Sunday, January 25, 2015

Episode of the Week: The Fosters - "Over/Under"

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

Season 2, Episode 12

This week's episode of ABC Family's The Fosters was the kind of hour that made me remember the exact parameters of this Episode of the Week feature.  Previous entries have all been awarded to what was either the best or one of the best episodes in that given week of television, from Nathan For You's gutbusting "Souvenir Shop/ELAIFF" to Masters of Sex's transfixing "Fight."  There were many shows in the last seven days that put out better episodes than "Over/Under": Girls, Justified, Parks and Recreation, The Flash, The Venture Bros., Empire, Parenthood, Broad City, and Archer; to name a handful.  But Episode of the Week is about examining a notable episode from the past week of television, and even a bad episode can spark deep discussion.  That's not to say that "Over/Under" is bad -- it's actually pretty good -- just that it excited me way more than episodes that I technically thought were superior.

What made it so noteworthy is mostly contained to the episode's final 10 minutes, which deal with Callie's and Sophia's confrontation, but we'll get to that later.  Callie's adoption storyline has had its fair share of problems in the past.  In one way or another, it has been present for the entire 33 episodes of the show so far, which is way too long, and every new obstacle introduced just feels like an unnecessary speed bump to cause Callie more misery.  Most of the front half of the second season dealt with the introduction of Robert, Callie's birth father, into the picture, the latest element keeping Callie from being adopted by Stef and Lena.  "Over/Under" picks up right where the show left off last year, opening with the reveal that the ambulance trucks from the end of the Christmas special are actually for Robert, who had a panic attack after Callie told him that she doesn't want to live with him and his family.  It's a pretty lame twist, but it serves the plot purpose of inspiring Robert to fight even harder for custody over Callie.  What makes this aspect of the story so frustrating is that we know Callie is ultimately going to end up with the Adams-Fosters, so this custody battle feels dramatically inert.

But one of the clear highlights of the storyline is that it introduced us to Callie's half-sister, Sophia (Bailee Madison, who might actually be Maia Mitchell's long lost sister).  Earlier in the season, many fans speculated about what exactly was the deal with Sophia: Was she just an over-excited, spoiled rich kid?  Was she actually crazy?  Was she completely normal and made to seem insane because of Madison's intense energy?  Well, this episode finally lands on the answer of her being suicidally depressed, something that became clearer with each new scene appeared in.  I called this from the first or second episode featuring Sophia, an accomplishment I'd like to attribute to pure personal skill, but the real credit goes to the writers.  Creators Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige, along with the rest of the writing staff, get depression so right, especially the way in which it manifests itself in teenagers.  They subtly laced clues into previous episodes, particularly that scene earlier in the season when her family takes Callie on their boat and she's complaining about her life in a way that makes it seem like she's trying to impress Callie, but she's actually just really unhappy.  It's a deft piece of writing, and the way the show has handled Sophia is unlike any other depressed teen of recent memory.

When the judge at the custody court tells Callie that she must spend at least one day a week with Robert, Callie agrees under the stipulation that she only sees Robert, not Jill or Sophia.  Upset about this decision, Sophia goes to Callie's job and tells her that she'll kill herself if Callie doesn't agree to live with the Quinns.  Callie chalks it up to teenage melodrama -- that is, until Sophia walks out into moving traffic and causes a car crash.  The attempted suicide is intense enough, but the scene where Callie tells Sophia's parents what happened is absolutely heartbreaking.  This could have been After School Special material, but Bailee Madison's delivery of, "Sometimes I just want ot die.  I don't really think I can do this anymore," makes it raw and real.  And what a smart choice for the show to just have Callie tell the truth to the Quinns (and thus cause Sophia to tell the truth) instead of dragging out the lie for an interminable conflict.

