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.

A-

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.

B

Empire



A word of advice: if you are going to remake King Lear, and set it in the world of hip hop, don't have one of your characters say, "What is this, King Lear?" It's not cute, it's lazy.

So, this is basically Dallas, but with hip hop instead of Country. And really bad hip hop, too. Every time someone plays a track and goes, "That's nice," I wonder if this is secretly a show about deaf people. But, to be fair, Timbaland isn't going to write his best stuff for a network drama. He's got Jay-Z on the other line. So, ignoring the horrible music this show made me listen too, I walk away a little mixed.

First, the good stuff: Taraj P. Henson. This woman is not messing around. She can chew the scenery and then, in a split second, become relaxed and comfortable. She sinks her teeth into the material, even if the material is paper thin. I love it that Henson makes the decision not to play her character like a madwoman, but like a woman who pretends to be mad. Being unpredictable gives her power, and she uses that power. More good stuff: addressing hip hop homophobia. This is a subject that deserves a little inspection and I appreciate the show for not pushing the gay artist into the background.

Now, the bad stuff: Terrence Howard. I like the guy, but this is a phoned-in performance. He delivers every line like he's asking a stranger for directions. He has been given a rich and complicated character who could be a villain or a tragic hero, depending on the performance, but Howard just plays him like a cameo. He is almost always framed in the middle of the scene, and he's like a black hole, so utterly devoid of all content that he destroys the scene around him. More bad stuff: the writing. Every scene was so transparent. Two characters arrive at a location, explain what they want, scheme an obvious plot and then move on. At a certain point, as long as I know who's in the scene, I know exactly what will happen.

One thing I can say for Empire's pilot is that it's clearly holding nothing back. Sometimes, pilots for epic soapy dramas can start a little piddling, but this isn't the case for Empire. There's lust, betrayal, and murder, all in the first episode. But this also demonstrates Empire's weakness. The show has shown its hand and there's not a whole lot to bet on.

B-

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Agent Carter



I think it's possible to appreciate the past without sliding into nostalgia. Every generation had a fresh new view of the world. I don't buy the whole "simpler times" bullshit. But I do think there were remarkable times. There is something charming in the birth of cinema, the first shaky steps we took into the visual medium, when everything was fresh and new and tying a damsel to a train track was down right inspired. This admiration for our storytelling roots is what gave us Raiders of the Lost Ark, every Wes Anderson film, and now, Agent Carter, the newest addition to Marvel's media blitzkrieg.

Agent Carter follows the thrilling adventures of Peggy Carter, who works for a mysterious government agency in post WWII America. The fact that she is Captain America's ex-girlfriend, or that this all somehow fits into the ever-expanding Marvel cinematic universe is thankfully pushed to the background. What matters here is the thrilling adventures.

The first episode features exploding orbs, lethal hitmen with removed vocal chords, shady deals at fancy balls, and sci-fi technology made from typewriters and old razors. Agent Carter grabs a big armful of old school pulp storytelling, slips in some modern ideas on gender, and drops it in your lap. It's a blast (sometimes literally) to watch. And it has at its core a woman with enough emotional depth to keep the whole thing grounded.

If I had to pick what I liked the most about this pilot (which I'm having a very hard time doing), it would have to be Hayley Atwell's performance as the titular character. She is magnetic. And she's been given a character that makes perfect use of her blinding confidence as an actor. Carter is tough and practical, but what stands out for me is that she has no tacked-on flaws. The writers have smartly avoided giving her a run-of-the-mill weakness. She's not an asshole. She's not a mess at home. She's polite and kind, never relenting an inch in a world that is not particularly fair to single women in the work place. And she should be perfect. This is Captain America's girlfriend!

I also have to point out how much I love this pilot's approach to sexism. If you're going to make a period TV show, it's hard not to address this unfortunate part of American culture, especially in late 1940s America, where men were re-entering the work force and displacing thousands of women. But there's a line you have to tow: you can't ignore how sexist America was, but at the same time, you've got to make a point beyond "sexism is bad." I sometimes get very bored with Mad Men after the nth scene showing me how much it sucked to be a woman in the 1960s. This show proposes a simple solution: instead of sexism being the point of the show, it is simply one more obstacle standing between Agent Carter and saving the world.

A

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Galavant



I like Dan Fogleman for the simplest of reasons: He is funny and he rarely infuriates me. If you are looking for something funny that won't make you terribly angry, then don't bother with the rest of this review. You can go watch Galavant and enjoy yourself.

But, if you are looking for anything deeper than a hearty chuckle and Timothy Omundson's soft shoe, then I fear you will be uniquely disappointed by Galavant. The story is fast paced and the songs are well written (because they're written by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater), but in the end, the show doesn't seem to have anything to say. It picks apart the cruelty of the medieval fantasy genre, but only for the purpose of a few laughs, and nothing else.

There is one moment in the beginning that borders on subversive when Galavant (Joshua Sasse) comes to rescue his girlfriend Madalena (Mallory Jensen) from being married to the wicked King Richard (Timothy Omundson) and she politely declines. This is something we rarely see in fantasy: in a time rife with poverty, war, and the plague, things like wealth and security are far more important than love. And the show could have made Madalena a very relatable character, but instead, she is portrayed as a greedy shrew. Ultimately the show condemns her for wanting something other than a man.

