Sunday, May 8, 2016

Episode of the Week: The Americans - "The Magic of David Copperfield..."

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 4, Episode 8

A great episode of TV often sneaks up on you.  But sometimes you know right from the beginning, because the episode announces its greatness straight away.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." the eighth episode of The Americans' white hot fourth season, is an example of the latter, hinting at its greatness right in its opener.  The nearly silent cold open is an epilogue of sorts, closing off the Martha story that dominated the previous two episodes by showing Philip driving her to board a plane that will begin her journey to Russia in the dead of night.  There's a heaviness to it -- we're not used to television being quiet for so long.  But it's perfect at capturing the feeling of going somewhere in the middle of the night, with only the howling air and your own breath soundtracking the evening.  This will be the last Philip sees of Martha, maybe the last we see of her too, and the episode lingers on that farewell and the wide shot of him watching as her plane floats out of view.  It's a devastating beginning, one that immediately tells the audience, "Sit back, because this episode is going to be a doozy."

It's interesting, then, that the episode downshifts from there for a little while.  After all of the ratcheting tension of the last few weeks, a breather is necessary, but it's almost defiant how low-key everything starts out here.  There's an elegiac feeling over every scene, as if there's more air and space surrounding the characters.  Lots of focus is given to the downtime that we rarely see these people engaging in: Philip reads a book on the couch, Elizabeth prepares lunch while Henry and Paige express excitement over David Copperfield's next stunt, Stan comes over to the Jennings' for a beer, the FBI solemnly takes inventory over all of their leads on Martha that have gone cold.  Later, Elizabeth goes to see a movie with Young-hee.  Even the operations feel like idle time.  But of course, this is just to trick us into feeling soothed, because nothing stays serene for too long on The Americans.

It all starts with EST, about which Philip is reading early in the episode.  These seminars have been a part of the show since they were introduced via Sandra Beeman in the third season, and even though EST is sort of a goofy footnote in the 80s chapter of our history books, The Americans has always been very earnest about it.  Still, who would have thought that it would be the fulcrum of season four?  All of the characters on this show are people who, for all of their skill and intelligence, aren't very in tune with their emotions.  They lack self-awareness and the tools to really dig into their emotions and address what's bothering them.  Instead, they just tamp things down until they leap out like a starburst.  So naturally, EST would be what causes a divide between Philip and Elizabeth, after he latches on to it and she doesn't understand what power it could possibly have for him.

Now, the schism isn't truly about EST.  When Philip is on the couch reading that EST book in the beginning up the episode, it's no accident that writer Stephen Schiff chooses to have him and Elizabeth also discuss Martha, the other thing that has been wrenching them apart lately.  Again, when Elizabeth chooses to go to an EST seminar and she comes back and gets into an argument with Philip about it, it transitions to being a fight about Martha.  Matthew Rhys does some excellent directorial work in this scene as he slowly cuts to wider shots.  That initial tightness when you think Elizabeth is about to connect with Philip about these seminars gives way to a shot-reverse shot that shows just how far apart they are once they get to discussing what's really bothering them.  It's an ugly, terrifying argument where animosities from many seasons ago (Gregory, the mother of Philip's long-lost child, how much of their marriage is real) come out in a way that recalls the legendary Sopranos episode, "Whitecaps."

The Americans has always been a show about subtle moments of dialogue and body language.  That's part of the reason why there's a small subset of TV enthusiasts who don't respond to it as much as the rest of us do.  This is a series with emotions that you often have to find your way to, and "The Magic of David Copperfield..." might be the purest distillation of the show in that regard.  It's an hour of television that hinges upon the meaning and tension behind strained exchanges and loaded gestures.  The big fight in the middle of the episode explodes quickly, but it's one that is meticulously established, presaged by the conversation between Philip and Elizabeth where he bristles at her calling Martha simple.  "She was actually quite complicated.  People underestimated her," Philip responds, barely masking his rage.  It's there even earlier, in the conversations where they try to make small talk but find themselves unable to connect.

Really, it's all one contiguous body of feelings with The Americans.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." is a masterful display of the emotional cause-and-effect that this show does so well.  Philip is upset about Martha, which causes Elizabeth to get upset with Philip, which leads to them getting into a big argument, which factors into Elizabeth killing one of her agents and blowing up at Paige, and so on.  In typical Americans fashion, we pop in for a little while on the Rezidentura and the FBI, but Philip and Elizabeth are what suck up all the air in the episode.

