Monday, June 30, 2014

Obvious Child is the most charming abortion movie you'll probably ever see

Obvious Child isn't afraid to "go there," to probe deeply into every detail of its story.  It does that right from the introduction of its protagonist, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), a low-level comedian who spends most nights performing at open mics in Brooklyn.  Her act is heavily focused on her personal life: bodily functions, dating woes, anxieties, insecurities.  In fact, it leads to her getting dumped by her boyfriend (Paul Briganti) in the beginning of the film, after he gets fed up with the intimate details of their relationship being divulged onstage.

The movie could be considered a "romantic comedy," since it is funny and much of it deals with the state of Donna's love life.  Her breakup leaves her in a state of despair that causes her to sleep with the first decent guy she finds in the form of Max (Jake Lacy), a dorky computer programmer she meets after one of her sets.  However, director Gillian Robespierre (who co-wrote the screenplay with Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm) avoids falling into the trappings of the genre, preferring honest, funny interactions over treacly cliches and narrative contrivances.  The romcom tendencies that the film does indulge in are subdued and restrained enough to still work.  Plus, the romantic angle takes a backseat once Donna realizes the her one night stand with Max has caused her to get pregnant.   Donna may be forthcoming about her issues in her comedy act, but is she ready to actually face them in real life?  Even Donna realizes that she's not prepared to handle being a mother, both from a financial and maturity standpoint.  She knows what she has to do.

What works the most about Obvious Child is that there's no moralizing involved.  None of the characters look down on Donna for her decision to have an abortion, and the movie itself doesn't either.  Nor does it use Donna's story as an opportunity to push hard in the other direction.  This is just about one person who made a choice about her life.  Its even-handedness comes through in one of the film's best scenes, where Donna's best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) talks about the abortion she got when she was a teenager.  She wistfully admits that it's something that she still occasionally gets sad about, but her decision is one that she's never regretted.

There's also an excellent sense of balance in the way that the movie effortlessly blends comedy and drama.  It takes on more dramatic weight around the point where Donna finds out she's pregnant, but it never becomes as dour as it could.  There are gentle bits of comedy that slip in throughout, and it's not hard to be charmed by the film, even given the gravity of Donna's situation.  Part of that comes from Jenny Slate, whose performance holds together and strengthens the entire film.  Given her pedigree in comedy, it should come as no surprise that she does a great job at making Donna a funny and likable character, skillfully delivering the script's anxious, aside-filled dialogue.  But when the time for a dramatic scene comes, she nails Donna's feelings of being untethered and unprepared just as well.

In the film's more flawed moments, Obvious Child feels very much like a first film.  At 83 minutes, the movie is already short, but Robespierre could've easily cut out the brief interlude where David Cross appears as a club owner who tries to seduce Donna.  It doesn't serve much purpose other than to add an ultimately pointless bump in the road for Donna and Max.  But it also has scenes, like the one where she visits her mother in a time of need, that stretch out beautifully and are filled with lovely little nuances.  It's hard not to consider the film a success for Robespierre -- it's a winsome and affecting debut that handles a tough topic with the perfect amount of grace.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

My Emmy wish list ballot

I follow award shows, but I've never been one to get emotionally invested in them.  If a good show wins an award, it doesn't validate my tastes, and if a bad show wins something, I don't consider it a crime against humanity.  The Emmys are a weird beast -- the nominations are based on a very specific kind of buzz, and once the voters decide they like something, they tend to nominate that thing over and over again.  After a while of paying attention to them, you eventually start to realize that The Emmys are a pointless endeavor.  So what better way to celebrate a pointless award show than by making my own pointless nominations?

This year's awards will be honoring television that aired from June 1, 2013 to May 31, 2014.  That means, for example, that the season of Orange Is the New Black that's eligible is only the first season.  In formulating these wish list nominations, I took this very meaningless thing seriously by following the rules and going by the official ballot of eligibility in each category.

Now before getting into my nomination choices, let me just explain one thing that confuses most people: The Hanging Episodes Rule.  Obviously, there are many shows whose season runs right through the cutoff date.  For instance, Game of Thrones season four began in the eligibility window (April 6th) and ended outside of the window (June 15th).  The Hanging Episodes rule states that if half of the episodes in a season fall within the eligibility window, then the entire season is eligible, and any episode that hasn't aired at the time of nominations will be made available to voters.  Thus, all of Game of Thrones is fair game.

So is everybody up to speed on all things Emmy now?  Okay, let's dive into my personal picks (NOTE: the choices in each category are ordered from favorite to least favorite)...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Tyrant

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.

Tuesdays at 10:00 PM on FX

It's tough to truly make a judgement on Tyrant after just one episode.  There's certainly potential for something interesting when you have a political drama set in the Middle East, created by some of the people who made Homeland.  (Early word says it's pretty mediocre though.)  The problem is that at every turn, the show smacks right into a giant wall of blandness.  It centers around Bassam "Barry" Al Fayeed, the son of a tyrannical leader of the fictional Abbudin, who left his home country 20 years ago to live in America.  Tyrant puts the politics on the backburner for the first 20 minutes, focusing on Barry's wife and kids.  This kind of slow-burning character building would be fine...if there was actually any character building.  But in those first scenes we don't learn much besides the fact that his wife is a wife, his daughter is a brat, and his son is a brat whose brattiness doesn't mesh well with his sister's brand of brattiness.

It doesn't get much better when the family travels to Abbudin to attend the wedding of Barry's nephew.  The half-sketched nature of the characters has nothing on this relatively nondescript country in the Middle East.  The impulse to shy away from using a real country is understandable, given the content that the show will be exploring, but it doesn't do a very good job of making Abbudin feel like an actual place.  It completely lacks any kind of texture, and aside from a reference or two to the nation's history and its relationship with other countries in the region, Abbudin might as well be California.  Compare that to the specificity with which another FX show, The Bridge, depicted the border between Juarez and El Paso, and Tyrant just comes off as Middle Eastern pastiche.

Nobody will mistake the pilot's script for being subtle either.  Almost every beat of the show feels like the writers making an assumption of what viewers want from their gritty dramas, but they either sap those elements of any kind of color or underline them with a bold pen.  We meet Barry's dad, but he's nothing more than a delivery system for run-of-the-mill daddy issues.  Barry's brother is a stock psychotic character, complete with a moment of sudden violence that's the show's most trite and perfunctory moment.  Throughout the episode, we get flashbacks of Barry's childhood in Abbudin, and the scenes might as well be shouting, "Dark past!" at the viewers.  The pilot's few interesting moments come from seeing how Barry fits into the world he left long ago, quickly flying into action to make a political decision that spares everyone of potential bloodshed.  Those intriguing tidbits, however, are few and far between.

