Saturday, December 31, 2016

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 30, 2016

My 20 Favorite Films of 2016

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2016

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 25, 2016

50 Great Songs From 2016

On December 29th, my "20 Favorite Albums of 2016" list drops, but there's so much good music out there that one list couldn't fully represent what the year had to offer.  It's hard to make an album that's consistently great from start to finish, especially in an age where individual songs are given more and more importance.  So this list is intended to pay lip service to some great standalone songs.  All of these come from albums that won't be on my top 20 list, either because it's a great song on a mediocre album, or one on an album that's good but not quite good enough to crack the top tier.  So, without further ado, here's a list of fifty standalone songs, listed in alphabetical order (with one exception, I limited myself to one song per artist):

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A few thoughts on The Edge of Seventeen's fascinating protagonist

Reviews for The Edge of Seventeen have been overwhelmingly positive, with critics citing it as a classic teen movie, the first in a long time.  That's true, the film is fantastic and sure to be very high on my best-of list at the end of the year.  It's funny and heartbreaking, with a generous script that allows all of its characters to be fully formed and go through their own little arcs.  But at the center of it all is Nadine (played by Hailee Steinfeld), a perennial outsider still coping with the death of her father four years ago, who finds herself angry and alone when she breaks up with her best and only friend Krista after she starts dating Nadine's brother.  There's something that really stuck with me about Nadine's character and her journey, so I wanted to write some semi-scattered thoughts about her.

Nadine has many hateable qualities -- she's rude, impulsive, selfish, inconsiderate...the list goes on -- but I found myself loving how hateable the film was willing to make her.  There are a few questions I asked myself when trying to figure out if Nadine was a good protagonist: 1. Would this movie be better if she was more likable?  2. Is the film aware that she is unlikable?  Really, both are tied together, as it feels like the answer to the second answers the first as well.  The film is very aware of her unlikability.  It's very pointed and deliberate that every character in it tells Nadine that she's kind of a trash person at one point or another.  She's never treated like the hero, the way that alot of stories about teen outsiders would.  And I think that's why it's essential for her to be unlikable, because the entire story is about examining that unlikability.

I've seen some of the more negative reviews of The Edge of Seventeen that have made fun of the scene where Nadine goes on a rant to her teacher (an amusingly cantankerous Woody Harrelson) about how much she isn't like the other girls at school, how she likes old music and movies.  But all of that trite special snowflake garbage isn't an endorsement of Nadine, it's the film pointing out a clear defense mechanism of hers.  She presents herself as different from her peers as an excuse to not have to make any real connections.  (It also creates some hilarious irony, because as much as she tries to argue for her uniqueness and inner coolness, she still has a crush on the lamest, most cliche mysterious boy ever.)

A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine who didn't like the film as much as I did.  She's a little bit younger than I am, so Nadine is more of a peer to her, and one of my friend's big issues with the film is that there are many moments where Nadine acts in ways that no teenage girl ever would.  So she felt like it was frustrating that this film that was touted as "THE movie for this generation" would get so many details of what it's like to be a teen girl wrong.  I thought she brought up some very astute points and I'm certainly not an authority on this matter, so I can't really speak to Nadine's realism as a teenage girl, but I found her intensely relateable at times.

More than anything, Nadine seems like a deeply angry person, and something about that anger resonated with me.  I'm not as mean as she is, but that feeling of always being so angry all the time hit so close to home.  Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, with the help of a terrific performance Hailee Steinfeld, does such a wonderful job of sketching out the way she masks feelings of pain and insecurity with anger and careless comments.  It's a delicate and difficult thing to do, but you could always recognize the thousands of complicated emotions nested under her mean surface.  In a weird way, even when Nadine's actions aren't understandable, that lack of being understandable feels understandable.

And though it's never quite explicitly stated in such terms, it seems that Nadine is suffering from anger and depression issues that go beyond simple adolescent angst or even grief from the death of her father.  I think it's telling and crucial that four years have already passed after her dad's death when the film starts.  Not to say that four years is enough to completely get over something like a parent's death, but that detail -- plus the flashbacks showing that she's always been sullen, standoffish, and angry -- indicates that her problems existed regardless of the tragedy in her life.  Her father's death merely exacerbated them.  Another key moment is when we see her taking a pill and we learn a few scenes later that it was an anti-depressant when she explains it to Erwin, the nerdy guy who has a crush on her.  She explains that they were given to her because of her dad's death, and then she remarks "usually people only take it for like a month..."  It's an exaggeration to try to downplay the fact that she's on medication, but she also brings up a good point.  If this medication was solely given to her to cope with the aftermath of her father's death, would she still be taking it four years later?

There are even tiny little aspects of her character that point to deeper issues, like the fact that she offhandedly jokes about suicide three different times in the film.  Sure, adolescence is typically characterized with melodrama but the frequent suicide references, even in a casual manner, is something that felt very recognizable as a fellow depressive type.  The big emotional moment comes near the end of the film when Nadine reconciles with her brother revealing the intense self-loathing that she's been holding in.  "Sometimes I feel like I'm floating outside of myself...and I hate what I see."  It's a devastating scene, one that really seems to cross off the last slot on the mental illness bingo card.

Whether my possible crackpot theory is off or not, what I'm saying is that it's interesting and daring that the film makes Nadine so messed up and doesn't run away from it.  That's why if I do have one gripe with the film, it's that the ending feels a little too pat.  I would have much preferred if it concluded in a way that mirrored Erwin's short film, with her finally coming to her senses and him rejecting her because she's too late.  Or would that have felt too on the nose?  Maybe, but it would have done a better job of cutting down the simplistic "Nadine came to terms with her issues and now she's nice and thoughtful and happy" impression of the ending we get.  Still, that's one little blemish on an otherwise sublime film.  I don't know if it's the essential movie of this generation, but it did feel like a movie specifically for me.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Halt and Catch Fire takes another huge leap in its stunning third season

Back when Halt and Catch Fire arrived in 2014, many critics cited Mad Men as a clear influence and criticized the show for not coming close to that mark.  Whether or not that comparison was accurate in the first place, it's ironic that after the show's beautiful, riveting third season it's clear Halt is the heir apparent to Mad Men.  And it's not just the fact that both are period workplace dramas.  It's because no other show has that distinct spark that Mad Men did, where it could be warm, funny, intense, and heartbreaking all at the same time.  (The Americans, for example, is another one of the best shows on TV, but while it has nuance and subtlety to its writing, it's not exactly a "fun" show.)  When I see these characters interact, with all of their history and flaws and complexities laid out there on the table, I can't help but be reminded of Mad Men.

And yes, Halt and Catch Fire is excellent as a workplace drama as well.  Because it doesn't have death and violence to fall back on the way other dramas do, it has to rely on making the simple act of work thrilling, which it does with great skill.  The show, and its third season especially, focuses on ideas and the value that its characters place on those ideas.  To watch Halt and Catch Fire is to watch a show about smart, capable people with strong notions navigate the conflicts that arise when their vision clashes with the visions of others.

No relationship displays that thesis better than the one between Donna and Cameron.  Part of the reason why the show made such a leap in quality from season one to season two was because of the pivot that made Donna and Cameron the quasi lead characters.  Watching these different but ultimately complimentary people come together and develop a powerful bond over the course of last season was such a joy to behold.  Somehow, season three was just as big of a leap in quality, primarily because the Donna and Cameron relationship as well.  If season two gave the fans what they wanted by bringing them together, season three was crushing in the way that it slowly drove them apart.

