Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nymphomaniac goes full Lars von Trier

I have a complicated relationship with Lars von Trier.  Melancholia was the first film of his that I watched back in 2011, and it's my favorite film of all time.  Since then I've seen Antichrist and Dogville, both of which failed to meet the towering expectations set by my introductory experience with him.  There's certainly much to appreciate in the former's gonzo audacity and the latter's ascetic sensibilities, but neither provided the visceral emotional experience that Melancholia did for me.  I can't make any final verdict on how I feel about him as a filmmaker since I still haven't seen his highest regarded films like Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, or The Five Obstructions, but I can say our interactions have been checkered so far.  Regardless, he's definitely one of the most exciting directors working right now, and even when I don't fully enjoy what he's doing, his films never fail to stir something within me.

With that in mind, I was always going to see Nymphomaniac -- less because all of the buzz surrounding its explicit nature, and more because it's a new film by Lars von Trier.  The four hour film is broken up into two parts, and Volume I introduces us to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who's found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) lying bloody on the ground in an alley.  He offers to give her shelter and in exchange, she tells him how she came to be in the position he found her in, a tale that chronicles her lifelong experience with nymphomania.  She breaks this story into tiny little chapters, ranging from discovering her condition as a little girl to embracing it as a young woman (played by Stacy Martin).  Together, Gainsbourg (who's quickly becoming my favorite actor), Martin, and von Trier develop Joe into a rich character whose insatiable lust just seems to eat its own tail and suck every aspect of herself into the void.  Nymphomania is just one symptom of her life, it's very clear that she's also severely depressed, unconsciously using sex as a temporary balm for her woes.

This may make the film seem like a bleak slog, but Volume I is often fun and playful.  The key to understanding and enjoying Lars von Trier is realizing that more often than not, he genuinely just wants you to laugh and have a good time.  He's got an odd sense of humor, so that's not always readily apparent, but it is in many parts of this first volume.  From all of the little insert shots of archival footage, kooky graphics that pop up on screen, and instructional diagrams that accompany Joe's stories, it's clear to see that von Trier is having a ball.  Volume I peaks in its third chapter, "Mrs. H," which is just a masterpiece of cringe comedy.

Nymphomaniac gained much of its pre-release fervor from the rampant sex that was promised in it, and while there's certainly copious amounts of it, it's fascinating to see how dispassionate most of it is in this volume.  Much of Joe's young life is filled with joyless sex, following up a first time that's quick and brutal with expressionless trysts with random strangers on the train.  The first sign of pleasure we see from her is in a montage with four different men, but it's revealed that her ecstasy is only a form of emotional manipulation, as she tells each of them that this specific encounter was the first orgasm she's ever had.  When there are finally true signs of sexual satisfaction from her, it has grave consequences.  Like many of Lars von Trier's films, Volume I is all about loneliness.  For Joe, sex is an act born out of lust and alienation, but only fuels more lust and alienation.  That this thing usually considered to be the ultimate form of intimacy only serves to isolate her more is one of the film's saddest ironies.

With these two films, von Trier is building up his own twisted version of a myth, a journey filled with symbols and coincidences and elements that recur in Joe's life.  In a way, Nymphomaniac is like his Kill Bill.  With both series, the first volume is playful and over-the-top while the second one is focused and stark.  They're essentially one cohesive story, broken up into two parts that are able to stand on their own stylistically and thematically.  Nymphomaniac's two volumes even have an Eastern and Western dichotomy, although it's more theological rather than structural.

And if Volume I is all about loneliness, then Volume II focuses on the punishment that comes as an ultimate response to that loneliness.  It's another one of von Trier's pet themes, his stories are full of characters punishing themselves and those around them, and Joe is no different.  The guilt she feels about how she's thrown away the rest of her life for the sake of her sexual appetite is essentially the root of why she's telling her story to Seligman -- it's an effort to have somebody else feel she's as terrible as she finds herself to be.  And when her self-harm isn't enough, she looks to be punished by others.  Her nymphomania manifests itself in her need to constantly up the stakes of her sexual experiences, searching for something more extreme when the last method will no longer suffice, and finding it in a man (Jamie Bell) who viciously beats her without any sex involved.  The cycle of punishment continues, as Joe eventually takes up a job that requires her to use her experience with sexual torture on others, and finding a protege to pass her techniques on to.