Perhaps the biggest mistake made on the show's behalf is in trying to convince everyone that it's a serious drama.  There are some deliciously crazy beats that get hit in the last 10 minutes of the show, and if the writers can lean into that, then it could become something fun and pulpy.  Unfortunately, Tyrant doesn't seem aware of its own silliness, and by the end it comes back around to being brooding and morose.  It's going to have to get much better if audiences are going to take the show as seriously as it takes itself.

Grade: C

Friday, June 20, 2014

Jules and Monty brilliantly translates Shakespeare to a modern context

In the summer before I went to college, I became obsessed with this web series called Dorm Life.  It was sort of like The Office, except it took place on the floor of a freshman dorm instead of a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  I loved its homespun quality -- it was just a group of friends at UCLA coming together to make a little show.  It didn't have the budget of a TV show, so it took the fly-on-the-wall feeling and strong character development of mockumentary TV and condensed it into small bites of comedy.  Though it's been gone for a long time, I somehow still find myself thinking about it, and when I look back on my recently finished college experience, I become disappointed that I didn't build the kind of relationships that I loved in Dorm Life.

That series was an example of adapting a TV format to a strictly internet-based medium, but in recent years, web series have evolved enough to create shows that take on a format wholly unique to the internet: vlogs.  It has seen a recent explosion thanks in part to the Hank Green produced smash hit, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and its spiritual successor, Emma Approved.  Those two series were notable because they were able to adapt classic works of literature -- Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Emma, respectively -- and transform them into a YouTube-friendly vlogging style.  Now there are tons of these kind of stories out there, and you can't go too far on YouTube without finding a modern version of War and Peace or something.

But the format has reached its peak with Jules and Monty, which recently ended its 18-episode narrative about a month ago.  Jules and Monty feels like a mixture of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Dorm Life.  It takes from the former in that it adapts a famous piece of literature -- Romeo and Juliet -- and from the latter by making its modern setting college.  The Italian city of Verona has become the University of Verona, a northeastern college with a toxic frat culture. Consequently, the warring families of Capulet and Montague are now rival fraternities, KAP and MTG.  The series tells the tale of Jules Caine, the younger sister of Cliff (their version of Lord Capulet), the leader of the KAP fraternity; and Romeo Montgomery (but everyone calls him Monty), a lower-level member of MTG.  Through a sequence of alternating vlogs for their Communications class, we see the process of them meeting and getting together, and the tragedy that ultimately ensues when their respective alliances are tested.

Jules and Monty was written and created by Imogen Browder and Edward Rosini, two theater students at Tufts University, during their sophomore year.  The idea came about as sort of a surprise, as Imogen messaged Ed in the previous year and said that she wanted to do a web series, and the two of them proceeded to script out an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet over the course of a summer via Facebook messages and Google Docs.  It was then filmed with the help of their friends in the theater program and the university production department during the fall semester of 2013.  But despite the shoestring budget and tiny crew, it doesn't look like a web series made by a group of college students.  The amount of passion put into the project shines through, because the whole thing feels incredibly polished and professional.

Imogen Browder and Edward Rosini also take on the lead roles of Jules and Monty, and reveal themselves to be capable actors in the process.  Browder is especially talented, possessing a screen presence and vulnerability that's as engaging as any actress playing Juliet that I've ever seen.  Whenever she's in a scene, it's hard not to be absolutely hypnotized by her incredible performance.  She takes Juliet, a character who could be seen as weak and lacking in agency in the source material, and turns her into the heart and soul of the entire story.  Just look at the way she nails one of the play's iconic passages.

Though its one of the most widely taught of Shakespeare's plays in middle and high school, Romeo and Juliet has its fair share of detractors.  There are some who find its story of two teenagers who fall in love over the course of a few days to be juvenile and shallow.  On the other side of the spectrum, there are others who consider Shakespeare's satirical look at young love kind of mean-spirited and cynical.  Jules and Monty being created by and focused on college students allows it to fall into an interesting middle ground.  They're old enough to recognize that the feelings these characters have aren't the end-all-be-all in the grand scheme of things, but young enough to still make the romance full of weight and sincerity.  This series strips away the original play's melodrama and grounds it in a sense of reality that seems to ask, "What would it be like if this happened to real people"?

The college setting helps sell the idea of these characters clashing with each other because of their constant proximity, and how drunkenness fuels many of their decisions.  But it also really understands the dynamics of the tight-knit friendships that develop at this age, especially through Jules and her best friend/roommate, Nancy.  The latter might be one of the greatest creations of the series, and is certainly the most original.  She's a riff on The Nurse, but gets transformed from the insubstantial character she is in Shakespeare's original play into what is essentially the story's third lead.  From the very first episode that we see her in, you get a good sense of her friendship with Jules, and how her more outgoing boldness compliments Juliet's sweet reservation.  All she wants is what she thinks is the best for Jules, and her arc, which results from that single motivation, is fascinating.  That the writers (and Evey Reidy, who plays her) are willing to make a character who could've merely been a minor player into a fully-formed human being just makes the series even more impressive.

One of the other things that makes it so accessible is its use of language.  Unlike many present day adaptations of classic literature, Jules and Monty actually incorporates bits and pieces of Shakespeare's dialogue within the modern speech.  The switch is very deliberate too -- characters usually lapse into heightened language during moments of passion or inebriation.  It emphasizes the emotions of each scene, but it also helps to make The Bard's oft-daunting writing more accessible, providing context by slotting it between chunks of regular college vernacular.

*Plot details for the end of Jules and Monty follow.  Skip the next two paragraphs to remain unspoiled*

The most notable and intelligent thing about the series is how it adapts the ending.  Monty gets expelled and has to move back home after an altercation with Tye (Tybalt) puts the latter in the hospital.  Then Nancy -- out of a desire to end the violence between MTG and KAP, and help Jules move on -- forges a letter from Monty that makes Jules believe he's broken up with her, then convinces Jules to block him on her phone and every form of social media.  With Monty out of her life, Jules falls into a deep depression, which causes her grades to drop.  Eventually Professor Lawrence (The Friar) advises her to transfer to another school in order to escape the bad memories and her abusive brother.  Monty makes a last ditch effort to try to win Jules back, but he sees her empty room when he returns to Verona, and assumes that she's already left.

So Jules and Monty doesn't end with a double suicide, just a missed connection.  By removing death from their misfortune of communication, it lowers the scale of the play's conclusion, but somehow makes its tragedy more crushing and real.  In the play, Romeo and Juliet die, convinced of each other's love at the very least.  In the web series, the pain and uncertainty lives on.  Jules moves away, never knowing that Monty still wants to be with her; and Monty never knows that if he would've just arrived a few seconds earlier or stayed a few seconds longer, then he would've seen Jules again.  Their lives will continue.  They will likely fall in love with other people.  But there will always be the ache of that "What if?" factor.  In retooling the ending, the series managed to perfectly capture the process of growing up and growing apart that many college students go through.  It's a devastating way to go out.

