Monday, August 10, 2015

Love, happiness, and the beautiful lie of UnREAL

There was a directorial move that happened over and over in the first season of UnREAL, Lifetime's excellent new series about the behind-the-scenes workings of a Bachelor-esque reality show called Everlasting.  A scene would start with a tight shot of a moment between members of Everlasting's cast, and just as it starts to feel like a genuine moment, the camera peels back to show the artifice behind it all.  Just beyond that real moment is an array of lights, cameras, and crew; all peering intently, trying to figure out how they can warp this scene into something that will provide the most entertaining television.

Every character has to remind themselves and the people around them that they're crafting a show, with almost every episode featuring some variation of the line "none of this is real anyway."  But is it quite so simple?  Sure, there's manufactured drama and contrived scenarios galore in UnREAL and Everlasting.  Yet there are real stories unfolding too.  A mentally ill woman desperately trying to cling to her job and her sanity at the same time, a repressed woman coming to terms with her sexuality, a rich playboy seeking redemption.  Therein lies the magnificent tension of the show, the way that reality tends to bleed all over "reality."

UnREAL is a deeply cynical show.  It shows the top-down process of a group of ruthless, ratings-minded people packaging up the myth of True Love to an American audience that will eat it up.  They've gotten to a point where they can predict how the public will react to every event, coming up with preset rules to follow: "sluts get cut," black women never win, the suitor that all of these women are competing for has to be likable.  In last Monday's season finale, executive producer Chet thinks he's come up with an incredible idea -- having bad girl Britney come back in the final round after an early exit at the beginning of the season -- only to be reminded that the show has done the very same thing three previous times.  Everlasting is programmed to a tee, but sold under the illusion that it's getting bigger and better and fresher.

The producers of Everlasting are the means by which the show is able to concoct the best possible results.  And the contestants are merely their playthings -- twist them up and watch them go.  But the level of gamesmanship goes beyond that.  Everybody is producing everybody.  As a result, there is plotting to the show in the truest sense.  Many of the best moments come from the complex web of deceit the writers spin: a character manipulating another character into manipulating another character; or somebody thinking they know the game somebody else is playing, only for that person to be playing a second game.  Lies, both big and small, are being sold everywhere.

And perhaps the biggest lie of all is the idea that any of these people can find happiness and fulfillment, either professionally or romantically.  If that's the goal, then they're searching in the wrong place.  After all, some of these women are looking for love in front of a camera, and the audience on the other side watches with hope that somebody will find it too.  One of the most brilliant aspects of the season finale is that even Quinn and Rachel start to buy into the lies they sell, mistakenly thinking that they've found something real in Chet and Adam, respectively.  You may not be able to find love in a hopeless place, but UnREAL deftly fools everyone into believing they can.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

On Paper Towns and years of being a John Green fan

Back in my senior year of high school, my English teacher, in an effort to learn more about what students read outside of the requirements for class, gave us an assignment to come in the next day with one of our favorite books in order to present it to the rest of the class.  I had just recently finished reading Looking For Alaska, the Printz Award-winning debut novel from John Green, and to say it had an effect on me would be a massive understatement.  Starting from my early childhood and continuing into my teenage years, I was a voracious reader, and nothing had come close to hypnotizing and shattering me in the same way this did.  Every new piece of art tends to be "life-changing" when you're that young, but it really felt like I was a different person after reading Alaska.  (It turns out I only became a more obnoxious person.  Months later, I would just write "How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?" in 95% of my classmates' yearbooks at the end of the school year.)

The only thing I wanted to do was talk about Looking For Alaska and the genius who created it with anybody who would, so this simple English assignment felt like a godsend to me.  At this point, nobody in my class had heard of John Green, so they just listened with mild interest as I breathlessly spewed factoids about Green's writing.  My enthusiasm was, however, enough to make my highly critical teacher give it a shot.  (She liked it just fine.)