I mentioned earlier that Lars von Trier just wants you to laugh and have a good time, but his films wouldn't be as interesting if they were just about that.  Volume II proves that he also wants to make you think about the ideas he's presenting you with.  Some say that the ending is a cheap gag that retroactively soils the four hours that came before it, but the more it rattles around in my brain the more powerful it becomes.  Von Trier has said that all of his female protagonists are an extension of himself, and that idea really comes into focus at the end of this portion.  When you think about these two films as the conclusion of what he calls "The Depression Trilogy," then nymphomania is just an extension of depression in the same way that loss was in Antichrist and the end of the world was in Melancholia.  If Antichrist showed something that could begin a bout of depression, and much of Melancholia was about living with it, then Joe's decision to overcome her sexual desires is an effort to emerge from depression.  Resisting her urges in any way that she can is not too dissimilar to von Trier dealing with his depression in the only way that he can -- by making films about it.  Nymphomaniac posits that everybody suffering from some affliction is like the soul tree that Joe finds near the end of the film: barely upright, but standing nonetheless.

The movie aims to tell the story of one woman's unique life, and to do so it gets very operatic.  Luckily, that's the mode that von Trier best operates in.  Even if you aren't into the extreme places the story goes, there's always the terrific acting and arresting images.  (It's hard to believe that the man who started Dogme 95, a movement that pushed the limits of minimalist cinema, has now gone on to make three of the most gorgeous films of the last few years.)  Whatever you consider Lars von Trier to be -- provocateur, prankster, poet -- there's no doubt that Nymphomaniac is an ambitious opus from an auteur who always keeps audiences on their toes.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Three seasons in, Fresh Meat continues to get better and funnier

When I wrote about My So-Called Life last week, I lamented the lack of quality high school dramas throughout the history of television.  There's a similar dearth when it comes to shows set in college as well.  The major ones include Felicity when it comes to dramas; and Undeclared, Community, and Greek when it comes to comedies; but you'd think there'd be more than those and a handful of others in the last 15 years.  Comedy in particular seems to be perfect for a setting as rife with potential premises and hijinks as college is.

For an example of the greatness the college comedy can achieve at the peak of its powers, then just take a look across the pond at the UK's Fresh Meat, whose third season just finished premiering on Hulu.  Created by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (of the legendary Peep Show), the show usually gets pitched as "the British Undeclared," since both are about a group of college kids who are thrown together and united by proximity.  Unlike Undeclared, which was about generally affable people and their wacky adventures, Fresh Meat centers around awful people screwing up together.  

No two characters are a better example of the show's mission statement than the pairing of Kingsley (Joe Thomas, of Inbetweeners fame) and Josie (Kimberley Nixon).  When the show first began, they were set up as the Jim and Pam of Fresh Meat, but Bain and Armstrong quickly revealed them to be a brilliant deconstruction of the will-they-won't-they trope.  These are not the kids you root for because they're sweet and cute together -- they're two petty and immature people who hooked up and were never able to escape each other's orbit afterward.  Season 2 was designed to make the viewer look at their childish one-upmanship and think, "these two are terrible...they deserve each other."  By the end the show did just that, having the two finally pair up in the finale.  Season 3 was so brilliant because it played out their relationship exactly how you would expect it to proceed.  From day one, it's clear that they're toxic together, getting embroiled in the same squabbles and jealousies that plagued them before they became a couple.  But they stayed together -- even when they began to outright pursue other people -- almost as if they were daring one another to leave.  In a group full of people who do reprehensible things, the two who would usually be positioned as the saints of the crew are actually the worst.

In season 2, the show underlined how horrible the main characters are by introducing a new roommate, Sabine, into the mix. She was a balance to the gang's destructive force, effectively serving as the straight man who observed and commented on their antics.  It's a character type needed if they wanted to maintain the show's main drive without it becoming tiresome, and it was made even better by Jelka van Houten's put-upon performance.  This year, they jettisoned Sabine from the flat and relegated her to a few hilarious guest appearances in order to introduce Candice, a freshman who moves in to replace her.  Her character is an even greater examination of the group's contamination factor, because of how quickly she taps into their frequency.  Soon enough, she snaps in place with everybody else, going overboard in a battle of wits with Oregon at the quiz show in episode 3.  By the end of the season, she's fully submerged in Fresh Meat's brand of crazy, donning an amusingly bizarre goth look when she starts developing feelings for Howard (Greg McHugh).

