?

Log in

oh crunch [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
[ Paul ]

[ profile ]
[ archive ]
[ friends ]
[ entries ]
[ sitcoms ]

Paul's favourite albums of 2013 [Saturday, April 5th, 2014, 11:38 PM]
Paul
[Tags|, ]

Sorry for the delay. Writing is boring.Collapse )
Linkcomment

(no subject) [Sunday, March 30th, 2014, 9:49 AM]
Paul
[Tags|, ]

couldn't sleep last night, so here are my top 10 TV series of all time:

1. The Simpsons
2. The Office (UK)
3. Community
4. Arrested Development
5. The Thick of It
6. The Sopranos
7. The Wire
8. Deadwood
9. Cheers
10. Clone High
Linkcomment

Paul's favourite podcasts of 2013 [Tuesday, December 31st, 2013, 8:47 PM]
Paul
[Tags|, ]

Happy 2014, everyone. My music list is taking longer than usual, and will be up in a couple of months I assume. In the meantime, here are my favourite podcasts of 2013.Collapse )
Linkcomment

not a spoiler [Saturday, August 24th, 2013, 2:57 AM]
Paul
[Tags|]

I want to say this Breaking Bad shot is a crucial one when it comes to the show's endgame, but that might just be wishful thinking.

Linkcomment

(no subject) [Sunday, July 14th, 2013, 9:20 AM]
Paul
[Tags|]

I'm unemployed, so here are brief thoughts on ten (!) series I've watched recently, ordered by how much I liked them. I'm also in progress on Barney Miller and How I Met Your Mother, and at the end of their first seasons, feeling better about them both than I did when I started them.

not so good
Family Tree: I generally like Christopher Guest's movies, so I was excited to see what he would do with a TV series. The answer: a show that feels way too much like a Christopher Guest movie in a bad way, one that continually stops the proceedings in their tracks so yet another throwaway character can explain what THEIR crazy quirk is, and has the gall to keep superficially parodying much better TV series. Some moments are nice. There aren't enough of them.
Get A Life: This seemed to have all the makings of a show I'd love: a highly influential but mostly forgotten cult comedy created by a pre-Simpsons David Mirkin which as it went along got more and more tired of sitcom conventions. What I got was a series that time after time didn't go far enough, and instead was altogether too satisfied with itself and how silly it was being. Occasionally funny, very overrated.
Maron: I'm not the biggest fan of comedian Marc Maron or his podcast WTF, but as this city's premiere podcast superfan, I'm always excited to see them getting outside notice. Maron's semi-autobiographical series is an easy enough watch, but never manages to put forward any arguments for its own existence. It's a nice treat for Maron fans, I guess, but nothing special for fans of podcasts or sitcoms in general.

good
Miranda: A nice UK throwback sitcom (god I wish one of these would make it on the air in the US). Generally quite funny if occasionally bewildering. Much of my affection for it is due to the cast individually waving goodbye at the end of each episode, something I'd sit through a series half as good to see. If instituted in US sitcoms, it would singlehandedly save the ratings crisis we're going through [citation needed].
Threesome: Very funny series with a very original premise: a young party couple and their gay best friend have a drunken threesome, then decide to raise the resulting baby together. The plots are super breezy and the cast is likable throughout. No big dramatic stakes, just good, well-written comedy. Well done!
Orphan Black: I'm not a big sci-fi fan, but I couldn't resist the hype for this one. The pilot is immediately engaging, and burns through so much plot you wonder where the rest of the series could go. It's a marvel the series could keep up the breakneck pace through the whole season, and though it inevitably goes off the rails around the middle, what's most surprising is that it manages to get back on them, in a big way, at the end. Tatiana Maslany gives an unbelievable performance, playing the lead role as well as three other major characters and a handful of minor ones, all of them fully realized and immediately differentiable, even when they're imitating one another. Give her all the awards. I seriously can't wait to find out what happens next.

great pilot, good series (I know, right?)
Moone Boy: Chris O'Dowd's other series on this list, this one is much better constructed than Family Tree all around. Very creative and consistently hilarious, but that pilot is just fantastic. It burns through about a full six episodes' worth of plot, and we come away from it knowing everything about its world and characters. I also like that O'Dowd was allowed to make the show as Irish as he wanted to, which is very. Very Irish.
Getting On: Wonderful, wonderful nursing-oriented series from Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan, and Vicki Pepperdine. The dialogue is impeccable, the direction intimate, and the performances flawless. It's the long-term plots where the show suffers, with the heavy-handed story arcs taking away from the gorgeous small moments it does so well. The first episode is practically perfect, and when the theme music first fades in at the end, it serves at once as a gut punch and a powerful sense of warmth. That pilot should be preserved in amber.

great
The Venture Bros.: An interesting case, being a comedy that I rarely laugh at, but find surprisingly compelling regardless. It was clear from the get-go that I didn't share Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer's penchant for esoteric references and non-sequiturs, but their grasp of character and mythology is unmatched for a show like this. The most immediately noticeable difference from other animated series is that characters are repeatedly redesigned, to match the way they grow and change as the show goes along. Even more unusually, the show just keeps getting better as it gets more complex, with the ambitious, byzantine plot structures complementing the intricate network of characters and their various guilds that have been developed over five seasons. It's great how much people adore this show on a comedic level, but it's astonishing how well it works as a straight drama.
Orange Is The New Black: My favourite show of the moment, one far better than its premise (yuppie white woman goes to prison) or pedigree (it's Jenji Kohan's followup to Weeds), not to mention title, would suggest. The pilot is good, but the second episode, when we start delving into all the characters who aren't the protagonist, makes it clear this is a series that has some thought behind it. I'm still getting through it, but so far everything about it is fantastic (maybe with the very minor exception of a cutesy prisoner-guard romance the writers seem to find much more interesting than me, but hey, it will most likely get to a worthwhile place in a few episodes). Watch this show. It's lovely. I'm going to watch it right now.
Linkcomment

Arrested Development (Season 4) [Wednesday, June 26th, 2013, 4:49 AM]
Paul
[Tags|]

Appropriately for a project of its bizarre ambition and scope, it's taken me a while to really formulate my thoughts about Arrested Development's fourth season. It's been a month since the episodes were released all at once via Netflix, and I feel like I'm far enough removed from the experience of watching them that I can talk about the season as a whole. But the truth is, the way you feel about this season really does depend on how far back from it you're standing as you consider it. Because moment to moment, the fifteen new episodes easily make up the show's weakest season. They're all absurdly bloated, running in some cases as much as ten or fifteen minutes too long. Without the spark of more than two castmembers being onscreen together at a time, the scripts are less organically funny and more jokey. The direction is repetitive and flat, a far cry from the charismatic guerrilla-style composition of the show's network seasons, while the editing is jarring and the special effects occasionally unfinished. Worst of all, the episodes are often quite boring, and sometimes even uncomfortable to watch. But when you stand back and consider the season as a whole, as well as creator Mitch Hurwitz's intentions for it, it's something else entirely. It's one of the more ambitious projects ever attempted on "TV", and a landmark in comedy storytelling. The payoffs late in the season are almost unlike anything else I've experienced watching TV. And yet it's got a surprising amount of replay value for something so dependent on narrative mysteries.



A lot of the discussion around this season has centred on the necessity to watch it all through twice—certainly a daunting task for those still in the trenches of George Sr.'s second episode. But the reason for this is that the season is essentially a different show after you've seen it already. The experience of first watching this season is that of grasping for straws almost all the time, whether trying to figure out just how many years these episodes cover, or what the actual plot of the season is, or even just how a character managed to get to wherever they just appeared onscreen. The season is structured as a series of weird mysteries, where we're always trying to fill in the blanks of the endless partial information we're given. Once the last few episodes have made everything snap into place, however, rewatching those first few episodes is almost a revelation. With the mysteries mostly irrelevant, it's a shock to see just how many jokes have flown entirely under your radar. The first half of the season is full of punchlines to jokes whose setups are in the second half, and the way they're presented means that you didn't even realize they were there the first time around. Any mention of George Michael's Fakeblock app, for instance, becomes absolutely hilarious once we learn what it actually is, while it's a joy to watch different characters find their way to phrases like "as I live and breathe" and "hot mess" before we're given the motivations for their use. It's a far more laugh-filled watching experience, and it really hits home just how intricate the season really is.

Consider just what's going on this season: it's essentially an eight-hour story spanning about six years but told out of sequence, where nine characters have separate adventures but almost everyone keeps bumping into everyone else. At any given point, nearly everyone is scamming or being scammed by someone else, while absolutely everyone is lying to everyone else all the time. Arrested Development's third season famously included a character, Rita Leeds, whose every line and action had to work on three levels: charming enough for Rita to believably be a love interest for Michael, suspicious enough for the audience to think she was a secret agent, and childlike enough to still make sense (and often be even funnier) after she was revealed to be mentally disabled. This season, it seems difficult enough to chart just where every character is at any given point in time—indeed, one chronological re-edit of the series spends almost an hour tracking the movements of the nine characters throughout the climactic Cinco de Cuatro—but just consider mapping out the byzantine network of lies and profiteering going on. Nearly every interaction between two characters involves them both lying to each other about their own lives, which they themselves often don't even fully understand. Add in the fact that a surprising number of characters get amnesia throughout, and the scope of this thing only gets worse.

But despite seeming like an eight-hour-long mess throughout, there is a structure to the season, and it's actually quite ingenious. When you first look at the episode list, it's easy to feel disappointed, seeing as most characters have two episodes devoted to them long before some fan-favourite characters even get one. But the reason for this is that the characters all have different relationships to the main plot arc of the season. The first three characters whose points of view we see, Michael, George Sr., and Lindsay, aren't necessarily the most important characters of the season, but they are the ones whose lives are the most intertwined with its main plotlines. It's no coincidence, then, that their episodes are most often the toughest slogs to get through—especially since it usually takes until each of their second episodes for the big plots to really kick in. All the while, characters pop in and out of each other's episodes, and the occasional strange detour (as when George Sr.'s second episode briefly becomes about Michael and Gob) is always necessary to impart whatever information we need to know before starting another character's story. The next set of characters, Tobias, Gob, and Lucille, are each given unusually poignant emotional breakthroughs, despite being the least likely characters to receive them. Though they're certainly involved, their plotlines are largely disconnected from the general political or entertainment machinations of the former three characters. These episodes, then, stand much better on their own, and Gob's in particular are by far the funniest of the season in and of themselves. Finally, the last characters given their own episodes, Maeby, George Michael, and Buster, are the ones whose storylines contain the most payoffs to what's happened beforehand. Maeby's episode, in particular, wraps up the entire six-year timeline in a nice little bow, solving one mystery after another, even the ones that aren't initially seen as mysteries in the first place. It also manages to tell an unusually coherent and fast-paced story about one of the series' strongest characters, making it by far the best episode of the bunch and almost singlehandedly justifying the entire enterprise. Meanwhile, Buster's episode is nearly as satisfying just because of how disconnected it is from everything else going on. It makes perfect sense that Buster would be off having his own ridiculous adventures all this time, and saving his episode until so close to the end of the season means that it comes at the exact point we're likely to be the most tired of the master plot. And of course, George Michael's two episodes supply us with the actual emotional stakes for the whole season, bringing us to an unexpectedly affecting final shot that instantly sets the rest of the episodes into relief.

