lines throughout to keep me interested, especially the musings on hipsterdom and doing things "ironically." I'm definitely adding this show to my weekly lineup.
-"Back from the hospital, turned out great."

23 September 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Quick Thoughts on the Difference Between Averageness and Mediocrity

This is not a formal review, but quick thoughts immediately upon watching.

The Office s08e01 ("The List") – okay-good

Hulu! Wuhu!

The episode started out with me thinking it would be quite a disappointment — the "planking" tag (The Office has never been so good at being au courant (remember all the viral video dances?) (and except for a few 4Chan people, no one actually does this!)); but then proceeded to become, even without Michael Scott, the sort of epitome of an Office episode: the office becomes divided (this time literally) over some non-issue (once again: literally a conflict about nothing, just semantics as to who is in an arbitrary column, later revealed to be the useless designations "winners" and "losers"), and then harmony is regained after some sort of speech in the conference room; this was a nice, comfortable first episode after all the tumultuous changes at the end of last season; felt very The Office, when the show hasn't felt like itself in a while.
-I do like Stanley's "new thing" (though Alan Sepinwall's right that it's out of character)
-"I can always unframe."
-Myles McNutt's review of this episode is as analytically brilliant as ever

Whitney pilot – ugh

She's so tall!! These characters are so bland that I actually got ginger and black-hair confused, and then was unsure as to why in the next scene Whitney was wearing a wig.

How did this get picked up?? I don't even know what the premise is... "like all those shows about middle-aged married couples who hate each other... except this time they're a young, unmarried couple who hates each other!"; these are just the worst people, whose dialogue consists of bad jokes ("If the cave men had been monogamous, there'd be like six people.") and telling each other what other is doing ("You date that photographer girl who's really loud." "You can't wear pants to a wedding."); this episode is the most overused, trite plot (they haven't had sex in a while and so start to be afraid they'll get divorced... except they can't get divorced cos they aren't married!! so hip!!) that I can see this show being on for seasons and seasons, because everyone just assumes it already has been on forever; terrible fake-looking, restrictive sets; the lowest possible form of boring mediocrity, with a few jokes that would have been "edgy" maybe ten years ago, but still told in the corniest possible way ("What're you closing with, blackface?"); I would say I wish I could unsee this, but it's so mediocre that it's pretty much already been forgotten.
-weird that the laughtrack started after the opening montage
-what twenty-something couple has a landline?
-only someone very drunk would think of and think it's amusing to have a "hammer in the underwear drawer" gag
-I didn't post a video so as not to encourage anyone to self-harm by watching

Parks and Recreation, "I'm Leslie Knope": Glad to Have It Back, But Not the Strongest It's Been

In a smart move, Parks and Recreation picks up right where it concluded its very strong third season: at Li'l Sebastian's memorial service, where Leslie Knope has been scouted as a potential Pawnee political candidate. The fourth season begins with Leslie telling Ann the news, and Ron (his hair still charred from a fluke funeral fireball) fleeing from his evil ex Tammy the first.

Hulu's got you on this.

Leslie, now a political candidate with a reputation at stake, needs to tell Ben (her boss and secret lover) about her candidacy and then break up with him, so as to avoid any scandals. However, when we cut to three weeks later, Leslie still hasn't confided in Ben, too happy with their relationship (he got her an éclair shaped like an L!), and proceeds to run away whenever faced with the confrontation. Except for some hiatus haircuts, Parks and Rec's characters are satisfyingly consistent, but it seems a bit unlike Leslie Knope to deliberately avoid checking off a task she needs to accomplish. This plotline provides most of the tension in the episode, as Leslie ducks out of chances to break the bad news. This is done in the very low-stakes way of Parks and Rec: we know Ben will understand the need for them to stop seeing each other, but the conflict comes in realizing that means both he and the audience will no longer get to experience them together. In a nice scripting move, Ben has already deduced Leslie's secret, and is already willing to sacrifice his relationship-contentment for her success. This reinforces why Leslie would want to date Ben in the first place, and is a nice contrast to frequently over-the-top, unrealistic sitcom break-ups (reiterated by Ben's recitation of cliché break-up lines, in an attempt to shift blame from Leslie). However, the realism of the break-up scene just further underlines to supreme goofiness of Leslie's avoidance tactics ("Anchors away, ladies."), though that at least paid-off in Ron's epic toe speech.