It all started when they had to take in a new duo to bring Swap Meet to life, where Mutiny users could complete monetary transactions with other users.  Cameron wanted to fire the guys shortly after they joined but Donna, fearing that it was a rash and unwise decision, crafted a lie to make Cameron believe that their new benefactor Diane (Annabeth Gish) wouldn't allow the firing.  This decision was the catalyst for the slow motion car crash of fights, resentments, and maneuvering that occurred in the second half of the season.  It didn't truly set in with me how excellently the writers constructed this conflict until I read people debating about it in comment sections.  The more I read, the less consensus there was on who was in the right.  That's because the story allowed for both parties to be equally right and wrong.  Cameron can often act like a petulant, self-centered child, but Donna has a habit of making decisions for others and justifying it under the guise of well-meaning paternalism.  Each viewer may have their preference -- I'm generally more Team Donna -- but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is one of the most even-handed and compelling television conflicts in a long time.

The Donna and Cameron schism is a microcosmic version of what makes Halt and Catch Fire so engaging: it's about ultimately good people trying to do their best.  In the vein of great, humane dramas like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, nobody on this show is trying to deliberately hurt anyone, it's just that their wants and needs don't always mesh with others'.  Cameron just wants her creation to remain pure and uncompromised and Donna just wants to be recognized as a talented and vital part of Mutiny in her own right.  Both are doing what they think is right for the company, which makes their inability to reconcile those differences all the more devastating.

Halt delivered the emotional death blow in its two-hour finale on Tuesday.  This is a show that has always been willing to take radical turns, from making Donna and Cameron the main characters to transporting the whole gang to Silicon Valley for season three.  The finale was no different, as the first hour quickly revealed that the show had leapt four years ahead to 1990.  Having been scattered to the winds after we last saw them in 1986, the core four are brought back together when Donna presents an idea for what would be the beginning stages of the world wide web.  It's an exciting finale for a number of reasons, partly because it's so nice to see Joe, Gordon, Cameron, and Donna bounce ideas of each other.  But it's mostly satisfying because it finally brings Cameron and Donna together to make amends and work with each other again.  Or at least it appears, until Cameron utters a devastating five-word gutpunch -- "I can't work with you" -- after Donna offhandedly mentions that they can get rid of Joe if that would make Cameron happier.

The season leaves us with Donna walking away from the group and leaving Joe, Gordon, and Cameron to run with the world wide web idea.  For anyone who has grown to love these people and want nothing more for them to get along, it's a depressing ending.  Up until very recently, it wasn't certain whether Halt and Catch Fire would be back for another season.  Despite the growing fervor for the show from the critical community, the ratings are horrible.  Thankfully, the show's renewal for a fourth and final season was announced shortly before the finale, because I wouldn't have been able to live with leaving on the note season three ends on.  If you would have told me two years ago I wouldn't have believed it, but Halt and Catch Fire has become an astonishing, essential show.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 5 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

American Housewife (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:30 PM)
Yikes.  Formerly known as The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport -- although with the amount of times that phrase is uttered  in the pilot, they might as well have kept that name -- American Housewife feels like flat soda comedy.  You can kind of recognize a version of this show that's much better, but everything about its current incarnation feels off.  There's a causticness to main character Katie (Katy Mixon) and her quest to not fall too far down the social ladder in her upper crust suburb, but there's no voice or point of view to it.  I'm an eternal optimist and I was planning to stick with this show no matter what, given the fact that creator Sarah Dunn is a Bunheads alum and I've liked Katy Mixon in the past, but this was so bad I can't continue watching.  Where were the laughs in this pilot?
Grade: C-

Divorce (HBO, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Sharon Horgan has already showed that she knows her way around the ins and outs of marriage with her and Rob Delaney's hilarious and sweet comedy Catastrophe.  In her new HBO show Divorce, it looks like she's trying her hand at fast forwarding things a bit, examining the dissolution of the marriage between Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church).  The pilot has a healthy dose of funny moments, largely from the same kind of acerbic dialogue that Horgan does so well on Catastraphe, but it feels a little too flabby and airless as a whole.  Part of that comes from the fact that it's hard to be too invested in the end of a relationship when we're introduced to it at the point right before it all crumbles.  Still, the final moments indicate that we're in for some delicious, acidic material, not just a story about a post-divorce self-discovery.  I would expect nothing less from Horgan.
Grade: B

Insecure (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 PM)
This has been a great fall for unapologetically black TV.  In just a span of a few weeks, we've gotten Atlanta, Queen Sugar, and Luke Cage -- shows that aren't afraid to exist outside of white spaces, offering a perspective on the experience of being black in America in ways that we rarely see.  HBO's newest comedy Insecure, partially based on creator Issa Rae's web series Awkward Black Girl, is another example of this refreshing trend.  In some ways, it's in line with the bounty of slice of life comedies that this television age has given us.  Much of first episode "Insecure As Fuck" centers around Issa and her best friend Molly, as they navigate the choppy waters of their professional and romantic lives.  But Insecure is also a slice from a completely different pie, and the new ingredients and flavors it brings are what make it special.  There's a livewire, offbeat sense of humor to the writing by Rae and co-writer/executive producer Larry Wilmore.  When it comes to the more dramatic and thoughtful moments, the show handles those deftly as well, examining the nuance of what it means to be an educated black woman in 2016.  HBO has been an embarrassingly white network in the past, so hopefully quality programming like this will represent a sea change for them.
Grade: B+

Friday, October 7, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 4 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

Conviction (ABC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Hayley Atwell is above Conviction. She's got endless charm and charisma, none of which she gets to use in this show. She's got a fantastic British accent, which she doesn't get to use in this show. She's just an all-around great actor, but you wouldn't know it from this show. Really, the only thing Conviction seems to know is that Hayley Atwell has large breasts. In this stinker, she plays the daughter of a former US president who now leads the Conviction Integrity Unit, a group of lawyers, detectives, and forensics experts who help wrongly accused individuals. If that sounds too convoluted, then don't worry, the fact that she's a former First Daughter plays no role in this pilot. Conviction comes off like it's trying to emulate the slick, stylish tone of a Shonda Rhimes show, but it doesn't realize that for all their flaws, Shonda shows are never as boring and straightforward as this is. Let's hope this sucker gets cancelled quickly so Hayley Atwell can move on to better things.
Grade: C-

Frequency (CW, Wednesdays at 9:00 PM)
It's a little weird to have made Frequency into a TV show.  If its plot, about a woman (Peyton List -- no, the other one) communicates with her dead father 20 years in the past via an old ham radio, feels like it's better suited for a movie, that's because it already was one in 2000.  Weirder still is that it's on The CW, since it doesn't quite fall on either side of the genre show (Arrow, The Vampire Diaries) or offbeat dramedy (Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) binary.  But either way, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed this pilot.  Bolstered by a terrific, assured performance from List, the moments of Raimy Sullivan interacting with her father will tug even the stiffest heartstrings.  And the idea that Raimy knowing the details of her father's murder allows her to try to help him avoid it is an interesting setup.  However, somewhere around the halfway point the strong legs holding the show up begin to buckle, as the episode wanders away from that central idea and goes wild with its butterfly effect ramifications.  There's still a chance that the show could turn itself back around, but low ratings for the premiere indicate it won't have much time to do so.
Grade: B-

No Tomorrow (CW, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Between Jane the Virgin two years ago and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend last year, the CW is on a hot streak with their non-genre shows, so No Tomorrow has alot to live up to.  It doesn't quite meet that high bar, at least not yet.  Tori Anderson is a little bland as Evie, a woman who decides to make an "apocalist" when her path crosses with a man who genuinely believes the world is going to end in about 8 months.  And despite that corker of a premise, it doesn't feel as special or stylistically unique as Jane or Crazy-Ex.  Still, it's got a breezy zaniness to it that's very charming.  Creator Corinne Brinkerhoff used to write for Jane the Virgin and she brings some her sensibilities to the pilot's handful of very funny gags, including one involving Evie's milquetoast ex-boyfriend who speaks so softly his dialogue occasionally has to be subtitled.  (Another one including a pogo stick is too hilarious to spoil.)  This grew on me more and more as it went along.  Let's hope the whole show has the same trajectory.
Grade: B

