Sunday, March 20, 2016

I still like the show Girls

HBO's Girls gave birth to the modern thinkpiece culture that we see in writing about TV and film today.  Or at least the show was one of the things that gave that angle the power to dominate modern pop culture conversations.  When the show hit the scene in early 2012, it was met with equal amounts of acclaim and vitriol.  Many critics praised the series for its singular voice, focus on female friendships, and frank depiction of sexuality.  But others criticized it for a number of things like its overwhelmingly white cast, privileged and unlikable characters, and the alleged nepotism involved in assembling the show.  In its debut season, it seemed like a new thinkpiece about Girls was posted once an hour.  The haters and fans fueled each other.  For every article that applauded the show's groundbreaking nature, there was a rebuttal accusing it of being problematic garbage.

But there are only so many ways to talk about a show.  At a certain point, writers ran out of unique takes on it, and the people who excoriated the show got bored and stopped watching.  Since the intense hate that certain corners of the internet have for Girls is what drove its supporters into an aggressively defensive position, there was less reason to keep its positive traits in the collective conversation once the negativity died down.  Occasionally, there would be something that got the internet talking -- who can forget about Marnie getting rimmed last season? -- but in general, the critical community has moved on from intensely discussing it.

What a shame too, because Girls is still a good show.  The difference is that it doesn't feel as special as it did in those first two years, when everyone was talking about it.  Such is the case with art that has a significant influence on its medium.  Because there are so many shows with indie film sensibilities on television now, it's easy forget that there wasn't much else like Girls in 2012.  Its most obvious ancestor would be Louie, which had already existed for two years and was indeed the main point of comparison for reviewers at the time.  Now we've got Togetherness, Transparent, Casual, and countless others.  An increase in peers, coupled with a decrease in its auteur-driven sensibilities, made Girls appear less unique, despite only minor drops in quality.

Pure watchability is a highly underrated quality when it comes to television, and what these past few seasons of Girls have lacked in innovation, they've more than made up for in watchability.  I never feel the urge to look at the clock when I'm watching an episode of this show.  In fact, I'm often surprised when the credits start rolling, given the way half an hour just breezes by.  After the severe dramatic turns of season two (still my favorite season), Lena Dunham made a conscious effort to slide back over to the comedy end of the spectrum.  In the process, the show went from being a raw look at the lives of a certain demographic of women to a somewhat more cartoony version of that.  Girls has always been funny, but the most recent seasons have bumped up the comedic energy, giving the show more laughs than many traditional sitcoms.  Part of that is because Dunham and her writers have such a strong sense of the characters at this point, knowing how to perfectly play off of what makes these people tick.

There might not be a better example of knowing the characters inside and out in the entire history of the show than this season's decision to pair Adam and Jessa together.  It's one of those decisions that I wouldn't have thought to make, but it makes total sense now that I've seen it.  They're the show's two most impulsive, eccentric, and destructive characters; so naturally, they would eventually end up together.  Of course, these two are bound to destroy each other, especially once Hannah finds out.  But for the time being, I want to just enjoy them in this current, blissful state, because it's absolutely delightful.

Season five is only four episodes in and it's already full of rock solid choices like that.  After four years of tinkering, the show has finally found the perfect blend of comedy and drama.  One of its other problems was that as the series went on, it became less logical that these characters would even still be friends, let alone in the same room with each other, and as a result Girls felt like four different shows running in parallel.  Season five has the main characters interacting more and in ways that make sense, a welcome return because they bounce off of each other so well.  Most importantly, the show still manages to show off some of its indie film flair, as it did with the Shoshanna material in Japan, which felt very Lost in Translation.  There are still a few frustrating moments this season -- a comedic scene in a coffee shop a few weeks ago was over-the-top and annoying in an extremely "written by Lena Dunham" way -- but Girls has always been a show whose tiny frustrations make it even more fascinating.