Now, I wasn't exactly early on the John Green train.  By the time I had gotten around to discovering Looking for Alaska in 2009/2010, it had already been almost five years old, and Green had amassed a sizable online following via vlogbrothers, a Youtube channel he started with his brother Hank in 2007.  Still, he was not yet the man who would later appear on the Time 100 list, and judging from the blank stares I got when I talked about Alaska in my AP English class, his reach hadn't quite stretched to my peers.  So John Green still felt like my own special thing.  I couldn't get enough of his work, moving on to An Abundance of Katherines, then Paper Towns, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I even devoured Let It Snow, the charming Christmas story he co-wrote with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle.  Despite being a slow reader, I could always finish his books in a few sittings, because I was so rapt by his style and characters.  I didn't just enjoy reading his novels, I wanted to live inside of them.

Weirdly enough, I didn't even find out about vlogbrothers until a few months after my newfound John Green obsession.  When I was re-reading Looking For Alaska, I saw a link to the YouTube channel in the About the Author portion near the back of the book, and was confused but intrigued (and completionist) enough to check it out.  Discovering vlogbrothers felt like having my love of John Green busted wide open.  My favorite author had a video series with his brother, and they had built a whole community of fans called Nerdfighters, built around the values of charity and empathy and passion.  Over the course of a few weeks over summer break, I poured through the hundreds of videos in the vlogbrothers backlog, addicted to these funny, entertaining, and sincere little videos.  And of course, the idea of Nerdfighteria appealed to me.  Here was this group of people all around the world with similar interests and worldviews, people who wouldn't listen with only minimal attention as somebody spewed factoids about John Green and his books.  I participated in Nerdfighter forums, followed along with the annual Project For Awesome charity event, and felt like being a Nerdfighter was truly a part of my identity.

Eventually, I outgrew the community.  I just couldn't maintain the level of earnestness and passion that seems to be at the core of Nerdfighteria, as much as I respect it.  It seemed like all of the people who were in the first few generations of the community grew out of it a little too, replaced by a generation who was about the same age we were when we first started following John Green.  That level of fandom seemed best suited for teens, a demographic I was slowly aging out of.  And truthfully, the community was growing too big and unwieldy to feel a part of in the same way that I did in the first few years. My relationship with Nerdfighteria had become detached and complicated, but at least my feelings about Green and his work remained pure.

That is, until the Fault in Our Stars craze began.  I pre-ordered and loved the book when I read it, and in the coming weeks after that, it seemed very clear that this was the tipping point for John Green.  It received rave reviews from prestigious publications, selling like gangbusters, and making waves that reverberated way beyond the diehards.  Anybody still under the illusion that this story would their personal little possession would be convinced otherwise by the hit movie that followed the very next year.  While I loved the film, I also recognized it as the moment the idea of John Green split in two.  There was the John Green that I knew inside and out, and there was the John Green that people only knew through the massive phenomenon of the Fault movie.  Those in the latter category might not even know who Green himself is, only the general brand that he represents.

Naturally, with widespread popularity comes a whole cadre of haters.  They existed before Green's breakout success, but a whole new breed seemed to crop up about two years ago.  It's fine to be critical of the guy's work, but lately it seems like people find his entire existence offensive.  Accustations have been made that he's a soulless business-minded pest and a creep who preys on teenage girls, and I just find that baffling.  It's hard to go anywhere on the internet and read an article about something John Green-related without seeing a bilious pile-on in the comments section, which makes me so sad.  So in a way, this burgeoning fame has made me a fiercer defender of Green, if only because I feel it to be necessary.  How can anybody view him as anything other than a kind and charitable dude?

But just as well, John Green's celebirty has caused me to feel a little alienated too.  He has so many fans that I feel like I have to share my once boundless enthusiasm with more and more people.  So I get smaller and smaller portions of him.  It's fine that people like him, but it's come at the expense of his work feeling like something that's personal and intimate to me.  Sure, that makes me a little selfish, but I can't help the way I feel.

