Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rekindling my relationship with Degrassi

Almost everybody in my generation has some sort of connection with the Canadian teen drama, Degrassi.  The constant "every episode ever" marathons that The N/TeenNick used to air pretty much ensured the show's cultural osmosis.  We all have shared reference points in the show's biggest moments like Paige's rape, the school shooting that gave us Wheelchair Jimmy, or JT dying in a pool of urine.  But you're likely to get a laugh of recognition from people in their 20s if you make a passing mention to smaller things like Cokehead Craig or that time Manny wore a thong too.  Degrassi: The Next Generation was for teens what General Hospital is for housewives and also my brother.  It wasn't always good, but its juicy soap operatics made it an easily digestible and oddly satisfying watching experience.

Most people I know drifted away from the show after JT's tragic death in season 6, which is actually when I really started getting into it.  Of course, I had seen every episode in scattered order from those aforementioned "every Degrassi episode ever" marathons, but post-JT-dying-in-a-urine-puddle was when I first remember watching the show in chronological order on a weekly basis.  It's a shame that many of my peers never experienced the handful of seasons that followed, because they actually have their own unique charm, to the point where I almost have more affection for them than the "golden years."  Primarily, the next era is notable for the introduction of Holly J Sinclair, the greatest character to ever attend Degrassi High School.  A majority of Holly J's greatness can be attributed to an entertaining and highly sympathetic performance from Charlotte Arnold, one of the only members of the cast who seemed like she had the skills to progress beyond teen soap operas.  In her hands, Holly J evolved from a blatant attempt to recreate Paige to the show's folk hero, the beating heart that gave life to every storyline she was involved in.

A show like Degrassi lives and dies on the strength of its ensemble, so its revolving door nature always makes things dicey.  Once Holly J left the show at the end of season 11, there were hardly any characters worth watching anymore.  And when you don't like any of the characters on Degrassi, you can get annoyed with the writing very quickly.  It didn't help that season 12 was a low point in that regard, full of storylines that were both over-the-top and incredibly boring.  So with the show at its worst and missing the character I cared about the most, I decided to quit somewhere near the end of that 12th season.  Occasionally I'd feel remorseful about leaving behind a series that had been a part of my life for so long, but never enough to put myself through the pain of popping back in on it.

After the show was cancelled by TeenNick at the end of its 14th season last year, it was picked up by Netflix, and the producers chose to use the revival as an opportunity to do some rebranding. Thus, Degrassi: Next Class was born.  And though the series mostly features characters that debuted in the last two seasons of its previous incarnation, the writers spoke about their desire to go back to basics and capture the spirit of the early years.  In that sense, Next Class functions both as season 15 and season one.  I saw a few tweets from TV critics I follow praising this new Netflix season, which was enough to finally convince me to watch.  Because I never watched seasons 13 and 14, I didn't really know the backstories of some of the characters, but the dialogue does a good job of giving you the gist, which makes it easy to jump back into.  And I recommend that you do so immediately, because the new season is absolutely incredible.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Even if you didn't like season one, American Crime is must-see TV this year

The fun of the seasonal anthology series is that not liking the show now does not necessarily mean you won't like it forever.  So what if one season is bad?  The next season is a completely different story with totally different characters.  The possibilities of that slate-wiping are endless.  (Of course, the same team of writers are most likely going to be working on the show, so you could end up disliking it in any iteration.  Five seasons of empirical evidence have shown that American Horror Story is always going to be bad to me.  So it goes.)

Put simply, I didn't enjoy ABC's American Crime very much last year.  Network drama has been frustratingly staid in recent years, so I appreciated the first season's efforts to transcend broadcast expectations.  But in an effort to be more than "just a network drama," the show oversold its prestige factor.  What resulted was a season of television that shouted "THIS IS IMPORTANT" at the audience at least three times per episode.  And despite its declarations, most of its points about race, class, and crime were lazy and surface-level.