Really, there are wise choices aplenty in Paige and Bredeweg's script.  I'm so happy and relieved that they didn't turn this story into a matter of Sophia being generically "crazy," and have all of her antics be a result of her deep desire to have a sister.  The Fosters has incorporated melodrama and soap operatics at times, but I should've never worried about this particular possibility because Paige and Bredeweg have proven to be smarter than that in the past, and they've done it again here.  "Over/Under" makes a clear point that Sophia was depressed long before Callie entered the equation, but this whole ordeal has triggered it to flare up with even more intensity.  It's just a conduit into which she can channel her illness.  Callie resisting the Quinn family has finally given her a "reason" to act on her feelings, but Callie knows, we know, and Sophia knows that that's not the real cause.

One of the best things about The Fosters is that it tackles so many important issues without ever drawing attention to itself.  It deals with nontraditional families, interracial relationships, racial identity, and teenage depression; and it deserves a pat on the back simply for doing so without demanding one.  Heck, in this same episode, we even got more of the thoughtful and nuanced story of Jude dealing with his sexuality.  (That storyline is getting a little tedious, actually, but we'll save that for another time.)  Because this show is on ABC Family, it doesn't get discussed in the same breath as progressive shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, but it's certainly one of the most important programs on television right now.  The Fosters: it goes there.  Wait, no, that's another show...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 2 of TV's Midseason Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

12 Monkeys (Syfy, Fridays at 9:00 PM)
I've never seen Terry Gilliam's (cult?) classic film, 12 Monkeys, so I went into this episode with no preconceived notions.  It's a cool concept, but the execution doesn't feel fresh or lively though.  The pilot just lacks personality, which is something I imagine Gilliam's film had a ton of.  I like Amanda Schull as virologist Cassandra Railly -- she's seen crazy things and gone through trauma, but it didn't make her dour.  Unfortunately, the same can't be said about Aaron Stafford, who is kind of dull as James Cole, a time traveler attempting to save the human race.  For the show to completely work, he needs to be more magnetic, and right now he's just not cutting it.  Still, it's a solid pilot, one that exceeds expectations, given the network it aired on.  For now, there's not much to say, it's the kind of show that needs more episodes to prove itself.
Grade: B-

Eye Candy (MTV, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Oh joy, another show involving a serial killer!  Stalker Jr. Eye Candy is about a young hacker -- yes, a young hacker -- named Lindy, who uses her "l33t hax0rz" skills to help people find their missing loved ones.  She's inspired by her own missing sister, who was kidnapped in front of her eyes three years ago.  As Lindy, Victoria Justice is about as dead as a pile of characters probably will be by the end of this show's first season.  There is truly no line she can't suck the emotion out of.  But I shouldn't give her a hard time when everybody else is delivering dull performances too.  Maybe, just maybe, this would be good if it felt like anybody was trying.  Oh, who am I kidding?  Not even Emmy winners could make this stuff compelling.  Eye Candy is just reheated leftovers of every other show about killing and stalking, but with some high school sophomore level observations about technology and the way we interact these days.  You see, the killer in this story goes after people who lie about themselves on social media, because that'll teach them.  This is just bad all around.  Avoid it at all costs.
Grade: F

Man Seeking Woman (FXX, Wednesdays at 10:30 PM)
Wow, I was not into this one either.  FXX's new comedy Man Seeking Woman is about a guy (Jay Baruchel) who's on a quest to find his true love after his girlfriend dumps him.  The premise is extremely hoary, but what gives it some originality is the surreal approach it takes to the story.  Man Seeking Woman is very surreal.  The problem is that it's surreal, but it doesn't do anything with that surreality.  Take the troll bit at the beginning of the pilot, for example.  The show thinks that it's just funny to have the girl Josh goes on a blind date with be an actual troll.  There are no funny jokes, no clever spin, just a troll being a troll.  Two other big surreal setpieces follow -- a Hitler bit that's mildly funny because of Bill Hader's performance, and a escalating montage at the end that's dreadful -- and they both stretch out for so long.  Maybe these bits would be funnier if they were punchy, but they just drag and drag, sucking out what little comedy was there in the first place.  I get them from a character perspective -- Josh is the kind of guy who lives inside of his head so much that if we're seeing things from his persepctive, of course we're going to see this outsized fantasy.  Unfortunately, that's just not enough to make the show work.
Grade: D+