Perhaps the best way to describe my disconnect with Green is with an anecdote.  I was at dinner with my best friend recently and at a certain point, I pulled out my cell phone to check something.  When I did that, she noticed the case on my phone and asked me what it was from.  The case in question is filled references from The Fault in Our Stars.  I bought it for a few reasons: I think it looks cool; DFTBA records, the online store owned by John and Hank Green, makes it so that the fans and friends who create the products they sell make most of the profit, and I like to show support for John Green even if I'm not as invested in his fandom as I was when I was younger.  I told her what book/film it was from and a quick look that said "Really?" flashed across her face, before she mentioned that she saw the movie and liked it.  She then pinpointed the big "Okay? Okay." clouds in the middle and said "I remember that part."  And that was it.  I wanted to explain away that "Really?," to tell her about how deep my connection to the book and John Green runs, to let her know that I've honestly never even liked the "Okay? Okay." moment that much.  But to so many people, that's what The Fault in Our Stars is, so I just kind of let it go.  It's moments like this that make me feel a little bit of distance from Green and his work, almost as a way of protecting myself.

Still, there are things that make me feel connected to John Green in the way that I used to be.  Strange as it may seem, the primary source is a video series on an offshoot YouTube channel where he plays the soccer video game FIFA.  The results of each match are fairly repetitive, and John is a terrible FIFA player, but there's something that I find soothing and wildly entertaining about them.  He just tells stories and answers questions and creates a whole fictional universe for the team he's playing with and I love it so much.  Most of my college experience was miserable and stressful, but The Miracle of Swindon Town helped get me through those tough times.  Waiting for a new video to pop up at 10:00 am every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday was something of a centering force for me.  But most importantly, it's such a niche series that only a small portion of Nerdfighteria follows it, so it's easy to get that nostalgic rush of feeling like you're apart of something tight-knit and special.

Mostly, though, I find myself mourning the days when my feelings about John Green were pure and unsullied by both his fame and my aging.  That's something that has especially been swirling around my brain in these months prior to the release of the film adaptation of Paper Towns.  With any book that you enjoy, it's always scary for it to be translated into a film.  Some of your favorite parts may be altered, portions could get cut out entirely, your mental image of the characters will forever be changed to the actors who portray them in the movie.  But with your favorite books, there's an even bigger chunk that gets taken away.  Nothing can be as special as your first time experiencing a piece of art.  The release of The Fault in Our Stars, enjoyable as it was, irrevocably changed my relationship with the book.  Was I really ready to go through that again, only a year later?

So I just couldn't manage to get all that excited about the Paper Towns movie.  I tend to stay away from trailers, so I never saw more than a few seconds of previews for the film, but the little of what I saw and heard didn't do much to assuage my fears.  Luckily, I enjoyed the actual finished product quite a bit.  In a way, it's the exact thing I needed at this point in my life of being a John Green fan.  Much like I was grieving the end of my youth via my changing relationship with Green, this film is about saying goodbye to your youth by embracing the empathy and understanding that comes with adulthood.

But before it can do that, Paper Towns captures all of the small and specific things that can make being a teen so wonderful, and the best moments are the lived-in scenes of characters being friends and hanging out.  That's keeping in spirit with Green's writing -- he's always been better at character and vibe than plot.  There's a plot in Paper Towns, to be sure -- guy loves girl, girl disappears, road trip ensues -- but it's all just an excuse for some hilarious and poignant interactions between the main characters.

Each member of the ensemble has a way of revealing themselves to be more than what the world would usually assume them to be.  In fact, it's the main theme of the film, that nobody is an archetype, that they're full of colors and stripes and smudges that make them three dimensional individuals.  Radar and Angela would just be the sidekick black couple without anything consequential to do in any other film, but the movie carves out two significant scenes where they're allowed to have their own story that in no way serves Q's narrative.  People box Lacey into the role of the beautiful blond bombshell, but she's also smart, kind, and caring; and she desperately wants that side of herself to be recognized.  Ben, who seems like the overly confident clown at first...well, he's mostly just that.