Of course, there's no real conclusion to the season—it's all an impossibly elaborate set-up for a still-unconfirmed Arrested Development movie. But even if this is the last we see of these characters, I think the new episodes were worth being made. The feeling may just have been a one-time thing, but I truly can't think of a similar experience in television or film of watching the pieces come together as they do in the final episodes of the season. This season may just be the first-ever comedy mystery, where we're perpetually given only half of a joke, making the moment we learn the rest even more powerful. It's entirely possible that no one else will ever tell a comedic story this way ever again, but I think there's something truly special going on under the surface here. Of course, it's all much more fun to think about than it is to actually watch—but being a pioneer, even a comedy one, often means making as many mistakes as discoveries.
Linkcomment

Paul's favourite TV series of 2012-2013 [Friday, June 14th, 2013, 4:25 AM]
Paul
[Tags|, ]

Writing about TV has felt like pulling teeth for me recently. In light of that, here are my favourite shows of the June 2012 - May 2013 TV season, but with their usual filibuster-length writeups condensed down to hopefully pithy blurbs. Enjoy.

shit yeahCollapse )
Linkcomment

Upstream Color [Wednesday, May 15th, 2013, 5:30 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

I've occasionally said here that I don't watch too many movies. I made the decision long ago to mostly ignore the medium, not out of any personal vendetta, but because the form is so vast, with so many successes and innovations, that I would never be able to fully understand everything it's achieved. Knowing my voracious appetite for media, I'm simply not able to add it to my main passions of music and television - and now podcasts - without remaining (relatively) sane. But every once in a while, there's a movie I have some gut feeling about, that I know will challenge my preconceptions of the form in some way. Admittedly, the sample size is quite small, but Upstream Color is the latest and greatest of those films I've seen that showed me a new way to experience the form. This isn't really a movie where concerns about "spoilers" apply, but if you're at all interested in films that affect you in this way, I encourage you to watch it before reading my (or anyone else's) thoughts about it. But honestly, even reading a detailed plot summary first won't take away the feeling of actually experiencing it. In fact, its official synopsis, carefully worded and brief enough to fit in a few twitter posts, basically tells you everything you'll know after watching it.



That doesn't really matter, though; indeed, when it comes to Upstream Color, it's not what you "know" that's important. It belongs to that much-maligned genre of "puzzle pictures," where the act of learning what the movie is really about often overshadows the actual process of watching the movie. But unlike the rest of the genre, there's no real "twist" moment in Upstream Color. Looking back on my experience watching the movie, there was no single moment when I pinpointed what it was actually "about." It was only later on, when I was thinking back on the movie while preparing something to eat, that I realized that I basically knew the whole plot, from beginning to end, with a surprising amount of coherence. And yet I don't know that I was at all understanding the implications of anything I was seeing onscreen. This is because Upstream Color plays a neat trick on the audience for most of its running time: it makes us as disoriented as the character we're watching.

I struggled in vain to make heads or tails of what I was looking at as I watched the movie. Oh, this woman is mentally ill somehow. No, wait - the movie is being told out of sequence. In fact, the story is almost entirely straightforward, if a little nontraditional. The seed of the story, the all-important parasite, is fantastical, but the end results of its existence aren't. There are occasional surreal images, but the vast majority of the movie is showing us the real world these characters occupy, in sequence. Despite this, I could never grasp the timeline of the movie, or even situate the events in space. All the while, though, I was feeling the proper emotions. Because here's the thing about Upstream Color: it's not a movie about plot. It's a movie about emotions. And by that, I don't mean that the movie is an emotional one - though it is, in an oblique way. I mean that generally, the movie doesn't really tell us what's going on. Instead it shows us how its events affect its characters. It makes us feel those events, instead of watching them. Through the emotions you feel as you're watching the movie, you're constantly getting the gist of what's happening to these characters. By the end of the movie, you'll say you didn't understand anything that's happened, but you'll be able to confidently explain, with some accuracy, the whole plot. By getting the gist of all the individual moments of the film, you've gotten the gist of the story. But what you really understand is how the characters felt all the while. Because you felt that way too. I don't know if there's ever been a moviegoing experience like this until now.

And I don't know if any of it could've been achieved without the singular vision of director-writer-star-producer-cinematographer-editor-composer Shane Carruth. As far as film goes, it doesn't get much more singular than that. The movie feels like the precise experiences of one person because, to a certain extent, it was only made by one person. It's grounded by a meticulous performance from Amy Seimetz, but basically everything being shown onscreen is the result of Carruth's vision. Unlike his last film, 2004's hard-sci-fi Primer, Upstream Color is entirely graspable based on everything in the movie itself. It's not an exercise in deliberate obfuscation. There are no elaborate timeline charts required here. Primer's miniscule budget was reflected in its appropriately cold visuals and lifeless sound design, but Color, though clearly shot for a similarly small amount, is a sensual experience through and through. Its sound cues are impeccably designed to evoke a response in the audience, and the way Carruth uses them to link disparate locations is eerily intuitive. I've already seen the film twice and I know I'll watch it more times than that. I know exactly what I'll see onscreen from here on out, but I can't tell you what I'll feel.
Linkcomment

MIA [Friday, March 29th, 2013, 1:26 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

Not for any real reason, but writing has seemed like a distant pipe dream for me the past few weeks, so here are some Twitter-type posts on things I've been meaning to talk about. Also, hey, I'm tweeting again, this time about music and TV and podcasts and all the things I care about more than I should!

Shows I finally finished/caught up with:

The Shield: I wasn't the biggest fan of the show as I was watching it, and the finale didn't make the experience seem entirely worthwhile. But it was surprisingly well-plotted, and the whole final season was a great experiment in long-term planning to get to a distant, idealized finale. Well-done, guys! Not so much for the show as a whole, though.

American Dad: I kinda fell in love with this show as it went along (as my many posts about it indicate), but I was disappointed to see that its peak really only lasted for late season 5 and early season 6. The show is still capable of delivering standout episodes after that point ("Hot Water" is basically perfect, and "Adventures in Hayleysitting" was just wonderful), but at this point it can't surprise as well as it used to. And that's a big blow to a show that thrives on subverting expectations (then subverting those subversions, etc.). I have been continually impressed by its talent at gross-out gags, however: every new horrifyingly gory twist or disgusting use of vomit threatens to be just too much for the show, but somehow American Dad always makes them hilarious above all. And the fact that I'm still excited for every new episode says a lot for a show that started off as blandly as this one did.

Finales I didn't write about at the time:

Enlightened: Every interview Mike White did before the show was cancelled pointed to great, interesting plans for season 3, but "Agent of Change" works wonderfully as a series finale anyway. Even for a show as consistently beautiful as Enlightened, there's really nothing like a well-meaning montage.

Delocated: "The Frrt Identity" built to the perfect ending for Delocated, a long, characteristically self-centred monologue from "Jon" that's capped by his profoundly anti-climactic unmasking. It's too bad the journey there felt at times contrived and at times too shocking to really work. It's too bad Adult Swim had to cancel this series so soon, because an ending like this would've worked better a couple of seasons down the line. And it's too bad Jon Glaser felt the need to take digs at his network throughout, because it makes the episode itself feel a bit too messy to really hold together. But there are some great moments here, and it's a fitting finale for a show with one of the more bizarre premises around. It's already a wonder that Jon Glaser spent thirty episodes of TV hidden under a ski mask, but it's impressive just how well it worked throughout.

Different sorts of drama series I'm watching:

American Horror Story: I skipped season 1 since I heard it was basically a giant, ridiculous mess, but I actually enjoyed season 2 quite a bit. It was also a giant, ridiculous mess, but it was one that worked, and the season as a whole is a great example of how valuable different styles of television can be. Even though Asylum is frustrating more often than not, there's nothing else quite like it on TV, and it's great to see that it'll stick around for the foreseeable future.

Bunheads: I was never a Gilmore Girls superfan, but I do like Amy Sherman-Palladino's style, and I'm glad to see she's back behind the camera for a new series. Bunheads isn't quite as much a departure as it could've been, but the dynamic between the four main girls is fresh and fun, and the dance sequences are universally lovely. Sasha's dance to They Might Be Giants, in particular, is a work of art, and hits me somewhere deep within my soul every time I watch it. Also, as lead Michelle, Sutton Foster is a treasure. I'm so glad she got hooked into a TV gig.

Surprisingly good comedies:

The Neighbors: I think it's safe to say that my #1 favourite thing in the world is watching a sitcom find the great show inside itself, and The Neighbors is no exception. This is just the latest show to get caught up in the usual "awful show turns itself around" narrative, but it's pretty impressive just the same. As it goes along, it's finding a great balance between incisive social satire and all-out weirdness, and the whole cast is game to walk that line. I'm still in the early goings, but there was one moment in the Thanksgiving episode that struck me as the series' first perfect one. It's been a running gag since the pilot that all of the aliens are named after famous athletes, and that they constantly refer to each other by their full names. For the first few episodes, this was never really as funny as the writers seemed to think it was, but in the Thanksgiving episode, the gag finally started paying off. Two burly aliens are guarding a prison cell in a dark, futuristic looking jail, and out of nowhere, the alien children politely refer to them as Greg Louganis and Brian Boitano. It caught me completely offguard, and it shows that the writers behind one of the more bland, broad pilots I've seen really know what they're doing.