Leslie's A-plot is not the strongest, and excitement that Parks and Rec has returned distracts from the fact that the other plotlines, too, do not play out as solidly as they could have. Joe from Sewage emails a picture of his "drainpipe" to all the female staff (and Jerry), and after an offhand diagnosis about the size of the piping's "ears," Ann is flooded with other blurred-out photos to diagnose. This penis gag was likely much more pertinent when the episode was written, and has not exactly aged well. The exchanges between Ben and Joe (who went to Sarah Lawrence) and Ann and Chris comprise some funny dialogue, but the plot's conclusion in a male health screening does not amount to much (except the revelation of Jerry's well-endowment), which — typical Jerry — is a bit disappointing. This email story ties into the A-plot when Leslie gives a publicity appearance that appeals to the recruiters, but it still does not feel quite justified. Similarly, Andy's wishy-washiness about whether to work for Entertainment 7twenty is openly a non-conflict. This thread seemingly progresses to nowhere until Andy is given a position as Leslie's new assistant. It is a bit unbelievable that Leslie would agree to hire "not even that good at shoeshining" shoeshine Andy, but this lateral move likely won't affect the office dynamic, and will keep the Parks and Rec family small without unnecessary additions (like The Office's pointless new executive assistant Jordan).

Tom immediately coming back to his government job in this episode also ensures the status quo, but his easy return voids any stakes there were in his leaving, which was one of the third season's cliffhangers. In the last episode's tag, Entertainment 7twenty seemed on the verge of collapse, but is now made a non-conflict. It is a startup company even Andy knows is likely doomed to fail, but that has no effect in this episode except to provide funny sight gags as Tom hands out ridiculous merchandise and business cards. Hopefully, upcoming episodes will deal with what a waste of time and capital this company is, but "I'm Leslie Knope" regretfully squelches any of the anxiety this plotline provided last season, instead ironically favoring Leslie's avoidance tactics.

As Leslie Knope gives her candidacy speech at the episode's end, the season premiere finally gains a sense of focus and real drive. With the character consistency and plentiful jokes, this episode is not unenjoyable, but as most of the running time is spent shuffling in circles around non-conflicts, it is hopefully just the springboard for another awesome Parks and Rec season, and not the blueprint for all fourth season episodes to come.

-"Anne, you beautiful, naïve, sophisticated newborn baby."
-"If I could go back in time and cut your eyeballs out, I would."
-Tom's leopard print shoes!
-"I always carry emergency S'more rations in my car."
-"...granted, it was a hilarious prank."
-"I have the toes I have."
-"Then why is your moustache trembling?"

21 September 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Quick Thoughts on Baby Makin'

This is not a formal review, but quick thoughts immediately upon watching.

Up All Night pilot – good

It's on hulu right now... go for it.

I have never had a baby and do not remember much from my own infancy, so thus all of my experience with this kind of parenting comes from film and television — in this regard, Up All Night's premise is not exactly "fresh" (first time parents who yearn for their former craziness but also love their baby and would feel way too guilty if they still acted that way; also a working mom and a stay-at-home dad (which is not new either, and which I've seen a lot of lately on Parenthood)), but it's funny – there were times when I felt throwaway lines could have been a lot quippier (I didn't have to do any rewinding a la 30 Rock's joke-a-second pace (and Lorne Michaels exec produces UAN as well)), but there were enough really funny sequences to keep me watching (like Will Arnett's character not being able to find the cheese at the grocery store (why is there not more grocery store humor??), or the little snippet of deep conversation we hear him having with his new online gaming pal before Christina Applegate comes home, or the "brought to you by Nordic track"); Maya Rudolph's crazy diva boss character Ava, sort of the Jenna/Tracy of 30 Rock, I could see either being a consistently funny presence, or bringing scenes down, as my favourite bits were definitely little jokes with a more realistic bent ("I ate a personal pizza... from the freezer... I ate an entire twelve-inch pizza."; "At least you don't have to work." "Yeah, cos raising a human's not work at all."); a lot of Up All Night was funnier than it could have been due the actors having such a comedic presence (the drunken karaoke, particularly, could have been interminable, but was actually very amusing), and the pilot's conclusion masterfully avoided sappiness (by having Christina Applegate fill their "family" time with a prediction of her daughter's life after her father will inevitably die), but I don't really see much possibly story beyond episode-to-episode sitcom plots (about raising baby Amy, and taking care of diva Ava) — this could be really funny, once again, like 30 Rock, but if it doesn't work (or relies too much just on having funny actors and not such funny material — like the old lady in the grocery store, that really shouldn't have worked, except for Will Arnett, or the television talking to Christina Applegate,) or becomes too cartoonish and loses that realistic grounding, there's nothing except the actors to put it above a lot of shows on television right now

MTV's Awkward pilot: I don't buy it, but I'll watch it

The premise for MTV's Awkward is thus: basically, Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards)—self-professed "invisible girl"—has one bad day. She takes some Aspirin for a headache, and while choking on a pill, Rube Goldberg's the bathroom into an accidental suicide scene. As she had just received an anonymous poison-pen letter, and herself written an angst-riddled blog post, no one believes that the event was unintentional. Oh yeah, she also just lost her Big V at summer camp, to a guy who totally blew her off.