If there's a major flaw in the Paper Towns, then, it's the one character it somewhat fails in that regard: Margo.  The entire point of the film is Q coming to terms with the fact that he spent all of these years failing to acknowledge Margo's personhood, which he finally does in the climax of the film.  Over time, I've really grown to love the ending of the book, but the movie doesn't manage to stick the landing in the same way.  We're handed this message that Margo is her own person, not just a mystery for Q to solve, but we never get a sense of who that person is or why we should care.  So instead of feeling like the revelation it does in the book, the ending just feels like a lecture.  Part of that is due to the constraints of turning a 345 page book into a 100 minute film, which was always going to result in a flattening of Margo's interior, but the conclusion is just as undone by the tweaks made in the circumstances under which Q finds Margo.  In the book, their reunion feels much sadder -- the gang finds her living in a dilapidated old barn, dirty and alone, and you really get a sense of how selfish she is for running away without considering the consequences.  You gain a much better understanding of who she is when it stands in stark contrast with Q's rose-tinted romanticizing.  Compare that to the serene nothingness of the moment in the film, and the latter feels much less effective.

Nonetheless, there are more than enough enjoyable moments to outweigh a few minor quibbles.  During the night of pranks sequence that opens the film, I felt like I had been transported back to high school, when I read that section of the book for the first time and was amazed that a novel could have such an energizing, rollicking start.  I was reminded of my favorite lines -- "The Rhode Island of penises," "Your friendship with Margo sleeps with the fishes," etc. -- many of which I had forgotten I loved so much.  A great adaptation can stand on its own.  A good adaptation just has to be comforting, by presenting you with things you already know you like.  Paper Towns is only a good adaptation, but I'm completely at peace with that.  We're now two out of two with good adaptations of John Green books -- us fans should consider ourselves lucky.

Which brings us back to where we started.  With the success of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns (albeit a softer-than-expected opening from the latter), and John Green's star continuing to rise, Looking For Alaska is next in line to be adapted.  And even though I'm pretty positive on these last two adaptations, I desperately don't want a Looking For Alaska film to happen.  Fault and Towns are good, but I need Alaska to be perfect, and if it's going to be anything less than that I don't want it at all.  The Fault in Our Stars being made into a film felt like such an inevitability that I was quickly able to tell myself, "Okay, the world can have this one and only this one."  When Paper Towns rolled around, I rationalized that it's not my favorite Green novel, so I could deal with an adaptation that might not live up to the source material.  But Looking For Alaska is just too personal to me.  I can't deal with a single piece of miscasting, any tweaked themes, or the movie becoming such a success that the perception of the story gets reduced and simplified.

The worst part is that the best possible version of a movie was waved in front of our faces and then snatched away.  At one point, Sarah Polley was attached write and direct the film, and for the first time I felt okay with the idea of it existing.  Polley is on the shortlist of my favorite directors working right now, and her brilliant trio of films Away From Her, Take This Waltz, and Stories We Tell show a talent for empathy, emotional nuance, and micro moments.  She's one of the few filmmakers who could make what I define as a great adaptation of the material.  I wouldn't even mind her changing the story, because I know her alterations would be different and thoughtful.  While I don't know anything concrete, I suspect she was planning to do just that, and the pushback she received is what caused her to quietly leave the project.  All I know is we'll never see Sarah Polley's version of Looking For Alaska, and that seems like such a major injustice.