Timeless (NBC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
NBC's Timeless is deeply silly stuff.  This is a show where a team consisting of a historian (Abigail Spencer), a soldier (Matt Lanter), and a scientist (Malcolm Barrett) use a time machine to attempt to stop a criminal with another time machine who's hopping around the space-time continuum trying to change American history.  Luckily, the show is in good enough hands -- Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural) are co-creators, while Neil Marshall directed the pilot -- that it moves along at a rapid enough speed that you just kind of go with it.  There's a flailing, hurried quality to everything in the show, which is both a good and bad quality.  Mostly though, the pilot is a fun time, despite how daffy and convoluted it all is.  One of the most interesting things Ryan and Kripke have said is that they don't plan on getting bogged down in serialization, preferring to have the episodes function mostly as time-travel-of-the-week standalones.  Refreshing, if true, but judging from what we've seen so far, I'm skeptical of whether they can keep that promise.
Grade: B

Westworld (HBO, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
On paper, Westworld seemed like a sure bet all the way: big budget, airing on HBO, co-created by Jonathan Nolan, an absolutely stacked cast.  But things seemed dicey for a while as word of production issues got out and the show was delayed over and over.  I really wanted this to be good and I'm relieved to report, at least for now, that I'm very happy with it.  Based on the 1973 film of the same name penned by Michael Crichton, Westworld tells the story of a futuristic theme park where guests pay large sums of money to inhabit a world populated by extremely lifelike androids called "Hosts" and play out the numerous scenarios that have been programmed for them.  Nolan is right in his wheelhouse here.  He loves the kind of twisty puzzle box plotting that's on display, and the pilot proceeds with an elegance and grace of someone who is right at home with the material.  The episode constantly upends itself, veering away from expectations and pulling out to reveal another layer folded around what we previously knew the story to be.

"The Original" leaves the viewer with alot of questions, but not the frustrating kind.  It's the kind that indicates the show has set up an interesting world and dramatic blueprint that fosters that specific questioning.  And the episode doesn't just raise questions about its mysteries, it probes the audience with questions about what it means to be human.  If we create beings and only select the attributes we want from humanity, is it inevitable that they'll also develop the attributes we don't want?  Is committing violence upon the Hosts truly harmless?  Where do we draw the line between human and inhuman?  These are the things Westworld is truly interested in.

I also love how the process of maintaining Westworld the theme park feels alot like the process of running a TV show.  It's not a coincidence that the scientists overseeing the park make so much mention of "characters" and "storylines."  It's a delicate balance, just like television.  So many moving and interlocking parts -- if one thing goes wrong, everything is thrown out of whack.  There's a great moment where one of the programmers who writes the Hosts' dialogue is excited to see a new speech he created for a character, but then one of the visitors shoots him before he can deliver it.  It feels alot like a writer getting his or her favorite lines cut in the showrunner's final pass at the script. There are even more overt nods too, as Evan Rachel Wood's Host character gets described by a scientist as "a hooker with hidden depths."  How many times have we heard that archetype, even on HBO?

If there's one complaint so far it's that the story feels a little too on rails, much like the Hosts who unknowingly play out the same arcs over and over.  That's the flipside of Nolan's careful precision -- you can time the moments where things slowly being to go wrong to a tee, which can make it all feel slightly soulless.  Still, this was an exciting and suitably creepy hour-plus of television.  More than pretty much any other new show this year, I'm excited to see where this one goes.
Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The creators of Jules and Monty strike gold again with Pantheon University

Two years ago, I wrote about Jules and Monty, a web series created by Tufts University drama students Ed Rosini and Imogen Browder along with help from many of their friends in the theater department.  Jumping off of the craze at the time of people making YouTube adaptations of literary works, they wrote a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, but set in college and formatted as a series of vlogs.  If you haven't watched it yet, do so immediately because it's an absolute joy and the tragic ending haunted me for at least a week after finishing it.  What awed me the most about Jules and Monty was here were these college students only a year or two younger than me making an adaptation that was better than similar web series with 10 times the budget.  It was enough to make me think, "I'll watch anything these people create until the end of time."

Which is what I did when they released their follow-up the next year, a series called Wave Jacked about a group of students who band together to try to put on an old-time radio play on their college's premiere station.  Rosini, Browder, and their Neat-O Productions group could've tried to keep reliving the magic of Jules and Monty over and over, but this was a refreshing departure in many ways.  For one, it was an original work instead of an adaptation, and it wasn't done in vlog format.  But it was also such an odd, unclassifiable little story, blending gentle comedy with surreal elements with semi-spooky noir.  Judging from the view count for the series, it's not as beloved as Jules and Monty, and I still prefer the latter as well, but it's hard not to be taken by the sprawling charm of Wave Jacked.  There's a unique sense of life in the series, and you can tell it was a personal work for the creators.  (You could almost read the story, which is about a bunch of college kids scraping their resources together to put on a show, as a meta-commentary on Rosini and Browder's creative pursuits.)

Earlier this year they announced Pantheon University, their final project together, as most of the crew involved with producing these series were in their final year of college.  Pantheon would be a return to adaptations in a way, but for this series they were reimagining Greek gods and goddesses, and the myths surrounding them, in a modern college setting.  This time around they seized a different trend, the method of releasing all 13 episodes at once, like many shows that premiere on streaming services.  But they added an extra wrinkle: aside from the finale, the episodes were designed so they could be watched in any order (though there is a recommended sequence, which is how I watched it).  Despite the fact that all of this sounded extremely exciting to me and I loved their previous work, I didn't immediately watch it when it was released in April.  Maybe it's because I knew this was going to be the last series from this group of people and I didn't want to say goodbye.  Maybe it's because I'm horrible at watching things when every episode is presented to me at once.  But either way, the tab stayed on my browser for months while I constantly told myself, "I'll get to it soon."

Well I finally made good on my promise to myself and checked out Pantheon University, and I'm happy to report that it's Neat-O Productions' most complex, intelligent, and creative work yet.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, there's not one concrete story to Greek mythology, which allows them to pick and choose from an array of characters and tales.  As a result, they're able to get more ambitious and freewheeling with their storytelling.  And that sense of playfulness takes the series to interesting places structurally as well.  The idea that these little short stories can be watched in any order gives Pantheon University a wild, massive feeling.  There are references to events that make more sense a few episodes later, subtle arcs that build in the cracks and corners of the story, and an expanding and shrinking sense of time.  After watching the series all the way through once or twice, you can map out the sequential order of every single thing that happens if you truly want to, but it also works if you think of the show as a fascinating Mobius strip where all the events just occur freely and the timeline bends back on itself.

There's such an astonishing breadth to Pantheon when taken as a whole.  Though there is a throughline to the story, each episode functions so well as its own discrete short story with varying themes and filmmaking styles.  There's an episode that's shot as a simulated unbroken take, a choose-your-own-adventure episode, a mockumentary episode, a musical episode, and so much more.  And they're not just stylistic switch-ups for the sake of stylistic switch-ups -- the form always matches the content for each character.