*End of spoilers*

A show like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries took full advantage of YouTube as a medium by having multiple side channels where you could see what characters like Lydia, Gigi, and Darcy were up to when they left Lizzie's orbit.  Those videos almost feel essential to getting the entire experience.  Jules and Monty plays out all in one main story, but the experience becomes so much richer if you watch the behind-the-scenes videos in between each episode, called "Vlog Vlog"s.  Just as you'll become endeared to the characters in the actual story, you'll also start to fall in love with the funny, affable people making the show.  Through these crew interviews and production vlogs, you get to see the process of a group of people coming together contrasted with the series they're making: a story about a group of people falling apart.  It makes for an interesting, engrossing binge-watching process.  

Most of all, I'm just in awe of the fact that a web series so smart and thoughtful could be made by people my age.  It seems like the crew wants the experience to last as much as the fans do, because even though the main story has concluded, the channel has been releasing weekly director's commentaries and extra behind-the-scenes videos.  Eventually it'll come to an end, which makes me sad, but Imogen and Ed have alluded to having another project in the works, and I anxiously await whatever it is.  Jules and Monty fills me with the same mouth-frothing, I-want-to-tell-everybody-I-know-about-this enthusiasm that I felt when I started watching Vlogbrothers videos, or discovered Five Awesome Girls, or binged on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time.  I wish I was important enough for this blog post to give it the kind of audience it deserves, but for now I'll settle for tossing this praise out into the void and hoping it reaches whomever it can.  Start with episode one, I promise you'll be hooked.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The 100: TV's best sci-fi show comes from an unexpected place

It's time to stop writing off The CW.  Around the internet, it still gets treated as the annoying teen sibling of the rest of the major networks, and any new show that they put out is met with groans and skepticism.  But while it hasn't produced the next great drama yet, The CW has put out some decent shows over the last few years.  The Carrie Diaries was fun before it got cancelled.  Reign is super fun, while also being a bizarre mess.  The Vampire Diaries was known for its blistering plot momentum and jaw-dropping twists in its heyday.  I don't watch Arrow, but people never shut up about how good it is.  In most of those shows, you still have to deal with teen characters making moony-eyes at each other, but they're good despite that problem.  They still put out shows of questionable quality, to be sure, but even most of those are more mediocre than terrible.  And yet, as a whole, The CW doesn't get taken very seriously by many television fans.

Even I sort of dismissed The 100 when it first came around.  For the uninitiated, the show takes place 97 years after nuclear warfare has left the Earth uninhabitable, and the few thousands who were able to escape fled to a space station named The Ark.  Unfortunately, The Ark's oxygen supply is running low, to the point where there will be none left in six months, so the station's council decides to send 100 juveniles in their prison to Earth to see if it has become livable again.  I found the premise intriguing and enjoyed the pilot well enough (I never graded it for Pilot Talk, but I probably would've given it a B), but I decided not to continue with the show because some part of me thought, "This is a CW show.  It's not that important for me to keep watching."  After hearing from people I trust that the show had improved and gotten really good, I decided to binge on the 13-episode first season, and regretted giving up on it in the first place.

The 100 divides its story time between the teenage characters on Earth and the adults who remain on The Ark.  In the former section, the show bears some resemblance to Lost.  The group quickly discovers that they're not alone -- a mysterious group of people called The Grounders (this show's The Others) have somehow survived all of these years, and they don't seem too friendly.  But it's not just a human factor that the 100 have to deal with, there's also strange phenomena occurring all around, from a periodic toxic fog -- some might even call it a...smoke monster? -- to mutated two-headed animals roaming around.  In these earthbound sections, the show is about society trying to come together, and it effectively portrays the struggle of a group attempting to accomplish anything without rules or boundaries.  There's also a bit of angst and resentment from some in the group, who decide to take off the bracelets that monitor their vitals, in order to make the adults on The Ark who banished them think that they're dead.  Throughout the first season, the writers -- a staff that includes alumnae from prestigious shows like The Shield, Angel, Dollhouse, and Spartacus -- generate lots of tension from the fact that the teens on Earth have no idea what's going on up in The Ark, and vice versa.

In the portions of the show that take place in space, The 100 begins to take after Battlestar Galactica.  If the stuff on the ground is about society coming together, then the material in orbit provides a look at the last vestiges of a society that has fallen apart.  Because the oxygen supply is dwindling on The Ark (this show's version of BSG's final fleet), the council of leaders have to take desperate measures to conserve resources.  As a result, all crime is made punishable by death, people will have to be "floated" periodically (out into space, essentially being put to death as well) to keep the population manageable, and most citizens are left in the dark about the 100 being sent to Earth.  While the material with the teens can be leavened by the awe that the characters get from being in a wide open place they've only read about but never experienced, the scenes on The Ark don't shy away from the bleakness of the situation.  These are rough, dire circumstances, and the characters react appropriately.

So yes, The 100 cribs liberally from Lost and Battlestar Galactica in its early episodes -- and there's an element almost directly lifted from Firefly in the later episodes -- but it does so with confidence and aplomb.  It's obviously not as good as any of those influences, but it's still surprising that it's as good as it is.  And it goes to some dark places.  In just one season, it's already featured a child suicide, a brutal torture scene, and biological warfare.  But it also raises some surprisingly thought-provoking ideas along the way.  "Who we are and who need to be to survive aren't the same thing," a character says at one point, voicing the major theme of the show.  The 100 explores what it truly means to be a leader: the burdens they carry, the demons they have to live with, and the difficulty of choosing between what is right and what is good for the group.  Moral quandaries abound in the process.  Do I torture a prisoner to save my friend's life?  Do I let 1000+ people die to allow 700 to survive?  How do I retain my humanity in the face of great desperation?  And the show doesn't offer easy answers either.  One of the early crises of the show involves The Ark having to float 300 of their citizens to preserve more oxygen, unless they hear back from Earth and get confirmation that there are still people alive from the group they sent down.  The characters on Earth are able to send a signal to The Ark, but only after the deadline, and a section of people on the station still die because of it.

This being a CW show, you still have to sit through the obligatory romance storylines.  The love polygons don't have much spark, mostly due to wooden performances from some of the actors who play the teenage characters on Earth.  But it seems like the creators know this, and compensate by filling the adult cast with great sci-fi alums from Lost (Henry Ian Cusick), Battlestar Galactica (Alessandro Juliani, Kate Vernon), Person of Interest (Paige Turco), and Dollhouse (Dichen Lachman).  They also make up for it by having the teens be well-written, for the most part, so you pay less attention to the acting and more to the strong characterization.  The focus characters of the 100 all have clear motivations, and there's a substantial amount of conflict that comes from the moments when these various ideologies clash with one another.  Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and Bellamy (Bob Morley), the two main leaders, have particularly compelling arcs over the course of the season, as the responsibility of making the tough decisions inform the characters they grow into.