They are what the whole season is being built around, in fact.  Despite mostly being separated by their individual operations, Philip and Elizabeth's relationship has always been the key to the show.  And when they had that passionate sex scene scored to "Under Pressure" at the end of "Clark's Place," it felt like the last truly happy moment we would see between them.  So far that has borne out, as the two episodes that followed showed us just how hurt Elizabeth was when she learned that Philip had revealed his "true self" to Martha, further blurring the line between cover and real relationship.  That's why it's so surprising when we see them have a brief moment of shared happiness in this episode, when Gabriel gives them minor respite from the workload that has clearly been taking a toll on them.

Even more surprising is the cut that follows shortly after, announcing big changes in the form of a "7 months later" chyron at the bottom of the screen.  We're given a montage of Paige enjoying mini golf with Pastor Tim and his wife, Philip and Elizabeth merrily playing hockey with Henry, and Gad sharing a beer with Stan.  All is well.  But it isn't, not really.  It can never be with these characters.  Once Paige returns home and is behind closed doors, she solemnly gives her parents every detail about her peaceful outing with Pastor Tim.  But you can tell that there's darkness just over the horizon and it's coming quickly.

Hours before this episode aired, many critics were pre-hyping it, with some even going as far as saying it was the best the show had ever done.  This primed some people for a much different episode than the one they got, which led to a minor bit of disappointment. That's because we've increasingly become used to equating "amazing episode of television" with "something mind-blowing happened."  Nothing earth-shattering occurred in this episode, but that doesn't change the fact that it is an exceptional piece of television and a great example of The Americans' simmering, low-key brilliance.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." is the best episode of television that I've seen all year, only rivaled by the two episodes of this show that preceded it.  So far season four has been a blazing wildfire.  If it's giving us this in the middle of the season, can you imagine what we have in store for us for the next five weeks?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Frankie Cosmos packs a world of wit and emotion in 28 minutes on "Next Thing"

Frankie Cosmos, the moniker of 22 year-old Greta Kline, interestingly tows the line between buzz genres of the recent past and present.  From her soft, childlike voice to her plucky junk-pop instrumentation, her sound resembles the kind of twee music that was popular with indie blogs in the mid-2000s.  But at the same time her personal, deeply emotional lyrics fit in perfectly with the 20-something singer-songwriter resurgence of the last few years.  It's a style she honed over her dozens of Bandcamp releases and fully realized on her 2014 gem, Zentropy.  But after an achievement like that at such a young age, she could've easily flamed out and failed to live up to her limitless potential.  Thankfully, her latest record Next Thing is as far from a disappointment as an album can possibly be.

It turns out that Fit Me In, the gauzy electronic EP she released last November, was just an experimental detour, because Next Thing gets back on the road paved by Zentropy.  It's another album of sharp, indie pop songs that bury genuine craft under the guise of simplicity.  And like her previous LP, this latest offering keeps things brief at 15 songs and 29 minutes.  Despite that short running time, Next Thing never seems like it's robbing the listener of material.  Kline doesn't feel the need to drag things out or repeat choruses, because everything lands with the appropriate weight the first time around.  These songs get in and out before you have a chance to get sick of them.  They even manage to shift and turn in their little 90-second spans.

But the real draw is Kline's lyrics, which manage to be breathtaking while working on a small scale.  Unlike some of her peers (like, say, Waxahatchee), she doesn't often rely on flowery language to get her point across.  Instead, her poetry is more plainspoken.  There's room for metaphor, but Kline's straightforward writing makes the particular banalities of which she speaks hit harder.  Next Thing frequently reads like a diary.  One page is her expressing happiness for her friends ("Embody"), then the next is her confronting dark thoughts and insecurities about a relationship ("Too Dark").  A few pages later she's exploring a different object of affection ("On the Lips").  These songs all sit beside one another and combine to form a compelling emotional portrait.  Everything feels so present tense too; they're songs ripped straight from her very own headlines.  I wouldn't be surprised if "Tour Good," a song about the moment-to-moment feelings of being on the road, was written while she was on tour.

All of this would be terribly navel-gazey were it not for two major factors.  First, the songs are so insistently catchy that the album could merely be enjoyed as a collection of charming pop songs.  From the sickly sweet swing of "On the Lips" to the bouncy chug of "If I Had a Dog," it's got indelible melodies to spare.  The second element that saves these songs from feeling self-indulgent is the sly sense of humor that Kline tucks just underneath all of her musings.  "I know I'm not a lake" she says, to joke about her lack of depth on the seemingly tossed off "Outside With the Cuties."  She starts off "I'm 20" with the line "I'm 20 / washed up already" and you can practically hear her winking.