I'm also impressed by the clever ways in which the series translates these characters to a real-world, modern context.  Some the choices feel like a natural extension of what we know about these gods and goddesses (Zeus is the president of the college's most popular frat, Ares is a hothead), but many of them take an extra step that at once seems fresh and logical (Aphrodite runs a campus hookup site, Hades' underworld takes the form of the university's underground radio station).  Best of all, these stories are able to maintain Greek mythology's overarching theme of gods meddling in the lives of others' because it makes sense that a group of young people in the same social circles would be this invested in what's going on with the people around them.

If you're not an expert on Greek myths, don't fret.  I was a little bit rusty too.  (Though if you're like me, watching these episodes will cause you to read through the Wikipedia pages of each of these gods and goddesses.)  These stories work because they're compelling, not just because they're riffing on ancient myths.  Take the Aphrodite episode for example, which tells the story of her romance with Ares.  In this episode, we're introduced to Cupid's Bow, the algorithm-based hookup site that Aphrodite runs to help her peers find someone to have sex with.  In voiceover narration, she describes the rules she and the site live by: no romance, no repeat matchups, and the use of protection is mandatory.  When she begins using Cupid's Bow for her own purposes, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Ares.  Despite the surface differences between the two of them, along with the ethical gray area of her rigging her own system to get repeatedly matched with the same person, Aphrodite and Ares fit together.  It's a fascinating angle from which to approach this story.  This is a woman who lives by a code, and watching her reckon with something that causes her to question her convictions is really interesting stuff.

Of course, knowing more about these myths enriches the experience.  The Hades episode is perhaps the best example of this.  It's a re-telling of the story of Orpheus' trip to the underworld to save Eurydice, but it also touches upon Hades' relationship with Persephone, mirroring these two sets of separated lovers.  When I first watched it, my foggy memory caused me to not quite register the myth they were tackling with Orpheus, and I still enjoyed the episode.  But on my second viewing, after I familiarized myself with the story again, I absolutely loved it.  In particular, the way that they handle the end of Orpheus and Eurydice's story in a non-supernatural way almost makes it more moving and resonant than the original version.

All of these semi-standalone stories culminate in a satisfying finale that displays an excellent control on the scope of the series, wrapping up every character's arc beautifully.  That cumulative power of the series is really overwhelming once you take a step back and get the full view of this mosaic of complex, soulful little narratives.  Jules and Monty might be Neat-O Productions' most famous work, but Pantheon University should be the one they're most proud of. 

Both Jules and Monty and Wave Jacked had a series of "Vlog Vlog"s, which is what they called their behind-the-scenes production videos, to go along with the actual episodes.  They were funny, entertaining, informative, and in my opinion, essential viewing.  So it makes me a little sad that there aren't any for Pantheon University (although they promised it would happen, so maybe one day? Please???).  It makes me even more sad that this is the last series we will see from Browder, Rosini and the rest of the gang, but what a high note to go out on.

Highlight episodes
1. Dionysus
This episode centers around Dionysus, a director in the drama department, as he struggles to concoct his magnum opus.  A perfect example of form matching content, the installment is told in the style of a musical and it's absolutely delightful.  This is the episode that really made me sit up and recognize the brilliance of the series.  It's incredibly funny, the songs are catchy, but it's also a dreamy, thoughtful rumination on the creative process.  If you watch Pantheon University in the recommended order, then this episode arrives at about halfway through the series, which is the perfect placement for it.  It's the one that has least amount of impact on the overall plot of the story and yet it deftly comments on everything we've seen or will see in the other episodes.  You can tell everyone involved put everything they had into this episode.

2. Hera
In my Jules and Monty review a couple of years ago, I mentioned Imogen Browder's excellent performance as Juliet as the highlight of the series, and she once again delivers as Hera.  She's just an amazing talent, bringing a sense of life and reality to a character who could've been painted in much simpler terms.  This episode depicts the complexities of Zeus and Hera's long-term relationship, tracking their meeting in freshman year all the way up to the events that occur in Zeus' episode in their senior year.  Compressing such a long passage of time allows you to see all the rhythms and phases of long-term coupledom right next to each other, from the initial stages of bliss, to the rough patches, to the sustained sense of comfort.  And it's not just the acting that carries the episode -- there's a skillfulness and subtlety to the writing that shows the way that Hera has been defined by her relationship with Zeus ("I don't know what college is like without him," she says at one point) while still making her a three-dimensional character.

3. Hephaestus
This episode features alot of classic story ideas thrown into a blender together in a way that I've never really seen before.  Part of it is a sci-fi story in the vein of Ex Machina, about man (in this case, computer programmer Hephaestus) pushing science and technology too far (creating an artificial intelligence program and trying to trick others into thinking it's human).  There's also a little bit of something like You've Got Mail as it tells a story about the budding friendship between Hephaestus and Hera.  It's a charming and sweet episode that also has a nice tinge of melancholy to it.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 3 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

Bull (CBS, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
I hope you weren't fooled by the two A- grades that were dished out in the first week.  The new network shows are here in full force and that's when Pilot Talk truly kicks in, baby!  And boy does it ever with Bull, one of CBS' latest gussied up procedurals about a firm that uses pseudoscience to calculate the outcomes of trials and help their clients win cases.  Like Rake and House and many more before it, Bull is one of the shows that focuses on the titular man (in this case, Dr. Jason Bull) whose strong personality provides the gravitational force for everything that proceeds.  Unfortunately, the character and the actor who plays him (Michael Weatherly) are the absolute worst.  Every line is said with a cocked eyebrow, like he's fighting the urge to look at the camera and wink.  As a whole, the show is so self-satisfied, from its flat quips to the tech talk that sounds like it was written by your dad.  Bull tries to exude cool, but at every turn it comes off like a phony.
Grade: D+

Designated Survivor (ABC, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
All of the promos made Designated Survivor out to be one of those shows that bursts out of the gate in the first episode, but then proceeds to fall apart afterwards.  So it's not a good sign that even the pilot wasn't as exciting as I thought it would be.  That's not to say it's all bad.  In fact, there's quite a bit to like about this episode, which centers on the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Keifer Sutherland) who must rise to the occasion when a bombing at the Capitol kills the President and the rest of the Cabinet, leaving him as the next in the line of succession.  It does a great job of placing you in Secretary Kirkman's shoes, as we're often shown the chaos of these events from his direct POV.  You can always count on Keifer Sutherland to deliver gravitas, and he undeniably carries the show, especially later in the episode when his character reveals himself to be better suited for the job than many would've thought.  Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was just a little too soulless.  It was supposed to be propulsive, but it just seemed to be incapable of reaching top speed.
Grade: B-

The Exorcist (Fox, Fridays at 9:00 PM)
The growing trend seems to be TV studios just throwing darts at random popular films and deciding to make a show out of them.  It hasn't been overwhelmingly successful, but maybe Fox's hope is that they'll land on something with a reinterpretation of the classic William Friedkin horror film The Exorcist.  The show follows Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), a priest who has been having dreams featuring a mysterious man (Ben Daniels) performing some kind of exorcism on a boy who seems possessed.  When Angela Rance (Geena Davis), one of his parishioners, reaches out to him about mysterious disturbances occurring at her house since her eldest daughter returned home from college, he decides to try to find this man and enlist his help.  Tomas isn't very interesting so far, but all of the scenes focusing on the Rance family are quite compelling.  The pilot sets up an interesting dynamic that mirrors the original film's, where you're unsure whether Katherine, who took leave from school after her friend died in an accident, is acting strange out of grief or some sort of possession.  There's a grim, moody patience that the episode moves along with, which helps scenes build tension.  It also contains some surprises that have me hopeful that it could take a step up in quality.
Grade: B

The Good Place (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 PM)
This pilot begins with Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) waking up in an unfamiliar location with no memory of how she got there.  A man then explains that she's died and is in  The Good Place, an afterlife haven where only the select few who lived the most virtuous lives can spend eternity.  But here's the thing: there was a mix-up and Eleanor is actually an awful person who doesn't belong there.  That's a high concept for a comedy that other writers might crumble under.  However, the great Mike Schur (who brings along many of his Parks & Recreation writers) is just the guy for the job, and he handles that setup as well as you can imagine.  The first episode can get a little heavy on the info-dumping, as the logic and rules of The Good Place get established, but it still manages to be funny and brisk throughout .  And it helps that the show is led by Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, who are inveterate delights.  Bell's post-Veronica Mars career hasn't been as artistically promising as it should have been, but her work here reminds you just how terrific she is.