The first season does a good job of keeping the threats constant.  Some of it feels a little inorganic -- the way the council on The Ark continuously finds out that the amount of time they have left before the oxygen runs out was less than their calculations implied comes to mind -- but the dangers on Earth come along in natural and exciting ways.  It's well-paced from start to finish, climaxing with a finale that's chock full of major moments.  Its conclusion goes out on an exciting note that leaves me excited about the potential of season two.  The 100 might not seem like anything special at first, but it's got some strong characters, effectively bleak moments, and surprising plot turns.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Season 2 of Orange is the New Black gets bigger and goes deeper

Season one of Netflix's Orange is the New Black ended on one heck of a cliffhanger, with Piper beating Pennsatucky to a bloody pulp, which left viewers wondering how far she'd gone and what the consequences would be.  "Thirsty Bird," the terrific second season premiere, teases out those answers over the course of an hour, as we pick up on Piper being escorted out of solitary confinement, put on a plane without any answers, and shipped off to a high security prison in Chicago.  Though we later learn that she's only there temporarily to testify in a trial, the episode does a good job of not only letting the suspense play out, but also fleshing out the Chicago prison, building it up as a parallel world to Litchfield.

Though the premiere is completely Piper-centric, she doesn't appear in the second episode at all, and recedes into being another part of the ensemble once she returns to Litchfield in the third.  Season two puts heavy focus on the black women in Litchfield, led by Vee, the season's primary villain.  As we learn from Taystee's first flashback, Vee plucked Taystee out of an adoption fair and became something of a mother figure, bringing Taystee into the fold of her drug-running business.  Once Vee returns to Litchfield, she tries to apply some of her illegal habits from the outside, preying on Suzanne's need for acceptance, Black Cindy's need for respect, and Taystee's inability to escape her past to recruit them into a cigarette smuggling business.  Much of the larger conflict of the season comes from the building race war that Vee and her crew incite in their efforts to resume the power that Vee had during her first stint in Litchfield.

But it's not just Piper or Vee and Taystee who get time in the spotlight, the season gives story time to dozens upon dozens of members of the show's deep bench of characters.  In many ways, Orange is the New Black reminds me of the great HBO drama, Deadwood.  I'm not the first to make that connection -- there were a few critics who pointed out this connection as early as the middle of the first season -- but it's hard not to bring up the comparison when talking about the worldview and use of ensemble in season two.  It takes a bunch of disparate characters and turns them into fully-realized human beings, and though you may not like all of them, you're certainly going to understand them.  Did you watch season one and think Rosa was an extremely minor character, or forgot who she was altogether?  Well Jenji Kohan doesn't think she's unimportant -- nobody is, in Orange is the New Black's opinion -- and Rosa's storyline in the season will be one of the most compelling.  Did you find Pennsatucky to be a cartoonish, one-dimensional character in the first season?  Well get ready for season two to make her one of the most endearing characters, while also not hand-waving away the fact that she still has some awful values.

Deadwood was one of the biggest and messiest shows of the last 15 years, but it didn't shy away from its messiness.  Instead, the show rolled around in it, and picked out little nuggets of beauty among the muck.  Likewise, season two of Orange is the New Black is far from perfect.  But it's so gargantuan and ambitious that you can't begrudge its messiness when it's riffing on so many different themes and exploring the stories of a countless amount of characters.

One of the season's major imperfections is its use of flashbacks.  In the first season, the flashbacks were a little more novel, and they effectively illuminated who the characters are now by showing their lives before they ended up in prison.  This season, they lost a bit of their novelty, even though the writers smartly avoid repeating characters who got flashbacks in the first season, aside from Piper and Red.  The problem is that too many of the flashbacks hit the theme of the episode a little too hard on the head (Rosa) or just aren't very interesting (Black Cindy).  Even still, some of the flashbacks work exceedingly well.  Morello's flashbacks in "A Whole Other Hole," which reveal that her engagement with Christopher is all a delusion and she merely stalked him after a first date went wrong, are as heartbreaking as any that the show has ever done.

A more welcome element of this season is its emphasis on the infrastructure of Litchfield.  It does this in ways both heavy -- the misallocation of the prison's budget leading to one of the dorm's showers backing up, which then leads to more tension between the different factions -- and light (Piper starting up a prison newsletter).  It's reminiscent of another mid-2000s HBO great, The Wire, in the way it examines the unfortunate ways systems fail people again and again.  The Wire was about the infrastructure's cold indifference to the people trapped inside of it, but Orange is the New Black is more about how ill-equipped the system is to properly deal with the people in it.  We see this in many different ways, from the prison deciding to just release the mentally ill old woman who manages to accidentally escape, to them not allowing Rosa to get a surgery that's important to extending her lifespan.

Season one was about the way communities slowly form, showing the small connections that can be made in a women's prison.  On the other hand, the second season, which had a recurring theme of rejection, found almost every corner of Litchfield at odds.  Eventually, everyone realizes that Vee is the outsider that has destroyed the harmony that they worked to create.  "We've Got Manners.  We're Polite," the season finale, is all about correcting that balance.  I love how everybody comes up with plots to bring her down -- Nicky and Boo setting her up with the heroin; Taystee, Cindy, and Watson confessing that they lied about their statements that incriminated Suzanne; Norma and Mendoza creating some concoction to slowly kill her; Healy fudging paperwork -- but in the end, it's Rosa who kills her as she escapes from Litchfield in a van.  She didn't even have that much of a vested interest in Vee, at least not directly.  But that's why her act is so important.  If the finale was about all of these disparate forces banding together for the good of the community, then it's fitting for Rosa to kill Vee because she was rude, and a poison to the prison.

"We've Got Manners.  We're Polite," is an over-sized episode, both in length and in breadth, and not everything works.  For instance, I'm not sure how I feel about how Figueroa was ultimately dispensed of (it's ugly in a one-sided way that the show rarely ever is), or Alex coming back, or the prospect of any more Larry and Polly material.  But the finale is representative of the season as a whole: it's a massive endeavor that works far more than it doesn't.  Shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones achieve their scope through the miles of distance between their characters.  Orange is the New Black is so impressive because it gives off that sense of scope and mostly contains it to one place.  Ambition is one thing, but season two is one of the most astounding things to air this year because it manages pull almost all of it off.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Antonio's Anime Roundup

Even back when I watched with a little more frequency, I was always just a casual fan of anime.  However, I'm the kind of person who still keeps up with things I don't partake in much, so -- especially in the recent years that I didn't watch anime at all -- I made sure to pay attention to the stuff that was getting praise and kept a running list of shows I wanted to check out eventually.  One of the things that kept me from diving in for a long time was that I only watched English dubs, and most sites that provided streaming availability for the anime on the list only offered subbed versions.  (This is a very controversial preference to have, since many anime purists think people who watch dubs are the devil's spawn, but hear me out.  I'm not afraid of subtitles.  I watch foreign films all the time.  But with something like anime, where the art style and animation are so important, I'd rather not have to be looking at the bottom of the screen most of the time.  It's just easier to binge when you don't have to worry about reading subtitles.  Plus -- and this is probably the most upsetting reason for subtitle lovers to read -- I prefer the sound of English voice acting.  Many people find dubs to be flat, but I think that the original Japanese voice acting is often too emotional.)  My recent love of Space Dandy reignited my interest in returning to that list, so I've gotten over my aversion to subbed anime and have begun the process of working through the long list that I've compiled over the years of shows to watch.