Get More:
Awkward., MTV Shows

MTV wants you to watch the Awkward pilot.

This is high-concept, but the accidental suicide is believably done (and funny), and the remainder of the pilot is surprisingly low key, chronicling Jenna's first day of sophomore year and her sudden push into the high school spotlight. Jenna was previously "unpopular" in the vein of Emma Stone in Easy A, also a self-labeled "invisible" girl who accidentally starts a scandalous lie about herself. Both of these roles are played by gorgeous actresses, so that self-evaluation is a bit beyond belief, and the characters are given romantic interests and close friends, so as to appeal to a wider demographic than a genuine high school outcast would. However, though Jenna is perhaps not a protagonist truly deserving the show's title, the Awkward pilot has some nice, realistic high school details—Jenna's very unglamorous Target outfit (though disappointingly giant bedroom and rich house); oddly real-looking extras (and a "full-figured" cheerleader character); a crush who has gross teenage boy habits (but that Jenna justifies to herself as part of his charm); even Jenna's all-American name choice. Stylistically, Awkward is closely reminiscent of Mean Girls, with cutaways to student talking heads and Jenna supplying voiceover narration. The show provides itself with a potential overarching story in the malicious letter Jenna receives—cleverly, its entire contents are not revealed to the viewer, and by this episode's end, Jenna is able to cross off one of the "faults" with which it maligns her. However, one of the other framing devices likely to be used in future episodes—Jenna's blog—is a bit too sappy and Doogie Howser-esque, and will hopefully be phased out, as its structural duties are already fulfilled by the straight narration.

Though Jenna is not the completely "awkward" protagonist she could be, if an MTV high school show is going to rip off any films about so-called loser girls, Mean Girls and Easy A are pretty respectable choices. And at least it's preferable for a teenager to choose to watch something decently-funny and -constructed like Awkward than most of the television aimed at that demographic.

20 September 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Quick Thoughts on Fall Premieres and Pilot Season

I watch a lot of television. For the past year and a half, I've been jotting down my immediate opinions about each episode I watch in a word document — as I work my lazy way up to writing actual formal reviews, I'll be posting those quick thoughts here.

How I Met Your Mother s07e01 ("The Best Man") – hm
I mean, of course it will take some time to get into this season, and at least it's good, I guess, that they're at least vaguely going somewhere with the plot (revealing that it's Barney's wedding, and we know Ted meets the Mother at the wedding), but... this really just wasn't a very funny episode; it was a clever-ish device to remind us of Ted's past accomplishments and failures via a montage of "Schmosby" wedding toasts, but that was a bit of an irritating retcon, making it seem as though Ted keeps in contact with all of these high school friends, when before it seemed Punchy was the only one he ever talked to (and due to Punchy's motivation) – makes Ted seem a bit more a commodity than he actually is, this lonely guy with four friends; the plot about Marshall ruining the wedding was just a bit irritating in its fakes and red-herrings, and the final reason (because he drunkenly told about Lily being pregnant, and everyone mistook him taking about the bride, which led to a fathers-in-law fight) was not really enough to make that plot seem worthwhile; Robin still liking Barney is very dragged out, and it was actually rather nice that he had called Norah, and his excitement at talking to her... that dance scene, though? ummmm, sure, I guess it must have been fun to choreograph, but I have no idea whether it was supposed to be a dream sequence of Robin's, and the cinematography was very mockumentary (I would've preferred something even more stylized than usual, as opposed to something that distressingly reminiscent of Dancer in the Dark) and that break of the fourth wall — was this an allusion to something? ; the Lily/Marshall baby bit was good for reminding us of their pregnancy, and at least there were no mushy speeches between them; the cutaways (really only Robin's "truth-voice") was not really funny enough, though chuckle-worthy, I suppose.

How I Met Your Mother s07e02 ("The Naked Truth") – okay
Lolz at Victoria (I did like the music cue) – I totes predicted her coming back!; I did enjoy McPoyle, though his tag being a surgeon was a little racy, as was the "no, the snake is your penis" joke (none of those double-entendres were really all that funny; Martin Short all campy here is such a contrast to his surprisingly toned-down lawyer on Weeds); Ted "choosing between two girls" was a non-conflict that got him back to where he was in, literally, square — or, rather, season — one (wanting to fall in love) (and Victoria is another step backwards; she's obv not going to be the mom; are they yearning for the time when she was on that show? (or the quality of the show at that time? trying to ameliorate any uncertainties we have about the past few seasons with this association?)); Barney at the diner with Norah was cute, I guess; Robin and Lily did not really do anything but cheer Ted and Marshall on; what were they all doing at that diner, anyway? what is this, a sitcom?