"Isn't it funny to watch these awful people be awful?" is actually my least favorite brand of comedy, yet somehow Fresh Meat is one of my favorite shows right now.  It works because the show is fully aware of how horrific its protagonists are, where a show like Dads is determined to convince you that the main characters are just lovable rascals.  Fresh Meat makes the smart move that shows like Community and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia do, by frequently highlighting how anybody outside of this circle of friends reacts to them with an appropriate level of disgust and annoyance.  Additionally, the characters on Fresh Meat are real, recognizable people whose awful actions are often coping mechanisms to deal with their insecurities.  Josie may be manipulative and passive aggressive, but it's partially because she has genuine anxiety issues; JP's (Jack Whitehall) posh posturing hides a wounded interior; Oregon's (Charlotte Richie) psuedo-intellectualism is a result of her low self-esteem; and so on.  Sometimes the show's efforts to humanize the characters fall short, as it did in episode 6, when Vod's unhinged mother visits and the gang gets to see just how their friend came to be so reckless.  But for the most part, it successfully gives you reason to believe that you're watching human beings and not complete monsters.

Ultimately we tolerate characters that would otherwise be intolerable because the show is so funny.  This will never be the type of show that makes you fall out of your seat from guffawing so hard, but it packs solid laughs at such a high rate that it still manages to be one of the funniest shows on either side of the pond.  The show's dialogue is excellent -- by the time I'm done with an episode, I have more than a handful of timecodes to rewind back to so I can quote a snippet of conversation.  This is essentially a hangout comedy, which is weird to think about, since the genre is usually hinged upon having characters you want to spend time with.  But everyone in the cast is so good that it's fun just to see them interact with one another, and episodes go down as easy as any lighter, softer comedy.

Because of that, Fresh Meat is usually at its best when it can stuff as many of its characters in one storyline as possible.  It's no surprise then that this season's 4th episode is the best.  The main plot of the episode involves Kingsley, Josie, Vod, and JP participating in a drug trial that requires them to be stuck in a hospital for the weekend.  Though Vod almost immediately drops out, having that much of the main cast bounce off of one another gives the episode a comedic energy that's above the rest of the season's already high standards.  It might even be the best episode in the show's entire run.  Although Fresh Meat is funniest when the gang is together, season 3 might be the first one where every single character gets a worthwhile individual arc or, at the very least, a great episode.  In these individual stories, the writers take an idea that might be considered a hackneyed sitcom plot -- Oregon puts on a play, Kingsley finds out that Josie fakes most of her orgasms, Howard discovers feminism -- and they elevate it past the level of cliche through the sheer power of good jokes and sharp character beats.

The finale sidelined the laughs in favor of a weightier conclusion, but one that summed up the story the show was trying to tell this year: these people may occasionally squabble, but in the end they'll wind up together because they're all each other has.  Because of its release schedule on Hulu, Fresh Meat didn't qualify as a proper 2013 show for the sake of my end of the year list, but it's sure to appear on the top 20 (if not the top 10 or five) this time around.  And if the show continues its upward trajectory, I don't think the world will be able to handle this hurricane of horrible, hilarious people.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Late to the Party #9: My So-Called Life (1994-95)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around.

One of my biggest dreams, that I keep shoved down in the deep recesses of my mind because it's never going to actually happen, is to create a high school drama.  It's something I've thought about for as long as I can remember, and who knows, maybe I'll grow out of it when I get older.  But to me, there's no greater desire I have than to create something that has an emotional effect on others in the same way that my favorite works of art have on me.  (It's part of the reason why I write these blog posts, and look at me failing miserably!)  For better or worse, my high school years were the ones where I felt things the most deeply, and I'd specifically want to be able to reach those who are going through the same thing.