There are some fans of the Harry Potter books out there who have never seen any of the movies, and for a while I couldn't wrap my head around that.  But now that I have all of these books that are so close to my heart being made into films, I can understand the reasoning.  Lately, I've toyed around with the idea of just not seeing Looking For Alaska when it comes out, because it's the only way to ensure that I preserve my strongest tie to John Green and his work.  But at the end of the day, I know I'm going to see it.  Because no matter how much older I get, how much more famous he becomes, or how much we both change, I'll always be a fan.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is a bewitching rumination on age and fame

Examinations of Hollywood have been done to a point past death.  For as long as Tinseltown has existed, it seems as if there have been movies about the ins and outs of the industry.  In a sea of savage satires and aspirational tales, it's hard to make anything about this particular setting/subject that's fresh and exciting.  But Clouds of Sils Maria, the newest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas, manages to do just that, by creating a story that's a conversation about Hollywood, but takes place a whole ocean away from the city of angels.  It's a languid, melancholy film that cloisters itself away, then explores the itch that manifests from that isolation.

At the heart of this itch is Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an aging international actress, known for her work on both the screen and stage.  The film begins with her learning of the death of her mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, the man who wrote a play called Maloja Snake (which later became a film).  Maria achieved breakout success for her role in both the play and film as Sigrid; a young, callous businesswoman who has a complicated and troubled relationship with Helena, her vulnerable older colleague.  Though her career remained fruitful for a while, it's clear that Sigrid was Maria's defining role, and the well of new projects is beginning to dry up.  When a prominent new theater director presents the idea of a modern version of Maloja Snake, this time with a now-aging Maria playing the role of Helena, she reluctantly accepts.

In the play, Sigrid and Helena's tempestuous relationship leads to an ambiguous ending for Helena, but one that could be easily be interpreted as a suicide.  And in a grim matter of life imitating art, the actress who played opposite Maria during Maloja Snake's first run killed herself a year later.  It's obvious that all of this, along with the recent death of Snake's creator, weighs on Maria.  The act of taking up the role of Helena almost seems like a dare to herself, an ultimate acting test that she wants to see if she can pass.  But as the reality of the part and the play begins to seep in, it becomes apparent that Maria is not at peace with this character, mostly because she's not at peace with herself.  She's fighting her age and the possibility of her irrelevance, the latter of which is partially caused by her own unwillingness to engage with various elements of modern culture, from Hollywood blockbusters to the entire internet.

Following Maria around Europe while she prepares for the revamped Maloja Snake is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), her young and dedicated personal assistant, on whom Maria depends a borderline toxic amount.  Maria and Val's dynamic forms the backbone of the film with its endless fascinations and layers.  It's a union that's part work relationship, part friendship, and part unspoken emotional tug of war.  The ways in which those different parts swap in and blend together throughout Clouds is absolutely riveting.  Binoche is characteristically wondrous as Maria, but it's Stewart who ends up stealing the show with an astonishing performance.  In fact, it often feels like there's no performance at all, that Val is a real person and not just an assumed role.  Stewart has been accused of being a charisma vacuum in the past, but here she pivots around those qualities to push out a serene naturalism that fits in nicely with the film's laconic rhythms.

Nobody will try to make the case that Clouds of Sils Maria is a subtle film.  Clearly, the Maloja Snake (a meteorological phenomenon that causes a plume of fog to pass through the Alps) and Maloja Snake (the fictional play within the film) are symbolic of Maria, who seems reluctant to accept inevitabilities.  The film itself could also be a meta-commentary on artists like Juliette Binoche and Olivier Assayas, both of whom have long since past the first act of their careers.  Yet the lack of subtlety has a subtlety of its own.  The play initially presents itself as being about the contrast between Maria and the up-and-coming Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Moretz), who has signed on to play the role Maria did when she was in her 20s, but then shifts to resemble shades of Maria and Val's relationship.  That constantly coiling meta nature of the film leads to these rehearsal scenes between Maria and Val in the middle portion, where it's hard to tell when they're pulling from the text of Maloja Snake and when they're pulling resentment and anxieties from their own hearts.