2 Broke Girls pilot – hm
It is hard for me to like anything with a laugh track, but some of the one-liners here were undoubtedly snappy (though that old man cashier seemed to have a lot of trouble delivering them, and there is a line between just crass and funny), and Kat Dennings (I love that she has an actually realistic body type) made a likeable, crotchety broke waitress; cliché cliché the plot seems to be (and there wasn't much here), and the sitcom sets are so stifling and fake, but even the former-rich new coworker was not as irritating as she should have been; the sickly sweet ending was a bit too much (and that horse??), but I liked the introduction of an actual goal for this series (for them to make $250,000) — one that leaves room for each episode to be its own individual sitcom plot, but with an overarching focus to the series (sort of like the premise of My Name is Earl, which ended up having a most surprising amount of continuity — is it foolish to hope for something similar here?) (and will this new coworker steal that money once they earn it? is she trustworthy? who knows); the jokes were often a little too pop culture and so will likely not age well (hipters, Jersey Shore, ponzi schemes, Branjelina, twitter), especially in that nannying scene; but nevertheless, I did, for reasons I don't even know, find myself wanting to watch more... I'll give it at least one more episode.

Weeds s07e12 ("Qualitative Spatial Reasoning") – good
I didn't think it would work, but I did end up liking the split-screening, especially the last scene, how even though he was not in the middle frame or really the focus of the episode, it ended up being about Silas, and how he, now being the moral epicenter (I guess), has realized he has done the wrong thing in ratting out this mother; it's nice that they're bringing it back to Stevie and seemingly finally finally finally having Nancy's shit called on her jesus christ how long has this taken; with the funeral inspiring Andy to break away from either side of this conflict (if this ends up having any impact on the show), then this season may have actually been building to something after all; "...all of that was subsumed by the momentum created by finally putting at least some of the pieces together" (Myles McNutt))

20 August 2011

Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988) - Too Much of Too Many Good Things

I saw Beetlejuice once when I was about ten years old. Coupled with a few remembered wisps of plot threads from the short-lived animated series (something about a mall parking lot, another thing about Girl Scout cookies), all that I really remembered about it was the scene where they dance to the song from the Bon Marche commercials. Only recently, while IMDB-ing Alec Baldwin did I even realize he was in the movie.

The only scene I could recall

So it seems kind of ironic that Betelgeuse, titular star of the film and my memories, hardly features into this movie's story at all. The film really focuses on Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), recently deceased newlyweds, and their struggles to acclimate to the world of the dead, and to exorcise the big city Deetz family (Catherine O'Hara, Jeffrey Jones, and Winona Ryder) from their home. That realization of the afterlife is where Beetlejuice really succeeds, envisioning the world of the dead as a nightmarish bureaucracy, replete with dense rule books, interminable queues, and unhelpful caseworkers—like one hellish trip to the DMV. The late 80s claymation, model, and wire effects add a level of "realism" to this environment that CGI just can't (see: Casper); I want to stay in this movie, with these quaint ghosts who make miniature towns and have the same taste in clothing, furniture, and wallpaper as me forever. However, once the character Betelgeuse is added, everything gets a bit muddled.

Post-mortem Betelgeuse, as a "freelance bio-exorcist," is the answer the Maitland's think they need to have a peaceful, Deetz-free afterlife. They summon him, but he creeps them out, so they send him back, then he comes again, and etc. etc. The Betelgeuse plotline drags on for three quarters of the movie, ostensibly building tension but really just staying stagnant: the Maitland's think this Betelgeuse guy can help him, but it ends up he's bad news. Okay, we've got it. Let's get back to cutting some of that blood-red tape. But as Betelgeuse is posited as the antagonist, the film can't really go anywhere without him. Suddenly, in the third act, he wreaks havoc—abruptly forcing young Lydia Deetz to marry him (some regulation that was never previously mentioned), shooting some of Charles Deetz' wealthy business prospects through the ceiling, and yet all that is needed to stop him is someone to utter his name three times, which the characters seem to find impossibly hard. These conflicts feel intensely manufactured, for as soon as Betelgeuse leaves, the Maitlands and Deetzes find a way to cohabitate in harmony. Michael Keaton's energetic, hilarious performance distracts from this central plotting issue, but Betelgeuse, ironically enough, feels like he belongs in another movie. There is enough of a story with the Maitlands adjusting to the administration of the afterlife and their artsy new housemates, and the Betelgeuse-related plotlines trap this movie in a dramatic purgatory from which a crazy third act cannot wholly let it escape.

I love all the ideas that went into this movie: poltergeist caseworkers, ghosts cutting holes in sheets, sandworms, a bio-exorcist—but there are just a few too many floating around to make a truly great film.

22 June 2011


Like Steve Coogan's previous live video, Live 'n' Lewd, The Man Who Thinks He's It shies away from Coogan's earlier impression-based stand-up, and instead showcases a number of comic characters: smutty shop girl Pauline Calf; nervous comedian Duncan Thickett; Portuguese pop sensation Tony Ferrino; unemployable drunkard Paul Calf; blunt, oblivious chat show host Alan Partridge; and the self-absorbed comedian Steve Coogan.