One thing I've noticed in this process is that anime is so watchable.  I've been burning through some live-action hourlong American TV, and once I started going through my anime list, I put off everything else because it was just much easier to watch multiple episodes of an anime in a row.  Here's the first rundown in a continuing series of reviews of anime on my gigantic "to watch" list:

Friday, June 13, 2014

Bunheads vs. Gilmore Girls

The common pitch to get people to watch Bunheads is, "Did you like Gilmore Girls?  If so, then you'll probably like this."  After all, those who were fond of Amy Sherman-Palladino's brand of lightning-quick dialogue and breezy, female-centric stories on Gilmore Girls would find it easy to settle into Bunheads, which ported over the former's charms with few adjustments.  The parallels didn't stop there either -- both shows featured Kelly Bishop filling the brittle elderly woman role, the relationship between Fanny and Michelle mirrored Lorelai and Emily's, Truly had a bit of Sookie's sweet but neurotic qualities, and Paradise was essentially a west coast Stars Hollow.  In fact, the similarities proved to be too numerous for some, who accused Bunheads of being a cheap imitation of Gilmore Girls, and even those who like both mostly prefer the latter.  So I'm here to deliver a rare and controversial opinion:  I like Bunheads more than Gilmore Girls.

Though I prefer Bunheads, if you were to break both shows down to their individual qualities, Gilmore Girls would still have some advantages.  For example, Bunheads didn't have the great sense of history that Gilmore Girls had.  In a way, Bunheads was about a makeshift family, and the show's 18 episodes were about building the kind of history that Gilmore Girls already had implanted into its DNA from the beginning.  In true Amy Sherman-Palladino fashion, much of the crucial events in the Gilmore family happen offscreen, in this case years before the show even premiered, beginning with Lorelai getting pregnant and running away from home at 16.  The bundles of pain, regret, and disappointment in the relationship between Lorelai, Emily, and Richard were so precariously stacked that the writers were able to convey so much about them through so little.  Those years and years of bruised history were always something that they could fall back on for a meaty story ("Christopher Returns," "Dear Emily and Richard," etc).

But Bunheads had some tricks of its own too.  It took all of the common elements in Amy Sherman-Palladino's wheelhouse and added something crucial: dance.  In the short time that Bunheads on the air, its dance sequences were the best thing on television, bar none.  Performance elements in shows tend to be a way to express subtext without doing it through dialogue, and some of the dance sequences in Bunheads did that, as in episode two, where a dance sequence underlines how much the girls appreciate Fanny.  But sometimes they were capable of transcending the point of being a mere thematic device, and instead became a visualization of raw, primal emotions.  Each of the dances on the show -- no matter how small -- were always varied, visually dynamic, well-choreographed, and most of all, shot in fluid takes that went unbroken for impressive lengths.

Part of the reason why it could get away with such sequences is that it was, at its core, a much darker show than Gilmore Girls.  While Gilmore Girls might have been about a woman who ran away and had a kid at 16 years old, the darker aspects of the show were always balanced out by its WB-ness, small-town quirk, and that prevailing sense that everything would ultimately be okay.  Bunheads, on the other hand, had a sense that everything may not be okay, but you have to learn to adapt and make do.  On Gilmore Girls, Lorelai's life is pretty stable -- she has a wonderful daughter, her own business, and many friends in Stars Hollow.  Between Michelle's failed dance career, dead husband, and new role of responsibility that she's not prepared for; she's floundering much more.  Minus a few boat-stealing, home-wrecking stumbles along the way, Rory Gilmore's seven-season arc consisted of everything going her way.  The four bunheads don't have it as easy as special genius Rory, however.  Boo is stuck with a body type that will never be conducive to a successful dance career, Sasha is struggling with what to do in the wake of her parents' divorce, Melanie's anger issues sometimes cause her to violently lash out, and Ginny loses her virginity to a boy who couldn't be bothered to give her the time of day afterward.  While some people may like the lighter fare that Gilmore Girls provides, the dark core of Bunheads is something that lingers with me much more.

In an LA Times article, Amy Sherman-Palladino emphasized that Gilmore Girls and Bunheads were both products of the eras in which they aired by pointing out the differences between their construction.  Among them, the most notable was the insight that each Gilmore Girls episode consisted of three acts, while a Bunheads episode consisted of six.  As a result, Bunheads felt like a faster-paced show, since it had to structure the episodes around more act breaks.  Both shows are still notable for their relative lack of plot, but Bunheads was better at giving off the impression of forward progression.  This makes Gilmore Girls easier to skip around on, and Bunheads better to watch in linear chunks.

Rory Gilmore is one of my all-time favorite characters -- yes, I know that I'm boring -- but Bunheads having four teenage girls in its main cast allowed for the show to have a wider perspective.  Sasha, Boo, Ginny, and Melanie all had distinct personalities from the start of the show, allowing for more opportunities to have the audience identify with them.  Gilmore Girls may have given Rory people like Lane and Paris to bounce off of, but Bunheads explored female friendships in a far more complex way.  These were four girls who had their disagreements, but they were ultimately people who cared deeply about one another.  Plus, as much as I defend Alexis Bledel, the four actresses on Bunheads were much better than her.  (Have I mentioned that they danced?!)

Bunheads may have had female friendships down, but nothing can touch the mother-daughter relationship that's central to Gilmore Girls.  Rory and Lorelai's relationship is without a doubt the greatest mother-daughter relationship I've ever seen on television, and as much as Bunheads tried to hint at a slowly developing kinship between Michelle and the four girls, they couldn't come close to the two Gilmores.  Their sister-like closeness may not be something that we all aspire to, but it's admirable and enjoyable to watch nonetheless.  It's what makes their slow drifting in the show's later years all the more powerful.  The show's other mother-daughter relationship, Lorelai and Emily, gives Gilmore Girls another advantage.  They're almost like the flipside to Rory and Lorelai, their years defined by distance instead of an airtight bond, and even when they do have moments of mutual understanding, it's always informed by the tenuous strings that tie them together.  Once again, Bunheads attempted to create something like it with Michelle and Fanny, but it also couldn't compare to the execution on Gilmore Girls.