Nathan For You: This was quite a surprise, actually. Nathan For You has a simple premise, but it doesn't seem to promise much comedy: deadpan comedian Nathan Fielder gives off-kilter marketing advice to small businesses, and that advice tends to work, at least briefly. But Fielder is a talented writer and performer, and in his hands Nathan For You has turned into probably the funniest show on the air right now. He continually takes the show to strange, wonderful places that somehow still fit within the show's framework, like a long camping trip in episode 4 or an extended parody of The Bachelor in episode 5. He also shines in the shorter, sketch-like pieces, like a series of ridiculous job interviews in episode 2 or a particularly bizarre sequence involving a hollowed-out arcade game in episode 3. It's not doing anything new or saying anything insightful, but based on laughs alone, it's one of the more exciting shows around.
Linkcomment

Girls, "Together" [Wednesday, March 20th, 2013, 3:55 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

"I can't be surrounded by your negativity while I'm trying to grow into a fully formed human."

About halfway through "Together," Girls turns itself over to a series of the best scenes it's done yet. It's a far cry from it, but it reminded me at the time of the Sopranos' first season finale, "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano," which similarly wrapped up all of its plotlines, one by one, in unexpected and satisfying ways. "Together" doesn't break any new ground, or do anything particularly shocking, but it might've been my favourite episode of the show so far. It makes the season's structure obvious after the fact, and that structure was surprisingly simple in retrospect: just like I hoped, season 2 of Girls does indeed have a shape, and it's a great one. It was a long story of hope and sadness for the four main characters, with Jessa given a big sendoff in "Video Games" so she could sit out the last three episodes. Even better, in its final moments, it brings all the characters back to the situations they were in during the pilot, only now having grown and changed in the meantime. And by doing that, Girls makes its first two seasons feel of a piece with each other, giving shading to a lot of the more disappointing episodes in between. "Together" includes showcase scenes for Zosia Mamet and Alex Karpovsky, who have been shining all season long as Shoshanna and Ray. And it finds a way to include Jon Glaser, for whom I still feel a lot of residual love after his Delocated finale. In its final moments, it deploys a sequence that feels genuinely heroic and cinematic, despite that sentiment falling apart when you actually think about what's going on. That sequence gives the season a happy ending that's completely invalidated by its subtext. What more could you want from Girls?

Linkcomment

Girls, "On All Fours" [Wednesday, March 13th, 2013, 6:51 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

For all of its plot detours and stop-start storytelling, Girls does flirt with standard serialized TV structure more often than not, the best example of which being its characteristic placement of grand climaxes in the penultimate episodes of each season. Last season's "Leave Me Alone" culminated in the first of many dramatic fights between Hannah and Marnie, but it seems downright frivolous compared to "On All Fours." Fitting with this season's general air of iconoclasm, this year's climax hits much harder - and in new ways too. Smartly, it divides its dramatic beats among all of its characters, instead of just between Hannah and Marnie like last year's did. This allows it to hit on a few emotional levels, continuing the general momentum kicked into gear last week. The episode revolves around three main plots, each with its own harrowing sequence at the centre, so let's attack them one by one.



The most immediately visceral development was the continuation of Hannah's trouble with OCD, this week manifesting as a sudden compulsion to stab a Q-tip into her ear. It was a fair guess to say that most of her problems would be forgotten by this week - Girls is a show that loves narrative dead ends almost as much as the Sopranos did. But to take that plot to such a dark place; well, that was just surprising. Practically every development in this story was pitch-perfect, none more than Hannah meekly asking her doctor to clean her other ear so it would match the one she stabbed. In a vacuum, it's a characteristically naive thing for her to be saying, but in the context of what she's going through, it's just heartbreaking. She needs to feel that balance, and if no one else will do it for her, she'll take matters into her own hands. It was a foregone conclusion what would happen when she asked to keep the Q-tip, but that didn't make the finale any less gutwrenching. Girls has gone dark before, but never has that darkness been quite so palpable.

Less visceral and slower burning was Adam's growing relationship with Natalia. In her, Adam finds the antidote to his relationship with Hannah. She's clear and honest, and considers his emotions without forgetting her own. But it's quickly obvious that Adam doesn't fully fit into her world. He's teetering at the edge of something, even as he's superficially happier than he's been in months. A chance encounter with Hannah on the street pushes him into full relapse territory, and he barges back into the bar to order a drink. (I loved his choice, a jack and ginger: it's not a widely known drink, and was obviously "his" drink before he went sober.) Later that night, drunk and feeling vulnerable, he tries to push Natalia toward rejecting him outright. His self-loathing manifests itself as something that's not quite sexual assault, but comes very very close. It's easily the most harrowing sequence the show has ever given us, and not just because of what's depicted: we know exactly what's going on in Adam's head as he does it, and our sympathy with him just makes it more disgusting.

It's telling that even the lightest of the three main plots was just horrifying to watch. Marnie finds herself at a party celebrating the high performance of Charlie's ridiculous app, and, encouraged by Ray's words to her last week, attempts to use the event to kickstart her singing career. Her song was textbook cringe comedy, but it managed to offer a new spin on the form. Her song isn't particularly bad, exactly: her voice is pretty good, and the song, a ridiculous reworking of Kanye West's "Power," is embarrassing but not quite terrible. What's wrong with her actions is that it's simply not the time or place to pull something like this. Like Hannah and Adam's plots, everything is pitched perfectly for this sequence to work. It's as if the Girls writers looked at last year's "Leave Me Alone" and realized that the final climactic fight kinda came out of nowhere. All of these plots are grounded in what happened before, even if a lot of that background just came out of nowhere last week. There's a throughline to everything that happens, and that's something that the show has struggled with in the past. And though Marnie ends up hooking up with Charlie in the aftermath of her performance, it's clear that it won't end well for either of them.

While I loved this episode, it's a hard one to talk about. It brings each of its characters (except Jessa, but even Shoshanna and Ray have some big moments without having a lot of screentime) to a very dark place, darker than we've seen on the show before. It's uncomfortable, and messy, and deeply affecting - in short, Girls at its best. And though it's obvious many of the characters will get respites in the finale next week, this episode will still remain as uncompromising to them. "On All Fours" goes somewhere new for the series, and pulls it off perfectly. And I don't know if I'll ever watch it again.
Linkcomment

Girls, "It's Back" [Tuesday, March 5th, 2013, 11:56 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

It may be by design, but Girls is never the best show at creating a completely realistic world. As I said last week, its world is similar to our own, but heightened just a touch in order to more easily create comic scenarios. What Girls is great at, however, is capturing the rhythms of everyday life. Don't get me wrong - that doesn't always make for great television. I adore Treme, especially when it comes to emulating the feeling of real life, but its deliberate, often low-key pacing is certainly not for everyone. At its best, Girls can create mostly self-contained episodes like "One Man's Trash" and "Boys" that feel true to life: sometimes you get entangled with someone else and forget about your friends and job for a couple of days, and sometimes a series of coincidences leads you make a connection with someone who until then was a stranger to you. But when it comes to long-term plotting, modeling your show after real life isn't usually the best idea. That sort of thing does well for a particular sort of serialized drama (like Treme, or Luck), but it'll lead your show to feel slow at best and boring at worst. Making it work requires committing your show fully to its ongoing plotlines, and giving over a lot of running time to the moments in between the big ones, where not very much is happening. For a half-hour show like Girls, especially one that also deals in those standalone episodes, you have to skip those in-between moments. This leads the plots to feel choppy, like the ones at the beginning of the season did. Only the important moments are shown, so it seems as though you're just racing through plot points with no real purpose. But that's what life is like! You feel your way through new scenarios, and not everything that happens follows from what happened before. "Plot arcs" in real life unfold in fits and starts, moving unbearably fast one week and not at all the next. And in the end, when you're done dating that kinda weird dude or when you leave the crappy job you had for barely a month, you don't really have much to show for it. Not everything that happens in life means something in the end. But that's what we want from our TV shows.



So, sure. The characters on Girls grow and change and react to what happens to them, but surprisingly little of it will matter a few episodes later. Do you still care about Hannah's old boss who sexually harassed her? What about Shoshanna's brief fling with her old friend from camp? Did you even remember that they both took place in the same episode? At the time, they felt like big developments for both characters, but now they're just things that happened in the past. The plots are over, the characters reacted, and we're on to something else. But while Girls is a show that often frustrates with its plotting choices, there's always a reason for them. They emulate real life, even if doing so results in messy TV. And this has been a messy season of television. "It's Back" is one messy episode out of many. But it was also kinda lovely, even as it didn't match the heights of the season's midsection. The reason for this, and this is something that I would complain about in any other show (and probably have complained about for Girls as well), is that it doesn't bother building to its new arcs. They just kinda happen. But the fact that they happened is important.

I mentioned before that I love a season with a good shape to it, and now it's obvious that we're getting back into Girls in serialized mode for the season's last three episodes. And for now, at least, these ongoing stories look pretty good. But the show mostly pulled them out of thin air. Now, that's not completely true: Hannah's OCD was hinted at a couple of times before now, and it's obvious that she's been stressed as hell the past few weeks; Shoshanna was clearly getting more and more fed up with Ray's stodginess; and Adam's been moping over Hannah all season long. Now, Shoshanna's friend Radhika may have never before been referred to, and maybe Charlie's impossibly hip new app startup appeared a little too quickly, but hey, stranger things have happened. What makes these plots work is that while they mostly appeared out of nowhere, they have repercussions. Marnie seems to have more of a handle on her hopes and dreams, and Shoshanna is hinting toward taking her romantic life into her own hands. But what really worked here were Hannah and Adam's stories. Both of them matched the feeling of real life well, and both did it in different ways.

In Hannah's side of things, her OCD flared up just as her parents were in town, and took over their time together. This story could've easily been a misstep, but I actually enjoyed it at lot. It's a nuanced look at mental illness, and it's clear that it came from a place of knowledge: indeed, Lena Dunham has struggled with OCD herself. But besides being a (seemingly) realistic portrayal of OCD, it also did a great job of having Hannah and her parents react to it in a way that made sense for them. In her wonderful therapy session, Hannah, of course, has to feel unique and special, angrily detailing her (pretty typical) history with the disease. But the new revelation also adds a lot of shading to her personality. The show doesn't take the easy route of having it explain away all of her personality flaws (and, really, that's too big an "all" to be possible), but it does colour a few of them in. Most importantly, it gives us a greater understanding of her interactions with her parents. When Hannah's mother exploded at her over the phone last week, it seemed to just be a funny mom moment; in hindsight, it's easy to see why that side of her came out so quickly. Hannah's illness has obviously weighed on the three of them for a long time, and the way her parents react to seeing the symptoms again - a mix of seriousness, sympathy, contempt, and resignation - just feels so loving and so human all at once. It's the most fleshed out Hannah's parents have ever felt, and, as a result, is the most they've ever felt like real parents.