At the beginning of The Man, in one of its many faux-interviews with Steve Coogan in pretentious actor mode, Coogan vows that this show will be "different from all those other live videos." This promise is somewhat upheld, but at a loss for the viewers at home.

Coogan the Actor

By 1998, Coogan's The Man characters were all fairly well-established, having had their own series, shorts, or at least previous video appearances. For Alan Partridge, this meant having a well-known catchphrase and the expectation that he would get down to some chat, but for the other characters as well, a formula seemed to have developed for their stage performances. Pauline Calf, as she did in Live 'n' Lewd, crassly discusses her wanton lifestyle, and then reads an excerpt from her newest book. Duncan Thickett botches his attempts at the latest fads in comedy (including some meta "character comedy"). Tony Ferrino deplores matrimony, and then sings some songs winking at infidelity. Paul Calf drunkenly mumbles about unemployment and females. Alan Partridge has a chat and then sings a "medley" from a female vocalist's oeuvre (this time Kate Bush). This is quite a variety of very different performances, but for anyone familiar with Coogan's work, it's no surprise. A first-time viewer might giggle at the fact that crude Pauline Calf has written a book; a Coogan aficionado is just waiting to hear the name of her newest Mary-Sue character. Someone unfamiliar with Thickett might cackle at the fact that someone so out-of-touch is even attempting to do observational comedy; the well-versed viewer just wants to see what embarrassing bit of personal information he will give away in his attempts to relate with the audience. The characters themselves – much like Tony Ferrino's song selection – have become variations on a theme. Who will Paul Calf insult? Who will Alan Partridge awkwardly interview? These are humorous routines, but for a Coogan enthusiast, they are comfortable comedy, as comfy and familiar as sports casual clothing; nothing new or exciting here.

In order to fulfill that above-mentioned promise to be unlike other live shows, The Man Who Thinks He's It features many cut-aways to "Steve the Comedian," as well as bits with his fellow performers Julia Davis and Simon Pegg. The inclusion of co-performers is a key change from Live 'n' Lewd, and The Man depends heavily on them for its laughs. Julia Davis plays Pauline Calf's homely best friend, Tony Ferrino's soon-to-be-late wife, a feminist singer Paul Calf mistakenly invites to play a song, Alan Partridge's depressed, bulimic guest, and herself. Though Julia Davis is always a funny presence, rather than refresh Coogan's characters with some on-stage banter, her roles seem to just interrupt the sketches, and then drag them on without many actual jokes written for this interaction. With Paul Calf, Julia Davis performs a quintessential man-hating tune, and Paul just lazily dances around in the background. With these other characters to rely on, the center of the show – Coogan's creations – seem underwritten. The aforementioned same-old formula is used with a new friend in lieu of new jokes.

In their interview interstitials, Davis and Pegg paint a portrait of Coogan as a very self-obsessed, but desperate man. In one moment, overhearing Simon receiving big laughs while emceeing, Steve asks Simon not to tell that joke next time. This is a humorous poke at the egotism that comes with success, but it is also the only time we get to see Pegg in his emceeing role, unlike John Thomson as Bernard Righton in Live 'n' Lewd. With these frequent cutaways to documentary segments, once even interrupting Tony Ferrino mid-song, The Man Who Thinks He's It definitely does not feel like any other live show: it doesn't feel like a live show at all. The lampooning of the Comic Steve Coogan has become one of Coogan's funniest devices (in The Trip, Cock & Bull, Coffee & Cigarettes, etc.), but here, it's used almost too much. Like the addition of co-performers, the frequency of these documentary interstitials stops seeming refreshing and new, and starts to feel like a crutch to distract from an otherwise lackluster bill of performances.

In The Man Who Thinks He's It, Coogan is of course funny, but his characters (including "Steve Coogan" himself) have all had more hilarious, fresh, and enthusiastic performances. The Man showcases consistent, comfortable comedy, but you'll find nothing brilliant here.

20 June 2011

I'm Alan Partridge - Sidetracked by a Need for Laughs

In On the Hour and The Day Today, the character of Alan Partridge is introduced as a bumbling, easily exasperated sports reporter. The audience gets a more focused look at him with his "failed" chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge, but the character does not really come into his own until the sitcom I'm Alan Partridge.

Sometimes mistakenly labeled as a mockumentary, I'm Alan Partridge is immediately removed from that label by its use of a laugh-track. In KMKYWAP, the audience sits in the same studio as Alan's, and he often reacts to their laughter as though to heckling. With IAP, the handheld camerawork does somewhat mimic that of a documentary, but that non-diegetic tittering causes a riff in the realism of the show, as Coogan and other cast members time delivery in accordance with the track. Partridge is thus occasionally portrayed as a bit more of a "doof" than he might have been otherwise, in his "hamming it up" like other sitcom characters.