Togetherness (HBO, Sundays at 9:30 PM)
We're beginning to reach critical mass when it comes to laid-back indie dramedy type shows about upper middle class white people and their various sources of existential ennui.  Togetherness, the new show from the Duplass brothers, is another one of those laid-back indie dramedy type shows about upper middle class white people and their various sources of existential ennui, but if HBO was going to tread familiar ground, at least they got the best men for the job.  Though this is their first foray into television, Mark and Jay Duplass are no strangers to this genre, cutting their teeth making relaxed indie films like The Puffy Chair, Cyrus, and Jeff Who Lives at Home.  So while you may want to shoot yourself in the head at the idea of the pilot's storylines -- the married couple that doesn't have the time and energy to have sex anymore, the wife who feels unfulfilled, the free spirit who needs to get her life together -- Togetherness handles them with a level of humor and confidence absent from lesser shows of its ilk.  It helps that the cast, which includes the likes of Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet, and Steve Zissis; is terrific.  They're all giving performances that lend themselves well to Duplass Brothers' naturalism, and the best scenes in the pilot are the ones where everyone is bouncing off of each other.  Most critics -- who've seen the whole season already -- are even more positive about this than I am, so I'm very excited to see further episodes, especially episode six, which is directed by the great Nicole Holofcener.
Grade: B

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inherent Vice gives a strong contact high

I took a class on Paul Thomas Anderson earlier this year, and it was fun to revisit the work of my favorite director, just to see how fascinating his trajectory has been.  It's hard to even believe that the guy who made Punch Drunk Love followed it up with There Will Be Blood.  A part of me misses that wunderkind showoff phase of his career around the time of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, where he'd shove dazzling sequences and labyrinthine long takes into any space he could find.  Recently, though, he's settled into more controlled, oblique territory with There Will Be Blood and The Master.  Those films are incredible as well, but they're a far cry away from his early work, and it's easy to see why some would find them unappealing.

The jury is still out on whether or not Inherent Vice is a footstep toward a new phase in Anderson's career.  It's still elliptical and difficult, yet there's also something a little more freewheeling and musical about it.  But part of that is owed to Thomas Pynchon, the legendary author of the 2009 novel upon which this film is based, whose style gets translated accurately by all accounts.  Inherent Vice rambles the tale of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a 70s hippie type who splits his time between smoking pot and taking on cases as a private investigator.  He receives a visit from his on-again-off-again flame Shasta Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him of her current affair with real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts).  The problem is that Wolfmann's wife and her lover have a plan to get him admitted to a mental institution, and Doc is thrust into the quest of trying to foil that scheme, due to his perennial devotion to Shasta.

It's a complicated setup, and the story only gets knottier from there, but luckily plot is only a tertiary concern to Anderson.  Instead, he asks you to get lost in the film's dreamy, hazy vibe.  Every scene is heavy-lidded -- they linger and meander, but the way they're placed together has such a distinct and deliberate rhythm.  Inherent Vice rises and falls like a chest during respiration.  Just when you're close to spacing out, the movie snaps you back in with a funny moment or a visual flourish or a piece of balletic blocking.  You're not watching it so much as you're swaying to the groove.  There's a mystery to be solved, sure, but why would you want to do that when you can rest in Anderson's ether?

There's a very lived-in feeling to this movie, as if there's an endless amount of life that exists outside of the frame, but especially when it comes to the story's bit players, who come off as TV characters with seasons of backstory to work off of.  As his investigation unravels, Doc roams around Southern California from lead to lead, and we meet new characters along the way.  Some characters appear and recede throughout the story, but even the ones who have a minute or two of screentime are memorable and layered.  This ambling, amorphous structure leads to some stellar self-contained scenes, like Doc's uproarious, coke-fueled adventure with a dentist played by Martin Short.