Meanwhile, Adam's story feels just as monumental despite little actually happening. While we got a glimpse of Adam's life through someone else's eyes in "Boys," this is the first time we're seeing his world outside of Hannah's influence. Adam is a rich character, but of the main cast he's the one who's been most clouded by Hannah's point of view. Just seeing him waking up and going to an AA meeting felt unprecedented. We're finally getting to see him as a person on his own terms, and it's kind of adorable. His relationship with Hannah was marked by constantly fluctuating power dynamics, even when either side was at their most vulnerable. But here, he's just a regular guy living his life. He calls a girl to ask her out on a date, and is actually awkward and endearing while leaving a message. We've seen him laugh at things before, but we've never seen a grin as big and as goofy as the one he gives the girl's very forward mother he meets after AA. And that date he finally goes on was just perfect - both parties pleasantly surprised, the two hitting it off right away. It was enjoyable the whole way through, and though the relationship will inevitably turn sour, the show just nailed how much fun the beginnings of these things can be. It's nice to finally see Adam just fully happy. As often as it doesn't seem like it, he kinda deserves it.

Of course, I did say "It's Back" was a particularly messy episode of Girls. Just like most episodes this season, the highs have been wonderful but the lows have been quite suspect. While Hannah and Adam got great showings this week, Shoshanna and Marnie's stories were a little more of a mixed bag: Charlie's whole side of things was pretty shaky, and I kinda felt icky watching the (very handsome, to be fair) doorman put his PUA-style moves on Shoshanna. But both stories had some great moments mixed in, whether it was the party monologue Shoshanna gives Radhika or the very Ray-like advice Ray gives Marnie. And while "It's Back" was certainly a messy episode of Girls, it was messy in a far more satisfying way than the early episodes this season. It's modeled on the rhythms of real life, but just to a point. Sure, developments can come out of nowhere, or have the boring parts skipped over, but for once, they seem to have larger repercussions than before. The stories kicked off in "It's Back" seem like bigger ones than usual, and at this point I'd say we're in great shape for the last two episodes of the season.
Linkcomment

Art and restrictions [Sunday, March 3rd, 2013, 5:35 PM]
Paul
[Tags|, ]

I basically live and breathe TV, so whenever I think about larger questions of art and culture, they tend to be coloured by that medium. And now that my long-term hobby these days seems to be feeling my way through the basic tenets of media criticism, I thought I should pull back a bit and consider TV's place in the art world. I think it's a nagging question for any TV fan whether it can even match up to other forms of art, as a medium that's essentially defined by consensus and compromise. When I say that The Middle is one of the best shows on TV, am I just not saying "despite being an intentionally inoffensive and derivative show that is designed to universally appealing?" Its current season is legitimately great television, but only from a relativistic point of view. Taking TV as a whole, it's just another broad sitcom like any from the past sixty years, albeit a particularly well-made one. But even our best shows are great works of art that seem to require a "but." Making a TV series requires a lot of concessions to networks and (often) advertisers, meaning creators never have as much freedom as they would in any other art form. So is television inherently less effective than film, or literature, or anything else? It's something I wonder from time to time. I do know that TV can be just as affecting as any other artistic medium, sometimes moreso - few other works of art involve creating and maintaining a relationship with their audience as they're being made. I also know that restrictions are necessary for any great art. TV may have more of them than most, but commercial concerns have been inherent in art creation for centuries.

One reason I've been thinking about this, and forgive me for yet another grandiose intro to a banal topic, is that I've recently rewatched a few episodes of Clone High. It's probably one of my favourite shows of all time, a single-season wonder with a particularly bizarre style that managed to be relentlessly funny. As a series about clones of historical figures trying to navigate high school, with plots that parodied the maudlin "very special" sitcom episodes of the '80s, it was surprisingly ambitious. But that setup allowed it to make every element of its presentation funny: for one thing, having the main characters be clones of famous figures makes practically everything they say hilarious when juxtaposed with who they're all modeled after. But Clone High is also a great example of a series that turns its limitations into positives. Like most animated sitcoms, it's produced in a pose-to-pose style, which links together key character positions in order to save time and money. Clone High took this style and ran with it, creating a uniquely static look for the show which emphasized specific facial expressions and choppy animation. It turned a process intended to save production costs into a distinctive look. Just check out the two screencaps below. On the left, Abe and Joan have an extended conversation while Abe is shushing her, with only their facial expressions changing: by just positioning their eyebrows, it's instantly obvious that Abe is being condescending while Joan is mostly just puzzled. It works with their personalities, and little else around the scene has to change. On the right is one of those times where the show uses its characteristically flat presentation to build an ostentatious composition: it foregrounds Abe's sleep-deprived face while Cleo wakes up well-rested and happy behind him. With no shadows or depth of field at all, it's a jarring image at first, but it's also absolutely hilarious, and suits the show's overall style.



Since I spend so much time thinking about TV, sometimes it's refreshing to consider how other artistic endeavours use their constraints to their benefit. Particularly interesting to me are those media that only exist on the internet, since they're largely guided by completely different constraints from more commercial works. Instead of content or monetary restrictions, they tend to be constrained by notions of identity. I'm most interested in podcasts and webcomics, and they're both great examples of these differing constraints. Both can include any content they like, and don't have to consider the wishes of any overseeing network. Just look at Homestuck, a comic which has so far accumulated over 4000 pages, along with hundreds of characters and various levels of reality; or The Todd Glass Show, which routinely runs over two hours long and uses a dense mix of repetition and analysis to achieve its comedy. Both have inexplicably rabid cult fanbases. I think what the most important thing for a webcomic or podcast is that your work is recognizable as a member of its medium. Homestuck may incorporate interactive or animated segments, but it's still recognizably a webcomic, so webcomic fans will read it. Meanwhile, with its many sound effects and musical cues, The Tood Glass Show sometimes seems more like old-timey radio than it does a podcast, but it is nonetheless an improvised audio show with a recognizable sense of humour. While television constantly attempts to court casual viewers by keeping things universally appealing, podcasts and webcomics are aware that they are playing to a niche fanbase who is actively interested in their particular medium. It's neat how these little rules just appear out of nowhere. Maybe they did for every other artistic medium too.
Linkcomment

Sitcoms and premises [Saturday, March 2nd, 2013, 5:59 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

Since I can now happily call American Dad a great show, and lord does that send a shiver up my spine, I've started thinking earnestly about its place in sitcom history. As a sitcom, it serves as a great commentary on a certain aspect of the form, one that seems to pop up again and again when discussing them: premises. Most sitcom pilots these days come bundled with an enormous, unwieldy premise, as though producers can't imagine an audience investing in a funny show without a twenty-minute backstory for all the proceedings. Most great sitcoms in history have had strong premises, but they've been a little simpler than the ones we see today: Mary Tyler Moore's pilot saw Mary first arriving in Minneapolis and getting a job in the WJM newsroom, and even Cheers, a show often thought of as having a thin "here are a bunch of funny people in a bar" premise, began with Diane getting a job as a waitress and starting to fall for Sam. When American Dad premiered, it was presented as a riff on All in the Family, a show about a patriotic all-American father who excels at his job in the CIA but at home has to deal with his nerdy son and staunchly liberal daughter. The show's title, "American Dad," perfectly complements this premise. But as sitcoms go along, they outlive their premises. Who needs a long, convoluted backstory when all you're doing is watching characters interact in funny ways? Though some shows may ditch their premises entirely as they settle into the permanent versions of themselves, the best sitcoms do something a little different.



I've talked before about sitcom universes, the weird combination of a well-defined world where things take place, the rules for everything that can happen in that world, and the ways these things can be presented. When a sitcom breaks through the limitations it started off with to become great, that usually means solidifying its universe. American Dad did this with season 5's "Rapture's Delight," as I discussed in that post, and now in season 6, it's become a different version of itself, with new rules from the ones it started with. If I had to give American Dad a premise in its sixth season, the closest I could get would be "a show about an American family who live with a malicious, sociopathic alien in a world where their interactions are allowed to escalate in unexpectedly surreal ways." The characters still matter, of course, as they would in any great sitcom, but what's more important to the show once it becomes great is its universe. In American Dad's case, it's essentially forgotten its original premise entirely, and rarely does politically-themed plots anymore. It's also grown far beyond the Smith house, and though plots will usually start there, they'll end somewhere completely different: in space, in Roger the alien's subconscious, or, yes, in a post-apocalyptic future. As I mentioned before, it hasn't exactly grown into a different show entirely, but it's found the best use for the many elements it started with, and has grown into the best possible version of itself.

For other sitcoms, it may not be that cut-and-dry. Community is a different case, a show that started off in much better shape and quickly broke through its constraints several times in search of the best version of itself. Though it started as the story of disgraced lawyer Jeff Winger, who learns through joining a study group he doesn't want to be a part of that he can achieve far more with the help of other people than he can on his own. The show's first great episode, late season 1's "Romantic Expressionism," redefined it as a fully ensemble show, about the seven members of the study group and how they've become a co-dependent surrogate family for each other. By season 2, the original premise has been all but forgotten, with the show's new universe seeing the study group recast as essentially sitcom archetypes, exploring what it means to be a telvision character who also strives to be a real person. In this best version of itself, Greendale College serves as a sort of purgatory for the characters, as they become more and more entrenched in this strange sitcom world and farther and farther removed from their "real" lives. But unlike American Dad, Community is perpetually trying to reconcile its original premise with its new universe. It occasionally recasts Jeff as the show's hero, as it did for much of season 3, even though that season existed in the shadows of everything that happened in season 2. But through and through, it remembered the rules of its universe, and the things that set it apart from other sitcoms. There's a troubling thing happening in its new episodes, however: it's forgetting entirely about that universe.