Ultimately, the Bunheads vs. Gilmore Girls debate runs into the same problem that Joss Whedon fans do when they compare Buffy and Firefly.  Gilmore Girls lasted seven 22-episode seasons and its length provides a breadth of quality that Bunheads just couldn't match.  The cumulative magnitude of "They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They?," "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais," and many of their other best episodes outshines the sum total of Bunheads' run.  We also never really got the chance to know Paradise like we got to know Stars Hollow.  The side characters on Bunheads felt like great characters, but those on Gilmore Girls felt like whole people.  On the other hand, Bunheads wasn't afforded the time to last long enough for us to get tired of any of those side characters (can you imagine still finding Truly amusing in season seven of that show?)  Its star burned short, but we got to remember its overwhelming brightness as opposed to the slow fade of Gilmore Girls.  Should Gilmore Girls get more credit for spreading its high quality out over a few seasons or should Bunheads get the edge because it never lasted long enough to stagnate?

Perhaps it's actually simpler than that.  I missed Gilmore Girls the first time around, so Bunheads was my first exposure to Amy Sherman-Palladino's work.  Meanwhile, most people watched Bunheads after they'd already seen Gilmore Girls.  So maybe it's just a matter of which of the two shows one watches first determining their favorite.  I guess we'll never truly know.  But really, guys, Bunheads is better.

Gilmore Girls Week ends here.  Don't miss Monday's overview of the entire show, Tuesday's essay on season four's "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais," Wednesday's look into Rory Gilmore's dating history, and Thursday's list of the show's 10 best episodes.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The top 10 episodes of Gilmore Girls

Over the course of its seven-season run, Gilmore Girls aired a total of 153 episodes.  Just that count alone would make it hard to narrow the show down to a list of the 10 best ones, but it's even more difficult given the level of consistency exhibited during the show's best seasons.  One of the greatest qualities of the show is that many of the episodes feel self-contained enough that, despite the serialized nature of the seasons, one could pick and choose episodes to revisit without feeling too lost on the story.  The show is the ultimate comfort food -- there's something about its blend of slow-moving plot and fast-paced dialogue that lulls you into a state of relaxation and makes you want to return to it over and over.

In my overview piece on Monday, I noted that the show had many different modes it operated in, and everybody's got their favorites.  Judging from my picks, my favorite episodes tend to be the dramatic ones, as most of them are heavy on conflict and feature a big emotional moment or two.  Some hardcore fans may be appalled by how many episodes from the show's later seasons I have on the list, but my choice can be explained by two reasons: 1. I like the Yale years much more than the majority of the Gilmore Girls community and 2. I tried to spread it out and represent every season.  (For the record, I have a very bizarre ranking of the seasons: 5, 4, 3, 1, 2, 6, 7.)  So I guess it's technically not a list of the best episodes.  For example, I really wanted to find a way to put something like "Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin' the Twist" in the top 10, because I really love that episode, but I felt like the list already featured enough season four material.  However, each of the choices on the list are certainly top tier episodes.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A look at Rory Gilmore's dating history

There's an old TV adage that says, "Happy couples aren't very interesting."  Though we want stability in our real life relationships, it's generally not what we want from our television couples, give or take an Eric and Tami Taylor.  That's the reason why fictional couples don't last very long -- eventually, even those for whom you most fiercely rooted to get together run the risk of stagnating.  If that's the case, then it's natural for a show that ran as long as Gilmore Girls did to have its two main characters go through so many relationships.

In my piece on Monday where I did an overview of the show as a whole, I mentioned that Gilmore Girls tracks Rory Gilmore's entire adolescence over the course of seven seasons.  While not everybody knows what it's like to go from a prestigious high school to an Ivy League university, there is something universal about the basic coming-of-age she experiences.  It makes sense (and is somewhat amusing), then, that on her way she cycles through many of the male archetypes that one is likely to date in their young adult years.  The shipper battles are intense within the Gilmore Girls fandom, and much blood has been shed over Team Dean vs. Team Jess debates.  (Meanwhile, the few Team Logan members remain hidden in a corner.)  But really, all of the internecine squabbling is pointless, because I have this theory that we're supposed to feel the same way that Rory does about the men on the show at any given moment.  Gilmore Girls is a show from the perspective of these two women, so it's natural that our opinions -- or mine, at least -- about people change when theirs do.

I was too busy nursing my own crush on her to care much about the boyfriends, but regardless of whom you prefer, you can't deny that Rory Gilmore is very crappy at relationships.  From making it obvious that she has feelings for Jess when she's still with Dean, to later sleeping with Dean when he's married to another woman, her bad decisions with men are the one major flaw in an otherwise great person.  So without further ado, let's delve into these boys and their respective archetypes:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Canon #10: Gilmore Girls - "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais" (2004)

The Canon is a recurring feature that looks back on outstanding movies, TV episodes, albums, books, etc.; inducting them into an imaginary canon of all-time great things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great.)

Everybody has bad days.  Sometimes when you're having a particularly rotten one, all you want to do is talk to the one person who can make you forget about it all and feel better.  For Rory Gilmore, that person is her mother Lorelai, and vice versa.  The first three seasons of Gilmore Girls were built on the foundation of their unbreakable bond, and the notion that no matter how bad things got, they always had each other to lean on.  (This idea was often used literally -- just think about how many episodes ended with the two of them embracing in some way.)  Consequently, season four of the show was a big risk, since Rory going off to Yale stood to alter the dynamic between her and Lorelai.  Although they were close enough in proximity to still see each other in person, they were far enough away that they couldn't always immediately be there for each other.  Instead of avoiding the shift in Rory and Lorelai's relationship, Amy Sherman-Palladino decided to lean into it and tackle the idea head on.

In "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais," the 13th episode of season four, Lorelai Gilmore is having a no good, very bad day.  It doesn't start off that way though: the episode begins with her, Sookie, and Michel marveling at the progress of the Dragonfly Inn, the new bed and breakfast that they're starting on their own.  It's almost time for the grand opening, and they're happy because the phones have just been hooked up, allowing them to log their first reservation.  But Lorelai gets the first bit of bad news shortly after that, as Tom, the head of the construction crew in charge of building the inn, informs her that the money is running short and his men won't be able to do the work much longer if they're not getting paid.  Once the seal breaks, a whole deluge of problems start to flow through.  She then gets into a rare fight with Sookie, who forgets to be there to sign off on an expensive sink needed for the Dragonfly's kitchen, causing it to be shipped back to Canada.  As if that weren't enough, she has to deal with the arrival of her grandmother in Hartford, who sees through Lorelai's problems and susses out that she's hemorrhaging funds.