Though it boasts his visual and compositional stamp, there isn't much in the way of Anderson's traditional themes in this film.  You'll find nary a father-son relationship, nor is there a focus on someone with a prodigious talent.  However, there's one Anderson trademark that's latent in his previous works, but ends up being the backbone here: his sentimental streak.  Inherent Vice is a deeply romantic film, and though he may be lost in the fog of his own joint smoke, all that Doc does is ultimately driven by his love of Shasta.  If this story is a stoner noir, then she's the zooted version of the femme fatale.  Her role in Doc's life has the same rise and fall rhythm of the entire film, as she flits in and out at will.  But she's that fantasy, that reverie, that thing he always comes back to in the dead of the night, whether it may be good for him or not.  Therein lies the key to Inherent Vice: its eyes may not be clear, but its heart is full.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 1 of TV's Midseason Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Agent Carter (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
As a well-documented defender of Agents of SHIELD and a longtime subscriber to the Hayley Atwell Booster Club, I was pretty excited about the premiere of Agent Carter, and the two-episode premiere didn't disappoint.  The story of the show picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, with Peggy Carter dealing with life as an officer of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (which will later become SHIELD) and the fact that Captain America is no longer around.  The latter makes for some of the strongest material in the first two episodes, mainly because of Hayley Atwell's ability to sell the pain and frustration about Cap's "death" and his legacy looming over her.  Some of the broader, post-war ideas are pretty unsubtle, and the writers hammer home the point that she's a woman living in a man's world as she deals with her cartoonish male peers.  But still, it's refreshing for a big budget network show to take such a blatantly feminist stance, one that's likely to alienate Marvel's most meat-headed fans.  That's their loss though -- they're missing out on a slick, stylish, and fun show.
Grade: B+

Babylon (SundanceTV, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
I love Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's Fresh Meat and I've liked what I've seen of their heralded classic, Peep Show, so I was pretty excited about Babylon.  This first episode of this UK import from last year is not exactly the "pilot," because SundanceTV opted not to show the 90-minute, Danny Boyle directed intro to the show (mini review: it's solid!) and jump in with "Cravenwood."  It gives the uninitiated a quick little exposition dump that'll catch them up on the basics, but it still seems like a bizarre choice.  And it's either poor timing or perfect timing for us to be getting a comedy about a police force populated by brainless brutes and run by political sharks.  As a police show, Babylon is a very interesting look into the pubic and political ramifications of every small decision the force makes.  As a comedy, it's often very funny and quoteworthy like the rest of Bain and Armstrong's collaborations.  The problem is when the two intersect, resulting in moments where neither work.

Additionally, Brit Marling doesn't quite pop as the lead.  There's not enough of a handle on the comedy, and her serene affect doesn't help the moments of pathos either.  Luckily, the rest of the cast is pretty terrific, especially James Nesbitt, who delivers a singeing rant in the middle of the episode that feels almost Malcolm Tucker-esque.  So Babylon still has some kinks to work out, but there are enough intriguing elements and a high amount of built-in trust in the people running the show, so I'll stick around to see the end of its six-episode run.
Grade: B-

Empire (Fox, Wednesdays at 9:00 PM)
Fox's Empire is relatively unexplored terrain for television.  Sure, there are shows that depict musical performance (Glee) and the music industry (Nashville), but no other program has ever centered around the rap world and all of its many tendrils.  It stars Terrence Howard as Luscious Lyon, a former drug dealer turned hip hop mogul, who tries to put his company in order for the future after he finds out he has ALS.  The premise has a bit of a King Lear setup, as a sick Lyon has no confidence in his three sons -- power-hungry Andre, homosexual R&B singer Jamal, and egotistical young rapper Hakeem -- to take over the business when he dies.  Empire is really textured when it comes to hip hop and black culture, tackling specifics like declining sales, the way making music is often the only way to escape life on the streets, and the rap game's troubled relationship with homosexuality.  Showrunner Danny Strong (aka Jonathan from Buffy) sets up clear conflicts and goals in the pilot and doesn't shy away from going over the top.  And Lee Daniels' stylish direction really makes the soapy elements sizzle.  For evidence of the show's camp, look no further than Taraji P. Henson, who's just straight up cooking as Cookie, a Lil Kim/Remy Ma type who's just gotten out of prison.  She's a character transported from a much crazier show, but it makes every scene she appears in absolutely electrifying.  Honestly, I'm kind of shocked by how much I genuinely liked this pilot.  Who knows if it will fall off of a cliff soon or not.  After all, remember how enjoyable the pilot of Nashville was?
Grade: B+