It's hard to say how much of the development of its universe is Dan Harmon's fault, but without his influence, Community season 4 is showing a version of the show that's still glancing at its initial premise, but having abandoned its universe, has no baseline to guide everything that happens. The newest episode, "Alternative History of the German Invasion," is the most egregious example yet of this process. Unlike last week's awful "Conventions of Space and Time," which took place almost entirely off-campus and so seemed to have an excuse for feeling rudderless, this new episode is a wholly Greendale-based one, and almost comes off even worse as a result. The most disconcerting thing about the episode was one segment which misfired so fully it almost taints the previous three seasons as a result. In the episode, the group realizes their self-serving actions in their time at Greendale have hurt the student body as a whole, a situation that came up occasionally on the show to this point. This time, the show illustrates this by flashing back to a few key moments in the show seen from an outsider's perspective. It pretends "Cooperative Calligraphy," probably the show's best-ever episode, would seem frivolous to someone looking in from the outside (but who would even be there, since everyone was at the puppy parade in the first place?). That may be true, as the plot was indeed kicked off by Annie losing her pen, but it hurts what was once a truly beautiful episode of television, one that included emotional breakthroughs and deep introspection. More misguided is "Invasions"' mischaracterization of "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" as somehow harmful to outsiders, even though it was an explicit attempt by the study group to help someone beyond themselves. "Invasions" just barely takes place in Community's world, but it definitely doesn't take place in its universe. So what's its premise now? I don't really know. "A study group tries to graduate from community college while facing situations they seem to have already faced before, in a previous life perhaps?" If American Dad's sixth season is an example of the great television that can come out of a show treating its established universe as a new premise, then Community's fourth season shows just how far a show can fall when it stops trying (or being capable of) maintaining the universe it once had.
Linkcomment

Who Charted [Thursday, February 28th, 2013, 7:58 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

My ongoing quest to listen to more podcasts hosted by women has stalled a bit, what with having to divide my time between all the media I'm unnaturally obsessed with. But in the absence of any other podcasts on my radar (barring a fantastic live This Feels Terrible, which is a great showcase for Erin McGathy's razor-sharp crowd work), I thought I'd talk a bit about Who Charted. I'm still catching up with the show, about twenty episodes in, but it's been mostly enjoyable so far. Though rapper/comedian Howard Kremer is the host, "chart keeper" actor/comedian Kulap Vilaysack is an equally large presence, and she offers a different viewpoint from Kremer and many of the guests. The show is ostensibly centred on the current music and movie charts, but that's really just a clever way in for a pretty standard (yet very funny) chatshow podcast. The music and movie clips definitely give the guests a lot to talk about, even if most of that talk is pretty derisive, and understandably so. The "games," such as they are, are thin excuses to interview guests about their lives and backgrounds, but that too usually leads to good discussions. The show itself is nothing special, but the real draws are the two hosts.

Kremer especially is a breath of fresh air for the podcast scene, an easy-going comedian whose sensibility is so pitched and so specific I can barely describe it. The closest I've seen anyone come was "fratboy savant," which I saw on a discussion board once. Really, Kremer is quite a witty and quick comedian, and every once in a while he'll cut in with an absolutely perfect joke, the type that few other comedians would ever think of. But all that skill is hidden behind a somewhat sleazy, somewhat endearing New Jersey-type persona. It's hard to tell whether it's a front or not, but either way, it's actually quite a smart move - even other comedians are sometimes caught offguard when Kremer says something really inspired. The key is that everything he does seems so sincere: he'll read band trivia or a movie synopsis in a way that makes it seem as though he finds it the most interesting thing in the world. And he'll focus on the most innocuous parts of the discussion for his followup questions, making for an interview where guests can never fully get comfortable (in the best possible way). I've heard Kremer a few times as a guest on other shows, but he really shines when he has room to stretch out and get as weird as he likes.

Backing him up is Vilaysack, and though the two seem like their styles are too different to work well together, really they're the perfect match. Vilaysack's ostensible role is to keep things structured by announcing the next chart entries and categories, but in practice she mostly serves as a foil for Kremer. While Kremer is creepily sincere (seriously, it's so difficult to articulate exactly how he's entertaining despite it all), Vilaysack is just generally exuberant, and her enormous laugh is endlessly contagious. She's also one of the few people involved to mostly enjoy the pop songs discussed, which keeps the show from being overly negative. Without her, the show would lean too heavily on Kremer's strangeness, but together they make a weirdly perfect team, balancing each other's sensibilities surprisingly well. Twenty episodes in, the two haven't quite figured out what they want the show to be, but it's such good fun that it doesn't really matter. I fully expect the show to come into its own as I keep catching up with the older episodes, but like any good podcast, listening to that process is half the fun.
Linkcomment

Enlightened, "No Doubt" [Tuesday, February 26th, 2013, 8:09 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

In any serialized story, there are bound to be one or two hiccups along the way to the ending. This is true for even the best ones, like Enlightened's second season. This season has been impressively well plotted, achieving enormous developments with a light touch, but it too showed some contrivances along the way. Nowhere is this more obvious than in "No Doubt," which I think was a great display of both the best and worst of the season.



I talked a bit about tonal issues in my review of this week's Girls episode, and that was a problem for Enlightened this week as well. Most serialized TV shows string along a few ongoing storylines, and they all reach their climaxes at around the same time, usually in the same episode. Enlightened has been very subtle with its plotting choices this season, frequently deploying things ahead of time or not at all. But it too is falling into that pattern as the season winds to a close, with practically every story thread coming to a head around the midpoint of this episode. Jeff's article is on the verge of being published, both of Amy's romantic relationships explode, Cogentiva is shut down, and Amy and Krista resolve their issues just before she gives birth. This makes for a lot of different sorts of climaxes, as well as a lot of different tones, flying around at once. While each one was a great development on its own, smashing them all together takes away from just about all of them. This may well be a result of the season's shortened eight-episode order: Breaking Bad also struggled with climaxes last year, making the sixth and seventh episodes of its own eight-episode season feel particularly muddled.

Tellingly, "No Doubt" was the first time the story actually felt written to me. Until now, every ongoing plot and character beat felt natural and logically followed from what came before. The show reached huge developments, bigger than anything shown in its first season, so effortlessly that it felt completely acceptable that Amy was (seemingly) on the path to take down a multinational corporation. But in this episode, the boundaries became more obvious, and it was clear that we were watching a series of ongoing conflicts between Amy and someone else: Jeff, Levi, Krista, Tyler, and Abaddonn itself. There's nothing really wrong with that, exactly. But it's a different feeling from the rest of the season, where we're watching Amy simply live her life, even though now it involves being on the warpath against corporate America. In short, despite never really feeling like anything else on TV before, "No Doubt" finds Enlightened feeling just a bit more like any other TV show.

That's just a small knock against it, however, as otherwise it really did feel like a great, momentous episode of television. In particular, the biggest bomb to go off, Amy's meeting with Abaddonn CEO Charles Szidon, was a genuinely unexpected development, and it was handled with Enlightened's characteristic light touch. The meeting itself was a wonder, with Amy at her most shrewd and self-aware, at least until she too is smitten by Szidon's standard white-collar charisma once he offers her her dream job. The aftermath too was played very well, with Amy slowly realizing just what she's achieved by being a whistleblower, and what she has to give up because of it. It's a very clever climax to leave us on, and even though it was a huge development, it felt just as earned as anything else shown this season. The show has used its slow-build to its advantage this season, turning it into a way to reach new plot points, instead of just to explore its characters.

As penultimate episodes go, "No Doubt" has a lot to achieve in thirty minutes, and if it isn't perfect, that's certainly easily accepted. But in a lot of ways, it feels like the penultimate episode of the series, instead of just the season. For one thing, Cogentiva is shut down, and that's been an element present in the show since its second episode (some nice mirroring there). But "No Doubt" brings a lot of ongoing elements of the show to a close, so much so that it seems like Mike White is planning for the series' inevitable cancellation (what with its ratings being abysmal even by HBO standards). I'm sure next week's finale will still leave a lot of options open for a third season, but this one has been so wonderful that I don't know if that's strictly necessary. Of course, I'd adore more Enlightened, and would love it to last years and years, but how could it ever top this season? I'm sure I'll have a more definitive outlook on it next week. For now, it's enough to know that the series is sticking the landing on a season this ambitious, even if it's doing it a little tentatively. I'll check back next week when I'm drowning in tears.
Linkcomment

Girls, "Video Games" [Monday, February 25th, 2013, 11:55 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

Making a good TV show is hard. There are a ton of elements to balance at all times, and fumbling even one might make the whole show cave in. Girls' second season has been an interesting examination of this, the push and pull inherent in television structure. Despite the many different types of series that have been on the air, television is a pretty firmly structured medium. Even as Lena Dunham is attempting to bring her series to a place more informed by indie film and short fiction, she's still running into many of the problems all series face as they grow into themselves. In "Video Games", Jessa brings Hannah along to visit her estranged father's home in the country, and as the trip goes on, the two are forced to deal with their separate issues with family. I think the episode was an excellent example of this kind of disparity: it attempted to tell a similarly self-contained story to "One Man's Trash," but by positioning Hannah as a supporting character, the episode falls into a few of the same traps that Girls has dealt with before.



The most obvious problem, and this is one the show's had since it debuted, is how minor characters are drawn. Dunham has a great talent for getting into her main characters' heads and fleshing them out in surprising ways, but she seems to falter when having her characters interact with the world outside them. In a way, this may be a deliberate choice: for all of its rawness and realism, Girls pretty obviously takes place in a heightened world. It may allow for more comic escalation in certain plotlines, but it definitely sags at the character level. Many one-shot characters are essentially portrayed as cartoons, which makes for an odd juxtaposition when they interact with the fully-realized main cast. This is shown well in "Video Games," where while Jessa is dealing with her father, Hannah is left to interact with Jessa's stepmother Petula and her son Frank. These two, as well as Frank's friend Tyler, are basically one-note characters, which is fine for someone who will never show up again, except that Jessa's father actually does feel like a real person. He has motivations and inner conflicts, and his interactions with Jessa have depth and realism to them. It may be a naive wish for a show that's so informed by Hannah's sensibility, but I wonder if the episode might have been more successful without her. I was curious back around "One Man's Trash" if Girls could trust someone other than Hannah to sustain their own episode, but from this week it seems that the show isn't so sure.

