Friday, January 31, 2014

Informal musings on what to watch

I was on a forum earlier today and someone trotted out the ole "All our good shows are ending!" harrumphing. 

And to some extent, its true. I don't know if anyone can ever really touch HBO's output a decade ago - The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under create a lineup that no network has ever come close to matching.

But if you wanted complex dramas back then, that was literally ALL you had to watch. Eventually things like Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and The Shield came in. But still.

So yes, perhaps the next AAA medium defining works have yet to appear. There are so many robust and interesting shows to watch this year alone that I can't help but feel that we're incredibly blessed to witness. 

In no particular order here's what I'd recommend enjoying:

Just spitballing here, but if I were to put together a list of great TV that's still on the air...

Justified - Successfully manages to offer great Cases of the Week procedural plots while still offering the longer more intricate plots of serialization. It is also a HELL of a good time, and is easily the funnest show to watch currently on-air.

Masters of Sex - Finally, a show that treats Sex with maturity and insight beyond "teehee, look at the boner." The rapport between Sheen and Caplan is a great example of subtle writing that never goes for the clanging "LOLOL ain't the fifties funny" jokes.

The Americans - Way better than it has any right to be. Its blend of action and nuance feels like it could totter off the edge at any second, but Keri Russell's performance alone is worth the investment. 'Show them your face!" takes her character far past the cliche of the femme fatale Soviet Agent.

Scandal - Balls out insanity with the occasional scintilla of actual insight about modern politics. It's ultimately a steamy soap opera, but it is also so much more.

Orange is the New Black - Female characters have been vastly under-served this past decade. Orange feels less like an apology and more like a rocking party that reminds us what we've been missing. A stacked list of talent - we're talking mesmerizing performances by at LEAST twenty actors, and a show that's willing to go to some weird places if the story calls for it. 

Arrow - Over-obvious dialogue aside, Arrow's plotting is top-shelf. The show has a fantastic institutional memory, which is a fancy way of saying the character's actually remember things that happened five episodes ago. Earlier this year a character was poisoned, and the other cast members proceed to talk about the ways they've cured people in the past - a small moment that most shows would never think of including. Also features the best fight scenes in television.

Mad Men - Duh.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Your Mother Met Me: Initial Thoughts

If you've ever watched How I Met Your Mother than you deserve the opportunity to watch tonight's 200th episode. We finally saw what the Mother has been doing for the past nine years - and she's far more than just "The Perfect Girl" so often trotted out in romantic comedies.

Her and Ted share interests (coins! calligraphy! Driving gloves!) but she's also her own character with her own trials and quirks and moments of real heartache. I've already seen some people attack Bays and Thomas by arguing that they're showing another "Weak woman devastated by a man." moment.

But HIMYM has always argued that love (or the perception of it) devastates the sexes equally. We watched Ted spend a year getting over Stella. We watched him flicker back to life before falling to the ground with Victoria (twice.) And we've seen the hold that Robin still holds in Ted's mind.

To give Cristin Millioti her own love story has always been crucial to the show - but they also gave her her own set of emotional setbacks and triumphs. What would be demeaning to women is if the Mother was sitting on a perch for a decade, just patiently waiting for Ted to get his incredibly pissy shit together.

Instead, she has her own theories about the cards that the universe has dealt her, her own inside jokes with her friends, even her own MacLaren's.

And look, there's an ungodly amount of fans gleeful about all the fan service and "This is why the Mother was in Place X and Time Y" moments. But connecting the dots is the easy part.

The tough part is in making me feel that the tapestry was worth threading together in the first place. And Millioti's performance goes a long way towards that goal. She sells the hell out of that English Muffin gag, somehow portraying a years-long relationship with the tiniest of moments. In lesser hands her "conversation" with Max could be horrendously cheesy, but instead I found myself reaching back to the moments where I've felt loss myself, keying in to her much deeper wound. It's only melodrama if you're doing it wrong.

 The show can never fully recover from the entire seasons spent with characters in stasis, or Lily's awful pregnancy cliches, or the show's condonement of Barney repeatedly gaslighting Robin -
But for tonight, it feels great to remember the reasons why I nearly missed a flight nine years ago, laptop next to an empty seat in the terminal. Watching a show that reminded me of all those thunderously big emotions that my generation tries to stifle under an avalanche of our own cleverness.

Cleverness is always outpaced by sincerity, in the end.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tuesday Night Comedy Round-Up Spotlight: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I'm not sure how, but Tuesday has quietly turned into the Night of a Thousand Sitcoms. While Thursday still has the one-two punch of Community and Parks and Recreation, FOX's Tuesday night comedy block has quickly become a favourite of mine.

The newly Golden Globe minted Brooklyn Nine Nine delivered another confident half-hour, finally handing the spotlight over to Terry Crews. Whereas most of the cast has been fleshing out well-worn stereotypes (Stern Authority Figure, Loose Cannon Detective, Ambitious career cop), Terry Crews has existed on a different wavelength. His gradual ascent back to active duty has been one of the show's consistent threads, and this feels like the culmination to all that background work.