If a show about a bad person feels odd for Mike Schur, then it'll make sense when it quickly reveals itself to be about a bad person learning to be good.  There's no learning needed for The Good Place itself though; this one is doing all the right things already.  It's laying out some interesting ideas about the way the afterlife works, it has already taken some wacky turns, and it has given some nice texture to Eleanor.  Things can only go up from here.
Grade: B+

Kevin Can Wait (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 PM)
Poor Erinn Hayes.  She was absolutely hilarious as Dr. Lola Spratt for seven seasons on Childrens Hospital, and she's generally delightful whenever she pops up on a show or in a movie.  I only want the best for her.  Kevin Can Wait, Kevin James' return to CBS, is far from the best.  In this generic sitcom that feels like middle-tier material from the late 90s, James plays a recently retired cop and Hayes is his put-upon wife.  I'd tell you more about show, but you can probably accurately guess the other ingredients with a small margin of error.  There are three kids, James' character doesn't approve of his eldest daughter's boyfriend, there's a goofy uncle, and so on.  For the first few minutes, Kevin Can Wait seems pretty harmless.  It's not funny, but it's not offensive either (one of Erinn Hayes' line deliveries even made me smile a little!).  But after a while, that mediocrity begins to pile up and I finally threw my hands up and decided I hated this pilot.
Grade: D+

Lethal Weapon (Fox, Wednesdays at 8:00 PM)
Here's another TV show based on a popular film from more than two decades ago.  This time the dart landed on the buddy cop series Lethal Weapon, which stars Damon Wayans as the "too old for this shit" Roger Murtaugh and Clayne Crawford as the plays-by-his-own-rules Martin Riggs.  Featuring direction from McG and writing from Matt Miller (Chuck, Human Target), the pilot is a slick, fun little jaunt.  The procedural case, involving a man whose murder was made to look like a suicide, is a little generic, but that's to be expected.  What really matter in shows like these are the beats in between the crime-solving, and Lethal Weapon delivers ample flavor in that regard, thanks to Crawford and Wayans' entertaining chemistry.  This is a show I won't be watching weekly because I imagine it will always stay in this gear, but if this is your kind of thing, I highly recommend it.
Grade: B

MacGuyver (CBS, Fridays at 8:00 PM)
Studios aren't just about making shows based on movies, sometimes they make shows based on older shows.  MacGuyver may be a new version of the 1985-1992 series of the same name, but it's not exactly modern.  In fact it seems distinctly targeted towards older people -- it is a CBS show after all -- as it goes through so much trouble to over-explain everything.  Whether its through MacGuyver's (Lucas Till) excessive voiceover narration or the unnecessary chyrons on the screen that explain things like "adhesive tape" and "paper clip" to you.  At least it has a springy vibe to keep things from getting too dull.
Grade: C

Notorious (ABC, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
What happens when you cross a bad lawyer show with a worse version of The Newsroom?  Well, Notorious is what you get.  I feel sorry for anyone who had to write 800 words about this empty show.
Grade: C-

Pitch (Fox, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
Critics have been using Friday Night Lights as a point of comparison when talking about this new Fox drama about Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury in a star-making turn), the first woman to play for an MLB team.  And that makes sense in terms of how unrealistic and goofy both can be when getting into the nitty gritty details about their respective sports.  The main character throws 10 straight balls (3 of which are wild pitches) in her first major league start!  Her specialty pitch is a screwball!  Jokes aside, this was a great first episode, one that's in contention for being the best network pilot of the fall.  Dan Fogelman (Galavant, Crazy. Stupid. Love) co-wrote this pilot, and he brings alot of his signature spark and wit to the episode.  He deconstructs sports narrative cliches -- the rousing motivational speech, the fierce rival, etc. -- but he's also not afraid to embrace its cheesiness.  Some may not be able to stomach the level of cheese this pilot provides, from its schmaltzy flashbacks to its inspirational tone, but those who can will find that it offers unique delights.

And there is a refreshingly low level of antagonism compared to what you'd expect from a show with this premise.  There are some players on the team who are annoyed by the main characters' presence, and one who especially seems to have it out for her, but it doesn't feel like the whole world is against her.  It's that kind of smart decision-making that puts it ahead of many other new shows.  Plus it already has two strong relationships going for it: the tenuous camaraderie between Ginny and her superstar catcher (Mark Paul Gosselaar), along with the intense dynamic with Ginny and her father.  Who knows if Pitch can satisfy as a sports show, but the strength of the character dynamics is what gives it such great potential.
Grade: B+

Speechless (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 PM)
ABC has been trying their hand at diversifying their family sitcoms with great results, as it has given us Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, two of the best network comedies on the air.  This time around, they're applying their "it's an ABC family sitcom but _________" formula and putting "with a disabled child" in the blank with Speechless.  And once again, it seems like they've landed on a hit.  The pilot not only differentiates itself by offering an insight into living with a disability -- the title comes from the fact that son J.J. has cerebral palsy that renders him unable to speak -- but it also isn't afraid to be a little cruel.  The DiMeo family has a mean edge to them, but not in the over-the-top way that some family sitcoms go for -- there's still clearly alot of love there.  Though we may not know what it's like to be in a family where someone has a disability, there's a quality to their interactions that feels genuine.  And most importantly, the show is funny.  It spreads the wealth around, giving everyone in the cast, even the kids, an opportunity for comedy.  After watching Kevin Can Wait, it's nice to know I still have the ability to laugh.
Grade: B+

This is Us (NBC, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
One of the biggest surprises of becoming an adult is how much I've grown to love goopy, touchy feely dramas.  I've especially been missing Parenthood lately, the best goopy, touchy feely drama there ever was, so NBC's This is Us has arrived right on time.  I was convinced that I loved this sappy, sensitive drama about a set of disparate people seemingly only connected by the fact that it's all of their 36th birthdays in the first few minutes too.  It turns out I was tricked by the fact that Sufjan Stevens' "Should've Known Better" was playing under the early scenes and I just love the song, no the show.  But I do like it, and could end up liking it even more with time.  There are some missteps in this pilot, namely the fact that it defines Kate (Chrissy Metz) solely by the fact that she's overweight and hates it.  Despite that, the first episode works thanks to the sharp writing of Dan Fogelman, who reunites with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, his collaborators on the very underrated romantic comedy Crazy. Stupid. Love.  By now, you've probably heard about a big twist that the episode ends on, and it's certainly an interesting one.  But this one would be worth sticking with even if it didn't include that extra wrinkle.
Grade: B

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 2 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