Save a few mesmerizing touches, Assayas keeps his direction unfussy, but he remains probing nonetheless.  One of the crucial elements is that the movie doesn't take Maria's side on art and the modern age.  Assayas smartly allows Stewart's character to be there to defend mainstream Hollywood films, so it doesn't seem like he's some grumpy old snob grousing about the current state of things.  Instead, Clouds feels like Assayas is really trying to search within and have a conversation with himself about his career and the industry he's in.  And he ends it on a daring ellipsis for himself and Maria.  Maybe she'll finally embrace her age and accept the necessities involved in staying relevant.  Or maybe she'll disappear and never be heard from again, just like Helena at the end of Maloja Snake.

Monday, July 13, 2015

My Mad Fat Diary ended on a marvelous high note

The teen drama is like the television equivalent of R&B.  Wait, hear me out.  These days I don't listen to a ton of R&B, a genre whose best years have long since passed, but I still consider it one of my favorite genres of music.  Because when I hear good R&B, its pleasures are unparalleled.  Likewise, there aren't that many teen dramas that I watch, but the best of what the genre has to offer results in some of my favorite television shows of all time.  A little bit of a "they don't make 'em like they used to" sense can creep in, since we haven't gotten much to match the likes of My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks, and modern greats like Friday Night Lights approached the genre from an angle.  But for the last three years, there's been a wonderful little gem waiting right across the pond: UK's My Mad Fat Diary, which closed out its 16-episode run last Monday.

Airing on the E4 network -- home to crossover favorites like Misfits and Skins -- My Mad Fat Diary followed the life of Rae Earl (played by the revelatory Sharon Rooney), a teenage girl living in a small UK town in the mid-90s.  The show picks up after Rae's four month stint at a psychiatric hospital, caused by her mental health and body image issues, as she tries to reconnect with her childhood best friend Chloe (Jodie Comer) and her group of friends.  Right from the start, Diary made its unique charms known.  It gave us a deep dive into Rae's mind, via crude onscreen doodles and voiceover narration that ping-ponged between witty remarks and anxious self-loathing, all set over some great 90s Britpop.  I liked the lively spirit of the first season, along with the way it handled its volatile blend of tones, but I couldn't quite get to the point of loving it, simply because I found Rae to be such a frustrating protagonist.  The nature of the show meant that audiences got front-row seats to Rae's selfishness, self-sabotage, and lack of self-awareness.  Season one was often an emotionally draining experience because of that.

Part of why I loved the second season so much (enough for it to crack my top 20 list last year) was because it made it abundantly clear just how aware of Rae's frustrating aspects the show was.  It did so by upending our whole perception of the series in the stunning "Not I," where Rae is revealed to be an unreliable narrator of sorts, as we see the last two seasons from Chloe's perspective, and realize that Rae's constant focus on her own problems caused her to miss all of the pain that her best friend was going through.  In that way, My Mad Fat Diary is true to how mental illness really is, how it can be so consuming that you shut out all the ways in which the people around you may be trying to help, or even dealing with their own set of problems.

Shows and storylines about mental illness are hard to sustain, because mental illness doesn't really have a clean arc.  It's something that stays with you for your whole life in slightly different forms, through a series of endless setbacks and breakthroughs.  It's for that reason that My Mad Fat Diary ultimately had to end after three seasons (with a reduced episode count of three in this final season), as much as it might have pained its fans.  Any longer and it would have run the risk of becoming repetitive.  But writer George Kay -- who took over for series creator Tom Bidwell -- decided to make the most of it and go out with a bang, making this final season the best yet.  Season three found Rae at a crossroads in almost every aspect of her life: her future with Finn in question, her acceptance into a university in Bristol taking her away from the gang, and Kester deciding that it's time for them to end her therapy.  She reacts negatively to all of these changes swirling around her head, sliding back into her old habits of self-harm and self-sabotage.  These moments in the first two episodes were especially painful to watch because we've seen Rae make so much progress.  If season three's central question was, "Will Rae ever overcome her problems?" then those devastating episodes pointed to a grim answer.