Lorelai is a person who has made it her mission to be as independent as possible, starting from the day she had Rory and decided raise her without the help of her parents or Christopher.  So asking for a handout -- from Luke, she ultimately decides -- is a big deal for her.  Her business failing is one thing, but the embarrassment of having to seek another's help makes it worse.  But even worse than that is that she keeps trying to call Rory -- her rock, the one person who's always there to make her feel better -- but can't reach her.

Little does Lorelai know that Rory is having a no good, very bad day as well.  Aside from Lane staying at Yale due to a squabble with her mother and Paris being embroiled in a squabble of her own with Janet, Rory's going through a regular Yale day at first.  However, things take a turn when Paris finds out that Lane knows about the affair she's having with a professor, and gets angry with Rory for telling her.  When Paris confronts Rory about this, she also demands that Lane move out of their dorm, stating that their two other roommates agree that Lane has overstayed her welcome.  Initially, Rory doesn't believe it, but Paris's claims are confirmed when she later talks to Tana and Janet about it.  Much like with Lorelai, once the ball of bad news gets rolling, its momentum just keeps increasing.  The biggest blow comes when she visits her professor's office to get a paper back, and discovers that not only did she get a D on it, but that her professor thinks she should drop the class, out of concern that Rory is overworking herself.

Until now, Rory has always been the perfect student, not used to even the most minor academic setback.  Getting a D and having to drop a class is a major shortcoming for her, despite her professor's consolation that many freshmen struggle with the Yale curriculum.  The fact that her grandfather took the same course load and did just fine only makes her feel more inadequate.  And all she's got are voicemail messages from Lorelai; every time she tries to seek comfort from her mother, she can't get the real thing.

There's a beautiful symmetry to "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais."  Rory and Lorelai's storylines sit side by side, and the episode cuts from one Gilmore girl to the other, following both of their days as they decline at a similar rate.  The missed calls start off as a great joke, as we see Lorelai and Rory debate over an amusing story about an old horse through the exchange of voicemails.  But it quickly becomes clear that these failed connections are the structural elemental around which the episode is hung, and the way that they become more urgent the longer Rory and Lorelai go without hearing from one another is very effective.  Even their breakdowns mirror each other: they come back-to-back, involve both women crying in the arms of men, and have the words "I'm failing" buried somewhere in there.  It's no surprise that Lauren Graham knocks her scene out of the park, but Alexis Bledel's acting is particularly moving; it may be her best performance in the entire series.  At this point, Rory and Lorelai are close in proximity and on similar emotional wavelengths, yet they have no idea.  That's what makes the ending of the episode so brutal.  They're both listening to the last voicemail that the other left, and if one of them decided to call at that moment, they'd be able to reach the other.  But they're both so tired and upset that they give up and go to bed.

In a way, this is the episode that splits the series and informs everything that comes afterward.  It does that on a short-term level -- notice how Rory and Lorelai both cry in the arms of the men they hook up with in the season finale -- but for the long-term as well.  Although Rory and Lorelai's closeness is what defines their relationship, it was never going to remain as ironclad as it did during the Chilton years.  Rory's in the process of growing up and growing away from Lorelai, and the communication breakdown between them here foreshadows the fighting and drifting that they go through in seasons five and six.  "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais" is the best Gilmore Girls episode because it's a powerful story of two women unable to share their pain with the one they love the most, but it's also the most important in the way that it delineates their dynamic over the two separate eras of the show.

Gilmore Girls Week continues tomorrow at 8:00 AM EST with a piece on the many boyfriends of Rory Gilmore.  The series kicked off yesterday with an overview of the entire show.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Late to the Party #10: Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)

Welcome to Gilmore Girls Week!  A new article related to Gilmore Girls will be posted every day at 8:00 AM EST until Friday.

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

When I was a little 11 year-old kid, I had a huge crush on Alexis Bledel.  (Who am I kidding? I still do.)  For that reason and that reason alone, I'd seen a few episodes of Gilmore Girls during its original airing.  Watching it was like doing spy work -- I felt like I had to "sneak" and watch only bits and pieces of episodes, lest I be caught viewing a WB show with "girls" in the title.  From those cursory viewings, along spending much of the following years reading pop culture websites, I knew many of the show's broad plot strokes.  It wasn't until Bunheads came around in 2012 that I was fully introduced to the work of Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.  Anybody who's been reading this blog long enough knows how much I loved Bunheads, and its cancellation left me with a need to satisfy my Amy Sherman-Palladino fix, a need that finally made me decide to watch Gilmore Girls in its entirety.

Because I worked backwards, it was interesting to see where the Amy Sherman-Palladino train first got moving after watching Bunheads.  All the signposts I became familiar with on Bunheads were there from the beginning in Gilmore Girls: the fast-paced dialogue, the primarily female cast, the arcane pop culture references.  Like Bunheads, Gilmore Girls was a balance between small-town drama and family drama, and as with all shows that fall into the former category, it made its setting -- the sleepy, quirky town of Stars Hollow -- a character of its own.  But its true strengths lied in the show's elements of the latter.

Gilmore Girls was a story of generational transference, and it contrasted the parental relationship between Lorelai and her parents, Richard and Emily, with that of Rory and Lorelai.  Lorelai's strict upbringing was characterized by a cold distance from her parents, so when she got pregnant at 16 and ran off to Stars Hollow, she decided to raise Rory in the exact opposite way.  Through Lorelai's relationship with her parents, the show explored how disappointment, regret, and pain could cloud things like love.  But through Lorelai's relationship with her daughter, they showed how unbreakable the bond between mother and daughter could be.  Close relationships between a parent and their child had been depicted before, but none as deeply or complexly as Rory and Lorelai's was.  In just one exchange of dialogue between the two of them, you could instantly see the years of rapport that they've built with each other.  They had the same mannerisms, the same reference points, the same tastes -- Rory and Lorelai weren't just mother and daughter, they were best friends too.

It's that kind of character relationship that carried the story even when the rest of the show was finding its footing in the first season.  Even still, it didn't take long to hit its stride, right around the time of the sixth episode, "Rory's Birthday Parties."  There's something very pure and simple about season one of Gilmore Girls.  It had that heartwarming quality that many WB shows of the time contained, a quality whose last vestiges can be found on a few ABC Family programs, but has otherwise slowly disappeared in the years since the show premiered.  People argue over which seasons comprise its peak phase, but the Chilton years (seasons one through three) are the chunk that feel the most like "classic Gilmore Girls," and the episodes that fans go back to the most are likely to appear in this portion.  In just those three seasons, the show exhibited so many different modes it was capable of operating in: it could do small-town charm ("Cinnamon's Wake," "The Bracebridge Dinner"), family drama ("Forgiveness and Stuff," "Secrets and Loans," "There's the Rub"), romantic entanglements ("Star-Crossed Lovers and Other Strangers," "Teach Me Tonight"), breezy larks ("Road Trip to Harvard," "Richard in Stars Hollow"), and everything in between ("They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They?").  But in all of them, you could find an easygoing, comfort food vibe that made each episode so easy to swallow.