So regardless of the new beginnings season two promised, I wasn't very excited about more grandstanding and chest-puffing from creator John Ridley.  The fact that the male-on-male sexual assault angle this year felt like it was pitched down the middle for that kind of self-importance only made things worse.  And yet, the first three episodes of the season have done nothing but blow away all expectations.

The show narrows its scope this year
Season one focused on the aftermath of a home invasion in Modesto, California that led to the death of veteran Matt Skokie.  But from that simple premise spun all manner of tangents, introducing characters and subplots that barely felt related to the core of the story.  It felt like the season wanted to address race and class issues in America, but couldn't find a way to connect those themes to the narrative without making the murder feel like an afterthought.  The second season tells a different story, one that involves an underprivileged male student at a private school in Indianapolis who is allegedly raped by a member of the prestigious basketball team at a party.  Unlike last year, season two locks into its central story and stays with it, roping in the same themes Ridley was toying with in the first season without any wandering.

Essentially, both seasons are about the ripple effects of a single crime, but in the first season that crime feels like it swallows up a whole city, while the second season's crime is rooted in an individual community.  That tightening of focus proves to be the right move.  Where American Crime often felt like it was biting off more than it could chew in season one, this year is a perfectly sized morsel.  So far, season two has been significantly more straightforward, and that's one of the reasons why it's so much more compelling.

Season two corrects many of the first season's mistakes
You'll know you're in good hands very early into the premiere, when Ridley (who wrote and directed the episode) subverts expectations that the audience might have, not just based on years of television viewing, but also from watching his own show last year.  There's a scene where Kevin (Trevor Jackson), the African American star of the basketball team, is driving down the street and blasting rap music when the lights from a cop car begin flashing in his rear-view mirror.  But once the cop pulls up aside him, it's revealed that the he's a friend of the family and just wanted to relay a message to Kevin's mom.  It's a small moment, but one that lets you know that this season isn't interested in the pat story turns it may not have been able to resist in the past.

Another moment introduces us to basketball coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton) sneaking a video of a cheerleader doing a provocative dance during practice.  Our first instinct is to groan at another creepy teacher plotline, but a few scenes later we learn that it's his daughter, and he's only recording her dance to show her mother what their child gets up to at school.

The first three episodes haven't entirely rid themselves of the anvilicious details that dragged season one down.  A scene in the premiere involves members of the basketball team passing around pictures of various female classmates in the locker room after practice.  "I so wanna rape that," one of the players says about a girl, and the clunk of that inelegant line threatens to drown out the rest of the scene.  Another scene features two black teens making out while a Kendrick Lamar song intones "Complexion don't mean a thing" in the background.  But these moments are much easier to swallow when they happen once or twice an episode as opposed to once or twice per scene.

It also accentuates season one's positives
Even in its less interesting narrative moments, the show was always a visual powerhouse.  Season one tried to present itself as "more than your usual network drama" in many ways, but the one aspect where it completely succeeded was in its cinematic direction.  This season is no different, and now that they are servicing a story that's more compelling, the visuals take on even more weight.  Ridley and his team of directors frequently employ tight, searching closeups.  These episodes are full of emotionally charged scenes, and you get to see all of the subtleties through the micro-expressions on the characters' faces.

Many of the actors who appeared on the show last year make a return in season two, and they all get the opportunity to show their range by playing characters who are much different from the ones they played in the previous season.  Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Lili Taylor, and Regina King are all giving incredible and nuanced performances.  Some new actors, like Hope Davis, get added to the rotation and fit right into the ensemble too.  But what's most impressive are the younger actors, who carry the most weight, given that the crime of the season is centered around them.  Season one's biggest acting weak spots were all found within the teenage characters, but Trevor Jackson, Joey Pollari, and Connor Jessup rise to the occasion.  With such rock solid work from the whole cast, the season is able to sell moments that could otherwise come off as overwrought.

We're only a third of the way through the season, so it could easily fly off the rails, sinking into all of the pitfalls it has managed to avoid.  But evidence from these three episodes alone indicate that everyone involved has figured out what they're doing, and are executing a carefully constructed plan.  If that's the case, we may have one of the best network drama seasons in a long time on our hands.