"Voodoo" is as close to perfect as you can get in actually providing a response.  Ultimately, the finale answers that question in the most satisfying way it can, landing in a sweet spot where Rae makes a breakthrough, while also knowing that she'll never be completely out of the woods.  But not before she has to hit rock bottom.  Realizing that all of her friends are worried about her and that her mom chose to forgo moving to Tunisia because of her, Rae takes that to mean that she's a burden to those who love her.  She begins to think that maybe everybody would be better off without her.  I love the way the episode zigzags, making us think that Rae attempts suicide only to be saved at the last minute by Finn, but then reveal that it's all just a fantasy, one that makes Rae finally figure out that she can be her own savior.  It's the growth we've all been waiting to see from her, along with her finally coming to terms with the fact that she's not a burden, that she makes people's lives just as full as they make hers.

And no other relationship is deeper and more full than the one that exists between Rae and Chloe.  Without question, the most moving scene of the finale is the one where Chloe breaks down before prom, expressing to Rae her fear that she can't handle life after college or the idea that everyone will move on from her.  Rae reassures her, "The gang will keep in touch...for a bit.  But, well...that's just life isn't it?  But you and me, right?  We are Chloe and Rae.  We're not the gang."  In just 16 episodes, the show built Chloe and Rae's relationship into one of the strongest friendships ever shown on screen.  Nobody could've guessed at the start, but it turns out the heart and soul of the show was the bond between these two girls who are very different people, but who deeply love and understand one another nonetheless.

Because the final season was so short and Rae-centric, there wasn't much time devoted to the core side characters the show had done so well developing, however.  Would I have liked to have seen more of somebody like Archie?  Sure, but in the end, what we got was something that's hard to complain about.  2015 has been full of finales for many of my favorite shows, but this episode hit me in a way that no other one has yet.  I love Mad Men and Justified and Parenthood, but I felt that I had spent a good enough time with those show's characters by the end.  But the fact that I'm never going to spend time with some of these people again?  That hurts.

We'll always have those good old memories, though.  My Mad Fat Diary will leave a legacy of being one of the very best portrayals of mental illness, self-harm, and friendship.  It more than deserves a place in the pantheon of classic teen shows.  Like many of those it joins -- My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Bunheads -- its star burned short, but so, so bright.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How Halt and Catch Fire became one of TV's most fun shows

I was always more of a fan of Halt and Catch Fire than most people.  Critics gave the pilot above average reviews, citing their skepticism about AMC only sending out one episode, and getting hung up on very thin similarities between it and Mad Men.  Meanwhile, I thought it was a compelling start, one promising enough to earn an A- in my Pilot Talk series.  While I felt like the show struggled to fully realize the potential of its first episode over the course of its 10-episode debut season, getting bogged down in its own self-importance and delivering some uneven storytelling, I still found this look into the beginning stages of the computer age a relatively painless way to spend an hour.

Even in those worst moments of season one, Halt and Catch Fire always struck me as the kind of show that could take "the leap" in its second season.  All the pieces were there -- great cast, talented group of writers and directors, terrain relatively unexplored on television -- they just weren't quite fitting together yet.  Of course, shows like these can just as easily flounder, and it wasn't difficult to imagine this series settling into being another mediocre AMC show.  It could have doubled down on its fascination with Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the enigmatic software salesman who consisted mostly of platitudinous speechifying and very little depth.

Luckily, it went the way of improvement -- we're halfway through the show's second season, which has been a lively, massively entertaining piece of television.  And this marked growth is no mystery either.  The creative success of Halt and Catch Fire can be attributed to a few key changes.

The show rebooted its premise
Season one's story engine was driven by Joe's quest to reverse engineer the revolutionary IBM personal computer, roping in downtrodden former system builder Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and post-collegiate programming wunderkind Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis).  Part of the problem with that is that it's only a season long story, and it was difficult to imagine what the long-term version of the show would be.  They could've tried to stretch things out even though history was not on these characters' sides, but showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers realized that there weren't many more places to take this IBM plot by the end of season one.