Galavant (ABC, Sundays at 8:00 PM)
Certain corners of the internet are really obsessed with anything that could be described as "batshit insane."  I'm not one of those people.  So while everyone is raving about the campy craziness of shows like American Horror Story and Sleepy Hollow, I'm mostly just bored while watching them.  Galavant, ABC's new musical comedy event series, isn't the same brand of "batshit insanity," but it certainly is pretty darn bizarre, especially for network TV.  And thus, internet comment sections have been frothing with excitement over it, which has been puzzling to me.  That weirdness gets the two-part premiere some distance, and when Galavant is being a musical, it's pretty solid.  The songs are clever, funny, mildly tuneful, and they give the show energy and a goofy charm.  Unfortunately, when it's being a comedy, Galavant is less successful.  Most of the material between the songs is just too bland.  So much time is given away to showing how the characters got to this point in the story, either through flashbacks or large, halting chunks of dialogue.  Timothy Omundson is loads of fun as the kooky King Richard, but the rest of the cast, especially lead actor Joshua Sasse, don't make much of an impression.  Tons of people are going to love this show, but it's just not for me.
Grade: C+

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2014

"Great TV comes in all shapes and sizes."  That's become my motto over the course of this year, and something I want people to remember when they find themselves pre-judging a show based on some arbitrary standard.  We're increasingly moving away from the idea that every good drama has to be an antihero show in the vein of The Sopranos and every comedy has to be something fast-paced and single-camera like Arrested Development.  Now, we're living in an age where the best new series of the fall is a CW show based on a telenovela (watch Jane the Virgin, people!) and one of the best comedies of the year is a charming little Australian show that airs on a network called Pivot (watch Please Like Me, people!).  Say it with me now: Great TV comes in all shapes and sizes!

2014 was not quite as good of a year for television as 2013, which I consider the best year of TV since I started following the medium closely.  Last year featured a breadth of terrific new shows, but some of them faltered a little bit in 2014 (Masters of Sex, Orphan Black).  Even still, there are so many great shows popping up out of new places.  For example, this year saw Amazon solidify themselves as serious content creators with Transparent, Jill Soloway's shaggy, intimate tale about family and identity.  As a result of this continued expansion of the medium, I watched more television than ever this year -- the number of shows I followed completely in 2014 was a whopping 104.

There was quite a bit of turnover between my list last year and the one this year, with 14 of the shows that appeared on 2013's list being absent on this one.  Even what I consider to be some of my favorite shows are missing.  Game of Thrones had a fourth season that had some astonishing individual moments, but the show as a whole feels like it's increasingly spinning off its axis.  For every time Girls was brilliant in season three, it was just as maddening a scene or two later.  Orphan Black was fun and exciting while it was airing, but a bit of a mess when viewed in hindsight.  Justified had a chance to go down as one of my favorite dramas of this generation -- and it still does, if it sticks the landing -- but it's hard to see this year as anything other than a misstep for the show.  And I've thoroughly enjoyed the final season of Parenthood, but NBC chose not to air the entire run in 2014, so the material that would've likely pushed it in to the top 20 won't appear until next year.

Another trend I noticed is that this year was a better year for comedy than last year, if my lists are anything to go by.  Last year only featured two pure comedies, while this year has triple the amount at six.  So don't let anybody tell you that TV isn't cyclical.

The rules: Shows are considered for this list based on the episodes that they aired in 2014.  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, Brooklyn Nine-Nine would be judged based on the second half of its first season (which aired at the beginning of the year) and the first half of its second 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 Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon count too.  Unfortunately, "web series" don't qualify (but watch Jules and Monty anyway, because it's great), even though that distinction is becoming harder and harder to make.  Okay, everything clear now?  Good, let's get this list started...