Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pilot Talk 2017: Riverdale

Thursdays at 9:00 PM on The CW

You're either going to find Riverdale, CW's modern day adaptation of the Archie universe very annoying or very charming.  It's definitely a show that is courting cool points at every turn, starting from the foundation of presenting a sexier version of Archie Comics.  (The amusing running theme of the pilot is that apparently everyone got hot over the summer: Archie got a six pack, Betty lost weight, etc.)   But it doubles down by making the characters chatter in clever teenspeak, spouting a fusillade of pop culture references.  Betty is a huge fan of Toni Morrison, Archie gets called "teen Outlander" at one point, Veronica says "Are you familiar with the works of Truman Capote?," and the pilot features multiple references to Mad Men plotlines -- it's enough allusions to make Amy Sherman-Palladino's head spin.  Riverdale even goes for a cool nostalgia vibe with its casting, granting roles to the likes of 90s TV stars like Luke Perry and Madchen Amick to play the adult characters.

I'll admit that at first I found this pilot very annoying for all the reasons laid out above, but by the end I was very charmed by it.  For much of its run, the pilot focuses on being a normal high school drama, which is the mode I preferred.  With The CW's current dedication to being DC's story delivery machine, the One Tree Hill leanings of Riverdale feels positively retro.  The show is a little soapy -- particularly hints at the affair that Archie had with teacher Ms. Grundy over the summer -- but it's backed by strong, likable characters.  Archie himself is a little boring so far, but every other character really pops, most importantly Betty and Veronica.  And storylines like Betty's unrequited love for Archie are told with real emotion.

However, the aspect that I don't love is the murder mystery part of the show.  The first episode starts with the Riverdale community devastated over the death of Jason Blossom, whom we later find out was shot in the head.  In general, the "Twin Peaks meets ____________" is a hoary concept that I'm sick of.  We've seen it all before: the town full of secrets, the innocence lost, the red herrings.  It's going to be hard to find a new spin on these ideas.  Still, showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is behind the Afterlife with Archie comic, which imagines these characters in a zombie apocalypse -- so if there's anyone who can make this show weird and unique, it's him.  But all Riverdale needs to do is keep having fun with these characters and I'll be sold.

Grade: B+

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Degrassi: Next Class tackles the Syrian refugee crisis and surprise boners in its terrific 3rd season

The expectations just keep getting higher and higher for Degrassi: Next Class, Netflix's soft reboot of the long running Canadian teen drama.  Its first season took me by surprise at the beginning of last year, establishing itself as a better and snappier version of the show I spent so much of my teen years watching.  Then in the summer, its second season came along and proved that the first was no fluke, delivering the same high quality and fun quotient.  The cumulative power of those two seasons landed the show on my Top 20 of 2016 list last week, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rectify, Orange is the New Black, and The Americans.  Degrassi: Next Class is clearly in the big leagues now.  Would it hold up to the pressure or make me look like a fool for ever regarding it so highly?  Well the show's third season, which dropped in its entirety this past Friday, is another set of delightful and thoughtful episodes of pure Canadian drama.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2016

It has become a ritual now to talk about how there's too much TV at the beginning of these year-end lists.  You would think the bubble would burst eventually on the amount of content there is out there, but it hasn't yet.  But while the amount of networks and original programming continues to increase, my personal watching bandwidth has finally started to taper off.  After regularly watching 125 shows in 2015, my numbers were down slightly to 115 this year.  Overall, it has had a positive effect though.  I may have watched less TV in 2016, but it mostly just meant that I watched less shows that I thought were okay or even actively bad.

Even still, my plan for 2017 is to watch even fewer shows by cutting down on series I'm getting sick of.  That means after its head-scratching second season, I'm giving the axe to Fear the Walking Dead.  I've been hesitant about dropping Arrow and The Flash because I feel like I need to watch them for DC completionist reasons even though their obnoxious melodrama reduced me to watching every episode at half attention, but I've finally made the decision after their mid-season finales that I'm removing them from my life.  I'm even considering nixing something like Bojack Horseman, which I've tuned into out of critical obligation, since everyone goes nuts over it, but I don't enjoy very much.

I'm not sure how well this will fare for me, since my TV-related fear of missing out is overwhelming. After all, I just got finished cramming Sweet/Vicious and Crazyhead into the last week of the year because people I trust said they were good and I wanted determine if they were eligible for my list.  Watching less TV is just going to lead to more potential instances of me passing up a show and then hearing it gets great, or quitting a show right before it turns things around.  That terrifies me!