Instead, the show embodied the maverick spirit of its characters and wiped everything off the table.  Season two found the show taking place a year after the events of the season one finale, where Joe left Cardiff Electric and Cameron started up her own company called Mutiny.  Time jumps haven't been a revolutionary choice for a long time, but this fast forward feels like such an important move for this series to make.  As opposed to trying to force a way for the show to be centered around Cardiff again, season two has refocused its story on Mutiny, a company aiming to be at the forefront of computer gaming and online interactivity.

The lead and secondary characters have swapped roles
As a result of this shift in subject matter, Halt has also been forced to change its perspective too. Season one was primarily the Joe and Gordon show.  Most of the story was devoted to trying to peel back the many layers of Joe, or Gordon wrestling with his past failures and dissolved dreams.  Cameron and Joe's wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) had roles, sure, but they were mostly in relation to the two male protagonists.

By necessity, season two has reallocated its weight strongly towards Donna and Cameron in their trials and tribulations at Mutiny, and it's all the better for it.  (Now, the unemployed Gordon is playing the traditional role a wife character would play, sitting on the sidelines and screwing things up any time he takes a step off the bench.  Meanwhile, Joe has spent most of the season on an entirely different playing field.)  Of all the various character permutations on the show, Donna and Cameron have always been the best, even back in the first season.  They're just fascinating foils for one another, and watching the ways their approach to work and womanhood clash has been the biggest treat of this year.  Season two has also done wonders with making them more engaging characters on their own too.  Donna was never the wet blanket wife archetype that critics consistently tried to box her into during the first season, but we're really seeing that now.  She's kind, supportive, strong-willed, and comes with a whole set of hopes and dreams that make her one of the most fascinating and likable characters on TV.  The Cameron of season one was very inconsistently written, but season two has gotten a handle on her petulance, manifesting it in ways that may not always make her enjoyable to watch, but reliably compelling and logical.

There's no real precedent for a show making its two male leads take a backseat in favor of two female characters, and it's a big reason why Halt is so gripping this year.  Most of that is due Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishe's electrifying chemistry.  Davis and especially Bishe are giving two of the year's best performances.  "10Broad36," last Sunday's excellent episode, provided Bishe with an opportunity to give an Emmy-worthy tape, as Donna slowly unraveled after the pressure of keeping all of the threads of her life together finally became too much.  This ultimately lead to her decision at the end of the episode to abort the baby she found out she was carrying at the beginning of the season, and Bishe plays every moment with such power and grace.

It has gone through the natural process of finding itself
Television shows rarely come out of the gate as the strongest versions of themselves.  Time is needed for everything to gel, for everyone involved to get on the same page about what show they should be making and execute that idea.  Much of Halt and Catch Fire's creative uptick can be traced back to that simple explanation: the show needed a while to figure itself out, and now that it has gotten that, it's charging on full speed ahead.  Just look at how much stronger the direction has been this season.  There may still be too many dutch angles, but there's an exhilarating, kinetic feeling to the handheld scenes at Mutiny that was absent last year.  And the directors are smart about framing choices, especially Larysa Kondracki, who continuously set characters against a backdrop of machines and progress in "10Broad36."

The writing is much stronger too.  This year, the show especially seems to get off of on playing around with dramatic irony.  Almost every character holds a piece of information that others don't.  With Gordon's illness, Donna's terminated pregnancy, and whatever Joe may have up his sleeve looming in the mix, the tension comes from waiting for all of these precarious secrets to come crashing down.  And of course, we as the audience know so many things none of these characters do, simply because their present is our past.  It's a complex house of cards that the writers are building.

Watching the critical turnaround on Halt has almost been as fun as watching the show itself.  Critics have been writing pieces left and right about this fantastic second season, and this collective feeling of falling in love with a show along with rest of the world has provided a joy that has few competitors.  So here's another article extolling the virtues of Halt and Catch Fire season two.  Hop on the train and feel that joy with us.