Friday, March 31, 2017

The Magicians: TV's most improved show

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just celebrated the 20 year anniversary of its series premiere a few weeks ago, is one of my favorite shows of all time.  It's a show that I don't make comparisons to lightly, but it doesn't seem like everyone else is on the same page in that regard.  Any show that's supernatural or fantastical, has a relatively large ensemble, and quippy dialogue -- even if it just has one of those elements -- gets slapped with the "Buffy-esque" tag.  Because I know how much evoking Buffy means to me, I treat it as a sacred cow, so as to not have anyone who go into a show expecting it to give them the same feelings that Buffy did, only to be disappointed when it doesn't live up to those claims.  So it is with great consideration that I make the claim that The Magicians, which is currently nearing the end of its second season on Syfy, is one of the closest shows to capturing Buffy's spirit since it ended in 2003.

The show has overcome the adaptation issues that plagued season one
The Magicians is based on Lev Grossman's bestselling trilogy of novels that were released between 2009 and 2014.  Equal parts Narnia and Harry Potter, the series told the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a high school graduate who gets inducted into a secret and prestigious magic school named Brakebills to learn to become a magician.  Along the way, he and the cast of characters he meets at Brakebills learn that magic is both more difficult and depressing than fantasy stories make it seem, as they're opened up to a whole manner of hardships.  It's a quintessential look at what would happen if kids series tropes were deconstructed through a harsh, adult lens.

Though it's a more grounded version of classic fantasy novels, The Magicians trilogy still has its fair share of the supernatural, so a TV adaptation was always going to make some concessions for budgetary reasons.  The issue with season one of the show, however, was that many of the adaptation choices were simple story and character decisions, very few of which were for the better.  Aging up the protagonists from college to post-graduate age felt arbitrary and completely at odds with many of the coming-of-age themes that were integral to the book series.  And while some of the plot reworking made sense -- taking a character's story from the second book and making it run in parallel with the rest of the throughlines of season one was wise and necessary for contract reasons -- others made the season feel rather disjointed and rushed.

Part of the reason why season two has been so wonderful is that it has been smarter about the way it adapts Grossman's novels.  At this point, it's pretty much past following the storyline of the books, crafting its own narrative that works but still feels in the spirit of the source material.  And yet it also manages to lightly hop back to little details of the books in refreshing and thoughtful ways.  Creators John McNamara and Sera Gamble have proven themselves to be smart adapters, and this season I've found myself consistently surprised by how they're able to weave elements from the source material into the deviated path they've gone on with the story.

It understands what made Buffy great -- the characters
Even in the lesser moments of season one, the show was buoyed by the strength of its ensemble, but that sense of its characters has gotten even stronger in the second season.  Like Buffy, though it has a serialized narrative, The Magicians is basically a hangout show, and an excellent one at that.  Every member of the ensemble is a fleshed-out character with a distinct function in the group, and so much of the joy of each episode is derived from watching them bounce off of each other.

Here's an experiment for you: Think of a TV show, and imagine any two characters on the show being paired off for a storyline.  If every combination is an idea that makes you excited, that's the sign of a great series that has put tremendous thought into sketching out its characters and their dynamics.  Buffy was one of the shining examples of that concept, and The Magicians passes the test as well. The show knows it too, as this season has had more instances of shaking up its usual subgroups and letting unexpected matches play out for a few scenes.  It has even added to the fun by boosting its cast of supporting characters to interact with the core members of the ensemble, which was already at an enjoyably high amount of seven.

What's great is that there's also an understanding that tension within the group is important to the strength of the show.  Though there are external conflicts driving the season, most of the compelling material of the season comes from internecine drama within the gang, where it feels like they're likely to rip each other apart at any moment.  There is so much history and animosity between various characters -- Alice and Quentin, Penny and Kady, Quentin and Penny, almost everybody and Julia -- and this season has had many of those plates spinning at the same time, to great effect.  That's why the best episode of the season so far was the seventh episode, "Plan B," where everybody was forced to come together to plan out a bank heist that would benefit each one of them in different ways.  Not only was it a fun little episodic caper, but it cashed in on the intricate web of infighting that had been weaved over the course of the season.