High Maintenance (HBO, Fridays at 11:00 PM)
High Maintenance already existed as a web series on Vimeo, releasing 19 episodes between 2012 and 2015 (all of which are now available on HBO Go), so technically it's not a new show.  But the new HBO series can be watched and enjoyed if you, like myself, have never seen the Vimeo episodes.  In fact, this pilot might even be more enjoyable if you have no experience with the show, because its vibe and structure feels so alien that watching it for the first time is a thrilling thing to behold.  It's about a nameless pot dealer -- credits refer to him as The Guy -- in New York but that premise, based on what I gather from this first episode and stuff I've read about the web series, is just a jumping off point to tell small stories about the people whose lives he briefly intersects with.  If you add it up, the "main character" probably appears in less than half of this first episode, which is pretty crazy and fascinating.  And this approach to storytelling adds for a tonal variation that other shows can't achieve as naturally.  The first half of the episode is a wildly funny interlude about a weird and aggressive client who won't let The Guy leave after he's delivered his weed, while the second is an ultimately tragic tale about a client who almost escapes his cycle of drug abuse only to be dragged back by the toxic people in his life.  I'm not even sure if I truly have a handle on the shape of High Maintenance, but I already know I love it.  Time to go back and watch the web series.
Grade: A-

Son of Zorn (Fox, Sundays at 8:30 PM)
There's something inherently funny and silly about seeing an animated character in the middle of a live-action world.  Fox seems to think so too, since they've brought the idea to life with Son of Zorn, a show about an animated warrior (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) who returns to Orange County in order to reconnect with the live-action family he abandoned.  Unfortunately, this feels like an Adult Swim series without the aggressive weirdness that occasionally makes those shows pop.  What we're left with is a kind of bland comedy that trades on the old "screw-up tries to win his family back" idea.  This is one that could go either way -- it can either stay in this safe mode or shake off the shackles of its pilot-ness.  The interesting reveal at the end has me hoping for the latter.
Grade: B-

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 1 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

Atlanta (FX, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
Given how much of a name he has made for himself as an actor and as rapper, it's easy to forget that Donald Glover came up as a writer, landing a job on the 30 Rock writing staff when he was just in his mid 20s.  Atlanta, the FX show he left Community to focus on, is a quick reminder to the world how much of a talented writer he is.  He serves as showrunner and executive producer, as well the star, where he plays Earnest, a broke but ambitious guy who tries push his cousin's local rap buzz to higher places.  This is some of the best, most relaxed acting Glover has ever done, but it's his writing that truly shines in the pilot.  Atlanta is a five-tool player.  Where other shows can only hope to find one thing that it does well in its pilot, Atlanta seems to do it all.  It's funny, thoughtful, weird, original, vibrant; everything you can think of.  It has a clear setting (the Atlanta rap scene) and somewhat of a spine (tracking the rise of Earnest's cousin, Paperboy), but the show seems intent on telling its story in the least straightforward way possible.  It's full of wonderful little detours and curlicues -- the pilot loops back on itself while the second episode, which also aired on Tuesday night, sprouts so many branches.  Clearly, this is a show that's not finished letting us know what it's capable of, which is refreshing.  I don't know exactly where Atlanta is going, but I'm willing to follow it anywhere.
Pilot Grade: A-
Second Episode Grade: A-

Better Things (FX, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. have already proven to be a fruitful collaborative team, with Adlon co-writing a handful of Louie episodes throughout its run, and the two may have struck upon something again with FX's Better Things.  Co-written by the two and directed by C.K., the pilot feels like Louie but from a slightly different angle.  Adlon stars as Sam, an actor and divorced mom of three daughters, as she goes through the trails that those titles entail.  From minute one, there's a very lived-in feeling to the show that's suggestive of a greater life that exists outside of the scenes we are seeing.  We learn so much about what it's like for her as an actor in a scene between her and an actor played by Constance Zimmer, as the two of them go through the motions of preparing for an audition they know they won't land.

Overall, I dig how loose and shaggy Better Things is.  It feels like it can wear any shade, as the first episode cuts to little stylistic interludes with different lenses and shifting aspect ratios.  But the pilot also feels scattered at times.  The material focusing on Sam's life as a mother is the clear highlight because there's an easygoing rapport between her and her kids that feels fresh and truthful.  It helps that the casting of the kids is great, another carryover from Louie.  However, the moments that stray away from the family stuff, such as the brief glimpses into her romantic life, are less interesting.  So Better Things isn't perfect, but it is a fiercely personal work with a vision, and we need more of that.
Grade: B

Mary + Jane (MTV, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
When reviewing pilots, it's easy to play the comparison game.  Part of the reason is because it can be a quick way to give a sense of the show's vibe and tone, but it's also because some pilots easily lend themselves to those connections.  However, it can also be a crutch, and I try to avoid them if I can.  But there's no avoiding drawing similarities between Mary + Jane and Broad City -- I'm not the first to do so and I certainly won't be the last.  This MTV comedy about two friends who run, as they describe it, a "mostly legal marijuana delivery service" is clearly trying to grab the same audience that's interested in the bizarre antics of Broad City.

Unfortunately, the comparisons stop at "stoner comedy starring two women."  It fails in many places where Broad City succeeds, mainly in that this pilot isn't very funny.  It knows what the premise is, but it still doesn't seem to know what kind of show it at this point.  The premiere episode just throws random comedy ideas at the wall to see what sticks, but very little does, like the weird, mostly unfunny interlude where they main characters deliver to the home of celebrities who are implied to be Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Jordan (Scout Durwood) and Paige (Jessica Rothe) are like Abbi and Ilana from Broad City in the sense that the former is the overly sexual one and the latter is more square, except neither have the weird little textures that make the Broad City ladies transcend those cliches.  Still, Durwood and Rothe have excellent chemistry, and that's the most important ingredient in a show like this.  The comedy can come later, and given the way Rothe especially is able to wring so much out of the material she's given, it's possible that it will.  I'm still on the fence about whether I'll see this through, but I wouldn't be surprised if this became a solid little show.
Grade: C+ (but a very optimistic one)

Quarry (Cinemax, Fridays at 10:00 PM)
I didn't know much about Quarry going into it, even after seeing promos for it, but I had this deep sense of anticipation despite not having much information.  At first, it seems like the pilot isn't interested in giving much information either, as it starts with an enigmatic cold open.  But after the title card, it firmly plants the viewer in a time and a place, showing Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green) arriving home from Vietnam to a nation that's not too happy with its soldiers. But Mac's town is especially unhappy with him.  It's alluded to the fact that he was involved in some horrific massacre overseas and even though he was cleared of charges, there's still an overt air of animosity and resentment towards everyone involved.  In its first 30 minutes, the first episode works strictly as an examination of the difficulties of entering the world after being at war, especially one as controversial as Vietnam, and those moments are so effective that I could watch a show solely about that.  But once a crime element kicks in -- Mac gets approached by a mysterious man named The Broker, who seems to recruit veterans to become contract killers -- it's pretty gripping as well.