When you think about it, it's kind of crazy that television has existed as an art form for so long and we've gotten so few high school dramas, and even less truly great ones.  Still, even some of those only approach high school life in roundabout ways.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my second favorite show of all time, but the three seasons that took place at Sunnydale High buried metaphors about the high school experience in its monsters of the week.  Friday Night Lights, another great one, is more of a small town drama, and even a family drama centered around the Taylors, before it could be classified as a true high school drama.  Even the wonderful and also canceled-too-soon Freaks and Geeks pitches itself enough on the side of comedy to where it's certainly a high school show, but not necessarily a drama.  In that sense, ABC's cult hit My So-Called Life is the truest -- and possibility best -- example of the form.  It's so good that watching it has almost squashed my desire to create a high school drama of my own, because I can't imagine ever making something that surpasses it.

Where something like Freaks and Geeks was a nostalgic stroll through the pains and joys of high school, My So-Called Life is a headlong rush into the maelstrom of emotions that seem to be a part of adolescence's default package.  Never before have I seen such an accurate depiction of the teenage temperament in its fully saturated glory.  When you watch any episode, you run the risk of experiencing a dull ache wondering how the show can have a such a keen eye for internal details.  How the lust of a crush feels so raw and tangible, but how the pain of unrequited love feels even more so.  How friendships can be so mercurial.  How adults seem completely alien, to the point where it's basically impossible to imagine they were ever your age, or felt the same things you feel.

Of course, there are also so many things about it that are uniquely 90s.  Some of those elements date the show in a bad way -- Angela's parents freaking out in the pilot over Rickie being bisexual feels so hilariously antiquated, and at one point somebody says the line "that is like so known," which is a phrase that sounds painful to 2014 ears.  But in general, its 90s-ness gives the show even more texture and specificity.  Even from a structural standpoint, the show is indicative of the time period during which it aired.  The first and only season is definitely serialized, but it came before the post-Sopranos boom of heavily serialized storytelling, so the arcs sort of amble about in an oblique way.  The show is almost like a series of teen short stories that accumulate into an overarching narrative, a style that the television landscape has started to circle back around to with shows like Mad Men.  It was also very interesting stylistically, proceeding with a kind of daydream logic.  The hazy mood, the ubiquitous narration, the occasional reverie -- it all works so well because adolescence is almost like its own form of magical realism.  Even when My So-Called Life wasn't being "real," it still felt real.

It takes on this bleary, ruminative air because it's essentially the world as seen through the eyes of Angela Chase (Claire Danes).  Angela's more of a dreamer than a doer, and most of the episodes are framed around the observations she has about her life and the environment around her via narration.  It's a device that can be disastrous if employed poorly, but here, the narration is such an essential part of understanding who she is.  Sometimes it's so attuned to the small human behaviors that only teens notice because they spend so much time being self-conscious, but other times it's the kind of faux-profound musings we'd expect from a 15-year-old.  That balance is an important point, because when I was watching these episodes, I was struck by Angela's normalcy.  For the most part she's a regular, well-adjusted teen, and the show was never afraid to indulge in the emotional highs and lows that all teens face.  Angela is an extremely moody person -- not unlike Dana Brody on Homeland, or any other sullen teen that annoys most of the internet these days -- but it's not the only side of her.  She's capable of being taciturn with her parents, but then having a deep moment of understanding with them; she can sulk to a song by The Cranberries one second and giddily dance to The Violent Femmes the next; and she can show great kindness and great selfishness in equal amounts.  It's one of the most well-rounded depictions of a teenager that I've ever seen, and even when she's not likable, Angela Chase is always relatable.

Part of that comes from Claire Danes' skills as an actress.  It's hard to wrap one's head around the fact that she was only 15 years old during most of the filming of this show, because she's just so darn good.  Angela feels like a real, three-dimensional character because Danes is able to sell her emotions so effectively.  She's got such an expressive face -- to the point where her crying has become an internet meme -- and it's just fascinating to sit there and watch her gears turn.  The casting of Danes makes a strong case against the current CW model of casting, where all of the teenage characters are played by impossibly beautiful 24-year-olds.  Danes feels like a believable teenager mostly because she was an actual teenager at the time.  (Though to be fair to other shows, most of the other actors here were 19 or 20 at the time, and finding a 15-year-old as talented as Claire Danes isn't exactly an easy task.)