Before the fifth season began airing this year, Dunham announced that season six would be the final season of the show.  Perhaps that clear stopping point has given the show a sense of direction, a goalpost to shoot towards.  This has never been a plot-intensive series, so it didn't need an endgame on a story level, but more on a character level.  Seasons three and four felt like the work of a show that was wandering around aimlessly in some middle space with its characters in a way that season five does not.  Girls has always been good, but this year represents the first time in a while that it has felt truly significant and urgent.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane tucks a taut little thriller away in a larger universe

The "web show" feels a concept from an completely different of the internet, especially given the rise of Youtube and vlog culture in this decade.  But it was only a few years ago that they were thriving, with entire networks hosting shows that got tons of viewers.  One of those networks was Revision3, which was responsible for bringing The Totally Rad Show into the world.  TRS was a show hosted by friends Alex Albrecht, Jeff Cannata, and Dan Trachtenberg, where they reviewed movies, TV shows, video games, and comics.  It was a pretty seminal work of my adolescent years -- something about its savvy insight and friendly riffing really made an impact on me as a young pop culture enthusiast.  The show ended in November 2012, partially due to Trachtenberg's burgeoning career as a film director, and four years later we finally get to see the results of that in the form of 10 Cloverfield Lane, his directorial debut.

Being a Bad Robot production, 10 Cloverfield Lane was shrouded in pre-production secrecy, so much so that it was operating under the code name Valencia for years, and didn't get revealed as a Cloverfield film until a little over a month ago.  The movie itself doles out information gradually too.  After getting run off the road by a mysterious force in the beginning of the film, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up to find herself chained to a wall in a windowless room with a bum knee and an IV in her arm.  It turns out she was rescued by Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that there was some sort of "attack" that has contaminated the Earth and left it unlivable for a year or two.  A paranoid ex-military man, Howard built a self-sustainable bunker years ago in preparation of such an event, with the help of Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), who tells Michelle that he saw the attack firsthand and fought his way into the bunker.

Howard insists that the three of them are the only people alive, despite the fact that Michelle hears noises above her room in the bunker.  Is Howard a psycho who's keeping them captive?  Is the outside world really contaminated due to this strange attack?  10 Cloverfield Lane weaves a neat thriller out of those questions, containing these three characters in one location and letting the mystery slowly unravel.  Gallagher, Winstead, and Goodman are all terrific together, bouncing off of each other as tensions rise.  It's Winstead especially who stands out.  She's been an underrated actress for a while, showing her talents in Smashed, and being one of the only redeemable things about the American remake of The Returned.  But her performance here might really put her on the map.  Winstead is constantly shown thinking, calculating, and weighing her options, allowing the audience to place themselves perfectly within her head.  It helps that Michelle is a wonderfully conceived character: smart, resourceful and tough, without being unrealistically perfect.  She belongs up there with Rita Vratski from Edge of Tomorrow and Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the great female protagonists of the last few years.

The script written by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken (with a pass from Whiplash's Damien Chazelle) is clever and nimble, balancing the tonal shifts it constantly throws at the audience with aplomb.  10 Cloverfield Lane is mostly a Hitchcockian thriller, but it's not afraid to be a character drama, while also fitting a few laughs into the proceedings.  (There's a scene in the middle of the film where the characters play Taboo that manages to be tense and hilarious at the same time.)  And the film has more than a few genuine surprises up its sleeve, always delivering them at moments that charge up scenes that have lulled you into a false sense of security.

It would be cruel to give away any of those secrets though.  This is one of those movies that is best to go into with as little information as possible.  Given its title, everybody will have some clue of the general direction 10 Cloverfield Lane heads toward.  And admittedly, the moment when the film's flirtation with the franchise in its namesake becomes a full-on relationship is a little disappointing, especially since the self-contained nail-biter before it was satisfying enough.  Still, this well-crafted tale is not only a triumph of feature-length debut directing from Trachtenberg, but it also establishes Cloverfield as an anthology series that is capable of telling diverse stories within its universe.