Hannah's involvement also brings to mind another universal TV problem: tonal issues. The best shows can modulate between different tones effortlessly, whether dealing with life-or-death situations or petty arguments. Girls hasn't gotten there, and in fact it's been struggling with this for basically all of its run. "Video Games" includes Hannah because it has to, as she's the main character and much of the show is seen through her perspective. But once the episode gets going, it puts her in a comic relief role, making scenes feel much more frivolous whenever she's around. I actually found myself quite invested in Jessa's relationship with her father as the episode went along, and became bored whenever it would veer back into Hannah's world. Of course, the episode's last moments do bring her story to a satisfying close, as she realizes how much she appreciates her own parents and calls them to tell them so. (And how great is it to see them again? It feels weird that they haven't even appeared this season until now.) It's a lovely ending, but it doesn't feel quite earned. Hannah felt disconnected from the main storyline for much of the episode, so having her reach a realization about goings-on she wasn't even that much a part of feels like a bit of a stretch. It could be a character problem, or a tonal problem, or even just a simple pacing problem, but there's some element of "Video Games" that's working against it, stopping it from feeling like a coherent whole.

And yet Girls still feels fresh and exciting even when it's struggling with boring TV problems. "Video Games" looks remarkable, with beautiful location shooting and careful, hazy direction. The country setting truly feels like a different world from the usual Brooklyn haunts the show portrays, even more than last season's "The Return" did. And Dunham hasn't lost her eye for indie film touches, like the neat closeups of art around the house. The episode positions itself as a short story just like "One Man's Trash" did, with all the requisite unanswered questions and subtext. But it still manages to feel different from that previous episode, even though it's a similarly structured one coming only two weeks later. The country setting makes it seem wide open, unlike the closed-off brownstone from "Trash." The themes may be a little more obvious this time around, but that complements the new setting.

What most excites me about it, however, is its use of symbolism. Girls is getting more and more daring with its episode titles, and "Video Games" is probably the best one yet. It refers to Petula's musing about life being similar to a video game, and titling the episode after it colours everything else that happens. Like any good short story, Girls is hinting at symbols a little bit here, and it's a great thing to see. I'm not really one to read into these sorts of things very much, but I do appreciate the show taking this kind of risk. It's making its episodes more and more literary every week, without sacrificing any of the things people love about it. Episodes like this, as well as "One Man's Trash," are achieving things rarely tried on TV before, and if they sometimes stumble, it's not for lack of trying.

That goes for this season as well. Despite its initial shakiness, I think it's shaping up to be quite the improvement on last year, aiming higher and generally, if messily, succeeding. These past few episodes have all tried new things within the show's structure, and as a result have all felt a little different. They've also all been generally great. As the season winds into its endgame, it's surprising just how little has changed for these characters. In the early going, I assumed that all the sudden new plots were being rushed through in order to get the characters to better situations later on. But really, once they were resolved the show just began exploring the characters' personalities instead. Has anyone really entered a new status quo since "Bad Friend"? I couldn't have predicted that for four episodes in a row, we'd only really see low-key character studies, but then Girls does play the expectations game. It's likely plot will become important again for the last three episodes, but who knows, really? This season keeps surprising me, and I doubt its ending will be an exception.
Linkcomment

The Shield (season 5) [Sunday, February 24th, 2013, 1:01 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

Just a quick word about the latest season of The Shield I finished. As I watch more and more of it, I realize that it's never going to be one of my favourite shows. I was hoping it would break out of its season 1 rhythms a little more by this point, and while it's a great show to be certain, it just doesn't have as unique a point of view as I'd like. However, season 5 was definitely its best season, even if it didn't hit the highs I was hoping for. It's grounded by a fantastic performance from Forest Whitaker, and its seasonal arc does something that's nice for any show to do: acknowledge its own past. I was wondering if the show would ever return to the murder that started it all at the end of the pilot episode, but I just assumed it would be the thrust of the final season. It's great to see that The Shield based its fifth season around that moment, and it gives the show as a whole a great shape to it. I also like that Whitaker stuck around for a couple of episodes at the beginning of the sixth season, and that Anthony Anderson showed up a bit during the proceedings. It's a small thing, but it really makes the show feel much more fluid and less episodic. I assume I'll see more and more moments like that as I finish up the last two seasons, but I know at this point that I'll never really love the show.



I do love American Dad now though. And what a strange thing that is to type.
Linkcomment

Paul's favourite Community episodes [Saturday, February 23rd, 2013, 4:51 AM]
Paul
[Tags|, ]

When I can't sleep, I make lists, so in honour of Community's worst-ever episode this week, I thought I'd list my five favourite episodes of the show. I'm sorry there's no showing from season 1 here, but "Romantic Expressionism," the show's first great episode, is my #6.

5. "Paradigms of Human Memory" (Season 2, Episode 21)
"Paradigms" doesn't have much of a story to it, but that's to its benefit, since it would just get in the way of one of the most incessantly funny sitcom episodes ever made. The episode uses the fake clip show premise to deliver joke after joke, nonstop, with almost all of them rooted in the characters and very few falling flat. It represents the show at its silliest and most self-referential (it's essentially an episode about Community as a series), but also at its most layered. No segment displays all three better than the fanvid parody, set to Sara Bareilles' treacly "Gravity," that follows Annie's overestimation of her relationship with Jeff. Already every clip included is funny on its own, and a few are also callbacks to previous clips in the episode. But as a whole, the sequence is a pitch-perfect parody of the visual grammar of fanvids, with a liberal use of slow-motion and some edited-in reaction shots (the black-and-white insert of Troy looking displeased never fails to make me burst into laughter). It also serves as a dig at fanvid creators, who will read into the slightest actions (Jeff glancing at Annie in line at the cafeteria, or giving her the heimlich maneuver when she's choking) in service of their one true pairing. Above all, however, it's a dig at Dan Harmon himself, whose fans want the characters to just get together while they're instead on a show which forces them to fight runaway robots and have jumprope competitions. And that's not even mentioning the layered timelines of the clips themselves: when a final nonsensical Winger speech stitched together from ten separate fake episodes and complete with callbacks and self-commentary brings the group back together yet again, it's hard not to wonder how a show this elaborate could ever make it to network TV.



4. "Remedial Chaos Theory" (Season 3, Episode 3)
"Chaos" is an easy consensus pick for the best Community episode, and it's easy to see why: it uses an elaborate time-travel gimmick to make incisive observations about its characters, and it does it in a very funny way. If I seem to be damning it with faint praise, it's because the episode doesn't quite hold up to repeated viewings. It's as tightly constructed as a story with this structure could be, but telling a seven-part story may be just a touch too large-scale for a twenty-minute episode. While I do love it to death, and few other sitcoms could even attempt an episode like this, the end result is an episode that builds to something great, but requires a lot of setup to get there. As a result, a few characters' storylines get lost in the shuffle, and the episode occasionally feels overstuffed. But what payoffs those last few timelines are, and what a great encapsulation of everything that makes the show great this episode is. "Chaos" could've made a wonderful series finale, if it hadn't also been cleverly (and subtly) building long-term plotlines for the rest of the season. This is, by far, Community at its most ambitious.

3. "Critical Film Studies" (Season 2, Episode 19)
While most of Community's theme episodes are easily graspable, "Critical Film Studies" may be the most alienating and least accessible episode the show's ever done, even as it's as warm and loving as the show's other great episodes. It hinges on a four-minute monologue about Cougar Town, a similarly low-rated series not even on the same network, then closes with a mournful montage of the characters demurely recreating scenes from Pulp Fiction under Erik Satie's first "Gymnopédie." It's probably the most affecting sequence the show ever managed, at once heartbreaking and deeply funny; it's the show at its most distinctive, and that goes for the whole episode as well. On what other sitcom could you find a full-episode parody of one movie masquerading as a parody of another movie, only to combine the two seamlessly by the end, having told a touching story about a difficult friendship in the meantime? If nothing else, this is Community's contribution to sitcom history, a great example of just how far an episode of network television can go.



2. "Cooperative Calligraphy" (Season 2, Episode 8)
"Calligraphy" is objectively the best episode Community ever made, and ever will make. It's the show distilled to its very essence, a bottle episode that confines the characters to one room and has them bounce off one another for the entire running time. It's also the show at its absolute rawest, taking the characters further into conflict than they ever had been before or since. By episode's end, all the characters are stripped down emotionally and physically, but the plotting is so elegant and subtle that you barely notice it all started with Annie losing her pen. While certain characters may have had better showings in episodes where they were the main focus, "Calligraphy" is the one to best balance the seven of them, with everyone being sympathetic and fully-realized, as well as getting a good share of the jokes. And of course, it's got the best act break in all of Community, with "Gwynnifer, hi, yeah, it's me. I can't make it. Well, tell your disappointment to suck it, I'm doing a bottle episode!" standing as one of its best-ever lines that doesn't work at all out of context. If "Critical Film Studies" showed just how singular a sitcom episode could be, "Cooperative Calligraphy" shows that the most "normal" episodes can also be the most powerful.

1. "Mixology Certification" (Season 2, Episode 10)
I love that Community is a show that comments on itself, and self-criticizes, and self-references. But at the end of the day, my favourite episode is the one that's the most universal. I already wrote a lot about it, but suffice it to say that "Mixology" tells a series of honest, human stories, and without any of the bells and whistles that Community often uses to accomplish that. It's a minimalist episode of television, if that's possible to be, simple and easily grasped throughout, but constantly saying something larger about the way we live with each other. Community's title was a deliberate choice, and never is that more obvious than here.
Linkcomment

The Beach Boys' Friends [Friday, February 22nd, 2013, 7:43 PM]
Paul
[Tags|, ]

Hey, I wrote a little thing about the Beach Boys' Friends for Encore. I might do it again, it was fun!
Linkcomment

"Rapture's Delight" and breaking through [Wednesday, February 20th, 2013, 5:09 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

Recently I've been interested in that point where a work of art finally breaks through its confines and becomes truly great. "Breaking through" requires creatives who constantly strive to create something better than their best, but there are any number of methods with which they achieve something great. It can be as easy as finding a single element that works and capitalizing on it, or it can be as daunting as using one's work to say complex things about the human condition. There are those like Beach House, who so wanted to create something more full for 2010's Teen Dream that the demos for it sounded like the finished tracks of their previous album. There are situations like Arrested Development, where achieving greatness meant balancing a dozen or more unique elements at once, so that it's no wonder that balance could only be adequately maintained for just a handful of episodes. But whatever way it's done, breaking through requires hard work, probably the hardest work of any creative endeavour. To make something great, you have to put in the effort.