For as much as My So-Called Life is known for being a show about Angela Chase, it revealed itself as having a rich ensemble very early on.  The show was never afraid to put its main character on the sidelines for a little while, hanging the weight of important storylines on her friends at Liberty High, who evolved just as thoroughly as she did.  Rayanne's (A.J. Langer) arc throughout the season is a great example of this. At the beginning of the show, she's portrayed as the fun and wild type, and it's easy to see why Angela would find her alluring.  But the season goes on to show how frustrating and tiresome being around somebody like Rayanne can become.  She emerges as the most tragic figure of the series, forced to face the consequences of her lack of impulse control and general insouciance.  And while it may seem like a common archetype now, Rickie (Wilson Cruz) was a pretty groundbreaking character at a time where teenage homosexuality wasn't something that got examined to the extent that it did here.  All of the characters are placed in slightly different corners of the universe, and the season is all about the slow accumulation of connections between them.  Just look at the subtle friendships that form between Rickie and Brian (Devon Gummersall) or Rayanne and Sharon (Devon Odessa), both of which occur independent of Angela.

The show was always interested in taking a 360 degree look at all of its characters, probing deeply in search of what makes them tick.  "Life of Brian," the show's eleventh episode, takes this idea to its furthest extent.  The episode -- written by a young story editor named Jason Katims, whom you may recognize for being the creator of two of the greatest dramas of the past decade in Friday Night Lights and Parenthood -- offers a refreshing look into life from the perspective of the hapless Brian Krakow.  It even passes the reigns of narration over to him, where we learn that his concerns are much less flowery and soul-searching than Angela's are.  He's mostly self-deprecating and hilariously focused on the immediate goal of getting a girlfriend.  For an episode that could've just been a stylistic detour from the rest of the show, "Life of Brian" manages to strike an excellent balance between uproarious comedy and wistful melancholy.  It's one of the show's best episodes.  (If nothing else, it proves that Claire Danes is much better at voiceover narration than Devon Gummersall is.)

There's no better example of how well My So-Called Life handled its ensemble than its treatment of Angela's parents.  In fact, Patty (Bess Armstrong) and Graham Chase (Tom Irwin) might be the most interesting characters on the entire show.  Where other parents on teen shows are just there as decoration so we don't think the main character is an orphan, Patty and Graham were fascinating, fully-realized people.  They weren't just pesky deviations from the central narrative, but something that was essential to the show's grand scheme.  Most of their storylines focused on the two of them navigating the difficult terrain of married life, showing that just like parenthood, marriage is a constantly evolving process.  There's never any doubt of the love between the two of them, but their own individual grapples with middle age and the tiny disappointments they have with their lives have warped the edges of parts of them that used to connect perfectly.  I can imagine that teenagers in 1994 looked at their plotlines and thought, "why are we wasting time with this Baby Boomer BS?," but the Patty and Graham material is actually riveting stuff.

Series creator Winnie Holzman came up under the tutelage of Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, where she was a writer on the last two seasons of their classic, thirtysomething, so it's no real surprise that the stories about Angela's parents on My So-Called Life were so strong.  thirtysomething was revolutionary for the way that it opened an avenue for telling stories about the middle aged and middle class, and Patty and Graham feel like lost characters from that show.  But Holzman learned more than just that from Herskovitz and Zwick, who also served as executive producers on My So-Called Life.  She was able to mine conflict from the ordinary, channeling the everyday angst of being a teenager in the same way her mentors did for Baby Boomers on thirtysomething.  The drama of the stories on My So-Called Life turned the knob a notch or two higher, but they rang true because the core was lifted straight from life itself.

Is My So-Called Life the product of a bygone era?  You can certainly see some vestiges of the way it applied heightened emotion to relatively small scale issues in Friday Night Lights or Parenthood (which is no surprise, given that Jason Katims is another student of Herskovitz and Zwick).  But it's hard to even imagine a show like My So-Called Life existing on ABC today, or Freaks and Geeks on NBC.  After the failures of both of those shows, teen dramas were mostly ghettoized to The WB, and even now they've almost completely gotten phased out in The WB's transition to the increasingly sci-fi CW.  There are still some teen and family dramas that exist, they've just been pushed further to the fringes, as you can see a lot of My So-Called Life's mixture of earnestness and melodrama in ABC Family's Switched at Birth and The Fosters.