There's a deft balance of comedy and tragedy
One of the other things that made Buffy so wonderful was its mixture of playfulness and truly devastating emotional content, and The Magicians has followed suit.  It's one of the most fun to watch shows on TV this year, full of quippy banter and oddball fantastical touches.  But it can quickly turn on a dime, forcing characters to make tough decisions in high stakes scenarios that have lasting consequences.  The proportion of laughs and drama never feels improperly weighed in one direction either.  Sometimes it can blend both in at the same time -- villains, gods, and powerful beings have a sense of silliness while still seeming formidable.  It's that difficult balancing act that makes the show so exciting to watch week to week.

In this current age of television, there's so much to watch on a weekly basis that my watchlist tends to pile up quickly.  Much can be gleaned from how I choose to prioritize shows.  And here's what I'll say about The Magicians: it's always the first show I want to watch whenever I have the time.  If the unassailable "how quickly do I want to watch it?" test doesn't convince you of this show's merits, I don't know what will.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Personal Shopper is another alluring puzzle from Olivier Assayas

Grief is full of confusing oxymorons.  It takes something away from you, leaving only a hole in its place.  Yet it also exists as this solid, heavy entity that weighs you down.  It haunts and hounds and surrounds you, while also causing feelings of deep loneliness.  It's a feeling that we are united by, in the sense that we will all feel it someday, and yet each instance is so unique that it still feels like a singular experience.  Grief is tough, and when you're in the thick of it, it can feel like an all-consuming horror show.

Personal Shopper, the latest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas, aims to tackle that idea in the form of a ghost story for the digital age.  We follow Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper for a famous model, as she wrestles with the recent loss of her twin brother Lewis, who died of a congenital heart defect.  Her and her brother were also spiritual mediums, and when they were younger they promised each other that whoever died first would contact the sibling left behind.  Because of this, Maureen spends her nights alone in his creaky old house, hoping for some sign that a part of him still exists there.  Things do go bump in the night, but she never receives anything clear enough to conclude that it's him.  And on top of that, she starts receiving strange messages from an unknown party who won't confirm their identity, which only makes her more dogged in her pursuit for answers.

If that premise doesn't make it clear enough, Personal Shopper asks you to accept a fair amount of silliness.  The dialogue in the text message thread between Maureen and unknown is silly.  Any time the movie shows a ghost or specter is very silly (and cheap-looking).  And there are many more moments that, when taken in isolation, come off as bizarre and amateurish as the featherweight story spins in all manner of directions.  But if you're somehow able to move past that, you'll find something that's fascinating and strangely affecting.

This film is an enigma.  More accurately, it's a Rorschach Test: it doesn't provide any concrete answers, you just see what you want to see in it.  To me, it's a meditation on the ways grief and loss leave you searching for something you'll never truly find.  Maureen is desperate for a sign from her dead brother, some sort of comfort to put her at ease, but she's never satisfied with what she gets.  Though she does see a ghost in his house, it's not him.  She thinks the texts from Unknown might be him, but it remains inconclusive.  There's a figure resembling a human that we see near the end -- though Maureen never does, as her back is turned the entire time -- but even we can't be sure it's him, because we never see a picture of him throughout the film.  Maureen can't seem to fill the hole that her loss has left, not even in the feeling of a new identity that trying on her boss' clothes briefly provides.

At one point, Maureen is asked what she will do after she makes contact with Lewis, and there's a pained pause until she lands on the answer: "Go on with the rest of my life."  Her grief leaves her stuck, but it almost feels like a state she wants to remain in while others, like Lewis' girlfriend who quickly finds a new boyfriend, move on.  In a way, relinquishing her grief feels like relinquishing her brother.

The conflicts and pains Maureen experiences are largely internal, but it works because of Kristen Stewart's incredible performance.  She's got her detractors -- partially based on lingering animosity from the Twilight series and partially based on her idiosyncratic acting style -- but much like her work in Assayas' previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria, she is completely captivating here.  It's true that Stewart has a limited range, but she finds an infinite space within that range.  Her level of naturalism allows for layers of nuance, which is necessary in a film that spends so much time on her alone in the frame.