There's a thought I've been mulling over for a couple of months without being fully able to elaborate on it: all great episodes of television are of more or less equal quality. If you're interested in television from a relativistic viewpoint, where series are graded against themselves instead of each other, that feels like a foregone conclusion. But what does it really mean? Obviously, certain episodes and shows are better than others. I'm not going to argue that a great episode of Bob's Burgers is better than a great episode of The Simpsons. There are the rare shows that manage to deliver something lasting, something that comments on humanity and truly achieves something that hasn't been before. But even before that point, there's a sense of greatness that comes through when a show absolutely nails what it's going for, even if it hasn't yet found a way to turn that greatness outward. Watching TV gives you the unique opportunity to watch a single work of art grow and change in front of you, and when it finally comes into its own, there's nothing else quite like it. When a show just works, just fires on all cylinders, there's a certain magic to it that it shares with all other shows that have reached that point.

I should probably come out and say now that all this philosophizing is in the service of talking about an episode of American Dad I particularly liked. But despite its reputation, American Dad is a perfect example of what a TV show looks like when it breaks through. For most shows, doing so requires a slow build. Creators have to figure out what works and what doesn't, and have to establish a new grounding for the show to allow it to focus on its best elements. For American Dad, that required setting up a framework where the show can (and should) go completely off the rails about halfway into an episode. That's not just an every-once-in-a-while situation; rather, the show is expected to go completely crazy in every episode, and have stakes be raised on every plot. Constantly finding bizarre new ways to surprise has become the show's premise at this point. The show spent two patchy seasons establishing all of its relationships and solidifying the off-kilter way it's plotted. Now it has license to be one of the most surreal series ever made. This contrasts it from similarly-insane shows like South Park, which never adequately built to the ridiculousness it would often display. For American Dad, there's a certain grounding to its insanity that makes every unexpected detour more enjoyable.

What's most exciting about American Dad becoming a great series is that it's still recognizably a Seth MacFarlane production, despite having Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman as its showrunners since it debuted. It has the same pop culture jabs, fast-paced animation, over-the-top violence, and delight in pushing moral buttons that his other shows like Family Guy and The Cleveland Show do. It continues the trend of his other series to continually subvert the audience's expectations, whether of plot, character, or humour, to the point where starts subverting its previous subversions. The only difference is that American Dad uses those elements in the service of something greater, rather than as ends unto themselves. It would've been hard to consider that this show which began as a ripoff of a ripoff could one day become a great series, but here we are. American Dad is a far cry from what it was in its pilot, even as it has the same characters and setting. Not every show can eventually be great, but shows are malleable, and they reinvent themselves continually as they air. I think that with hard work, any show can be configured into a great show.



So all this to say that I thought season 5's "Rapture's Delight" was the first truly great episode of American Dad. The show has used Christmas episodes as an opportunity to get particularly weird, delivering non-canon craziness that plays with religious imagery in its usual anarchic way. But since season 4 didn't have a Christmas episode, "Rapture's Delight" was the first such episode delivered after the show got a firm handle on its new self. The episode's premise, that the rapture occurs while Stan and Francine are having sex in a church closet, and the two find themselves left behind, is a touch more surreal than the show usually goes in its first acts, but it's nothing compared to what happens after the halfway point. Most American Dad episodes will change course entirely about halfway in, to something that's unexpected but still somewhat related to what the first half of the episode was about. In this case, all the talk of Jesus fighting the legions of the underworld for seven years didn't fully prepare me for the show to return from commercial with a "seven years later" title card. The second half of the episode plays out as an elaborate parody of every post-apocalyptic movie ever made, but it's still so steeped in religious imagery that it feels absolutely fresh and new. This final act is the show firing on all cylinders, and it legitimately feels like nothing else on television.

It's also unbelievably funny. Over the four previous seasons, the show's built up a specific sense of humour that's similar to Family Guy's general anything-for-a-laugh tactics, but is rooted in something more cerebral. The jokes themselves aren't quite cerebral, of course, but the show takes its joke structure absolutely seriously, and that leads to an environment where an out-of-nowhere callback to someone saying "smell my ass" is the funniest thing in the world. In this way, American Dad has a bit in common with The Simpsons, which frequently made joke premises as funny as the punchlines themselves. There's one joke in "Rapture's Delight" which is essentially disconnected from everything going on, but it works on several layers despite being about as puerile as possible. Francine has gotten together with Jesus, who appears from the Smiths' pool to talk to Stan. After he exits, we hear a gasp from Roger, and the camera pans aside a little to show a brown object floating in the water. There's a slight beat as we see him stand there in shock, before he says, still aghast, "I dropped my meatball in the pool." Somehow that seems like the perfect encapsulation of MacFarlane's brand of comedy: it takes a juvenile premise, subverts your expectations for the punchline, then makes that subversion contrived to the point of absurdity. It works unbelievably well, and that final punchline may be the hardest I've ever laughed at the show.

Of course, I'm still catching up with it, and I have hope that American Dad can match "Rapture's Delight" in the future - or even top it. Through hard work, the show has managed to ground elements that could be problematic on any other show, like Roger's unhinged sociopathy or the general insanity of its world. In fact, the show's got such a good grounding at this point that any episode could conceivably be the next great one. With "Rapture's Delight," it even manages to tie the episode to the show's reality with a flourish: despite being a supernatural non-canon episode, its final moments point to the episodes that follow as being an endless series of adventures that merely occur in Stan's head. Ameican Dad has just about made a trip to a post-apocalyptic future and eventually the afterlife a part of its overall continuity. If that's not grounding, I don't know what is.

Linkcomment

Enlightened, "All I Ever Wanted" [Tuesday, February 19th, 2013, 11:14 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

Enlightened in its second season has become the rare show where every element of its presentation is working perfectly. Mike White's writing ably captures stories both big and small. Episodes are directed with a light touch, but the cinematography is as daring as any show on TV today. Mark Mothersbaugh's minimalist score is subtly beautiful whether it's drowning out dialogue or lilting in the background. And every character is so fully embodied by their actors, their interactions coming off more and more affecting every week. It's easily the best show on TV right now, and "All I Ever Wanted" might be its best episode yet.



Despite the premiere's positioning of the corporate intrigue plot as the main drive for the season, in hindsight it's been a little more complex than that. Really, the plot has just been a well-paced series of big developments: Amy's meeting with Jeff, Omar's firing, Dougie's defection, and most recently, the "mother lode" Tyler unwittingly procures for Amy. At other times, the plot lurks in the background, informing what's going on but not overpowering it. In "All I Ever Wanted," what seems to be the climax to the season barely features the whistleblower story at all, instead giving us a whole episode focused on Amy's relationships with Jeff and Levi, and all the trouble that entails.

This season has had a particular affinity for letting the score carry a scene all on its own, dropping the rest of the audio out entirely. This week, Enlightened used that technique to deliver possibly the most beautiful moment in a series full of them, when Helen must comfort Amy, who is having a panic attack. It's the best example yet of the way this show can play every layer of a scene at once. This is certainly a big moment for the pair, as shown by Helen's initial hesitation to actually touch her daughter. But it's also very small, a single sad moment for a mother and daughter, one that's intense in the moment but ends as quickly as it began.

Watching Enlightened tends to be a more personal experience for me than most other shows, I think. I have trouble fully articulating my feelings about it, just because the show hits me in different ways than TV normally does. There's so much more under the surface here than just being the best show on TV: it's strange and beautiful and sad, and every episode seems to improve on the last. With two more left in the season, and probably the series, I'm already feeling the separation anxiety it'll bring me. But it's nice to know that a show this singular was allowed to grow and become something so wonderful. If it gets another shot at that, I know it won't waste it.
Linkcomment

Girls, "Boys" [Monday, February 18th, 2013, 9:31 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

In its first season, Girls, like any forward-thinking show, introduced its characters as archetypes. That act made for easy character development, but it also allowed viewers to identify with its characters in a categorical way. I'm not sure if it ever crossed the line into "I'm such a Marnie" or "I'm such a Shoshanna" territory, but it certainly made that type of thinking more easy. Now that the show has started developing Ray in earnest, however, I'm more and more inclined to make it public that I'm such a Ray. The cannily-titled "Boys" puts the most effort yet into solidifying Ray as a person, and his peculiar mix of world-weariness, a passion for innocence, and a draconian attitude to work is defining a once underrepresented segment of young adults (see also: New Girl's Nick Miller). The more I learn about Ray, the more I see of myself in him, and it's making my investment in the show feel more and more personal.



In "Boys," Ray is sent to Adam's house by Hannah and Shoshanna to pick up his copy of Little Women, where Hannah had previously left it when she was dating Adam. It's a suitably convoluted way to get these two characters together, since until now they lived in different parts of the fragmented world of Girls. In fact, they're practically from different versions of the show, and their having never shared the screen together almost makes them seem like they're from different universes. The conceit works, though, and their story together ends up being one of the more affecting ones the show's done so far. Their scenes together quickly blow through the oddness of seeing the two together, and the show finds something real in the way they relate to each other.

There's a certain way Girls handles language that didn't become clear to me until seeing Adam and Ray talk to each other on the Staten Island ferry. It doesn't concern anything actually said by the characters, but rather the way things are said. Adam and Ray both have such a specific weirdness to the way they look and speak (something which is thankfully commented on in the episode) that it made obvious something which was bubbling underneath the surface of the show until now. Every Girls character has their own unique way of speaking, of getting out the sometimes-unwieldy dialogue without their scenes running long. In another show this might feel contrived, but the actors so embodied their characters that it doesn't feel weird for Shoshanna to be speaking about three times too quickly, with long pauses surfacing in unexpected places; or for Hannah to speak in alternating tones of complete authority and poorly masked helplessness. For Adam and Ray, this means that a conversation between them essentially involves the two just delivering ornery speeches to each other back and forth. It's inherently interesting to hear a conversation between people with such specific ways of speaking: both have such unusual cadences and both are so convinced of their own intelligence (yet in different ways, somehow), that their interactions could easily seem like a gimmick. The fact that they actually learn something from each other is what sets Girls apart.

It seems like the show's ongoing goal at this point to find commonalities between characters who would otherwise be worlds apart, but it still feels fresh when Adam and Ray connect. I think what works about this instance is that, appropriately for two characters so jaded, these connections are played as small realizations, rather than anything world-shattering. The two aren't particularly conscious of any growing or learning, but despite their resistance, the moments will matter to them. I was particularly impressed by Ray's final scene, breaking down into tears with a dog that's not his, in a borough he hates, having just been yelled at by someone he doesn't know. It's a wonderful coda to his climactic fight with Adam, who also gets a small realization of his own when he defends Hannah to Ray, after he had just so definitively labeled her a "carnival Tweety Bird" moments earlier. By bringing the two into each other's orbit, the show has strengthened not only the two's personalities, but also the way it handles its characters' personalities.