But still, there's nothing that has been as pitched down the middle to teens as this show was.  In a way the central story of "The Substitute," the show's 6th episode, is sort of like the ethos of the entire series -- showing that teenagers have a right to have their voices heard and their stories told.  Even in 2014, the frank discussion about sexuality in "Pressure" still holds up.  The show has made such a lasting impression because it gets at something deep within the human condition, showing how we all can be so stuck in our inner monologues that it's hard to have any real perspective on ourselves.  Even though it may be specific to the details of its period and the emotions of the age range it depicts, the themes are as universal as they come.  In that way, it serves as a bible for those still in the heat of adolescence, a comforting hug for those whose last embers just recently burnt out, and an old photo for the people whose youth has long since had its ashes blown away in the wind.

Ever since the show's cancellation in 1995, Winnie Holzman hasn't had much success anywhere else.  Her first post-MSCL project was a show that was going to air on HBO, until they decided to pick up a little show called The Sopranos instead.  (Do you ever lie awake at night wondering what the current television landscape would be like if they went the other way with that decision?  No?  Just me?)  In 2010, she co-created ABC Family's Huge with her daughter Savannah Dooley, but it was cancelled after one season, despite critical acclaim.  So who knows if she'll ever run another show and deliver the magic that she did with My So-Called Life, but I like to remain hopeful.  Until then, I'll be waiting with my flannel T-shirt and Buffalo Tom cassettes.

Essential Episodes

1. Episode 8, "Strangers in the House"
One of the best things about My So-Called Life is the great sense of history that it has.  We don't start the show at the beginning of any of these relationships between the characters, even Angela's newfound friendship with Rayanne and Rickie is something that happens a little bit before the pilot.  There's no relationship on the show with a greater sense of history than the fractured one between Angela and Sharon.  In the pilot, the writers don't feel the need to hold your hand and explain exactly why they're not friends anymore, because the pain of the distance alone is deeply felt.  The backstory of their relationship is doled out in piecemeal fashion: they used to be lifelong best friends because their moms are also best friends, but drifted apart once Angela started hanging out with Rayanne and Rickie.  "Strangers in the House," brings everything to a head, finally putting the two of them together when Sharon's father has a heart attack that lands him in the hospital.  Even though they don't instantly become best friends again, the mutual understanding that they still care about each other even though they've become different people is a powerful one nonetheless.  To me, Angela and Sharon are the heart and soul of the show, and this episode is easily my favorite.  If you don't bawl like a baby when the "squeeze my hand as hard as it hurts" moment happens at the end, then are you really even a human being?

2. Episode 3, "Guns and Gossip"
The show went to the "somebody brings a gun to school" well dangerously early, but they managed to pull it off spectacularly.  In many ways, this episode reminded me of one of my favorite Buffy episodes, "Earshot," where the idea of somebody bringing a gun to school is just a catalyzing factor for the episode's true aims.  Like that episode, "Guns and Gossip" posits that teenagers are just like vessels carrying all of this overwhelming pressure, occasionally intersecting and crashing into one another.  Nobody specifically knows what it's like to be anybody else, yet there's this unspoken connection between everybody at Liberty High.  Just look at the way information is conveyed through glances in this episode.  It's almost as if the suspicion that Rickie was the one who brought the gun to school is passed on through telepathic waves.  My So-Called Life was always good at having one event that affected every character in some small way, and "Guns and Gossip" is the first and best example of that.

3. Episode 15, "So-Called Angels"
Let's get this out of the way right at the top: this is technically not a good episode of television and I think most of us can agree on that.  If this was a list of the best episodes, I'd probably have "Life of Brian" or "On the Wagon" somewhere on here.  But whether or not "So-Called Angels," the show's Christmas episode, is good doesn't matter because it's important to understanding what My So-Called Life is all about.  This is a treacly, goofy, heavy-handed episode.  But somewhere underneath all of that is a beautiful story about people struggling for meaning in what they do and being forced to venture outside of their small cone of existence.  The message is essentially "help one another!," which may seem a little facile, but it's easy to imagine teenagers finding that idea extremely powerful.  "So-Called Angels" swings for the fences and lands somewhere in the dugout, but it's never not fascinating to watch.