At almost 90 minutes, Quarry's pilot is lengthier than your usual episode of television, but it makes the most of its time.  The first episode carefully lays out this bleak, contemplative tale with great skill and precision.  Sometimes when premium cable networks try one of these quiet, glacially-paced crime shows, it doesn't work (remember The Red Road?), but so far this one seems to have the goods.  Given its 72 score on Metacritic, other critics appear to be less ready to exalt Quarry, but I think it's off to an absolutely terrific start.
Grade: A-

Queen Sugar (OWN, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
The main reason why OWN's new family drama Queen Sugar is getting more press than a show on its network usually would is because the pilot is written and directed by Ava Duvernay, who directed the 2014 Best Picture nominee Selma.  Watching this first episode, you can tell it comes from somebody who has never made a TV show.  In some ways, that can be refreshing.  The opening hour has a patience that you don't often see, establishing a mood and tone more than anything, one that is simmering and swaying.  It can lead to frustration too.  For all the time that it spends on the spaces between the plot, I don't feel like I have a great sense of who many of these characters are, nor do I find them all that engaging.  Mostly, I left the first episode feeling a little confounded.  It's not even until about two-thirds of the way through that I felt like I had any sort of idea what the show was about.  This series was pitched by a critic a mix of Rectify and Parenthood, two shows I love, but Queen Sugar only compares to them superficially.  There's obvious skill involved behind and in front of the camera, but I had the nagging feeling throughout watching this that it just wasn't made for me.  This is one of the few times where I genuinely don't know if I'm going to continue watching.
Grade: B-

Friday, August 19, 2016

Thoughts at the halfway point of Mr. Robot's divisive second season

There's a growing trend in this current age of TV, marked by a buildup/teardown cycle that occurs with high-buzz shows, but it has been especially pronounced this year.  The 100 slowly began to gain momentum with some critics of note (and a few critics who aren't of note, including myself) over its first two seasons, only for it to have an uneven and controversial third season earlier this year.  Then there is Lifetime's behind-the-scenes drama Unreal, which recently concluded an absolutely disastrous sophomore season, just after it lit the world on fire with its smart, exciting, Peabody award-winning first season.  It's almost as these shows realize their newfound position in the spotlight, and choke under the pressure.

We're seeing a little bit of that on a smaller scale with Mr. Robot too.  Its first season came out of nowhere, on a network known for breezy, "blue skies" programming and from a creator who previously had no experience writing television.  Straight from the pilot the show established itself as a visually stunning, narratively trippy oddity and only became more so as it went on. But up until a week or two ago, the critical consensus surrounding its hotly anticipated second season is that it has been a step down from the first, with many asking themselves "where is this all going?" by the end of each episode.

This happens all the time when a show gets the "You have to watch __________" treatment, for a number of reasons.  The first is that alot of people caught up on Mr. Robot after hearing all of the fawning praise about it, so it's likely that they binged the first season in a very short amount of time.  Now that they've had to adjust to weekly viewing, it makes the show seems slower and more adrift than before.  For a similar example, look at certain internet comment sections for episodes in the beginning of season four of Breaking Bad, where people complained about the show being more listless than usual.  Breaking Bad was always a deliberate show, it just seemed more so after so many people binged the first three seasons based on the building buzz.

The second reason is a matter of expectations.  When a show first arrives there's no baggage attached to it, nor is there the overwhelming notion that it will be good.  (Expectations usually only come from shows with a big name attached behind the scenes, like Vinyl.)  People underestimate the role surprise can play when it comes to loving a show.  Once that series has already established itself and built up goodwill, that surprise is taken away.  It's hard not to feel like there's alot of that going on with the second season of Mr. Robot and people chalking it up as more of a disappointment than it actually is.  That's not to say that some shows aren't deserving of the harsher criticism that comes with the loss of surprise, because like I said, season two of Unreal was an unmitigated disaster.  But it does feel like the "oh, it's bad now" hand-wringing that comes with these shows that have a meteoric rise is a little overstated sometimes.

All of this is a very long and complicated way of saying that I don't agree with the complaints about season two of Mr. Robot.  In fact, I think that it is several orders of magnitude better than it was in its first season.  Granted, it helps that I was never as sold on the show as others were at the height of its hype hurricane last year.  Where season one landed the show on many critics' top 10 lists, it failed to even make my top 20.  (It was number 41.  There's alot of good TV out there!)  This was a show I liked, and I consider the first season's big twist to be one of the finest rug pulls I have ever seen.  Yet I remained unconvinced that it was ever going to be a series that I could come to love.  It was just too chilly and detached, too indebted to its influences.

The first season of Mr. Robot felt like a textbook example of style over substance.  A large portion of that style was clearly cribbed from Fight Club, a film I don't enjoy very much, which certainly didn't help matters.  But it wasn't just the Fight Club nature of it all, it was that the show seemed to push all of its visual and narrative tools to the limit, with every shot featuring a character in the corner of the screen dwarfed by the background space, and its invitations to the question of what is real or not.  After a while, it was numbing and a little boring.

This year, it feels much more like the style enhances its substance.  Much has been made about creator Sam Esmail's decision to direct every episode of the season, and even though critics showed concern about him burning himself out, it really does seem to have made a positive impact on the show's aesthetic.  There's a clarity of vision that just didn't come through when he had to resort to delegating.  Visually and tonally, season two has been bolder and more breathtaking than ever before.  Esmail has broadened the palette he's working with, relying less on Fincher-isms and adding Kubrick to his arsenal, with so many frames having that wide-open and meticulous construction the latter was known for.  But it goes deeper than just visual cues.  A more electric creative energy runs through every aspect of this season, from the creation of a fake art film to explain the origin of the FSociety mask, to a title card cut that felt like something straight out of a horror movie, to a 20-minute segment done in the style of a 90s sitcom.

Another one of my gripes with season one was that I didn't feel anything for the characters.  That was just a byproduct of the show's general chilliness, but I'm the kind of person who needs to be engaged with a show's characters in order to truly love it.  Twists and turns only go so far if it's not rooted in meaningful character progression.

Maybe Esmail realized this too, as he's made a concerted effort this year to really dig into what makes these people tick.  Where season one was a plot-driven techno thriller, this season is more of an ensemble drama.  It has done so by bringing supporting characters like Darlene and Angela to the fore.  The latter is an especially wise choice given that Angela has always been one of the more fascinating characters, and this increased focus has only solidified that.  Some people find her storylines tedious, but to me she's the key to understanding the show.  In a way, all of these characters are people with a need to be recognized, and her specific desire for validation -- through the mantras that she whispers to herself when she's all alone and her quest as a warm-blooded person attempting to adapt to this cold-blooded world -- is the most overt expression of that.

There's also the addition of a completely new character in the form of Dominique Dipierro (played by Grace Gummer), the FBI agent tasked with bringing down FSociety.  On paper, she's just an assemblage of tough cop cliches -- intense devotion to her job, doesn't get along with her peers, almost inhuman detective skills -- but Gummer is giving a career-best performance in the role.  And Dom is given life beyond a stock type in the moments where we see her outside of her job, riddled with anxiety and an inability to sleep at night.  She's an extension of one of the main themes of Mr. Robot, especially this season: above all else, this is the story of lonely spirits shuffling through a crowded, hyper-connected world.

At this point Elliot, the show's ostensible protagonist, is the least interesting character.  This would be a problem if the show still had the same structure it did last year, but its transition into being a rich ensemble piece helps matters.  And despite being out at sea narratively, he still ties into the arc of the season thematically.  A few episodes back, Dom has a conversation with Minister Zhang, who we know to be Whiterose (B.D. Wong), where she explains why her FBI job appeals to her.  That explanation contains one of the most important lines of the season, as she says "I'm disgusted by the selfish depravity of the world, but at the same time, I'm utterly fascinated by it."  But it could have easily been a line that came out of Elliot's mouth.  Or any of the central characters, really.  That's one of the most interesting ideas holding this season together, the notion that all of these players are driven by similar impulses, and yet they act on those impulses in divergent ways.

So I've loved this season of Mr. Robot so far and have found so many fascinating things to pluck out of it, but judging from this week's episode, I'm not so sure the show is interested in the same things about itself that I am.  At the end of "h4ndshake.sme," the popular fan theory that Elliot has been in jail all season was proven to be true, and I'm still working through how I feel about it.  Esmail seems like a smart guy who trusts the savviness of his audience, so it's possible that this development wasn't meant to be a revelation for us.  After all, he's stated that Mr. Robot (as played by Christian Slater) not actually being a person was not supposed to be a surprise in season one, and this is the closest analogue to that.  But what made the Mr. Robot reveal in season one not feel disappointing is because it was used as a smokescreen to hide the twist that Elliot and Darlene are brother and sister.  If this season is not building to some other bombshell, then I'm not sure what the point of spending seven episodes moving towards something that ultimately doesn't affect the way most viewers take in the show is.