Meanwhile, after his assistant quits, Booth Jonathan has Marnie host a party he's holding at his house. This story is more of a mixed bag, but not worth all the dread I felt at the threat of more Booth Jonathan. Notably, "Boys" ends up giving a little more shading to Booth, who just barely earns his new status as well-known-but-not-truly-known tortured artist. Once again, however, despite his flaws, the character's mere presence earns a great performance from Allison Williams, who nails Marnie's breakdown in Booth's wine cellar. Though this storyline was worlds better than the one the two had in "Bad Friend," Booth's involvement still gives everything a broadness that doesn't quite match the more realistic interaction between Adam and Ray. It's almost all worth it, however, for that final phone call between Marnie and Hannah.

That call puts a neat bow on the whole storyline, and is the latest in a series of great moments between Hannah and Marnie that don't follow completely from what leads up to them. If there's one takeaway from this season of Girls, it's that the show has a natural talent for big emotional setpieces, but frequently can't adequately build to them. It's happened over and over this season: Shoshanna and Ray's profession of love was touching, but demanded increasingly laboured fights between the two so it could actually happen; meanwhile, Jessa and Thomas-John's final fight was an incredible piece of filmmaking, but we had to sit through an over-the-top dinner to get there. In this case, Marnie's adventure with Booth Jonathan and Hannah's attempt to write an e-book were both fine, if a little underdeveloped, but that final call felt like a huge moment for them. In their conversation, the two are fully lying about their feelings, both trying to appear accomplished and put-together to the other party. It's a perfectly in-character moment for both, and despite not being fully earned, it hit hard. In a way, Girls tends to work better when Hannah and Marnie dislike each other, even if it strains to get them to that point over and over.

As a whole, "Boys" serves as a great way to introduce a lot of plots for the second half of the season, and certainly does a better job of it than the premiere did. In fact, these most recent three episodes were worlds more enjoyable than those first three, boasting some great plotting choices and moments that matched or even exceeded the best ones in season 1. My only qualm with the season so far, and this is one I've mentioned before, is that the show needs to get a better handle on shuffling its characters around. We're six episodes in and Shoshanna hasn't yet gotten the major plotline she deserves: she's constantly reacting to other characters, or serving as a tagalong for Ray's development. She's such a rich character, and yet she's barely had any true character moments since the series began. Similarly, Adam's been sitting much of the season out, and while "Boys" was a great showcase for him, it's hard to say if this will bring him back into the show's orbit again going forward. I'm not saying all the characters need equal screen time, but for a show that works so well when it keeps its ensemble together, this season feels like a missed opportunity in that regard. As it is, though, I'm feeling very good about the second half of the season. Girls feels more ambitious than it was last year, consistently attempting scenes and moments that it hasn't tried before, and wonderfully, it's mostly pulling them off. It's certainly in a much better place now than it was a few weeks ago, just as I knew it would be. If it could consistently make the journey as enjoyable as the destination, it would be a show for the ages.
Linkcomment

Girls, "One Man's Trash" [Monday, February 11th, 2013, 8:03 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

I kinda loved "One Man's Trash": I have very few qualms about it, and generally liked every decision made for the episode. But I don't think I'll ever put it on any (inevitable) future "top ten Girls episodes" lists, and I don't even think it'll be one of my favourites of the season. The feeling I had toward it was that distant sort of love you get sometimes for things that you respect but can't fully connect with. And yet throughout watching it, I was continually impressed by everything I saw. It was a gutsy move to make an episode like this, and I think Lena Dunham pulled it off flawlessly.



After a brief intro with Ray (whose customer service technique seems more than a little similar to my own), the show sends Hannah off on her own for the whole episode, without checking in with the rest of the cast. The last time we saw an episode like this was season 1's "The Return," but since that one ended with a warm moment between Hannah and Adam, as well as tying in to Hannah's relationship with her parents, it still felt of a piece with the rest of the season. "One Man's Trash" is about as distinct an episode can be from the others around it. It has a plot small enough to feel inconsequential, but its storytelling is more thematically rich than Girls normally attempts to be. Essentially all that happens is that Hannah has a chance encounter with an older man named Joshua, and the two make a connection at his house, which leads them to spend the next two days basically having a lot of sex. Hannah has an epiphany during their second night together, or convinces herself she's having an epiphany, or wants Joshua to believe she's having an epiphany, and he immediately pulls away from her. She wakes up alone the next day, and returns to her normal life.

Many commentators have already made this point, but there's a lot in common between "One Man's Trash" and short fiction. Not only is this episode a self-contained adventure for Hannah, but its general lack of conflict and stakes feels similar to the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway. At first, it seems a far cry from those works: Girls is rarely a show known for its command of subtext, especially since many of its characters simply yell out what's on their mind to each other. But it's got a great handle on the way these characters see themselves, and how their personality flaws can cloud everything they do. And now, a season and a half into its run, it's confident enough to start leaving certain character questions unanswered. When Hannah has her big moment in bed with Joshua, it's hard to say what exactly is motivating it. Has she really realized that she's had enough of living life solely to accumulate stories? Is she trying to push away Joshua, whom she feels is a less self-aware person than her? What's going through her head as she's barfing it all out? It might not end up being a big moment for Hannah, but it feels like a big moment for Girls. The show's been this emotionally raw before, but it's never before given us a scene with so much weight to it. It's that hint at a rich subtext that sets "One Man's Trash" apart from every other episode of the show so far.

It's also set apart from the rest of the season structurally, to get back to standard TV considerations. One of my favourite things a show can do is to give its seasons a shape to them, an ebb and flow that makes us feel like we're not just watching the same thing over and over. A heavily serialized story over thirteen episodes is nice, but I'm more and more taken by shows that deliver different kinds of episodes throughout a season. These may be self-contained, but if they're placed with care, they'll add up to something larger in the end. I loved last week's "It's a Shame About Ray" because it managed to skillfully close off practically every ongoing story of the previous three episodes, and that it paved the way for an episode like "One Man's Trash" makes it even more impressive. I kept telling myself in the early going that Lena Dunham was playing a long game for the second season, just as she did for the first. And this season so far seems to have a similar structure, with four straight episodes of plot (in season one, these followed the pilot) followed by a solo story for Hannah. But "One Man's Trash" feels unique in a way that "The Return" didn't. It sticks out in the flow of the season, detached as it is from everything else going on, and it feels like the key to giving season two its shape. It's a smart episode all around.

So why am I not as passionate about it as I could be? It's a strange situation for me, since two of the strongest parts of the episode, its use of subtext and its focus on a previously unseen (but well-drawn) character, are things I'm not usually crazy about on TV. But I think the real reason is Hannah herself. She's the show's best-realized character by far, but there's something about her that keeps me from fully investing in her life. That may well be by design: she's unsympathetic at the least, and the artificial way she lives her life seems to all but dare people to be interested in the things that happen to her. There's a certain discrepancy between her status as a TV character and her status as a person that makes her compelling - how can such a fake person make for such a real character? - and that discrepancy means I can't fully be a part of her stories like I can for most other characters. Still, as much as I love Shoshanna and Ray and Adam, would I ever want to see an episode like "One Man's Trash" starring them? Any similar story they had wouldn't resonate nearly as much as Hannah's did. Girls has almost had to contort itself to be able to tell this story, skillfully balancing many possibly dangerous elements at once. What's so impressive about "One Man's Trash" is how effortless it all seems.
Linkcomment

My Bloody Valentine in 2013 [Wednesday, February 6th, 2013, 3:57 PM]
Paul
[Tags|]

I'm very taken by My Bloody Valentine's new album, the barely-titled MBV. It's certainly not better than Loveless, of course, and probably not better than Isn't Anything either, but it works fantastically as its own entity. Every song is wonderful, even taken out of their contexts. As a whole, however, MBV works even better as a response to its own status, to all the hype inherent in being the band's first album in 22 years. Its nine songs can be divided neatly into three distinct groups, each arguing in a different way that the new album could be a vital addition to the band's catalogue.

The first group argues that the spirit of the band's music could be recaptured decades later, something that seemed difficult, or even impossible, beforehand. They sound like the logical followup to Loveless, if Loveless weren't such an institution unto itself. "Only Tomorrow" points to a more mainstream direction as a possibility for the band's third album, while "Who Sees You" is as affecting a song as Kevin Shields has ever written. Interestingly, lead track "She Found Now" continues right from where "Soon" left off in 1991 as another unusually vague song in the band's repertoire. It churns along for five minutes, only hinting at melody and rhythm, and handily prepares the listener for what's to come.

The second group represents a sort of alternate-universe Loveless, obliquely arguing that that album could have worked just as well with a different set of tools. They all feature more keyboards than the band is used to, with "Is This and Yes" possibly being the first song the band's ever recorded without guitar at all. Meanwhile, the pounding drums of "If I Am" and the downright funkiness of "New You" represent different uses of rhythm for the band, and both could've served as worthwhile alternate blueprints for Loveless back in the day.

That focus on rhythm is what guides the album's last three tracks, and most compelling sequence. Shields hinted over the years that jungle and drum and bass music were influences for the new album, but the end result is simply staggering. "In Another Way" and "Nothing Is" are abrasive and driving in a way that the band's music has only glanced at in the past. They're also no less beautiful than anything else My Bloody Valentine have released. Shields has found a way to unite the distant, simple melodies of shoegaze with the intricate, forceful drums of jungle. "Wonder 2" ends the album sounding barely like either. If the last group of songs on the album argues for the band's ability to actually build on Loveless, then "Wonder 2" is the most exciting example here.

My Bloody Valentine has had a long, storied history with noise, most notably in the "holocaust section" in live performances of "You Made Me Realise," which assaulted audiences with ear-splitting feedback for up to half an hour. But it's never before been noisy quite like it has in "Wonder 2," a bewildering mix of relentless drums and jet-engine guitars. It matches Loveless' "Soon" as a unique, perfect closer, a song that sounds very little like the rest of the album it's on, but fits perfectly with its spirit. It's the best shot the band has at being relevant in 2013, not just for having created Loveless, but also for making fresh new music. That it's actually successful at this is the most surprising thing about MBV. It sounds like 2013, even though it also sounds like 1993, and like every year in between. It's managed to make shoegaze, a genre that until now has sounded like the early '90s, timeless.

Linkcomment

navigation
[ viewing | most recent entries ]
[ go | earlier ]