Galavant's horrible girlfriend is only one example of the many ways this show sashays to the edge of subversion before immediately backing away. And again, I must stress, this is not a condemnation of the show's production, acting, or plot. The show is functional, occasionally delightful. It's simply pointless. Galavant may wish it were Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but without a stronger effort to attack established fantasy cliches, Galavant will surely end up as the kind of tale that Monty Python was making fun of in the first place.

B-

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Legend of Korra Teaches Us How to Write a Good Finale


I made the whopping mistake of writing my best episodes of twenty fourteen list before the final episode of The Legend of Korra aired, which wound up being beyond satisfying. But, I have been meaning to write a little about finales, so I'm going to take this mistake and turn it into an opportunity.

The Legend of Korra gave us the best finale of the year and probably one of the best series finales I've ever seen. I'll get into why that is in a little bit. First I want to talk about bad finales and why they are so awful.

A TV show that you regularly watch is like a friend. Because your friends, and all the other people in your life, are just a collection of stories that form an identity. And when a show is over, when the stories cease, its life is over. A series finale is sort of like a funeral. It is a celebration of the show's identity, and a wrapping up of all the stories it told. And, just like in life, it's hard to find meaningful closure. Rarely does anything wrap up with a nice tidy bow on top. And more often than not, a show wants to find more meaning in its finale than there has been in all the episodes that preceded it. Sometimes, the show simply cannot let go. It doesn't want to die, and it rages against the dying of the light, until it is a quivering husk of what it once was.

So, here are the big mistakes that finales make, as a list, because the internet gods demand lists.

1. "Meant to Be"


This is where a romance that worked at the beginning of a long show - then due to complications fell apart - suddenly appears out of nowhere at the end, because the writers seemed to think that these characters were "meant to be." Poppycock. No one is meant to be. People are meant to be happy, not bound by fate to each other because their names appear in the opening credits.

2. "It Was All A Dream"


Maybe in the end it isn't all a dream but instead an analogy, or a vision, or a supernatural trek through some pan-religious purgatory. It doesn't matter. Don't make your own show's story irrelevant. Don't take all the death, the pain, the heartache, and make it all for nothing. 

3. "Aren't We So Awesome"


If you love a show and you love the characters, the worst thing you can do is make some last ditch effort to remind us that all the characters are cool. We're watching the finale, which means we don't need convincing to watch the show. There's no point trying to sell us on a party we're already attending.

4. "Deus Ex Machina"


You got a problem? A big one? One that you have spent a whole season, maybe longer, trying to solve? Well luckily for you, some guy from another show has an amulet for you or some stupid shit like that and "Tadah!" problem solved.  

5. "Rewards/Punishment"


This is a tricky subject, but it's an important one. When a show is over, it's over, so any message you leave us with is the last one you get. So watch out for who gets to live happily ever after and who gets punished. It doesn't matter if a character is the hero, if he kills hundreds of people and gets a happy ending, then the show is tacitly approving his behavior.

6. "And Then They All Went On To..."


A good finale leaves us wanting more, not thanking the gods that this will be the final story the show gets to tell. Which means epilogues are a tough sell. We know these characters - because we've watched them for years - so if you tell us what happens to them in the future, we are left thinking either, "Why did you mention that," or, "That would never happen." As a story teller, you take us from A to B to C. You can't just skip to Z and expect us to be on board.

--------------------

Suffice it to say there are a lot of ways to mangle the last chapter of your show, even if it was damn good right up until the end.



So now we arrive at The Legend of Korra. (Sorry, it took a little while.) This is a perfect finale. I mean perfect. No contrived rekindling of old love, no frustrating epilogue, no Deus Ex Machina. The story wraps up in both an epic and intimate way, the themes become laser focused (pun intended), and, in the end, we are left wanting so much more. 

What stands out most to me about the Korra finale is that it is all about love. It shows us the love of a father, a mother, a friend, a lover, and most importantly, an adversary. The Legend of Korra is unique in that villains are sympathetic. They have fears and grief and anger, and they are in need of love, just like the rest of us. So to conquer them, offer them compassion. It is a wonderful message, especially for the show's younger audience. 

What The Legend of Korra shows us in its final moments is an iconoclastic love. It is a love that doesn't involve men. Korra has, for a long time, been a bastion of girl-centric epics. Over the last few seasons, the men have become increasingly irrelevant to the story. This season featured Korra's first female 'big bad,' who was a mirror image of Korra, showing us how power and ambition are a recipe for both heroes and villains. The show's finale shed the "will they, won't they?" of Mako and Korra (a man and a woman), allowing a far more satisfying relationship between Korra and Asami (both woman). The love between them is ambiguous to younger viewers but clear as day to anyone watching closely. 


As the episode came to an end, I kept thinking of Patroclus and Achilles, two great heroes of the Illiad who fought side by side. History's first "Bromance." Their relationship was debatably platonic, undeniably epic, and has spawned a million copycats. Bonds formed in battle make for great drama. But it is a genre of story telling that has historically excluded women. The love between women has, for so long, been a tame domestic kind of love. It is a love that passes the time until the men come home. The Legend of Korra ended its fantastic run by showing that the love between women is a bond that saves the world.
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