Along with Stewart's absorbing performance, the film is carried along by Assayas' quiet control of the pacing and direction, as it changes on a dime from being laconic at one point then eerie and thrilling at the next.  Like all of his films, there are moments of odd and clunky writing.  In Clouds of Sils Maria, there was the overwrought Maloja Snake play; here, it's mostly contained to the text message from Unknown, who speaks in a way that no human being would naturally speak.  But Assayas works on a thematic level that focuses on raw feeling, not on a pure plot or logical level.  For some that's bothersome, but the ideas and images he tends to conjure up transcend any flaws in the writing.

Personal Shopper is a film that leaves you with many questions: Who was responsible for the murder of Maureen's boss Kyra?  Who was Unknown?  Was Maureen's brother there at the end or is it all in her imagination?  Does she receive closure?  I'd be lying if I said that there weren't aspects beyond those questions that left me puzzled, but it's the kind of movie where I'm okay with not knowing it all.  What matters more is I can't shake the emotions it implanted in me, and the more I try to untangle its threads the more I like it.  Like the ghosts that haunt the corners of its story,  Personal Shopper isn't a corporeal being that can be grasped and held down.  It's a wispy work of art that always exists frustratingly, fascinatingly just out of our grip.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Pilot Talk 2017: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Part of Amazon's latest Pilot Season

Amazon's Pilot Season has been around for a few years now and it has proven itself to be a fun new way to conduct the series development process, allowing viewers to have a say in what pilots will be able to become a full series.  (Though it's unclear just how much of a role the user voting has on these matters.)  It can be a frustrating system too.  If you watch a pilot and like it, there's a possibility that it won't get picked up.  And even if it does get picked up, you're bound to wait at least a year to see the rest of the season.  In fact, I'm still waiting for the rest of Whit Stillman's Cosmopolitans, which was picked up in 2014 and still hasn't seen the light of day.  For that reason, I've largely stopped participating in the Pilot Season, preferring to wait for shows to actually get picked up and release a full season before I commit to checking them out.

Of course, I'm willing to make exceptions if a pilot calls for it and one of the biggest exceptions of all appeared this past weekend in the form of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the latest series from Amy Sherman-Palladino.  I'm a huge fan of Palladino's previous series, Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, so I've been eagerly anticipating Maisel since it was first announced.  The show is set in 1950s New York and follows Miriam "Midge" Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a plucky woman settled into married life with her husband who pursues his passion for stand-up comedy on the side.  It very quickly establishes itself as slightly different from the rest of Palladino's previous work, deviating from many of the traits that made them so beloved.  There is no small town charm, the character quirks are dialed down, and its time period sets it before many of the items in her usual arsenal of pop culture references.

And yet, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel still feels unmistakably like an Amy Sherman-Palladino show.  One of the qualities it retains from her previous shows is the rapid-fire dialogue, which feels right at home in this setting.  It's always a joy to hear Palladino's signature repartee ping pong between characters, and this pilot has no shortage of witty, sharp, and character-defining banter.  Additionally, the show continues her love of brassy brunettes.  Like Lorelai Gilmore and Michelle Simms before her, Midge feels like a dame straight out of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy.  Rachel Brosnahan has some big shoes to fill after Lauren Graham and Sutton Foster, and she rises to the occasion, imbuing her character with a verve that makes her pop immediately.  Brosnahan has been good enough in past roles, but here she feels like a revelation.  While she may not display the vulnerability of a Graham or Foster yet, she's able to completely nail the timing and delivery of the show's difficult dialogue, which is a promising start.

