Friday, July 10, 2015


The most important piece of advice I've ever received, when it comes to telling story is this: Get to it. Don't futz around. Don't dwell on your themes or your social commentary. If you got a story, whip it out, let's see it. If you have a journey planned, I better be on the road by the time Episode One ends. In fact, I better have already made my first pit stop for snacks and a toilet.

I will admit that Humans is not a perfect show, but it certainly gets to it, right quick.

Humans is a show about robots. It is set in an alternate reality where robots are so advanced that they can perfectly copy humans. They lack original thought or sentience (some exceptions may apply), but they are capable enough to have replaced humans in most manual labor jobs. The show follows several characters over several different points in time. The main character, Anita, is a nanny-bot seeming to develop sentience. But the show doesn't linger on the mystery of whether or not she can think for very long. Instead, it jumps into the past where she and a few other robots are on the run.

Escaping from linear storytelling is just about the best choice the show makes. Instead of getting bogged down in any one stage in this journey, we get the best of all worlds. We see Anita beginning to develop sentience in a domestic scenario. We see how the various members of the family react to her. But just when the show starts to circle the drain, we jump to a high stakes fugitive plot, with plenty of seedy underbelly. And, just when that gets a little pointless, we get a side story of a man who can't say goodbye to his out-of-date robot, because it is the last vestige of the old man's dead wife. And, by jumping around, the show allows the audience to ruminate on grander themes, to read between the lines.

But it's not just the plot that kicks in at high gear. The show wastes no time showing off its stylistic ace in the hole: The Uncanny Valley. This is a term that is meant to demonstrate the level of discomfort people feel when presented with things that are almost, but not exactly, lifelike. Japanese androids, the animated films of Robert Zemeckis, and Jason Derulo, all fall into this category, where by being so close to human, but not quite there, we are uncomfortable with their presence. Somehow, through computer effects, practical effects, and very good acting, this show has managed to put actual people into the Uncanny Valley. So much of the tension of the domestic scenes is created by the very presence of a woman who is not quite human. And this is why the show's name - Humans - makes sense. The whole purpose of the show is to present the audience with a human and then tell them over and over, "this is not a human." The cognitive dissonance created makes for a perpetual unease, that occasionally boils over into quasi-terror.

I should point out that Humans is not perfect. Oftentimes, this episode opts to explain a philosophical concept, rather than demonstrate it. A few early plot points are trampled during the mad dash to narrative gold. And the family doesn't stray too far from stereotype. But most TV families are boring. At least this one has a nightmare robot creepily cleaning the table while they eat.


Mr. Robot

What is the primary function of a first chapter? I've been thinking about this a lot. Whether it be TV, comics, books, or whatever kind of story you are telling, what must your introduction accomplish, to be successful? I've read a lot of ideas on the subject. I've heard the first chapter's function is to bring the audience into the world, introduce the characters and themes, or establish the story's hook. But for every proposed purpose, there is a counter example. There is only one function that every good Chapter One must accomplish, from which all other qualities derive. It is this: Chapter One must make you want to read/watch Chapter Two.

I lay all this out because, while Mr. Robot has many merits, the pilot doesn't make me want to watch Episode Two. And that's a shame because this is a good episode.

Mr. Robot is a show that is not actually about a robot. It's about a young man named Elliot (Rami Malek) with exceptional computer skills and very poor personal skills. Elliot is a cyber security specialist by day and a hacker vigilante by night. He finds people who he suspects of being wicked in some way, invades their cyber life and eventually either blackmails them or just turns them in to the authorities. He also clearly has a host of mental disabilities including, but not limited to, Social Anxiety, Delusions, Autism, and Depression. He then meets the eponymous "Mr. Robot" who is actually just Christian Slater. "Mr. Robot" brings Elliot into a ragtag group of hackers bent on crushing the world's largest corporate conglomerate, which is actually called Evil Corp (not kidding). Elliot agrees to take on the fight because of course he would, being that he is a disenfranchised hacker, and in the end, the battle begins.

That's about it. The good guys and bad guys are established. The world is established -  a deeply subjective world, as it seems we are seeing it through the eyes of our delusional hero. And the hook - the most accurate portrayal of computer hacking to ever grace the small screen - is thoroughly established.

But there are fundamental cracks in all these ideas that undermine the exceptional tone and thoughtfulness of this episode. As for the characters, Malek is a gem who manages to thoroughly captivate us from the second he appears on screen. But Slater is not really the best foil. He's supposed to be a charismatic leader, but he comes across as smarmy, and little else.