In the first series of IAP, though the laughtrack is a bit jarring, there is still a melancholy to Alan Partridge. Episode to episode, Alan acts like a buffoon in different and varied ways, but the series is connected by an emotional motif – by Alan's fear of failure, specifically in terms of his chat show's renewal. This is represented visually by a recurring dream sequence, depicting Alan gyrating in a strip club for the BBC's Tony Hayers and other television executives. Alan will often act like a fool to try to avoid this nightmare, but as the other characters (particularly Sophie and Ben of the Linton Travel Tavern) know how outlandish Alan is acting, the realism is reaffirmed. Realism is not a necessity for a comedy show, but as Alan Partridge was initially conceived as a lampoon of a particular type of media personality, it is important for him to be grounded in reality. Thus, the world is not wacky, but a desperate Alan Partridge is. This is particularly revealed when, so determined to please some Irish television executives, Alan shows them to the house of a random fan in lieu of his own, and that aficionado ends up being an obsessive stalker. In IAP, however, even this "crazy" fan pales in comparison to Partridge's reactions to him.

The first series meanders in terms of quality, with the best episodes directly connected to Partridge's terror of being unsuccessful, and the worst wandering from this theme with empty and thus pointless jokes. (In "Basic Alan," a bored Alan makes for a bored audience.) The last episode brings the series to a nice close, with Alan so desperate for his career not to die, that he uses a dead man's hand to sign a contract. The cackling audience does not know whether Alan will succeed, but they do know how low he will stoop to ensure it.

In the second series of IAP, filmed five years after the first (2002), Alan is immediately brought back to his "roots" in the premiere, by giving a talk at his childhood school. But these are roots the viewers know nothing about, having never been established in the first series or before. Likewise, this episode is largely about exposition – Alan's career got somehow even worse, he had a breakdown, and he got fat — all sort of "funny" things that would leave a man as fragile as Alan shattered. Instead, Alan, having "bounced back," careens around, acting doofy as ever. Yet unlike the first series, in which almost every character seems to act as a rational foil to Alan's out of touch personality, a parade of guest stars enter into the world of IAP, each seemingly trying to outdo Alan with their wackiness. There is Alan's young Ukranian girlfriend Sonja (Amelia Bullmore), who in her broken English constantly plays practical jokes that even Alan knows are shamefully unfunny. There is Stephen Mangan as Dan, a seeming younger incarnate of Partridge's personality. Yet no longer is it crazy enough just that there exists another human being with Alan's god-awful disposition, and Alan ends up the saner one of the pair, as Dan is into orgies and "sex festivals." The undercurrent of melancholy in first series is replaced by a more "tragic" back-story, and "front"-stories obsessed with Alan not just embarrassing himself, but everyone else embarrassing themselves as well.

(Also, the former Linton staff-member Michael, someone whom Alan never previously seemed to like or be able to understand, is elevated to the spot of Alan's best friend.)

In the last episode of the second series, as Alan's book is pulped and officially regarded as a flop, the tragedy mentioned in the premiere is finally dealt with. As Alan is confronted with failure once again, he has a series of flash backs to his "Fat Alan" stage. He is invited onto a Christian radio show, and in an attempt to not look like the biggest dud there, he insults the other guest in increasingly rude ways. Yet instead of responding with some bigger, hammier reaction, the guest stops Alan like a rational human being would, and leaves. After five episodes of sit-com zaniness, a sense of realism is finally restored. There are many quotable lines in the second series, but had it maintained this more subdued approach, perhaps with a running motif of those flashbacks, it could have been a success beyond its punchlines.

Very funny series two scene... but this incident never comes up again, nor connects to anything.

The Christian radio host remarks on Alan's book ending every anecdote with the phrase "Needless to say, I had the last laugh." IAP's second series suffers from this obsession as well. In order for IAP to be not only funny but compelling, the characters do not need to try to outdo each other with their crazy hijincks and clever quips. The goofy, but more subtle Alan Partridge of The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You can already bring laughs just with his exasperation. But IAP's second series, so desperate to make the audience snicker, largely dismisses realism and in doing so, reduces much character quality and consistency. And in a way, Partridge's fear of failure does come true.

17 June 2011

STEVE COOGAN: LIVE 'N' LEWD (1994) - Still Holds Up

In this 1994 live special, Coogan plays four of his characters (some less well-known than others): openly-polysexual townie Pauline Calf, nervous stand-up comedian Duncan Thickett, no-nonsense health and safety lecturer Ernest Moss, and the eternally-intoxicated wastrel Paul Calf.

Paul Calf's ratings certification at the beginning of the video.

