Saturday, February 21, 2015

2015 Academy Award Predictions

Award shows are ultimately meaningless, but no other one assigns as much prestige to meaninglessness as the Oscars do.  While the Grammys mostly stick to populist affairs and the Emmys remain stuck in the middle of commercially successful and critically acclaimed, the Academy Awards try to give off the impression that they're awarding true "Art."  (Yes, that means we live in a world where Crash is considered "Art.")

Part of that could come from the voting body itself.  Much discussion was had about the demographics of the Academy when the nominations rolled out and they were whiter than a picket fence in St. Petersberg, Missouri.  You see, 94% of the Oscar voters are white, 74% are male, and the average member is 63 years old.  And what are the two things old white dudes love the most?  Taking themselves too seriously and not recognizing people of color.  In all seriousness, I know one of those old white dudes in the Academy, and not only is he a cool guy, he has great taste in films too.  Mostly, though, it seems like the voting body consists of people like this.

For the past few years, I've been making predictions about these awards, because it's fun and the trendy thing to do.  In 2013, I got 21 out of 24 of the categories correct.  Last year, I got 22 out of 24 correct.  Will I get 23 correct this year?  Probably not!  Below I've listed each category, with all of the nominations in said category; along with what I think will win (meaning: my actual prediction), what I want to win, and a brief explanation of both answers.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Breaking down last night's brilliantly directed hour of The Americans

At the end of the breakout second season of FX's riveting Cold War spy drama The Americans, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings learn that the KGB wants them to recruit their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor).  After a season of them united in their front to keep Paige away from her burgeoning interest in Christianity, season three has found them at loggerheads with each other over how to react to this news.  This week's episode, "Open House," continues that boiling plotline, but comes at it from an indirect and artful angle, thanks to some spectacular direction from Thomas Schlamme.

Schlamme is famous for his work on The West Wing, which was known for its signature "walk and talk" scenes, but he's been doing a terrific job on The Americans since the show's inception, and "Open House" is by far his best work to date.  This show has always been able to generate meaning in subtle ways -- simple glances on The Americans can conjure up just as many emotions as a plot twist would on another program.  Schlamme takes it up another notch by making sightlines the entire thematic underpinning of the hour.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Better Call Saul

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.

Better Call Saul seemed like a bad, bad idea.  TV spinoffs and prequels have a gigantic precedent of being disasters that you're better off avoiding.  That's not to say that it's impossible for one to be good, but for every Angel, there are about 100 Joeys.  It also just seemed like an unnecessary idea.  Breaking Bad was an excellent show -- one of my favorites of all time -- but after five seasons, I didn't need to be in that world anymore.  I was especially skeptical of the Better Call Saul's ability to sustain a character like Saul, who was a fun bit player on Breaking Bad, but didn't feel layered enough to be anything more than that.  Ultimately, this show felt like a way for AMC to continue cashing in on the 10 million people who tuned in to the Breaking Bad finale.

There shouldn't have been too much concern, because at the end of the day, the show is in good hands.  Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan co-wrote the pilot with high-level Breaking Bad writer Peter Gould, Michelle MacLaren directed the second episode, and multiple Breaking Bad writers round out the rest of the show's staff.  Even smaller aspects, like the editing and the score, are done by the same people who did it on Breaking Bad (Kelley Dixon and Dave Porter, respectively).  And you can tell from the cold open of the Better Call Saul pilot that it's just back to business for the crew.  It's too good to spoil, but it stands up there with the best Breaking Bad had to offer, and that show was known for its iconic and artistic cold opens.

It's not just the beginning of the episode either -- the whole pilot immediately reminds you of the Gilligan qualities that you missed so much.  Better Call Saul has got style to burn.  Vince Gilligan directs the first episode excellently, settling us into the drudgery of Jimmy McGill's (Bob Odenkirk) sad little life.  Indoor locations are shot with wide, oblong angles to really sell their drabness.  It's clear that Jimmy is imprisoned by his life's mundanity and mediocrity.  And it's just nice to be reintroduced to the world of Albuquerque that we loved so much in Breaking Bad, that bright, dry suburban malaise.

But it also does enough to distinguish itself from its sequel.  As I mentioned before, I was skeptical of the show's ability to promote Saul to a leading role, but Bob Odenkirk, with the help of Gilligan and Gould's writing, is able to unearth Saul's soul in a way previously unimaginable.  Jimmy McGill is a different man than Saul Goodman, not just in name but in sensibility.  Better Call Saul, at least so far, also feels more languid and deliberate than Breaking Bad.  Even at its slowest, the latter always had a ticking clock danger buried underneath the surface.  Saul doesn't have that, it just ambles by with its wry charm.  There's not even a very clear arc yet, but the individual moments are so entertaining that it's not hard to sink into the show's laconic vibes.