4. Episode 17, "Betrayal"
Here's another one that's not one of the top 5 best episodes (although, like most episodes of this show, it's still terrific), but it's essential in that it shows how deftly the series dipped into melodrama.  The Angela and Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) arc is one of the show's many great curveballs.  It's basically a common tale of "girl attains the seemingly unattainable guy, but then he's not what she expects" that gets transformed from a cliche into something real and painful and complicated.  "Betrayal" intersects that arc with Rayanne's story, which had been bubbling under the surface for a few episodes.  Jordan is confused by Angela acting like she's over him and pursuing another guy and Rayanne is upset about her growing distance with Angela, one that was only temporarily mended in "On the Wagon," and the two of them are briefly united by the mutual cause of their dismay. When Rayanne has sex with Jordan in his car, and it turns out that Brian Krakow caught it on tape, it feels like a moment where the show could go completely off the rails.  And maybe the way that the episode juxtaposes that storyline with Patty suspecting that Graham is cheating on her with his new business partner, then sprinkles on top the element of Angela realizing what she's doing to Rickie is the same thing Rayanne did to her, is a little too neat.  But none of that matters, because any qualms fall away in that final scene, where Rayanne and Angela re-enact a snippet from the end of Our Town.  I mean, just watch this scene.  It's absolutely gutting.

5. Episode 18, "Weekend"
All of the rest of the episodes on this list are pretty heavy, but My So-Called Life was often very funny, and one of my favorite episodes is also the one where the show let its hair down the most.  "Weekend" is a great example of the short story structure that I referred to earlier in the piece.  It's framed around this weekend that seems like a fun little diversion, but it also sneaks some long-form plot momentum into the mix.  It neatly divides the episode into the teen half and the adult half, uniting the two storylines by having the Angela-Rayanne pairing and the Graham-Patty pairing both trying to address the underlying issues of their relationship without actually addressing them.  At first, Rayanne getting cuffed to Graham and Patty's bed seems like a hackneyed sitcom plot, but the story just slowly introduces every character into the mix, to the point where it's ridiculously fun.  Graham and Patty's story is a little more weighty, but even that one is pretty fun too.  "Weekend" may initially seem like a strange way to set up what would ultimately be the series finale, but it's actually a lovely and clever penultimate episode that subtly comments on the journey that these characters have been on over the course of the season.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Believe and Resurrection

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.

Believe (NBC, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
There's a reason why shows try to get big name directors to direct their pilot.  The director of the pilot is the one who sets the visual standard for the rest of the show, the blueprint every future director has to follow.  Nobody who directs an episode of Boardwalk Empire is going to match the heights that Martin Scorsese did in the pilot, but at least they have a goalpost, and it's no coincidence that the show is one of the best directed on television.  For that reason, the wisest choice Believe could have made was to have Alfonso Cuaron direct the pilot.  It's not like it required much arm-twisting -- after all, he is one of the producers and creators of the show -- but his directorial presence is felt in a major way.  The episode opens up with one of his virtuosic long takes and it continues to that deliver that kind of boldness until the credits roll.  His odd framing gives the show a more artful look, while his handheld camerawork lends scenes an immediacy that keeps things moving along.

If only the same kind of praise could be afforded to the show's writing.  If its "magical kid who must be protected from evil" premise isn't enough to make you roll your eyes, then you'll quickly grow tired of all of the trite elements the writers throw at you.  The magical kid in question is Bo, played by newcomer Johnny Sequoyah, who's low-key acting style is initially refreshing compared to all of the painful child actors on other shows.  But she quickly grates as Bo begins to spout mystical mumbo jumbo ("Do you know why you were crying?  Because you remember how good you once were.") and just generally acts like an annoying kid.  This is a pilot that indicates that the show will probably only get worse from here, especially since Cuaron isn't likely to have time to step behind the camera again, yet I'm still going to continue watching.  Please help me.
Grade: C

Resurrection (ABC, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
My original grade for Believe was a C-, but I bumped it up after watching Resurrection, that's how much I disliked it.  It's hard to watch this pilot without constantly thinking of Sundance's The Returned, which, despite having almost identical premises, is not the actual inspiration for Resurrection (which is based on a novel called The Returned, furthering the confusion).  Unfortunately, Resurrection isn't even half as good of a show as The Returned is.  It may have its premise, but it doesn't have any of the suspense, atmosphere, or emotion.  It's just a very bland show with ABC's topcoat applied to it, garnishing it with overwrought music and lifeless actors. Somehow, it even manages to fail at the most basic thing it could possibly do -- make me interested in knowing why the dead are coming back to life.  This is the closest I've ever come to quitting a pilot before it was over.  But I can't even give it an F, because that would require me feeling some strong emotion towards it, which I don't.
Grade: D-

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Review with Forrest Macneil

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.