The idea of a world seen through the eyes of a conspiracy nut is interesting, but also really boring. The show is chock full of tirades against the modern world that lack the eloquence and passion of say, Do the Right Thing or The Social Network. These tirades wind up feeling more like a checklist of things young disenfranchised people might hate.

And then there's the hook: the hacking. I am pleased that we've moved beyond the game of Snood that used to pass for hacking in fiction, but this show still fumbles trying to find how best to mine drama from computer hacking. One scene in particular in Mr. Robot puts Elliot in a server room, frantically trying to switch to a backup server before the primary cuts out. This scene is punctuated with lines of code and a blinking circle. No amount of dramatic music is ever going to make this scene anything but a guy on a laptop typing while a circle on a monitor blinks. It's just not very dramatic. No one's life is in danger. The stakes are abstract, ethereal. Other scenes use hacking more effectively, as a way to search and snoop. A fact-finding scene, or even a world-establishing scene. But with most of the high points of the story being computer related, the show winds up stuck with limited stakes. I'm not sure what will happen if our hero fails, and I'm not sure I care.

It should be mentioned that this is a USA show, and it is a massive step in a new direction for the blue skies network. The show is brooding and thoughtful in a way that's not entirely annoying. There is lots of sex and drugs and other things that would upset people looking for reruns of Burn Notice. But in other ways, the show stays true to its USA roots. Slater at one point says that the best way to take down Evil Corp is one executive at a time, outlining the show's procedural hook. Every episode we'll be taking down another Wall Street villain. It's pure fantasy, and I'm not sure if the show is willing to engage with the realities of what they are doing. I doubt we'll ever get a shot of the mean executive they framed, in prison, weeping, alone in the dark, with only the fading memories of his children's faces to keep him comfort.

I'm not sure how to give a letter grade to this episode as it was very entertaining, yet I doubt I'll ever watch Episode Two. It failed as a pilot, but it succeeded as a brief venture into the world of cyber warfare and crushing loneliness.

I'll give it a B.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

American Odyssey

Before I get into this review, I must mention that Anna Friel makes any chance of a neutral, objective review completely hopeless. When I see her face, my critical brain shuts off. It's not that she's sexy or provocative. She's attractive, in a gravitational sense. She absorbs. She captivates. She is the jailer of my solitary focus. I am not watching a TV show when she appears on screen. I am eating a feast.

So, today, I'll be doing my best to review the parts of this pilot that do not feature Anna Friel. American Odyssey has several interweaving plot lines having to do with terrorism, business, information, all glossed over with a heavy coat of conspiracy. When an American Special Forces team find and kill a famous terrorist leader, they happen upon some information that seriously incriminates a U.S. company. They are promptly wiped out by a private military outfit. All except the Special Forces translator, played by Friel, who then attempts to make her way home in a hostile land. Along the way, she makes expressions with her face that make me feel like my insides are turning into warm tea...

Anyway, across the globe, the show's other, less delirium-inducing characters  are a collection of lame stereotypes. A bumbling nerd hacker who lives with his mom. A rich Lawyer struggling with his conscience. An Occupy Wall Street protester in a fashionable hat who talks like a protester who has been asleep since 1969. I don't like any of these characters very much. And what's troubling is that the show doesn't seem to like them much either. When the Occupy Wall Street kid comes home with a girl who says she's a reporter for Time Magazine, the show cuts to ominous shots of her looking suspicious. There's no ambiguity here. She's a fucking spy. You know it, he doesn't. This just makes him look like an idiot.

By the end of the episode, the writers spill the beans on the whole conspiracy. You know who the bad guys are and why they are doing what they are doing. There's no mystery any more and there are eight more episodes.

The filmmakers behind this episode are crafting a reverse magic trick, where you see all the strings and mirrors, and the characters in the show play the confused audience. But, much like standing back stage during a magic show, it's not very entertaining.

All in all, I can't say this is a good show. I can say, for sure, that I will watch every episode. Because they have not yet invented drugs as powerful as watching Anna Friel act.


Friday, April 10, 2015


A lot of people nowadays forget that most of Shakespeare's plays - nearly all of the great ones - were adaptations. He had little interest in making his own stories from scratch. He would take old legends, old poems, old historical records, and he would insert two things: beauty and ambiguity. Take the story of Amleth, a classic story of royal betrayal and revenge that was then retold by Shakespeare as 'Hamlet,' a story of introspection and inaction. The writing is so stunningly effective, it is over-quoted, four hundred years later. Now, all of this is not to say that Daredevil is Shakespearean in quality. It isn't. I'm simply saying that there is nothing wrong with retelling old stories. But to retell a story well, you'd better insert some beauty and some ambiguity.