The biggest initial draws for Brooklyn Nine Nine were the talents of Dan Goor and Michael Schur, whose Parks and Recreation remains the most consistently warm and funny sitcom on television. I picked up an admiration for Andre Braugher's comedic chops from the outstanding Men of a Certain Age (a medal winner in the "Worst Advertisement Campaign" olympics). And Andy Samberg's Lonely Island videos were a staple of my college existence.

But in the first few episodes, no character made me laugh as much as Chelsea Peretti. Her non-sequitur asides felt like comedic shots of adrenaline. And these episodes were still quite funny, always able to make me a crack several smiles and at least one or two big laughs. Since then, Brooklyn has grown and figured out ways to deliver character-based jokes with nearly everyone in the ensemble (Joe Lo Truglio getting way too involved in the gym cover story, Santiago's awesome line reading of "goblin", Sully's bit with the thumb tack). Peretti's character is still funny, but she also feels a bit detached - and her B story felt like we were left waiting for a punchline that never quite came.

Still, Crews' A-plot managed to be both funny and dramatically crucial, all while moving at a fast clip. Now just punch Peralta in his lucky face a few more times, just for us. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Movie Review: Zack Snyder's Man of Steel

Man of Steel is less a coherent movie than a collection of scenes thrown together.

The alterations made to make Lois Lane central to the origin story are all great, great changes for a modern Superman story to make. Much as I love the "lois lane is the best reporter but can't figure out Clark is Superman" dynamic (especially when Dana Delaney is involved), its high time for a Lois Lane that gives Superman the hope HE needs in humanity.

But oof. Lord do i ever hate non-linear interlocking "here's a flashback, there's a flashback, now we're over HERE!" bullshit story pacing. It KILLS the first act, even when the actors are doing their level best to deliver. We're never allowed to follow Clark's emotional journey - which is the one central reason why Batman Begins is the most successful and definitive superhero film of the past twenty years. That film told us within the first thirty minutes "This is Bruce Wayne, this is how he has changed." More importantly, it also showed us Gotham City, showing us the city that Wayne dedicates his life to protect.

By contrast, Man of Steel wrecks the absolute holy hell out of Metropolis, but it doesn't land because we've never even seen a skyline shot of the city beforehand. I suppose if you've been reading Superman comics for decades you'll feel some pangs of emotion from that implied history. Even there though, I'm not even sure what version of humanity Clark is meant to protect. For all I know Wonder Woman and Green Lantern are already active in this world, its just an off day. There's no context, no sense of how Superman is this game changer.

There's also no joy in a largely gray and monochromatic world. Clark smiles a restrained smile when he first flies, but that's about it. My absolute favorite Superman moment is from the animated series. Clark, having just been told his kryptonian origins, understanably freaks the fuck out. He runs past his parents, past the farm, past highways. he runs and runs and runs until suddenly he's soaring over a cliff side - and his frustration give way to pure catharsis. He screams in excitement because DUDE, he's freaking flying.

Far better writers than I have ripped the film's final act to shreds. Yes, the film crosses the line from evoking 9/11 to crassly exploiting those indelible images. Yes, Superman violates a central tenet of his character - causing both my parents to ask "Since when does Superman do that?" But it is a good setup for a franchise, much to my chagrin.

I just don't really know if its a franchise I want to keep watching.

Bite-Sized Review: Enlisted

Fox's Enlisted (premiered tonight) crackles with opportunity. It's not a great episode, but it is a good pilot. We get a sense of who the characters are, what type of adventures they'll have each week, and a smidgen of emotional weight.

Plus, it's pretty damn funny. Ron Funches and the rest of the supporting cast are immediately memorable. They avoid any of the obvious jokes, usually steering away from the first choice and instead looking for the second or third option. Keith David is tasked with some dramatic heavy lifting, but also gets a chance to crack a good joke or two.

And in keeping with Fox's new push for diversity, we've got an actually diverse cast without tripping over itself in self-congratulations.

The show's creator, Kevin Biegel, hails from Scrubs and Cougar Town. And Enlisted is very much a spiritual successor - wacky hijinks melded with surprisingly subtle and nuanced character work on the inside.

Welcome, Good Morning, and Godspeed

Three years ago I pictured myself a Big-Dick-Swinging capital A Author. And then I spent more and more time abroad, away from America and California and that uniquely intoxicating blend of crazy optimism and bleeding-edge cynicism. American television kept me sane, kept me moving, kept me connected. And after receiving my shiny diploma (okay, it's still in the mail), I've realized that I enjoy critiquing more than creating my own work. I'll mainly be posting reviews of television shows with the occasional sojourn out to the land of movies and literature. Previous work can be found at Thanks for reading!