Still, there's an inevitable case of prequel-itis that this suffers from at times.  Jonathan Banks pops up a few times in the pilot, reprising his role as Mike, and feels extremely unnecessary to what's happening.  Surely, he'll tie into the story more as it moves along, but right now it feels like a cheap nod, their way of saying "hey look, another guy from Breaking Bad!"  An additional from Breaking Bad pops up at the very end of the pilot, and though he plays a bigger part than Mike, it still feels a little too cute.  All of the fanservice is easier to swallow because Gilligan and company have some terrific original creations too, most notably Saul's brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who seems to suffer from some strange aversion to electromagnetic waves.  McKean has been a wonderful character actor for decades -- including his recurring role on The X-Files, the show where Vince Gilligan cut his teeth -- and he's fantastic here as well.

AMC opted for a two-night premiere, airing the pilot Sunday after The Walking Dead in order to generate bigger lead-in numbers, and then showing the second episode on Monday night in its regular timeslot.  This process benefited the show not just because the first episode ends in a way that'll make any fan salivate for the next episode, but also because this second episode does an even better job of assuaging the fears one might have had going into this series.  "Mijo" is where the themes of Better Call Saul really start to take shape.  Where Breaking Bad was about a good man who slowly traded away his humanity for money and power, Saul is about a man who has done bad things in the past (as evidenced by his Slippin' Jimmy story) but is desperately trying to do the right thing.  I honestly wasn't expecting how emotional I got at certain points of "Mijo."  That's not to say that Breaking Bad was a cold show, but the pathos comes from a softer and ultimately different place on this one.

So after two episodes, I've gone from highly skeptical to fully onboard.  "Uno" and "Mijo" didn't light the world on fire, but they reassure any doubters that this is a team of people who know how to construct television.  Is Better Call Saul necessary?  No.  But it's nice to have it anyway.

Pilot grade: B
Second episode grade: B+

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Episode of the Week: Switched at Birth - "At the First Clear Word"

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

Season 4, Episode 5

I've had this blog for almost two years now, and in that time I've found that there are just some shows that are easy to write about.  I've written numerous times about series I love like Mad Men, Parenthood, and Bunheads, but even a show like The Walking Dead, which I mostly didn't care for until recently, inspires easily articulated thoughts.  Then there are shows that I enjoy quite a bit, like SundanceTV's Rectify, that I don't often cover because they're so hard to write about.  Two other shows that fall into that category -- The Fosters and Switched at Birth -- are ones that I've challenged myself to write a piece on in 2015.  Both shows are on ABC Family, and frequently achieve a greatness that's deserving of notice from people who generally don't look on that end of the dial for quality television, but I've just never been able to find an angle.  Luckily, The Fosters made it easy for me a few weeks ago with "Over/Under," and now Switched at Birth has its standout episode of 2015 with "At the First Clear Word."

Last week's "We Were So Close That Nothing Used to Stand Between Us" ended on quite the cliffhanger, as a hungover Bay woke up to find herself naked in Tank's bed with no memory of what occured the previous night.  I groaned when it happened in that episode, because it felt like a silly, melodramatic twist with the sole purpose of breaking up everybody's favorite ship.  But thankfully, "At the First Clear Word," digs its heels into the issue and makes the story more than just being about Bay cheating on Emmett.  In the wake of this shocking event, Bay looks to others for guidance, first considering Kathryn before deciding against it, then finally confiding in Tess.  But it isn't until she brings it up to Regina (by saying the story is about a friend) that the word "rape" gets mentioned, which really gets the ball rolling on this episode.  Once the idea is out there, it can't be forgotten, and Bay's perspective on the previous night is thrown into a greater cyclone of confusion.

With the help of others, flashes of the previous night come back to her, but she still can't remember what went down with Tank.  When she brings this up to him, and her uncertainty about whether their hookup was consensual, they each give their recollections of the night.  The ways in which they differ are tiny, but crucial in figuring out who was in the right.  Unfortunately, we don't know whose version is correct, or if neither is.

"At the First Clear Word" avoids feeling like A Very Special Episode because it's a debate, not a lecture.  It feels as if the show is genuinely trying to have a conversation with itself about the gray areas of consent.  Bay and Tank's argument gets to the heart of the matter at one point, when Tank assures Bay (and, in a way, himself) that "If you had said no at any point, then I would've stopped."  To which Bay says, "Did I say yes?"  "That's ridiculous.  What was I supposed to do, stop at every point and ask 'Do you want this?,' 'Do you want that?'  No, nobody does that," Tank retorts.  If a guy is sober and has sex with a completely drunk girl, that's not okay.  If a guy is a little tipsy and has sex with a girl who's blackout drunk, that's not cool either.  But where do we draw the line?  At what point do both parties become drunk enough that neither is culpable?  This is sticky, messy territory, and the episode fearlessly wades in it for answers that may never come.