The best albums have as much life in your head as they do in your ears.  In that case, Next Thing is going to go down as one of the best albums of 2016.  Albums that came out last week have already been erased from my mind, but ever since this one came out a month ago it's been rattling around up there.  Kline's songs feel like a whole universe.  She references her real friends, her dog, her brother -- you have to bring in your own knowledge to get the first names she drops.  But the feeling of intimacy is enough even if you don't do the extra credit.  You may not know who the Gaby or Owen she mentions in her songs are, but by the end of Next Thing, you feel like you know who Greta Kline is.

If you only watch one YouTube channel, make it Just Between Us

I think that I've outgrown YouTube.  Just a few years ago, I was an avid visitor of the site -- I was subscribed to like 50 different channels, all of which I watched regularly.  But between having a job, watching TV/movies, listening to music, and writing blog posts that nobody reads, I just don't have time to watch somebody vlog about a bath bomb.  There are still about five channels whose content I'll watch whenever they upload a new video, but it had been years since I felt truly excited about YouTube.  At the ripe age of 24, I inexplicably felt too old for something.

Who knew that all I needed was Just Between Us, a comedy series from writing partners/best friends Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin, to fill me with life?  Somehow, I had never watched a single video of theirs and had only even vaguely knew about the channel until a few weeks ago when Hank and John Green mentioned that they were filming an episode of the show.  That's what finally made me think "Hmm, I know of Gaby Dunn from around the Internet.  Maybe I should check this channel out."  So I watched one video.  And then I watched a few more.  I just couldn't stop watching them, they were too delightful.  In the span of a couple of weeks, I had watched every single episode.

The format of the show is simple: every week they read a relationship/sex/life question submitted by a viewer and attempt to give that person advice, which is only sometimes helpful but always hilarious.  Each episode is loosely scripted, with alot of room left for improvisation.  Within that structure Gaby and Allison play exaggerated versions of their actual selves -- the former's character is a carefree, aggressive feminist and the latter is a neurotic, Type A personality.  When the show first started in 2014, Allison was the straight man to Gaby's antics, but their characters have since evolved to the point where they're both pretty wacky, Allison maybe even more so than Gaby.  Judging from the comments on their videos, people often have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that JBU is scripted and the women are playing characters.  In a way that's understandable, because the show is so fun that you almost want it to be how they really are.

Plus, the show is at its best when it allows a little bit of reality to come in.  In past videos, Gaby has discussed her polyamory and bisexuality, even sharing the story of how she came out when she was younger.  Even more refreshing is Allison's openness about her lifelong struggle with OCD and other mental health issues.  There's still a stigma that society has against mental illness and it's really inspiring, heroic even, to see Allison's ability to take it seriously while also spinning comedy out of it.  In a weird way, watching her has helped me understand and be less ashamed of my own battle with mental illness.

You can pick whether Gaby or Allison is your favorite, but doing so would be against the point of the show.  Really, Just Between Us is about a beautiful friendship, about two people who form one wonderful comedy powerhouse.  (It's a testament to Gaby and Allison's chemistry that seemingly half of the audience ships them.  Granted, the internet will ship anything, but there's something about JBU that really taps into that impulse).  Watching it will give you that same feeling of watching something like Broad City, where the warmth is just so infectious.  Honestly, I can't think of anything that makes me as happy as this channel does.  There are episodes that I have watched multiple times, and I never rewatch YouTube videos.

Last year, the duo began releasing sketches on Thursdays to go along with their regular Monday advice videos.  These shorts already started out polished, but they keep getting better and better.  Judging from YouTube views, fans seem to favor the sketches too.  I prefer the more candid feel of the advice videos, but really it's a matter of personal preference, since both formats are great displays of Gaby and Allison's talent as writers and performers.

Which makes it such a bummer that the show apparently isn't very financially successful, as Gaby described in her terrific article about the grim economics of YouTube.  In a fair world, Just Between Us would be making five times more money than whatever it's making right now.  Hopefully their Patreon (which I support them on) will get more patrons over time, because this is the best thing on YouTube.

I've compiled a list of some of my favorite Just Between Us videos as a primer for any newcomers.  All 15 of them are advice videos because I love those so much that I couldn't fit any sketches in.  But try some of those out too; you can't go wrong.  Plus, these videos are only about three minutes long, so watching this whole list will take you the same amount of time as watching an episode of TV.