All of this is a way to say that TV is in a wonderful place right now, and trying to manage your intake and still devote enough time to movies, music, and living life is a good problem to have.

The rules: Shows are considered for this list based on the episodes they aired in 2016.  This is a pretty plain and simple rule for cable dramas, where full seasons usually air within a single calendar year.  However, it gets slightly messy when considering network shows, which usually air the first half of their season in the fall and the second half starting January of the next year.  So something like, say, Black-ish would be judged based on the second half of its second season (which aired at the beginning of the year) and the first half of its third season (which started in the fall of this year).  As for what constitutes a TV show, anything that airs on, you know, a TV station counts.  But shows that air exclusively on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon count too.  The line is getting more blurry every day, but I'm still counting out independent YouTube webseries (though I recommend the excellent Pantheon University anyway).  Okay, everything clear now?  Good, let's get this list started...

Friday, December 30, 2016

My 20 Favorite Films of 2016

I'll start this post as I always do, by mentioning the films I haven't seen yet and are therefore ineligible for this list.  Many of these were released in November or December for Oscar purposes, but only in New York and LA. So with that being said, here are a few films that I still haven't seen yet: Silence, 20th Century Women, Live By Night, The Handmaiden, Elle, Toni ErdmannYour Name, and Paterson.  It's a shame too, because I'm very excited for these films, especially Silence.

2016 was the year where the film community seemed to split in two over whether or not this was a good year for movies.  So many different pieces were written about the death of cinema that it started to get nauseating.  (And for some reason, many of these complaints popped up around the time the show Stranger Things was gaining buzz and dominating the conversation, so people tried to draw correlations.  Yeah...2016 was a weird year.)  But the truth is, movies aren't dead and probably won't die any time soon.  2016 doesn't quite match the quality of last year, but there were still many gems to be found.  What critics are saying when they write a piece about 2016 being a bad year for movies is that it was actually just a bad year for big-budget studio films.  There were so many quality mid-budget and genre films that it seems blinkered to complain about the state of movies.

In conclusion, cinema is alive and well.  So let's get down to celebrating it.

The rules: As long as a film got an official release in 2016, it was eligible for placement on this list.  This is an important thing to remember, since many of the films that appear in my top 20 premiered at film festivals in 2015, but didn't get released in theaters until this year.  And in the case where a film got no theatrical release, then a VOD debut in 2016 will make it eligible.  Now that all of that has been cleared up, on to the actual list...

Thursday, December 29, 2016

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2016

There were two prevailing narratives in 2016.  The first one, obviously, was the amount of deaths we had from legendary musicians.  David Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Leonard Cohen -- the list goes on.  2016 was a rough year all around, and these deaths didn't help matters, but at least there was comfort in knowing that many of these artists left behind terrific final albums.

The second trend from 2016 is how much consensus there seems to be when it comes to top 10 lists.  Year-end lists can sometimes be a useful tool for finding interesting albums that you may have overlooked in the last 12 months, but take a look at the best-of lists from every major publication and you'll see the same 10-12 albums on almost every single list.  Once you scroll down on this post you'll see that even I fell victim to that, which is a little disappointing, but hey, you can't help what you like.  Still, it's a shame that there were so few surprises in 2016.  From January 1st, it could've been predicted that people like Beyonce, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Radiohead would take the top spots on critics' lists at the end of the year if you were told that they were releasing albums. The only album from a big name artist that seems to be considered a disappointment is Drake's underrated Views.  Poor Drake.

But let's not breeze by the most important bit of news from this year: despite dominating the political sphere, white people are losing when it comes to music.  The last few years have been marked by the larger music community declaring the death of indie rock, and while that hand-wringing feels a little too paranoid, it's hard not to notice that rap and R&B artists are beginning to occupy the critical conversation more and more.  After all, six of the seven artists at the top of Pitchfork's Best of Albums of 2016 list are black, something that would've been unheard of 10 years ago. Eight of the albums on my list are by black artists as well (11 if you count honorable mentions).  So shout out to black people for now.  You've got to imagine the dudes in The National are sitting around plotting their revenge though.

The rules: Due to the constant changing of the way music gets released, anything can be an album for the sake of this list.  You especially have to play fast and loose given the fact that many rap mixtapes function as albums anyway.  So LPs, mixtapes, 40-minute songs, EPs if they're good enough -- they're all albums to me!  If something got released in another country in a previous year, but got an American release this year, it works on a case-by-case basis (although there are no examples of that this year).  Otherwise, the eligibility window is that the album has to have been released between January 1, 2016 and today.  So now with that bit of business out of the way, on to the actual list...