Despite the light, airy feel that marks all of her work, Amy Sherman-Palladino knows how to pack an emotional punch when she needs to.  I learned that the hard way with the "My banana's name is Frankie" moment in the Bunheads finale, but Gilmore Girls is crammed with instances of heart-wrenching drama.  It mostly did so by mining conflict from its aforementioned themes of generational divide, both from Lorelai's struggles to reconnect with Richard and Emily but also from her dealing with the responsibilities of guiding Rory through the hardships and heartbreaks of adolescence.  The drama comes naturally on Gilmore Girls.  Characters don't get upset with each other just for the sake of having something to push the story forward; the conflict derives from a place of deep, genuine hurt.

The show faced a problem that all long-running programs that start with a teen in high school face, after Rory graduated from Chilton at the end of season three and headed to Yale at the beginning of season four.  But this was an especially dangerous move for Gilmore Girls, since the series thrived on its scenes of Rory and Lorelai bonding and bouncing off of each other.  Though the proximity of Yale and Stars Hollow allowed for the two of them to still see each other, their storylines began to develop into almost completely separate entities, an indication of the model the show would follow for its last four years.  Despite the danger of less Rory-Lorelai scenes, season four still managed to be pretty great.  It's the show's funniest season, featuring episodes like "Chicken or Beef?" and "Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin' the Twist," and the entire back half is just a roaring stretch of television.

That stretch closes out with "Raincoats and Recipes," an episode that leads to the twin bombshells of Lorelai kissing Luke and Rory sleeping with a married Dean, the latter of which causes a fight between Rory and Lorelai that bleeds into the beginning of season five.  The fifth season is my personal favorite, mostly because of how dramatically satisfying it is.  It's almost as if Amy Sherman-Palladino and her crew of writers made season four so comedic and fluffy in order to turn things around and knock us off of our feet even more with season five.  This season was all about the show's ground shifting, and almost every relationship that stood upon it -- Richard and Emily, Lorelai and Rory, Lorelai and Emily, Rory and Emily, Lorelai and Luke -- was shaken up.  In doing so, the show finally started tapping into the visual and emotional poetry that Bunheads would later prove itself capable of achieving.

Most television shows, particularly network ones that have to craft 22-episode seasons, are a very collaborative process.  However, Gilmore Girls was so clearly the vision of Amy Sherman-Palladino who, along with her husband Daniel, wrote and directed many of the episodes, and even took passes at ones they weren't credited for.  By the time season six rolled around, the workload became overwhelming.  This led to some behind-the-scenes drama between the two of them and The WB, who wanted them to do more work instead of letting them hire more writers.  They couldn't come to an agreement, and the Palladinos decided to step down as showrunners for the seventh season while in the middle of writing the sixth.  There were some grumblings about the show losing its touch right around the start of the Yale years, but many fans consider season six to be a complete drop-off in quality, and some cite the fact that Amy Sherman-Palladino knew she wasn't going to come back while writing it as a reason for the decline.  To them, the events of "Partings," which included Lorelai breaking off her engagement with Luke and sleeping with Christopher, are an example of Palladino salting the earth for the new showrunners.

Others just think the show was running out of steam regardless.  However, I think we're in need of a critical reappraisal of season six, which isn't the show's finest year, but is still a good season of television.  Season six is basically divided in half by its two most divisive storylines: Lorelai and Rory's extended fight and the arrival of April Nardini.  I'll defend the latter first, since it's probably the most controversial thing the show ever did.  I understand the natural inclination to retch at the idea of Luke discovering that he has a daughter he never knew about, but the storyline skillfully took something that feels extremely soapy and made it very "un-TV."  It's a complicating factor, but one that is imbued with enough subtlety and honest emotion that it doesn't feel like just a plot device.  In its later years, the show got very good at long-form plotting, and the way that the April story added to the slowly accumulating problems with Lorelai and Luke's engagement made their breakup in the finale well built to.

The fight between Rory and Lorelai was an even greater example of the meticulous accruement of story during the Chilton years.  It may have seemed like it was forced and inorganic, until you realize that the growing distance between the two of them was something that began way back in season four.  The fact that their squabble didn't end quickly like it would've in the early years doesn't make the conflict out of character, it just makes the separation hurt more.

Staff writer David S. Rosenthal took over as showrunner as the Palladinos stepped down, and the biggest problem that the show faced in its final season was the question, "would Amy and Daniel have done this?" lingering around every plot point.  Clearly, Rosenthal and the rest of the staff were handcuffed by Christopher and Lorelai now being together, even though the show's end game was contingent upon a happy ending for Luke and Lorelai.  As a result, they had to figure out a reason to dissolve Lorelai's relationship with Christopher and bring her back with Luke, and the execution was clumsily handled.  Additionally, though the show was never heavy on plot, many of the episodes felt logy, a quality underlined by an absence of the quick repartee that marked the show's first six seasons.  Even still, season seven is not terrible, and once all of the wreckage from the season six finale gets cleared up, the show settles into a lovely run for the last handful of episodes.

Before the drama with The WB, Amy Sherman-Palladino once said that she could have seen the show lasting beyond seven seasons.  But it's good that it ended when it did, even if the final season had the misfortune of carrying on without her.  As it stands, Gilmore Girls is a perfect encapsulation of one girl's adolescence -- mapping out Rory's start at Chilton to her graduation from Yale -- and a mother fully growing into adulthood via the process of guiding her daughter through that coming of age.  They say that you prefer whichever of the Gilmore girls you're closer to in age at the time you're watching the show, and that theory holds for me.  As a senior in college at the time of burning through the show last year, I found that Rory's stories resonated with me far greater than Lorelai's did.  (Being in college could also possibly be the explanation for why I'm so fond of the Yale years too.)  Many people find Rory to be a character who's increasingly difficult to like as the show goes on, but I found her arc as the golden child who slightly flounders before finding her way again to be incredibly moving.

Like many other network classics of its era -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The West Wing, The X-Files -- Gilmore Girls is unwieldy and bloated in a way that its cable contemporaries aren't.  It had a couple of lesser seasons, and many fans argue that it could've ended sooner, but when it was operating at the peak of its powers, it was an undeniable classic.  Its top tier episodes stand up there with the best television of the previous decade, and in a period defined by violent, dark shows, its family-friendly small-town drama made it stand out among its peers.  With Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino didn't just construct a story for one-time viewing; she crafted an entire world to come back to again and again.

Gilmore Girls Week continues tomorrow at 8:00 AM EST with a piece on season four's "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais."