Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In which I try to figure out whether or not "Legion" is good

Okay, so is Legion good?

I know it looks good. The special effects are great. The sets are beautiful. The entire thing feels like a well-designed nightmare. Like Fargo, Noah Hawley's previous series (and the one that made him The Greatest Storyteller Known To Humankind, according to the internet), there is so much care and precision put into every single shot that just the visuals of the series alone probably qualify as a masterpiece. Still, as much as I enjoyed Fargo, I never quite flipped my lid over it as much as most people seemed to, and that was because I felt that the show was visually mindblowing but ultimately kind of empty. There was something there, moreso in the first season than the second (which I thought got too tied up in its own mystery to say much of substance), but it never moved me the way the very best prestige dramas do. Breaking Bad may have looked beautiful, but the reason it connected with so many was because of the relentless story behind it about an ordinary man who turned into a villain, and the how and why of how he got there. It was a relevant, poignant story during a time where many ordinary people not unlike Walter White themselves felt like their lives were falling apart. Whether or not you rooted for him (I mean, I would hope that most sensible people were no longer rooting for him by the end of the series, but I'm sure the Breaking Bad subreddit would love to prove me wrong!) you could understand him. I bring up Breaking Bad because that show was also a visual masterpiece, and it has inspired an army of clones that have similar visual precision but fall flat when it comes to proving their worst otherwise. But you could also sub in The Sopranos or Mad Men or whatever prestige television series with deep underlying themes that you choose. What are the deep, underlying themes of Fargo? What is that show trying to say other than "we went to film school and understand how to compose these cool ass shots?".

I do think that Legion wants to say something, though - something about mental illness and being trapped by your past and your own demons. I just don't know that it's succeeding at it. I was very underwhelmed by the show's pilot, which seemed like a classic "look, we're using mental illness as a science fiction twist!" story, which is a plot point that always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The second episode was a little better, and the third episode was probably my favorite yet, the only one so far that I felt really made any attempt to engage with David and his condition as anything other than a plot device. The show occasionally approaches interesting human moments, like David worrying that Sydney wouldn't love him anymore after seeing his memories as a junkie, or David snapping at Melanie and demanding that the only thing he cares about is his sister's safety. But it doesn't linger on those moments too long, and quickly dives back into the mystery and the cinematography of it all. And that's fine! The show is beautiful and weird and confusing. But when you're bringing up issues like addiction and mental illness, I don't think you can just sweep them away when you get a cool shot, or use them as little more than a way to throw your viewers off the trail of your central mystery. My hope is that Hawley is smarter than that, and this will be leading to a place that has something more to say than "look at this really confusing plot we wrote!". I'm not holding my breath, but it would be nice for Television's Greatest Storyteller to, well, live up to that title.

Monday, February 27, 2017

"Crashing" (HBO)

I was not especially excited for Crashing, even though I generally like Pete Holmes and have a deep love for comedy. But there have been so many shows about comedians in the past few years, all of which follow a very similar "kind of funny, kind of sad look at a comedians' personal life" formula, that it was hard for me to let out anything other than a resounding "meh" when I first watched the trailer and saw the ads. I mean, c'mon. We're living in Trump's America now. The problems of rich and very privileged comedians should be at the very bottom of the barrel of issues that television expects us to care about, right? That's not a totally fair statement - entertainment is escapism and we all need a little escapism these days - but it's hard not to watch shows like that and think, "come on, just admit you have it pretty fucking good, guys."So anyway, it was surprising to me when I watched Crashing and actually really enjoyed it. It's true, it's yet another show that doesn't hide its Louie influences, but there is something about Crashing that sets it apart from the rest of the pack, a little bit. Part of it is Holmes himself, who is funny and winning and charming and seems to have found a proper vehicle for his talents, but there is also something that very few shows about "the biz" acknowledge: failure.

Crashing, at least right now, is a show about an aspiring comedian who is not very good at being a comedian. He's a youth pastor who just got out of a marriage to the only woman he has ever dated and was living a cozy suburban life, using his wife's money to haul ass into the city and perform at open mics, saying it was like "his version of medical school", ignoring the fact that medical school guarantees you a six-figure salary and open mics don't guarantee you jack shit. More importantly, Pete's character is really not even funny, at least not "comedian" funny. He's sort of funny in the way you'd expect a small-town pastor to be, cute for a chuckle on a Sunday morning mass but certainly nothing you're going to be expecting to see headlining his own Netflix special anytime soon. Holmes has said he sees Crashing as the story of where he was ten years ago, so maybe we're going to watch his character eventually become the successfully and well-liked comedian he is today, but I kind of hope that doesn't happen, because Crashing is very upfront about failure in a way most industry shows are not. In the first episode, Artie Lange tells Holmes point black after watching him bomb on stage: this isn't medical school. Most people get nowhere and make no money. It's not for everyone, and not everyone is cut out for it. Most shows would then transition into an inspiring scene where our hero wins over the crowd and it's clear that, no, he's going to beat the odds and make it. But not Crashing. Holmes gets mugged, loses everything, spends the night crashing on Lange's couch, then drives him to a gig in Albany where he opens for Lange and completely bombs once again. And not only is he bombing, but he no longer has an income, is technically homeless, and can barely afford to eat. There's something about those kinds of problems that digs a little deeper than the "I'm rich and famous but sometimes I get sad" narratives of most comedians' autobiographical TV shows. I like most of the shows! But in an age where so many people struggle just to get through each day, shows like Crashing are the types of shows more comedians should be trying.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best TV of 2016

Best-of lists are kind of dumb. Right? I love them, but they’re kind of dumb, especially in our era of “peak TV.” There’s so much television out there, covering so many different styles and genres and tastes, that who’s to say that any one person’s “best 20 TV shows of 2016” will have any bearing on you? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I totally compiled a top 20 list that I’m going to post somewhere and I spent weeks analyzing it and mulling it over but at least like, I’m acknowledging it’s dumb, right? Right.
Anyway, even if I don’t think “top TV lists” are necessarily the right way to spotlight the best that TV has to offer, I do think it’s nice to look back at the year in television and look at some of the great stuff it’s whipped up over the past 12 months. And I always think the “Best TV Episodes” lists do a little bit better of a job of capturing some of the joy that watching really great TV gives you. No matter how much Netflix wants to change it, TV is still an episodic medium, and no other medium quite matches the feeling of watching a really perfect episode that captures everything you love about a show in a mere ~30–60 minutes. So here’s some of the 2016 TV episodes that did just that for me.

Superstore — “Labor”

Superstore is a quietly strong little sitcom consistently plugging away Thursday nights on NBC. (Shameless plug: I wrote about why I think the show is great and underrated for VICE last month and you should totally read it.) The show started off seeming kind of like “generic workplace sitcom set in a big-box store”, but gradually distinguished itself with a compelling cast of characters and a subtle-but-effective focus on workers’ rights, and the show’s first season finale “Labor” felt like the major turning point in that direction. The episode finds teenage mother-to-be Cheyenne unexpectedly go into labor while on the clock, leading to store manager Glenn to give her two weeks of paid maternity leave — which gets him fired. The employees, angered at both their company’s lack of benefits and careless dismissal of their dedicated store manager, stage a walk-out, and although sitcom rules dictated that the walk-out be quickly remedied when the show returned in the fall, Cloud 9 has felt just a little bit more rebellious ever since.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — “That Text Was Not Meant For Josh!”

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is so good at so many things, from wacky sitcom hijinks to showstopping musical numbers to serious explorations of mental illness — and it’s always at its best when it manages to seamlessly combine all of those elements in one swoop. Perhaps the best example of that was the sublime “That Text Was Not Meant For Josh!”, which may be the show’s darkest and finest hour. The episode finds Rebecca in her most perilous Josh situation yet (she accidentally sent him a text admitting that she moved to West Covina because she was desperately in love with him) bringing her to her most drastic invasion of Josh’s privacy yet (she breaks into his apartment to find his phone and delete the text) and, after he catches her, her most over-the-top lie to cover her ass yet (she pretends that she was in his apartment because someone broke into hers and she needed to be somewhere she could feel safe.) She manages stages a break-in with the help of Paula and her husband, and while the break-in and Rebecca’s scheming are well-executed comic bits that earn plenty of laughs (that Textmergency number!!!), it all inevitably comes crashing down, and Rebecca finds herself in a spiral of self-loathing that culminates in the show’s most cutting and heartbreaking musical number yet (“You ruined everything, you stupid bitch” Rebecca sings to herself.) There are so many plates being spun here, and the fact that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend absolutely nailed all of them demonstrates why it was one of TV’s best shows in 2016.