It just seems like a miscalculation no matter the angle you approach it from.  If it was meant to be a bigger twist than it is, then I don't know why Esmail thought he could get away with it after he primed the audience to look for things like that in the first season.  If it's not meant to be twist, then his desire to return to the well of Elliot having distorted perceptions of reality is troubling.  Not only does it lead to some of the show's more self-satisfied stylistic detours, but it's also getting a bit repetitive already.  (And again, did it really need to take seven episodes to get to this point?)

Still, I'm feeling very high on this season, despite my trepidation about the most recent episode.  I never thought I'd be in a position of loving it so much, and ironically, right around the time that everyone else started to slightly turn on it.  That's fine, I don't mind being on the minority (and possibly wrong side) of the internet consensus.  My only worry is that Sam Esmail will take in too many of the criticisms of season two and muffle his creative vision.  For better or worse, his is a style that deserves to operate unfettered.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Degrassi is back, baby!!!

There were high expectations for the second season of the new Netflix exclusive series Degrassi: Next Class, at least for me.  The first season was so special that it caused me to write over 2000 words about it, and returned me to full-on Degrassi obsession after not having watched it for 2.5 seasons.  (I've since gone back and watched the 60+ episodes I missed because Degrassi is my life now.)  Even in my glowing review of the first season, I voiced some concerns about whether the show could maintain its quality or if it would lapse into the same kind of over-the-top melodrama that caused me to stop watching a few years ago.  But it looks like I can put my worries to bed for now, because the 10-episode second season that dropped this weekend is just as excellent as the first.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

I like Roadies ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I started this blog in March of 2013, and in the almost three and a half years since I've been an amateur critic, I've felt pretty secure about my opinions.  There have been times where I've liked something more than most of the Internet (like Degrassi) and times where I've liked something much less (something like Bojack Horseman comes to mind), and on every occasion I've felt confident about those takes.  And yet for the past four weeks I've watched Roadies, Showtime's new music dramedy from filmmaker Cameron Crowe, and after every episode I've thought to myself, "Do I have bad taste"?  Reviews haven't been kind to the show, which follows the touring crew of a successful arena-level quartet named The Staton-House Band.  Even I can acknowledge that many moments in the first four episodes have been quite poor.  Despite all of that, I absolutely love watching Roadies.

It's not like I'm even a Cameron Crowe apologist either.  I was young enough when I watched Jerry Maguire that the only bits of it that I remember now are the parts that have become entries in our cultural lexicon.   (You know, "Show me the money!," "You had me at hello," Jonathan Lipnicki's head.)  It wasn't until just recently that I finally got around to watching Almost Famous, which most people consider his peak, but I merely thought was solid.  And the only other one of his films I've seen is that treacly mess, We Bought a Zoo.  If there's anyone I'm rooting for it's Winnie Holzman, one of the other executive producers of the Roadies.  She created the greatest teen show of all time in My So-Called Life, and her involvement in anything automatically makes me excited, especially after the fallow period she's had for the last five or six years.  However, her voice is hardly anywhere to found in this show, despite the fact that she wrote the second episode.

Roadies is full of narrative failings.  Mainly, the issue is that promising setups get marred by shaky execution.  In the pilot episode we're introduced to Reg (Rafe Spall), a financial consultant hired to manage the tour's budget and prevent the band from hemorrhaging funds.  Somewhere in his storyline is an interesting examination of what happens when the corporate bottom line gets in the way of artistic freedom, but that conflict wilts under the weight of platitudinous dialogue about "the power of music" and "true art."  Then there's the story of Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), who works the set rigging and leaves the tour in order to go to film school, only to rejoin minutes after saying farewell.  It sets up a compelling dynamic, where the rest of the crew feels abandoned by her despite her very brief departure, and she has to work to win everyone back.  The show chooses to explore this story avenue by saddling her with horrible comedy runners, as we see Kelly Ann's bizarre attempts to rebuild her relationships with everyone.  Not even someone as winsome as Imogen Poots can save them.

It's indicative of a larger issue plaguing Roadies, which is that it doesn't understand what the proper ratio of comedy and drama should be.  Right now, it's pitched as a comedy with a few dramatic moments, but here's the thing -- the comedy often stinks.  Every episode incorporates at least one broad bit or character that just tanks the whole vibe of the show.  The first episode introduces a lunatic stalker character who is obsessed with the band, and the tone of her scenes imply that we're supposed to find her hijinks and the efforts the crew make to contain her entertaining, but they fall completely flat.  Later, in the third episode, we meet a ridiculous music blogger character (played by Rainn Wilson, doing some of his most irritating work) who holds more sway than any critic has ever had.  When those two characters' paths intersected in that episode, it made for some of the most ill-advised television of the year.

What a shame that the show is so determined to generate laughs, because there's alot of melancholy at its core, and I wish it would explore that more.  At its best, Roadies gracefully depicts how sad and lonely life on the road can be.  These characters are always moving around with no place to call home.  The relationships they form in certain cities cannot sustain themselves.  They're constantly cycling from large, sterile arenas to cramped, dehumanizing tour buses.  And all of this work is for a band that probably doesn't know all of their names, and fans who definitely don't.  The show doesn't necessarily need to become a bleak drama, but leaning into its dramatic elements would add layers that could help sell everything it has to offer.

Despite my love of the sadness at the center of the show, I do think when its frothiness works, it works really well.  Ultimately, that's what makes Roadies so enjoyable and easy to watch -- even its melancholy is light and low-stakes.  Cameron Crowe's golden-hued earnestness can be a little silly, but it goes down easily, which makes for an extremely relaxing viewing experience.  Roadies doesn't ask much from its audience, save the ability to stomach a bunch of indulgent musician cameos.  Maybe it's the minimal risk that makes the show's flaws simple to shrug off and its high points so charming.

No episode better embodies the push and pull between that capacity for greatness and pure trash than Sunday's installment, "The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken."  In it, the crew finds their rare day off thwarted when Reg breaks a sacred rule by uttering the word "Cincinnati" on the tour bus, forcing everyone to go through the bizarre, difficult process of breaking the curse inflicted on them.  The break from the usual concert prepping structure allows for the show to play around in its sweet spot, making ample time for the characters to just hang out and bounce off of each other.  What makes these people fascinating is learning all of the rituals and superstitions and shared history they have.  At a certain point though, the follow-through on everyone trying to break this curse becomes over-the-top and insufferable.  And between all of those lovely hangout moments comes annoying antics that threaten to ruin the goodwill built up a minute earlier.

This is the kind of episode that has that great scene in the beginning with the ladies of the crew using what little time they have to maintain their hygiene between cities.  Then it has scenes where it continues to try and push romance onto Kelly Ann and Reg, an awkward road best not traveled down.  There's a beautiful shared moment that the crew has while My Morning Jacket's Jim James -- oh yeah, he's in this episode for some reason -- performs a song by The Who.  But then there's also a moment where it checks in on former crewmember Phil, who is literally in outer space.  I wish I was kidding.

So Roadies isn't actually good, but it has the tools in place to get there.  The cast is appealing, the vibe is nice, and the show really does seem to be trying.  I can see this becoming a mix between Party Down (finding unique stories to tell within each week's venue) and Slings & Arrows (a behind the scenes series about performers and those who make those performances happen).  But even if it never does reach those heights, that wouldn't be so bad, because it's already one of the shows I most look forward to every week.  Let's hope it does get better though, so I could at least feel less bad about loving it so much.