Episodes to get you started:
1. How Important Is Sex?
2. What If Someone Only Wants You For Your Body?
3. Are You A Gaby Or An Allison? (ft. John and Hank Green)
4. What Is Consent?
5. Allison's #dearme Story
6. Why Is Allison Bad At Dating? (Dating With Mental Illness)
7. What Was Your Worst Breakup?
8. Why Is Gaby Prettier Than Allison?
9. Is Anything Real?
10. Do Labels Matter?
11. Can You Date Your BFFs Crush?
12. Which Ex Do You Hate The Most?
13. What If Your Crush Is Taken?
14. How Do I Accept My Small Boobs?
15. Can You Be With One Person Forever?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Girlfriend Experience is one of the best and boldest shows of the year

Very few television shows use sex in any meaningful way.  Just look at the countless premium cable dramas that employ sex scenes as a means of pure titillation.  Or look at Game of Thrones, which often uses sex as sugar to help the medicine of exposition go down.  These scenes aren't really telling the audience much about the characters or themes of their respective shows.  In fact, you could lift them right out of an episode not much would change aside from the tightness of your trousers.

Some shows do try though.  In the past, we had HBO's Tell Me You Love Me, which aimed to examine sex realistically, but was too dramatically inert to make a mark.  More recently, Girls has portrayed how goofy and awkward sex between young people can be, but it's hardly about sex.  That's what makes Starz's daring, evocative new series The Girlfriend Experience so vital: it presents an unflinching and thoughtful look at sex while also delivering a satisfying narrative.

Loosely based on the 2009 film of the same name that was directed by Steven Soderbergh (who serves as an executive producer here), The Girlfriend Experience is created by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who write every episode and alternate directorial duties.  Like its progenitor, the series introduces us to the world of high-end escorts, who provide their clients with a level of companionship absent from the lower rungs of sex work. We follow Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a second year law student who just landed a prestigious internship at a top law firm, as she learns about the GFE lifestyle when her friend Avery (indie film staple Kate Lyn Sheil) reveals that she works as an escort on the side.  Christine gives it a try, adopting the name Chelsea as a pseudonym, and quickly discovers how much she enjoys the sex and level of luxury that this life entails.  Her progression deeper into this world is chronicled over the course of the 13-episode first season.

As much as it is a dissection of this culture audiences may know very little about, The Girlfriend Experience is primarily an intense character study of Christine Reade.  More and more, we're getting examples of rich and vibrant female leads, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a woman (or any character, really) written as uniquely as she is.  Christine is alienating, cold, has no friends, sees interactions as purely transactional, and doesn't seem bothered when her actions cause damage to others; and Kerrigan & Seimetz let her exist for pure observation, not judgment.  They go out of their way throughout the season to cross out the usual conclusions one would draw when trying to explain Christine's decisions.  She's not a sociopath, she wasn't abused as a child, she's financially stable, she comes from a loving family.  There is not one answer that can magically solve her.

Is Christine selfish?  Or does she just operate under a different set of rules and values from most people?  Does that make her selfish?  You're likely to turn those questions over and over in your head throughout the season, coming up with a different result each time.  Usually when you've watched 13 episodes of a show and you still don't know what's driving a character, that's simply bad writing.  Here, it's what makes the show so alluring.

All of this works because of Riley Keough.  A less talented performer might make Christine seem like a flat character, but Keough finds some wonderful texture in her opacity.  Kerrigan and Seimetz smartly make use of alot of close-ups where the camera is planted squarely on her face for an extended period of time, just searching the subtleties of Keough's expressions and glances.  And when it's time for Christine to come alive to give clients the GFE experience they want, Keough transforms and delivers there too.  She's got an astonishing range -- best exhibited in the season's wild ninth episode -- that makes her one of the best actors on television right now.

Co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz both come from more of an independent film background, which comes through in The Girlfriend Experience.  This is a quiet and chilly show -- perhaps too chilly for some -- full of psychological nuances and micro-expressions that speak volumes.  But Kerrigan and Seimetz reveal themselves to be surprisingly adroit plotters as well.  The season moves along at a glacial pace, but the pair load the episodes with setups that pay off beautifully in the final stretch.  By the end, it's a marvel how elegantly the show's disparate elements lock together.