So we arrive at Daredevil, another phase in Marvel's campaign to dominate the world. It is a retelling of a comic book series that debuted in 1964 about Matt Murdock, a blind vigilante. As a child Matt is blinded by some radioactive chemical which gives him supernatural hearing and olfaction. By day he is a lawyer and by night a crime-fighter. The first two episodes do little to establish his impetus for crime fighting (though it's not hard to guess). Instead they focus more on what happens after he decides to put on a mask. From this point, we meet the allies he makes - a new assistant for his law firm, and a street-wise nurse for his crime fighting - as well as the bad guys he will face as the show progresses - a murky establishment of criminals and business men. It's all lifted pretty faithfully from the comic. So, how does it fare as an adaptation? We'll give it the Shakespeare approach and talk about beauty and ambiguity.

When it comes to beauty, the show really knocks it out of the park. I was initially skeptical about Daredevil. It was being pitched as "gritty" which, these days, means "monochromatic and humorless." And I didn't think I could stand to watch a 13-episode series with the color pallet of a high school cafeteria. Luckily, the show has a lot more to offer in terms of visuals. For example:

In Daredevil, windows tell the story. Scenes are usually set in front of large windows. These windows tell you something about the character standing before them. For example, Matt Murdock, the blind vigilante, never sees whats outside the window, so neither do we. He is lit by stained glass which obscures the details, but still provides the putrid yellows and sickly greens coming from outside, symbolizing the danger and horror of the city.

When Daredevil launches into its action scenes, it aims to impress in a way that is rare for TV. The fights are frenetic and thrilling, occasionally slowing down to give you a glimpse of how a blind man fights. I was most impressed with how painful every fight looked.

But, while it nails beauty, when it comes to ambiguity, the show falls short.

In the second episode, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is introduced as a moral observer to Matt Murdock's crime fighting ways. She is aware of his actions, and understands the positive outcomes, but she also calls into question his unethical methods. This kind of character is really important to thoughtful art, as you never want your audience to be trapped by the world view of your main character, especially when his world view is a little skewed. So she adds a dissenting voice. But, sadly, as the episode goes on, she eventually puts her morals aside and joins in on torturing a bad guy. This is a shame as she could have infused the episode with a lot of ethical complexity.

Matt Murdock is perfect as an ambiguous super hero. Throughout the show, the bad guys aren't always street thugs. Some of them are cops, or businessmen in suits. But, like lady justice, Murdock is blind, judging you for your actions only. Sadly, the show doesn't fully capitalize on this. None of the cops in the show are actually bad. They are either crooks pretending to be cops, or a cop forced to do bad stuff to save someone else.

In spite of its shortcomings, Daredevil is ambitious in a way that other Marvel shows aren't. While Captain America fights for the fate of the world, Matt Murdock is knocking out a fat guy in a recliner. Daredevil knows there are aliens and gods fighting above us, but Daredevil doesn't care. It may not be Hamlet, but above all else: it is true to itself.


Monday, March 9, 2015

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

For me, hell is being trapped in a sitcom. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I rattle the bars of my cage, nothing will ever change. It's for this reason that I think sitcoms have become largely pessimistic over the last few decades. Back in the 1950s, the American Dream was one of routine. Get a job, get a family, never advance or age, just work, and impart parental advice. A whole host of shows followed on this wave. Sitcom America was a place where everyone was happy, no one ever learned from their mistakes and nothing ever changed. But, after decades of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, American audiences finally caught on. The American Dream was... creepy. And rather than upend this comedy format they'd become so attached to, American TV writers began subtly poking holes in the sitcom standard. Now, no one learned from their mistakes, nothing changed, and life was a little sad.

These days, life is very sad if you are a sitcom character. Whether you are trapped at a community college forever, or navigating being a depressed single dad, sitcoms are about a time in your life that you are happy to recount to others, but are glad you are not experiencing anymore. Which is why The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is kind of amazing.

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's new Netflix sitcom is the most optimistic show I have seen in years. It is about a cult survivor who suddenly decides to move to New York City with nothing but a middle school education and a supernaturally positive attitude. It could be a horribly depressing kind of show. A show where the naive, broken girl,  is slowly crushed by the real world. But that's not the case. This is a show about putting your life together. About diving into the deep end to learn how to swim. Unlike most sitcoms, The Unbrekable Kimmy Schmidt, is about the most important year in Kimmy's life. It's exciting, if a bit overwhelming.