A lot of the humour in these characters comes from knowing that in real life, Steve Coogan is a charming, handsome, funny man, yet he's dedicated himself to playing such unappealing roles. (Steve Coogan the Comedian is poked at with little "documentary" interstitials that bookend the show and fill the intermission.) Though all inherently depressing, there is a delicious variety to Coogan's comic creations, and whatever they lack in funny, they make up for in pure enthusiasm. With Pauline Calf, even if her slaggy "I've done him" mantra gets a bit trite, one cannot help but marvel at how convincing a woman Coogan makes — he's not pantomiming in drag; he's really transformed himself into a character who happens to be a lady. With awkward stand-up comedian Duncan Thickett, Coogan has perfected the "anti-performance": Thickett jumps about anxiously and constantly moves his hands, trying to compensate for his nervousness with an overzealous performance; he is a stage character totally not at ease with being on stage. Many of Thickett's laughs come from this Coogan / character juxtaposition: we know (even just from the Pauline Calf routine) that Coogan is a master of voices and jokes, yet Thickett is a terrible comedian, and a terrible impressionist. Occasionally Coogan allows Thickett an accurate impersonation, hilarious in that Duncan seems less realistic than his Neil Kinnock imitation. If ever a slow spot in these sketches, there's always comedy in trying to see Steve Coogan underneath his Ernest Moss glasses or Paul Calf haircut, yet the material itself is consistently hilarious.

The characters are each introduced by John Thomson as Bernard Righton, a surprisingly entertaining (yet staunchly politically correct) emcee. The video also contains the aforementioned "documentary" bits with Coogan as Coogan, as well as faux-interviews with audience and critics (Coogan and Thomson), and some pseudo-pedantic narration by Coogan as Terry Wogan. These interstitials make the video (which lacks but needs no narrative) feel interconnected and whole, like one linked comedy piece instead of the mishmash of disparate characters that it easily could have been.

For an early venture in Coogan's career, Live 'n' Lewd holds up very well, unlike Coogan's earliest, impression-based stand-up, which can now really only be viewed as the raw, cringe-worthy beginnings from which his later work ascended. Yes, his characters still invite comparison with Coogan the comic (then and now), but that was intentional at the time; someone with no external knowledge is provided a Coogan persona with which to juxtapose his roles. For an early piece with jokes that sometimes falter, that sort of self-awareness/-containment really gives a timeless quality to the video. Even if Steve Coogan had never gone on to do anything else, Live 'n' Lewd would still be a stand-up special worth watching.

30 May 2011

QUICK THOUGHTS: Saxondale, Series One

After watching an episode of television, I try to jot down a quick summary of my opinions, which may or may not be later expanded into a more formal review. Here are my thoughts on the first series of Steve Coogan's Saxondale.

S01E01 – actually good! (this is a very different character from what I've seen Coogan do before... but equally pathetic; I really like the lack of the laugh track, though Tommy's accent was a bit hard to follow at times; what a sad man, Tommy Saxondale! I am excited to see the next episode! I like the subdued tone, and the fact that his girlfriend is unattractive)

S01E02 – good! (I am excited to watch more of this show; it is a bit hard to tell, at times, whether Coogan is mocking muscle car aficionados or genuinely loves fast vehicles himself (especially with the lingering/caressing camera movements of the opening credits); I miss the old, shabby van!; Four letter word: "Fool?")

S01E03 – good! (I liked that the addition of someone from Tommy's past does not feel sudden or retconny at all, and just a natural extension of his persona and the little tidbits of history/personality he gives out)

S01E04 – okay-good (with Ben from AP guesting, Tommy Saxondale seems to have reverted into Alan's pattern of saying/assuming something foolish, and then having to stumble about in order to back it up in an attempt to not embarrass himself — felt in character for a dad and his daughter's boyfriend, yes, but also felt very AP; Tommy, though will often challenge people more than Alan, and has learned to take the high road, so with the whole bathroom/drugs/irritable bowel scene, Tommy could have admitted that he thought Matt was taking drugs, and then they could have either laughed about it, or Matt could have just been embarrassed — but they fell into the Ben/Alan relationship, where Ben always ends up on the high ground; the bit with Coogan as the junkie was just awkward and weird — if they keep doing this, with Coogan playing multiple parts, then maybe it will feel less strange, but all I can think about is when they used doubles and how much of a hassle that must have been to shoot, with little pay-off; and is Raymond still living with them? He didn't seem to be in any of the household scenes, as it wasn't... convenient?)