Ultimately, I think Switched at Birth is taking Bay's side.  In fact, the episode starts to stack the deck against Tank, a little unfairly if you ask me.  (I'm very worried that this is a dumb male opinion to have.  Don't hurt me!)  Everybody takes Bay's side and is skeptical of Tank, which makes the audience skeptical of him too.  All of the "something doesn't feel right" and "trust your instinct" talk doesn't help his case too.  (Plus, how can we deny the power of the promotional hashtag, which flashes "#BaysInstinct" on the screen near the end?)  And the scene where Regina and Eric hook up near the end almost feels like the show is saying "See?  This is what true consent is, Tank!"  But it's clear from both his and Bay's flashbacks that the two of them were equally inebriated.

So it's probably going to end up that something fishy happened -- I don't know if the promos for next week spoil it, since I don't watch those.  And really, any answer will feel slightly unsatisfying, especially when the ambiguity created such compelling drama in this episode.  For now, though, we're left with that superb scene between Daphne and Bay, where Daphne encourages Bay to trust her gut, but Bay still can't shake her uncertainty.  It shouldn't be a surprise that a show that delves so deeply into deaf culture, while also touching on class and race, would skillfully tackle campus rape and matters of consent, but "At the First Clear Word" feels bold nonetheless.  I had been doubting this show's current quality, which was starting to get lapped by its former programming pair The Fosters, but this week proved that Switched at Birth still has a knockout episode or two up its sleeve.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Allegiance and Fresh Off the Boat

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.

Allegiance (NBC, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
Network television has a long and storied history of ripping off ideas from its cable counterparts.  Due to the long gestation process of the network development cycle, we usually get these cable knockoffs a few years after the genuine article, which just makes it even more laughable.  Who can forget the year we got The Playboy Club and Pan Am, two shows that tried to attack the Mad Men formula from different (and ultimately unsuccessful) angles?  But you don't even have to reach that far back in the memory bank -- just a few months ago, NBC gave us a diet version of Homeland in the form of the Katherine Heigl-led State of Affairs, which may or may not still be a show.

Well the network is back with Allegiance, another imitation, this time of FX's Cold War spy drama The Americans.  There are so many watered down elements from the latter in the former: the marital difficulties between Russian spies Katya (Hope Davis) and Mark (Scott Cohen) O'Connor aren't nearly as gripping as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings', the sexual intrigue is more soggy than steamy, and the plotting is more simple and direct.  This show adds its own awful, unneeded factor to the equation with the O'Connors' CIA analyst son Alex, who is gifted with a Sherlock Holmes-level intellect.  The setup is bad enough, but nothing else surrounding it helps, neither the stiff dialogue nor the downright awful score.  This is just a really bland episode of television -- they couldn't even make the mid-episode car chase exciting.
Grade: C-

Fresh Off the Boat (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
From the period specificity of The Goldbergs to the lower class nuance of The Middle to the clever and incisive racial observations of Black-ish, ABC has been getting quite good at developing comedies with very distinctive voices.  They have another personality-driven sitcom with Fresh Off the Boat, which is loosely based on the life of chef Eddie Huang (played as a middle schooler by Hudson Yang).  Specifically, the pilot picks up in 1995, just as the Huang family moves from Washington D.C. to Orlando, when Eddie's father Louis (Randall Park) opens up a failing steakhouse there.  Whenever the show goes ultra specific is when it resonates the most, as many of the best moments deal with the details of being an Asian American in the suburbs.  Young Eddie's love of rap music, which is drawn directly from Huang's real childhood, also shades his character nicely.  (Not to mention it allowing for the show to have a great soundtrack: Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G., etc.)

Fresh Off the Boat is run by Nahnatchka Khan, whose previous show Don't Trust the B... was a minor cult classic in certain corners of the internet, and she fits in some very good jokes and odd touches, like Eddie's classmate whose best friend is a 40 year old man.  The first episode is a setup-heavy premise pilot, but the second episode that aired an hour afterward gives a little more evidence of what the show will be like going forward.  Thankfully, the quality doesn't flag between the two.  Overall, this is a very cute and charming show.  Who knows whether it'll grow to be anything beyond that, but for now it's nice to have another edition in ABC's effort to acknowledge that white people aren't the only ones who inhabit this country. 
Pilot Grade: B
Second Episode Grade: B