The Girlfriend Experience is not exactly an inviting series.  It challenges the limits of its viewers progressiveness and what we expect from female characters.  It asks us to accept many of Christine's choices and really think hard about why we don't accept some of her other decisions.  This is not a male fantasy.  This is not a female empowerment story either.  It's just a complex, fascinating, magnificently crafted piece of television.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

I still like the show Girls

HBO's Girls gave birth to the modern thinkpiece culture that we see in writing about TV and film today.  Or at least the show was one of the things that gave that angle the power to dominate modern pop culture conversations.  When the show hit the scene in early 2012, it was met with equal amounts of acclaim and vitriol.  Many critics praised the series for its singular voice, focus on female friendships, and frank depiction of sexuality.  But others criticized it for a number of things like its overwhelmingly white cast, privileged and unlikable characters, and the alleged nepotism involved in assembling the show.  In its debut season, it seemed like a new thinkpiece about Girls was posted once an hour.  The haters and fans fueled each other.  For every article that applauded the show's groundbreaking nature, there was a rebuttal accusing it of being problematic garbage.

But there are only so many ways to talk about a show.  At a certain point, writers ran out of unique takes on it, and the people who excoriated the show got bored and stopped watching.  Since the intense hate that certain corners of the internet have for Girls is what drove its supporters into an aggressively defensive position, there was less reason to keep its positive traits in the collective conversation once the negativity died down.  Occasionally, there would be something that got the internet talking -- who can forget about Marnie getting rimmed last season? -- but in general, the critical community has moved on from intensely discussing it.

What a shame too, because Girls is still a good show.  The difference is that it doesn't feel as special as it did in those first two years, when everyone was talking about it.  Such is the case with art that has a significant influence on its medium.  Because there are so many shows with indie film sensibilities on television now, it's easy forget that there wasn't much else like Girls in 2012.  Its most obvious ancestor would be Louie, which had already existed for two years and was indeed the main point of comparison for reviewers at the time.  Now we've got Togetherness, Transparent, Casual, and countless others.  An increase in peers, coupled with a decrease in its auteur-driven sensibilities, made Girls appear less unique, despite only minor drops in quality.

Pure watchability is a highly underrated quality when it comes to television, and what these past few seasons of Girls have lacked in innovation, they've more than made up for in watchability.  I never feel the urge to look at the clock when I'm watching an episode of this show.  In fact, I'm often surprised when the credits start rolling, given the way half an hour just breezes by.  After the severe dramatic turns of season two (still my favorite season), Lena Dunham made a conscious effort to slide back over to the comedy end of the spectrum.  In the process, the show went from being a raw look at the lives of a certain demographic of women to a somewhat more cartoony version of that.  Girls has always been funny, but the most recent seasons have bumped up the comedic energy, giving the show more laughs than many traditional sitcoms.  Part of that is because Dunham and her writers have such a strong sense of the characters at this point, knowing how to perfectly play off of what makes these people tick.

There might not be a better example of knowing the characters inside and out in the entire history of the show than this season's decision to pair Adam and Jessa together.  It's one of those decisions that I wouldn't have thought to make, but it makes total sense now that I've seen it.  They're the show's two most impulsive, eccentric, and destructive characters; so naturally, they would eventually end up together.  Of course, these two are bound to destroy each other, especially once Hannah finds out.  But for the time being, I want to just enjoy them in this current, blissful state, because it's absolutely delightful.

Season five is only four episodes in and it's already full of rock solid choices like that.  After four years of tinkering, the show has finally found the perfect blend of comedy and drama.  One of its other problems was that as the series went on, it became less logical that these characters would even still be friends, let alone in the same room with each other, and as a result Girls felt like four different shows running in parallel.  Season five has the main characters interacting more and in ways that make sense, a welcome return because they bounce off of each other so well.  Most importantly, the show still manages to show off some of its indie film flair, as it did with the Shoshanna material in Japan, which felt very Lost in Translation.  There are still a few frustrating moments this season -- a comedic scene in a coffee shop a few weeks ago was over-the-top and annoying in an extremely "written by Lena Dunham" way -- but Girls has always been a show whose tiny frustrations make it even more fascinating.

Before the fifth season began airing this year, Dunham announced that season six would be the final season of the show.  Perhaps that clear stopping point has given the show a sense of direction, a goalpost to shoot towards.  This has never been a plot-intensive series, so it didn't need an endgame on a story level, but more on a character level.  Seasons three and four felt like the work of a show that was wandering around aimlessly in some middle space with its characters in a way that season five does not.  Girls has always been good, but this year represents the first time in a while that it has felt truly significant and urgent.