S01E05 – good (I liked the emphasis on Raymond's relationship with Tommy/Mags, which had been sorely lacking in the past few eps; also, how old is he supposed to be??; the "Tommy is feeling old thing" seems a bit abrupt, but at least, y'know, not random as he is in his 50s, but why is he suddenly unable to copulate, when he and Mags seemed to previously smash the system on a daily basis?; oh godddd and his little lip-licks are getting gross to a McCabe level)

S01E06 – good (this one was very plot-driven (Tommy solving the mystery of the big company's repeat flea-visits) which was very different from the other episodes, but kind of nice — it gave the viewer a satisfying conclusion to this mystery within the esoteric world of pest control, and it also let Tommy seem smart, for once (with both his deduction skills, and his intelligent allusions); this new "big enemy" of the other pest control place was a bit of a ret-con, though, and I'm sort of still waiting for there to be any semblance of a series-long arc or connection (which there has yet to be, a la AP), such as delving into why Tommy is currently in anger management — the inciting incident?; some good Raymond bits, like when he brushed off the crisp; and I'm pretty sure Rebecca Front did the voice on Radio 4)

S01E07 – hm (a bit overly sentimental, with the reiteration on the importance of the tin of potatoes, and with the manufactured fight between Tommy and Mags (who otherwise seemed to have a pretty solid relationship), and with all the waxing philosophical on giving life meaning by having impacting relationships with other people, and not dying alone — as though trying to give the series a meaningful conclusion, when this sentiment wasn't really prevalent throughout; there didn't seem to be an overriding sort of theme of fear of dying alone, or getting older, or anything; just sort of a pointless series, almost; Coogan can create the characters, but I really do think he needs someone else there to shape the show and give it some sort of overarching meaning beyond: here is this character, and he's like this, and here's the stuff that he does; his characters are inherently sort of sad, or depressing, in Tommy Saxondale's case, but that really isn't enough; oh! But David Cann as a boring dinner guest = yessss)

What did you guys think?

The Trip (2010) - Watch the TV Series Instead

The Trip, the television program, is a poignant, rambling, beautiful little series, starring comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictionalized versions of themselves. The Trip, the film, which I was able to catch at a packed SIFF screening, is an edited version of the television show. The six episode series clocks in at about 180 minutes, and the film, at 107 minutes, feels truncated and rushed comparatively. Both follow these hilarious gents as they review restaurants in the English countryside, but with those seventy-so minutes edited out, much of the nuance and poignancy is lost—the tone shifts from somber (but funny), to seemingly desperate for laughs. The film does often get those laughs (Coogan and Brydon, in their largely improvised conversations, are very humorous), but it fails to really make much impact beyond providing entertainment. The more melancholy scenes retained from the television series often feel tacked-on, and the transition between jokes and sentiment clunky, with quiet moments and breathing time largely cut out.

In the film and show, Steve Coogan expresses his desire to be acknowledged as more than just a comedic actor. He feels he could play more dramatic, serious, cinematic roles, but isn't offered those parts because of the success he's had doing goofy television comedy like Alan Partridge. "I don't want to do British TV," Coogan tells his agent when he's offered a guest spot as a Doctor Who baddy. "I want to be in films." Ironically, The Trip, the series, showcases one of Coogan's best dramatic performances to date—he's funny and real and heartbreaking, and all while on British television. The film, however, with its more frenetic pace, sacrificial cuts, and focus on jokes, seems to reinforce the impression Coogan is trying to escape—that he should just stick with broad comedy, and that subtlety is not really his thing. Coogan's BAFTA for his work on the show is well deserved, if inaccurately categorized as a "comedic" performance, but any accolades for the movie, beyond "best Michael Cain impersonation," would be unmerited due to the unfortunate editing choices.

Sadly, US audiences will unlikely be given a chance to legally view the series before a Region 1 DVD is released (if ever), and many of those familiar with Coogan or Brydon's work will no doubt go to see the film (it's been picked up by IFC), thus further separating Coogan from the dramatic recognition he rightfully deserves. Audiences looking for droll popcorn fare will not be disappointed, but those wanting to be genuinely moved should skip the flick and instead seek out the superlative television series, using whatever means they can.

The Trip was directed by Michael Winterbottom and written by Coogan and Brydon; the series was edited by Mags Arnold and Paul Monaghan (the film has no credited editor on IMDB); Claire Keelan (Nathan Barley) also stars.

19 January 2011

ERTCSJDHT: A Catty Conclusion

I think I am going to stop posting Erin Reads the Comics So Josh Doesn't Have To here, and leave that for my single-purpose tumblog:


People can't really post comments, because tumblr is a blog site intended for the verbally challenged, but the layout for pictures is nice on there, and I got tired of manually resizing each scan and uploading a small- and large-resolution of each to photobucket. Laziness wins again, I guess.

Also, on tumblr I tag each comic with its newspaper strip progenitors, so at least credit is being given, in case some daily cartoon has an especial aesthetic appeal, and you just need to know what it's called and who drew it so that you can go and read all the archives and make your favourite panel your desktop background. Because there's nothing so wondrous to observe like the artistry in the funny pages.

10 December 2010:

(Case in point.)