Ellie Kemper is amazing. With a kaleidoscope smile, impressive physical momentum, and endless double-edged comebacks, she makes naivete look cool. And the supporting cast is a blast. Jane Krakowski is basically cut and pasted from 30 Rock, which is in no way a bad thing, as Tina Fey loves writing about desperate women entirely out of touch with reality. Carol Kane is an utterly terrific, under-the-radar comedian. She's relegated mostly to brief exchanges on a Brooklyn stoop, which is perfect for her kind of humor. Tituss Burgess is doing his fabulous thing, which is fine, I guess. I see how his character fits into Kimmy's life, but his plot lines on their own are fairly weak.

On the whole, I can't recommend this show enough. It's optimistic without being bland. It's heartwarming without being cloying. It's shockingly dark at times without ever being cynical. And even when the jokes aren't landing as hard as they could, I'm pretty sure watching Ellie Kemper smile will add years to your life.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In Defense of the Oscars

I’m taking a break from format to talk about something that’s important to me: The Oscars. However, I do not plan on defending the tedious, frequently insulting, sometimes blissfully absurd Oscar ceremony that occurred last Sunday. I’m here to defend the Oscars as an institution not as a three-hour snooze fest.

Why defend the Oscars?

The Academy gets a lot of hate. This is probably a reaction to the amount of love the Academy showers itself with. It’s hard not to lash out at a group so notorious for self-congratulation, but I think a lot of the flak the Academy gets is due to a fundamental lack of understanding in what purpose the Academy actually serves. They are not here to pick the best picture of the year. They are here to aid the process of natural selection.

What does film making have to do with natural selection?

To understand the Academy Awards and what they do, you should look at filmmaking as a species that is evolving. Evolution happens due to natural selection. Some external force must shape a population for it to change. This force enacts change by killing off individuals unsuited for survival and rewarding the stronger individuals by allowing them to reproduce. Filmmaking works in a similar way. You begin with a big pile of scripts, most of which will not come to fruition. When a script finally does become a movie, it must “perform” at the box office. This performance is objectively qualified via revenue. If the film is successful at the box office, other films will attempt to copy the original film in some way.

This is how films reproduce. Instead of a mom giving birth to a child, Twilight gives birth to a sequel, but more indirectly, also gives birth to The Hunger Games. Not a sequel, but clearly a movie trying out the same formula in the hope of drawing an audience. In this way we can see certain films birthing dozens of other films, sometimes entire genres (Dirty Harry, The Matrix, It Happened One Night). These are biologically speaking, very “fit” members of their species. Other films such as John Carter or The Lone Ranger are weak members of the film species. They perform poorly and thus they do not get to reproduce. There will be no Lone Ranger sequel and Jerry Bruckheimer will have a hard time getting his hands on another 150 million dollar budget.

You could look at whole genres as genes that were adaptive for a while but then quickly lost their competitive edge. For example, back in the old days, Westerns were everywhere. They were the most popular genre for men in the United States. But after a while, just like in evolution, the landscape changed, and The Western couldn’t compete with the Cop Drama. And, soon enough, movies that spawned from John Ford and Sergio Leone began dying loudly at the box office. You could see Lone Ranger as the last of its species, wiped out by natural selection. You could also see it as a terrible film, but that’s beside the point.

Much like in evolution, there is no higher order in the film world. There is only the struggle, which as a whole produces a cohesive form, but individually, is a disorganized, desperate fight for survival.

So where do the Oscars fit in to all of this?

In natural selection, what you sometimes get is a species developing two separate ways to survive and reproduce, both evolving simultaneously. Take, for example, the Giant Cuttlefish. For a male Giant Cuttlefish to mate, it must find a female and fight off the other males, thus ensuring the strength and ferocity of the species’ males. But, there are also smaller male Giant Cuttlefish, who have discovered another strategy, whereby they pretend to be a female. The males like to collect as many females as they can. So the sneaky male joins the bigger male’s harem and quietly mates with all the ladies, right under the protective larger male. In this way, natural selection is ensuring that the strongest and the smartest Giant Cuttlefish get to reproduce.