Broad City — “Burning Bridges”

The ever-reliable Broad City took some surprising risks in 2016, and it resulted in a season that wasn’t quite as consistent as its first two but pushed the show in some exciting and intriguing new directions. The best example of that was arguably the “Burning Bridges” episode, which is the only episode of Broad City that may be more notable for its emotional elements than its comedy (although it had plenty of great comedy as well in its Mrs. Doubtfire homage.) “Burning Bridges” finds Abbi on a secret date with lovable douche Trey, but when she winds up at the same restaurant as Ilana and her family (who she turned down previously), Abbi has to scramble to keep her cover. Of course, she doesn’t, and it ends with the only major Abbi/Ilana rift that we’ve seen on the show thus far. Of course, it’s remedied quickly, but the same can’t be said for Abbi and Trey’s relationship, which ends on a surprisingly sad note. Kudos to Broad City for expanding its dramatic palate a bit more and totally landing it, without losing what made it great in the first place.

The Americans — “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”

The Americans has gotten more tense and foreboding with each season, but this season felt particularly pressing: between the sudden execution of Nina, the FBI finding out about Martha’s ties to the Russians followed by her shuffling off to the Soviet Union, Paige blowing her parents cover with Pastor Tim, and Phillip and Elizabeth often finding themselves at odds over their plan for their families’ safety, the pressure just didn’t stop mounting. So this late-season turning point, in which the Jennings take a break from their spy work and the show time-jumps seven months to show them at the other end of a length vacation, was both refreshing and kind of devastating: on one hand, it was nice that our Soviet protagonists got some time off, but the way all of their happiness happened off-screen and we had to dive back into the trenches with them at the other end demonstrated how their stress and turmoil are never really over. The Americans is all about the concept of sacrifice and how far you’re willing to go for your cause, and it’s increasingly feeling like the Jennings are going to have to make a tough decision between their family’s livelihood and their country very soon.

BoJack Horseman — “That’s Too Much, Man!”

Most of the “best episodes” lists I’ve seen pick the largely silent “Fish Out of Water” episode to represent BoJack’s stunning third season, and while I mean no disrespect to that incredible episode (which was a masterclass of animation that could easily hang with the best of Pixar, come at me), the one that continues to haunt my dreams is the season’s penultimate episode, “That’s Too Much, Man!”. It has become a pattern for the penultimate episode of a BoJack Horseman season to completely break your fucking soul (Season 1’s “Downer Ending” saw a torn BoJack begging Diane to tell him that he’s a good person, Season 2’s “Escape from L.A” saw BoJack reach the point of no return after being caught in bed with his old friend Charlotte’s teenage daughter), but even then I still wasn’t prepared for this episode to break me as much as it did. “That’s Too Much, Man!” follows BoJack’s weeks-long bender after he misses out on an Oscars nomination, but the focus is really on his former TV daughter Sarah-Lynn, who is newly sober after several years of drug addiction…until BoJack convinces her to join him on his spiral. The two travel around visiting various characters that BoJack has wronged over the course of the show’s run, from Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter to Angela to, yes, good God, even Charlotte’s daughter Penny…but it all comes to an abrupt end in a planetarium, after Sarah-Lynn fatally overdoses on a batch of heroin appropriated named “BoJack.” The episode is such a gutpunch that five months after watching it, I still don’t feel totally emotionally recovered. (If you want to be even more devastated, rewatch Sarah-Lynn’s first episode in Season 1 and notice all of the heartbreaking parallels between that episode and this one. Or don’t. You’ll be very, very sad.)

You’re the Worst — “You Knew it Was a Snake”

This is another one where I’ve mostly noticed lists championing one particular episode (“Twenty-Two”, and rightfully so, given its deft exploration of Edgar’s PTSD) so I figured I’d throw some love to an episode that I’ve seen get less attention but I thought was just as great. This episode, aired as the first part of a two-part season finale, felt more like a stage play at times than a sitcom episode: it took the show’s three central couples, locked them each in a room together, and set them up against each other, highlighting all of the problems that have been mounting between them over the course of the season. It was thrilling, honest, funny, and heartbreaking, which at this point should be expected from this show, but it still manages to knock me off my feet every time it pulls off an episode like this. Season 3 may have had less of a clear narrative structure than past seasons, but it still knocked it out of the park when the moment counted, and this episode was a perfect example of that.

