Wednesday, October 15, 2014
A good ensemble is a rare thing. Just one wrong actor, one ill fitting character, and the whole group feels like a lopsided top. I say this because the show Happy Endings had a great ensemble. It was nearly perfect in that regard. And it was cancelled far too soon. So now we have Marry Me, network television's way of apologizing for cancelling something so good.
It wasn't David Caspe that made Happy Endings such a delightful show. It was the ensemble. Marry Me's ensemble isn't choking on the material, exactly, but nothing's popping. Ken Marino and Casey Wilson, the lead couple, are terrific and very well suited for each other, but the side characters are forgettable and weak. And without that brilliant ensemble, we are faced with raw, unprepared Caspe, and this is a dish that needs cooking.
First of all, Caspe really likes dropping big emotional bombs, right off the bat, and then walking away from them. Happy Endings began with a botched wedding, Marry Me, a botched engagement. In both cases, it is painted as the woman's fault (a pattern I'd rather we not keep hammering deeper). And in both cases, it is something very quickly forgotten, so everyone can go back to being all chummy and making jokes. The jokes are fine, but why even have the big emotional moments if you don't want to follow through?
In Marry Me, Jake (Marino) proposes to his girlfriend, Annie (Wilson), and she winds up embarrassing herself and insulting him in front of everyone, and he basically revokes the engagement. This is a really major emotional event and as soon as it happens, Caspe is already walking back. He's already putting up deflection jokes to undo the damage his characters have done. By the end of the episode, it's all put back together very nicely, and I feel like nothing even happened.
This is not to say that this is a bad pilot. The jokes were funny, the chemistry was instant between Wilson and Marino, and Tim Meadows can do no wrong in my eyes. The problems I have with Marry Me apply to a lot of other sitcoms as well, and maybe it is a compliment that the biggest flaw I can find in this show is with the genre.
There is an addiction to perfection in the sitcom world. Every episode needs to begin with characters being mostly happy and end with them being mostly happy. With Seinfeld, it made sense. The problems faced, episode to episode, were so mundane that they could be solved in half an hour. But when you are cancelling weddings or alienating all of your loved ones in one go, these are problems that take a while to fix in any meaningful way. And this is the Caspe curse: The jokes are funny, the chemistry is great, but nothing has any meaning.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
John Mulaney is a funny guy. He's been writing for SNL for a long time, he's got a very promising stand-up special under his belt, and he's unique. Also, he cannot write a sit-com to save his life.
This is a bad pilot. This is a really really bad pilot. It is filled with lazy and sometimes upsetting stereotypes (the bad black comedian, the crazy girl), and gives far too much screen time to Martin Short. It makes me wonder if you, John Mulaney, are a talented stand-up comedian, why make a sitcom? If you have funny jokes to tell us, why not just tell us those jokes instead of putting them in the mouth of a bunch of overacting stereotypes.
See, to me, stand-up comedy is comedy in its purest. You tell us a joke, and we laugh. And if that's all you want to do, keep doing stand-up. If you want to tell stories, then you go into sitcoms. But it doesn't seem like Mulaney wants to tell any stories at all. The pilot is minimally about a comedian feeling undervalued at his new job, but the plot has no stakes, the characters have no real conflict. No one hurts or heals. No one feels anything complex. Everyone just stands at their marks and says year-and-a-half-old John Mulaney jokes.
When trying to figure out why this was so bad, I remembered Louie C.K.'s first sitcom, Lucky Louie. It was a multicam, blandly-lit, by-the-books sitcom. It's crazy to think that the guy behind Lucky Louie went on to eventually produce Louie, which is the greatest sitcom ever made.
But Mulaney isn't even as good as Lucky Louie. Even in the confines of the multicam, Louie C.K. had something to say, something about frustration and loneliness. As a comedian, Louie C.K. was able to talk about feeling pathetic and worthless, but for the first time, he was able to show you these feelings. He was able to perform. Mulaney has no point, nothing interesting to say, and on top of that, John Mulaney himself seems entirely unwilling, or unable to perform. He embodies nothing except whatever joke he is currently telling.
Honestly, this is not a terrible show. And I'm a little disappointed, because I was all primed and ready with some killer puns just in case the show was bad. And no, I won't tell you those awesome Bad Judge puns. I will take them to my grave.
But seriously, how bonkers is it that there are people whose job it is to judge us? To sit above us all and proclaim from on high that we deserve to be punished? It is an accepted part of our legal system, and yet it is a mostly unexamined mindset.
This show takes an interesting approach to the subject by embodying "Judge not, that ye be not judged." During this episode, Bad Judge's Rebecca Wright (Kate Walsh) is constantly judged by other people. And she doesn't get upset, she doesn't resent it. The conflict of Bad Judge is not about being stigmatized. It's not about her crumbling relationships and her constant assholishness. This is not Rake. The conflict arises from Rebecca's relationship with a young boy whose mother Rebecca has sent to jail. It is about her role after her judgment has been made and her punishment has been exacted.
Kate Walsh is excellent. The supporting cast is fine, and Chris Parnell shows up and sprinkles comedy gold on everything he touches. So how do I know this show is going to get cancelled?