Thursdays at 10:00 PM on Comedy Central

Andy Daly is, without a doubt, one of the funniest people on the planet; you could even see this if you looked hard enough back in his MadTV days.  (In general, I feel like we need to have a cultural re-evaluation of MadTV.  It was funnier than any era of Saturday Night Live!  Wait, where are you going with my critic badge?!)  But you don't even have to look hard to see his brilliance if you listen to Comedy Bang! Bang! or any of the other podcasts where he's crafted demented and hilarious characters like the lecherous theatrical director, Don Dimello.  His new podcast, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project, is only five episodes in and it's already a masterpiece of the medium.  Surely, this is a man whose genius can't be contained.

Thankfully, the long-awaited Review with Forrest Macneil is finally here to allow for a wider audience to experience the joy of Andy Daly.  Based on an Australia show with the same concept, Review follows a man named Forrest Macneil, who goes around reviewing everyday life events that his viewers suggest to him.  In the first episode alone, he reviews such ridiculous things as stealing, addiction, and going to the prom.  The bizarreness of a man reviewing these things is funny enough, but the real hilarity comes from how these bits are played out, constantly elevating the stakes, as Forrest takes each concept to its very edge.  Daly is so good at mixing the darker undertones of his work with his otherwise chipper demeanor, and the show gets a lot of mileage out of the microscopic level of regard that Forrest has for the consequences his actions have on himself and others.  Each of the reviews bleed into one another -- in the addiction segment, Forrest develops a hankering for cocaine that he eventually overcomes, only to succumb to it once more when he faces embarrassment from high schoolers in the prom segment.  It's easy to imagine how much the show can build from here, and I look forward to the hilarious and bleak places Daly will take it.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: The Red Road

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.

Thursdays at 9:00 PM on The Sundance Channel

When AMC entered the television programming game in 2007 with Mad Men and followed it up a few months later with Breaking Bad in 2008, it caused a rumble that made everybody perk up and take notice.  Here was this network that previously only showed movies all day, coming out of the gate with two of the best dramas on television.  People were ready to declare them the second coming of HBO.  Then they picked up and aired Rubicon, which was an excellent little paranoid thriller, but its cancellation tarnished AMC's previously clean record.  The true sign that the network wasn't so much the golden child after all was The Walking Dead and The Killing, two shows that started with a great pilot, but dipped in quality soon after that (though to be fair, The Walking Dead is an unqualified success in terms of ratings).  Now with shows like Comic Book Men, Low Winter Sun, and Hell On Wheels, it's clear that AMC is just another network and not the destroyer of worlds it was prophesied to be.

Could the same thing be happening with The Sundance Channel?  It had a remarkable coming out party last year, debuting shows like The Returned, Top of the Lake, and Rectify; all three of which ended up on my top 20 list at the end of 2013.  Is The Red Road, Sundance's first new program of 2014, as good as those three after its first episode?  Far from it.  The pilot throws us right into the show's story, which centers around the simmering tensions between a community where whites and Native Americans live adjacent to each other.  The problem is that this interesting setup feels very murky so far.  Usually it's a good thing when a show doesn't feel the need to hold your hand, but we could've benefited from a bit of that.  As it stands, the first episode feels far too needlessly opaque.  It's almost as if we've been dropped into the middle of the season, and without any real context, characters' actions and concerns just feel silly.

Yet something about the show really hooked me and left me with the desire to see where it goes moving forward.  For one, it's got Jason Mamoa, who was merely a towering presence on Game of Thrones, but gets to show that he's got some menace and charisma here.  Plus, it's got a decent sense of atmosphere and moves pretty well compared to the network's other shows.  Though things may be unclear now, they've at least got a solid foundation, one that could allow the writers to tap into the long history and deep-rooted animosities that exist in this community.  Sundance's hot streak will eventually be broken, but we're going to need a few more episodes of The Red Road to see if this is the one that ends it.

Grade: C+