black-ish — “Hope”

black-ish has done an incredible job over the course of its three seasons of mixing heavy racial issues with primetime-friendly family sitcom hijinks, making it one of the most essential network television sitcoms in several years. There is perhaps no better example of this than this year’s “Hope”, which tackled the subject of police brutality head-on as the Johnsons watched as another police officer failed to be convicted of shooting an unarmed black man. “Hope” is heavy and heartbreaking, just as it should be, but it never crosses the line into treacly. A comic runner about the Johnsons struggling to decide what to order for take-out helps things from getting too dark and also makes it feel like an actual family grappling with this issue, rather than mouthpieces for TV writers. The tightrope act that black-ish walks is one of the most difficult on TV, so the fact that it gets it right so often and produces episodes as fantastic as “Hope” is a seriously impressive feat.

The Good Place — “…Someone Like Me as a Member”

The Good Place was funny and intriguing from the start, but over the nine episodes it’s aired so far it has grown from being “fun and promising” to “a surprisingly thoughtful, deep analysis of some of the most complex questions about the afterlife and destiny.” It’s also a really funny sitcom, with a very talented cast and some excellent joke writing and pitch-perfect comic bits. The show’s midseason finale is perhaps the best example of that delicate balance — it’s an incredibly funny episode with some hilarious bits (such as the amazing cactus runner and the “Nixon karaoke” scene, which gave me some of my biggest laughs on TV this year) but also brings all of the philosophical questions the show has been posing (like “is there such a thing as soulmates?” and “is the concept of good and evil really fair?”) to a head. It sounds like it’s impossible to pull of, and it’s pretty damn hard, but The Good Place has been nailing it so far.

Bob’s Burgers — “Glued, Where’s My Bob?”

Bob’s Burgers hit 100 episodes this year, and the show’s 100th (or advertised 100th, anyway) episode was a great example of why it remains one of TV’s most consistently delightful shows. “Glued, Where’s My Bob?” takes a ridiculous situation (Bob literally gets glued to a toilet on a day when a magazine is supposed to tour the restaurant) and turns it into a half-hour of top-notch jokes, catchy songs, and surprisingly resonant warmth. It was reminiscent of some of the earliest Bob’s episodes (which often revolved around something going horribly wrong for Bob during an important moment) but showed how far the show has come since those days by peppering in all of our favorite recurring characters and ending in a sweet, warm place. Bob’s Burgers may not be the shiny new thing on the block anymore, but there were few shows in 2016 that made me happier.

Atlanta — “B.A.N.”

It’s difficult to pick just one episode of Atlanta for this list, which tried on so many different tones and styles in its breakthrough first season and pretty much nailed them all. There are so many things that excite me about this show, but one of the best and most surprising aspects of it how it was willing to be a completely different show from week-to-week (not unlike the community college-based sitcom that Donald Glover hailed from.) “B.A.N” was perhaps the best example of that, as the show took a break from the whimsical, dreamlike season of narrative TV it had been up to that point to completely nail a Chapelle’s Show-style takedown of entertainment panel shows. Paper Boi’s reaction shots in this episode alone are probably one of the funniest things you’ll see all year, but the entire episode is some perfectly executed comedy. It bears almost no resemblance to the show it was in every other episode (although it still has the show’s signature surreal absurdism and subtle social commentary), but that’s what makes it so damn fun.

Insecure — “Real as F**k”

The first season of Insecure was the definition of a slow burn. It started off seeming like a funny, light dramedy with well-defined characters and a lot of genuinely funny dialogue, but it slowly revealed itself to be even more than that, as it subtlety dug deep into its lovable cast of fuck-ups and revealed their inner-most desires and flaws. Insecure slowly peeled away at each of its central relationships until they all finally came to blows in the season’s penultimate episode “Real as F**k”, which followed Issa to her first successful work project in quite some time but found every other aspect of her life falling apart. “Real as F**k” dealt with the fallout of the revelation that Issa cheated on Lawerence with her college sweetheart in appropriately gut-wrenching fashion, but perhaps the most emotional scene came from her coming to blows with her best friend Molly, as the two people whose friendship provided the backbone of the series hurled insult and after insult at each other. What’s especially great about Insecure is the way it doesn’t paint any of its characters as right or wrong, even as they do undeniably misguided things — its empathy for each of its characters’ flaws and fuck-ups is what made Insecure one of the best new shows of 2016.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — “Kimmy Meets a Drunk Lady!”