The like Giant Cuttlefish, The Academy Awards have provided an alternate way to reproduce. Our previous metric for the success of a film was its box office performance. But if films today only copied the formulas of high revenue films, then we wouldn’t have films by Wes Anderson or Spike Jonze. Films that are showered with awards also spawn copies, despite sometimes performing below average at the box office. This is because the producers making these films believe the Oscars have a value that is higher than money. The Oscars represent the respect of their peers. And thus producers will make films that may not make much money in the hunt for an Oscar. For example, look at the film The Hurt Locker, which performed decently at the box office, but not great. Regardless, it won all sorts of Oscars. And you could see a film like American Sniper as a child of the Hurt Locker.

In evolutionary the Academy Awards provide “genetic diversity.” The reason every human doesn’t look the same and the reason one Cuttlefish sneaks while the other fights, is because the survival of a species is dependent on diversity: multiple approaches to a single problem. If only the monetarily robust films survived and spawned copies, then the film industry would be a depressingly one note affair. Take a look at the top grossing films of 2011, four years ago.

1              Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2    
2              Transformers: Dark of the Moon             
3              Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides        
4              The Twilight Saga: Breaking DawnPart 1           
5              Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol    
6              Kung Fu Panda 2              
7              Fast Five             
8              The Hangover Part II      
9              The Smurfs        
10            Cars 2

Now imagine that every film made in the year 2014 was a copy, or a knock off of one of those films.

Instead, we saw Damien Chazelle’s bizarre torturous look at music school, Wes Anderson’s pop-up-book ode to chivalry, and Richard Linklater’s twelve-years-in-the-making, nonchalant foray in existentialism. And we saw these not because Wes Anderson is a genius. We saw them because a producer saw his script and thought, “This may not make much money, but it’s kind of similar to all those arty movies that win Oscars, so I’m going to make it because I would like a golden statue of a naked man.”

Birdman was kind of lousy and pretentious. Does this mean we’re going to be seeing more lousy pretentious films?

Yes and no. Birdman is by no means perfect. The dialogue is on the nose and Iñárritu, bless his heart, cannot structure a movie to save his life. But that’s not what producers were looking at when they greenlit Birdman. They were looking at its core components. It is artistically extravagant, it is metatextual, and it invites deeper readings. These are qualities in a script that do not make money. But they are qualities that get Oscars. And thus they are qualities that future producers will be looking for when they greenlight films. This may lead to a bunch of pretentious films, sure, but it could also lead to the next gem from Charlie Kaufman. It’s hard to say. In this way, even a terrible best picture winner is not always a bad thing. Crash is a bad film by any standard, but its core components have value. Meditations on a theme, structural creativity, discussions of race, these components (which were in no way invented by Crash) have since found their way into other better films, which may have been greenlit because of their Crash-ness.

This is not to say that the Oscars can do no wrong. Nominating a film like Avatar, which has already been rewarded enough by the box office, in no way promotes genetic diversity within the film world. And consistently disregarding certain genres will eventually drive talent away from those kinds of films. But, the next time you hear someone say, “X was robbed!” referring to a best picture nominee, ask yourself, what were they robbed of? Did they make money at the box office? Did they get an Oscar nomination? If so, then we’ll see more from that well, and really you’re just complaining because a producer, who you don’t actually know, didn’t get a naked man statue. And the next time you hear someone say, “The Oscars don’t matter,” remind yourself of what the world would look like if movie making was only about money.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Mozart in the Jungle

It's tough writing reviews for pilots airing on Netflix or Amazon or any venue that presents you with every episode all at once. In one sense, I think a show really benefits from being able to craft a full season in one go. But, on the other hand, it means that the pilot frequently feels less like the show's mission statement and more like a first chapter. I don't see the point in reviewing a first chapter. That being said, Mozart in the Jungle does a lot of good work laying out the bizarre world of hardcore partying classical musicians. And it's a fun little world.

Based on the book, Mozart in the Jungle is about the strange inner workings of the classical music scene in New York City. A lot of humor is squeezed out of the contrast between the classical and the contemporary: downing shots between rounds of an oboe vs. flute play-off.

The show is written in part by Roman Coppola and Jason Shwartzman - and they bring their love of being young and understated in the big city - but their dialogue feels somehow muted in this setting. For all their musical virtuosity, the characters are a little one note. Everyone is surface level quirky, as opposed to Roman's usual deep inner quirkiness. The directing is odd. There's no consistent stylistic voice. At one point, the show slips into bizarre impressionistic visuals, at another point it uses 30 Rock-style cutaway gags. It keeps you on your toes, for sure, but it's also distracting and makes the whole episode feel disjointed.

All in all, if you like Girls and want something like that, but set in the New York classical music scene, you might dig this? I don't really know.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...