Because it's not about a young woman. The fact that this show is about a full grown adult woman who is slutty and messy and unapologetic puts a bulls-eye on its back. For whatever reason, on TV, you can be a young bad girl, an old bad man, or an old good woman, but according to network TV, the instant you turn 40, your vagina snaps shut like a bear trap.
Bad Judge is in no way perfect. But it's solid, and could easily grow into something formidable. Unfortunately, I strongly doubt we'll ever see that happen.
Friday, October 10, 2014
I find myself questioning my role as I write this review of The Affair. I'm aware that I should explain the premise of the show and describe how the pilot sets up that premise. I can't do that. Because it's so much better if you don't know what the premise is (beyond the fact that two people will at one point have an affair). So, I have a very specific goal for this review. I am going to convince you to watch this show without talking about anything that happens in the pilot. Then you will watch the show. And I will be happy.
First of all, let me say that the casting decisions for this show are perfect. And not just because the actors are excellent, but because they are so incredibly un-sexy. Dominic West always looks like he's just gotten lost in a grocery store, and Ruth Wilson, at the wrong angle, looks like a Simpsons character. And it's brilliant! Because they look like real people. They don't look like models. When characters in this pilot have sex (because it's a Showtime pilot so everyone has to have all the sex), it's funny looking, because full-grown men having sex is really funny looking.
After seeing this episode, I'm actually kind of mad at all the love stories I've seen up until now. What this show has revealed is that you devalue your love story by casting total hotties. You cheapen their love; you transform it into shallow, basic lust. If you want to make a story about something true and powerful and affecting, make it about people who fall in love for reasons other than a great rack and a strong chin.
Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself, because this pilot isn't really about love. I can't tell you what it's about. But it's not about love.
This show, oddly enough, is a mystery. But not in the way you'd expect. The show asks the question, "What happened?" And then, instead of showing you what happened, it just makes hints, allegations. It skirts around what happened. It recounts, and then recants. It dances with the truth.
I will say that one of this show's strongest weapons is a limited scope. A small scope can keep stakes high, and make every moment feel more important, but it's also a double-edged sword, and one that has cut me before. (Homeland, I'm looking at you.) The events of this show have a lot of weight because you know that the show does not have endless variations. It is one story - one thrust through a limited section of these people's lives. This show and others of its ilk reject the television norm and toss the very idea of status quo. This makes me excited to see how the writers will keep the show alive, but at the same time, I dread having to watch them cart the show's lifeless body around many seasons past its expiration date.
Anyway, I hope this review was vague and uninformative because maybe it will compel you to watch the show just to find out what the fuck I was talking about.
The pilot for The Flash begins with the line (in voice over, because fuck you), "To understand what I'm about to tell you, you need to do something first: you need to believe in the impossible."
This is a nice sentiment, sure. But it foreshadows basically everything wrong with this episode of television. I can believe that a man bitten by a spider or struck by lighting can suddenly get super powers (and abs). I can even believe that dressing up in a unitard and fighting crime is a remotely reasonable thing to do with your abilities, but that doesn't mean you have carte blanche to do whatever the hell you want, all the time. For example, if you are running at 200 miles per hour and you catch someone falling off their bike, you are essentially hitting them at 200 miles per hour. You're not helping. And it takes only the slightest thought to deduce this fact. And there are so many others. You should watch this episode, seriously, as a sight-seeing tour through stupid ideas.
And it's not just geek-thought problems. There are so many TV sins in one episode, including, but not limited to: secret wall of newspaper clippings connected by red yarn (as if people still get information from physical newspapers), endless tedious voice over, beginning the episode with mom dying (why must everyone's parents die?), ostracizing nerds for being smart ("in English please!"), and so many more. Actually, let me follow up on that last sin. I don't understand why people keep writing the interchange in which a smart person describes in vaguely technical terms what something is and then someone else demands they explain it in less "sciencey" terms. Especially when what they are saying is only confusing to a ninth grader who's never read a Wikipedia article. This scene is lazy, and cliche, and more importantly, inaccurate. People, especially young people, do not ostracize intelligent, attractive young men nowadays. Geeks are chic and everyone loves Sherlock. It's so very late 90s to assume that nerd is a bad word anymore. In fact, this whole pilot is very late 90s. Look at this guy's hair:
|I kept expecting this guy to whip out his heart ring|
and summon Captain Planet.
To be fair, The Flash is not all bad. There are some funny jokes, some decent character building, mostly strong performances, and just enough self awareness to keep you from throwing up in your mouth. All in all, it could be worse (it could be Gotham). I think the biggest mistake the pilot made was in that opening voice over I mentioned. It should have been, "To understand what I'm about to tell you, you need to do something first: you need to believe we are still living in the 1990s."
Monday, October 6, 2014
Step one: Add 1 beautiful woman. Kill her.
Step two: Add glib, sociopathic dialogue. Stir until thoroughly disgusting.
Step three: Add 1 new vulnerable woman in peril every 15 minutes.
Step four: Add a dash of disturbing gender politics.
Step five: Garnish with in-jokes and self-reference so everyone knows how clever you are.
Step six: Overcook.
And there you have it. You've written a Kevin Williamson script. Good for you. If it's 1996, you're a goddamn rebel. If it's 2014, you should be embarrassed.