Some viewers might be a little impatient with this episode in the early stages, but I would advise them to wait it out.  Like Bunheads, the pilot involves a great deal of setup before it really gets to the meat of the show.  Once it does, however, it absolutely sings.  Last year's A Year in the Life revival of Gilmore Girls reminded the world of how wonderful Amy Sherman-Palladino's unique style can be, but The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel takes it a step further, showing us how joyous it is to see that style applied to a totally new setting and array of characters.  This one's a winner; let's see if Amazon agrees too.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 17, 2017

I hate that I hate Legion

This blog is generally built on positivity.  When I first started it, I would occasionally write a negative piece, but I've gradually moved away from them, to the point that the only time I will write about a show I don't like is in the Pilot Talk series where I review the first episode of new shows.  For me, it's much easier to write from a place of enthusiasm than from one of hatred.  If you asked me to explain why I like a piece of art, I'd easily be able to rattle off multiple points to back up my argument.  My reasons for disliking something are a little tougher to nail down.  It's more of an ineffable feeling with dislike, in my opinion.  And ultimately it boils down to the fact that it takes me so much time to write that I'd rather devote my energy to the many things I actually enjoy.

Which brings us to Legion.  Everybody seems to love FX's new Noah Hawley drama about a lesser known corner of the X-Men universe.  The praise has been off the charts and it's only getting more effusive. I was fully ready to embrace this show -- I love FX, I love X-Men, I love shows that aren't afraid to be different.  I should love Legion.

But here's thing...I just don't.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of Noah Hawley's style.  I liked season one of Fargo and liked season two less but still well enough, but my goodwill towards both were despite Hawley's idiosyncrasies, not because of them.  Part of the reason why I liked the second season less than the first was because it felt like the show was marked with an increased of being pleased with itself.  Again, this is something that's hard to quantify, but there was a smugness to season two of Fargo that left a bad taste in my mouth.  Not to mention the fact that it was met with "this is movie-level quality" and "this is by far the best show on television" hosannas.  Because Fargo was such a critical success, and because FX practices placing alot of trust in its creators, it seems like Hawley was given carte blanche with Legion.  That's the only way to explain the way his tics have been amplified thousandfold here.  The quirky and wry tone, the winking references (there's a character who's literally named "Syd Barrett"...ha ha?), the haphazard structure to the story -- it all melds together for an experience that makes me want to rip my hair out in annoyance.  And what's worse is that I'm almost completely on an island with this opinion.

For its entire run so far, Legion has proven that it's all style and no substance.  I don't necessarily mind a show that favors style over substance.  I love style!  But what is irksome about Legion is that it has the false pretense of containing substance.  The show purports to be a deeply psychological show, arguing that its obnoxious exploratory memory sequences are just a lens through which it examines mental illness and trauma.  All it really does, however, is use mental illness as a shorthand for depth.  What is the show really saying about these issues?  Not much, once you dig past its wacky flourishes.

Maybe I'm just being a hypocrite.  After all, I'm usually a big fan of these go-for-broke seasons where it seems like the creator is just doing whatever they want with no care for how it's received: the final season of The Sopranos, season five of Mad Men, season two of Girls.  The closest relative to this season of Legion is Mr. Robot's divisive second season, which I loved.  But for all its stylistic ostentatiousness, season two of Mr. Robot was deeply character-centric.  Perhaps main character Elliot got less examination than one would expect, but the season really dug into supporting characters like Dom, Angela, and Darlene.  Its machinations gave the audience a much deeper understanding of what makes them tick, increasing our ability to be invested in their stories.  There are two more episodes left of Legion this year and I don't feel like we've been given much reason to care about David or his flat "romance" with Syd.  All of the characters on the show are dull ornaments lost in the brush of its trippy larks, which makes it hard to care about anything that happens in the story.

There's nothing about the show's gonzo, psychedelic style that feels honest either.  The fourth episode garnered advanced praise for how out there is was, with critic Alan Sepinwall tweeting that it was the weirdest episode of TV he had seen since Twin Peaks aired in the early 90s.  So I approached the episode with optimism, hoping it would be the one that finally turned me around on the show.  Instead, I came away disliking it more than ever and was completely vexed by the David Lynch comparison.  When I watch Lynch's work its strangeness seems genuine, like the product of someone who is truly a weirdo.  In contrast, Legion's oddball sensibility feels artificial, like Noah Hawley is constantly bludgeoning us over the head with how much of an auteur he is.

So everybody's favorite show on television right now is currently my least favorite show I'm watching, by a very large margin.  I take no joy in hating it though.  I truly do want to like it!  There's a fun genre show in there under all of the masturbatory flights of fancy.  The worst part of it all is that this is a show so unconventional and outre that disliking it leaves you vulnerable to being accused of "not getting it."  I can assure you that I get Legion.  I just don't get why everyone else is putting up with it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Pilot Talk 2017: Feud and The Arrangement

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.

The Arrangement (E!, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
The Arrangement is not based on the story of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.  If any lawyers come knocking on E!'s door, that is what the network will tell them.  The show follows Megan (Christine Evangelista), a budding actor who is offered the opportunity to be in an arranged relationship with Kyle West (Josh Henderson), one of the biggest actors in Hollywood.  Kyle is a prominent member of a self-help organization called The Institute of the Higher Mind, and this relationship is proposed in order to maintain his own reputation as well as the organization's.  This proposal comes with a strict contract, one that includes details about how the relationship will progress, when the couple will have kids, and how Megan must conduct herself publicly and privately.

Okay, so The Arrangement is definitely based on the story of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.  However, the pilot is at its most interesting when it's deviating away from those influences.  In personality and career status, Megan bears little similarity to Katie Holmes, but from the outset she's a pretty interesting character in her own right.  She's shown as a person who is charming and has a sense of humor about her struggling acting career, and when it's time for Kyle to point out that she's different from the rest of the actresses they're vetting to be his next wife, you can sort of believe him.  It helps that Christine Evangelista is the real deal, giving a bright and magnetic performance that shows she was being absolutely wasted on The Walking Dead.

Where it falters is where it explores the Hollywood fantasy life that's similar to what Tom Cruise must lead and the Institute of the Higher Mind, which is clearly modeled after Scientology.  I get why both of these elements are necessary -- the Hollywood fantasy aspect helps us understand why this offer would appeal to people and the Institute of the Higher Mind will be the central driver of conflict moving forward -- but neither is really compelling.  The glitzy celebrity fluff just feels like the rest of the stuff E! peddles, and it's not like Josh Henderson has the screen presence of a Tom Cruise.  And the Institute of the Higher Mind material feels like such a ripoff of Scientology that it's not all that interesting.

The Arrangement is not quite there enough to be weekly watching yet -- it needs to find a better balance of reality and trash.  Still, Evangelista has got major star power and they tease out an enough interesting mystery about her character that it could end up being a solid show in the future.
Grade: B-

Feud (FX, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Who would have thought that Ryan Murphy, the guy behind Nip/Tuck and Glee, would eventually become the most powerful TV producer in the industry?  He seems to churn out a new anthology series every week now, and the latest one we've gotten is Feud, which will stay true to its title and focus on famous conflicts.  Season one finds him working in his wheelhouse, covering the rivalry between actors Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, which culminated during the production of the 1962 film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Like all Murphy affairs, one of the biggest joys is the cast he puts together.  This might be his impressive ensemble yet.  Alfred Molina!  Stanley Tucci!  Jessica Lange!  Susan Surandon!

The series clearly has a love and reverence for the golden age of Hollywood. Look no further than the incredible Saul Bass-inspired credits that start off each episode for evidence of that admiration.  People like myself who have less knowledge and the era in general will discover alot of enlightening information, but I wonder how far that interest goes.  Can this show do more than just appeal to people who have affection for this milieu?  The pilot leaves that question up in the air.  Feud promises to be about more than just the feud between Crawford and Davis but as of right now it isn't really.  And the rivalry isn't quite as interesting as the show would like to think.

Of the main duo, Joan Crawford is the one who gets more shading.  She's painted as someone who is a little vain and just wants to be respected by this woman who secretly (but clearly) admires.  Couple that with her issues with aging and Lange's committed performance, and it makes for a rich and compelling character.  Other Ryan Murphy shows tend to have a tough time finding the balance between camp and prestige, but this one has a good mix.  It's equal parts cheesy and catty.  If Feud can keep that balance, and flesh out more of the characters the way it has with Crawford, then it could live up to FX's reputation for high-quality content.
Grade: B