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s second season took a little bit to get off the ground, but once you got past the tone-deaf “address the critics” episode, you’ll find a season that’s actually even better, funnier, and more poignant than its first. While Season 1’s designed-for-network-TV status kept it from fully addressing the darkness of the show’s premise, Season 2 had no such restrictions, and while the show didn’t necessarily plunge straight into the pitch black, the way it dug into Kimmy’s trauma in the back half of the season was genuinely brave. The introduction of Tina Fey as Andrea, Kimmy’s alcoholic therapist who is a completely different person during her drunken nights than her professional days, was a seriously winning addition, both as a great comic character and a stark reminder that Kimmy’s desperate need to “fix” everyone around her has some dark undercurrents. Plus, this is the episode that gave us all of those fake “Now That’s Sounds Like Music!” songs, so…

Orange is the New Black — “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again”

The reactions to Orange is the New Black’s heartbreaking death this season were incredibly mixed, but it’s hard to deny the power of Poussey’s final tribute in the season finale, which mixed the aftermath of her murder with a beautiful, joy-bursting adventure with her around New York City prior to her arrest. The finale does a great job of showing why the character was so beloved and just why the outcry over her death was so extreme — this was one of the warmest characters not just on Orange is the New Black but on television in general, and Samira Wiley’s portrayal of her was truly magnificent from start to finish. Even if I understand why Orange felt the need to use her death as a way to comment on social issues (whether or not it was successful is up for debate), it’s hard for me to accept that she’s actually gone, and Orange is the New Black — and its characters — will never be the same without her.

Veep — “Mother”

Veep’s fifth season didn’t miss a beat despite losing its showrunner, and “Mother”, in which Selina says goodbye to her mother in the midst of a bitterly contested election, is a perfect example of just how biting, caustic, and hilarious the show is when it’s working at its ultimate best. Considering the horrific track of politics this year, it would be easy for Veep to stop seeming like a funny comedy and start seeming like a horrifying documentary, but luckily Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s flawless performance manages to keep things hilarious even when they’re feeling a bit too real. “Mother” serves as both a political takedown and a character study, as Selena uses the death of her (cold, distant) mother to her political advantage while showing little actual emotion at her mother’s passing. It’s a little too real, maybe, but also, it’s just really funny.

Mr. Robot — “ eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12

Look, there’s no denying it: Mr. Robot’s second season was a giant fucking mess. It was strangely plotted, had too many unanswered questions, and seemed more concerned with tricking its audience than actually developing a compelling storyline. Still, there were some really good moments among the ruins that made the season a worthwhile endeavor despite its weaknesses. One of those was moments was the “Successor” episode, which almost completely sidelined Elliot and focused on the show’s supporting cast (which, no disrespect to Rami Malek’s continued great performance, carried the show this year.) The episode hones in on Darlene, and its focus on her attempts to be a leader shed a light on both her character and the importance of Elliot as this universe’s center. It’s also an episode that’s heavy on the dark moodiness that the show continues to do well: Season 2’s strengths lied in the way it portrayed the post-hack world as dark, unforgiving, and not what anyone really asked for, even if fsociety had technically “succeeded.” Even if this season was kind of all over the place, there was enough good in it that I’m still on board to see where this goes next year.

The Chris Gethard Show — “One Man’s Trash”

The Chris Gethard Show has been quietly producing some of the best, most innovative TV for several years now. What started off as a weekly public access show centered around a bunch of misfit comedians connecting to lovable weirdos around the country has seamlessly transitioned to cable via the Fusion network, and while the show’s first Fusion season was good, it did take some adjusting into its brighter lights and higher budget. The show’s second Fusion season, though, produced some of the best, weirdest, most surprising material it’s ever cranked out, and the very best of it was what’s referred to as “the dumpster episode”, which has a very simple concept: Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, and the viewing audience have to guess what’s in the dumpster on stage. I don’t want to spoil anything, because the episode is a genuine thrill ride from start to finish. (I was lucky enough to be in the audience for this episode and I can confirm that it was probably the highest-tension live show I have ever seen.) Just go in with an open mind and prepare to have your mind blown by the end of it.

Okay and HERE'S my full top 20 list: 

1. BoJack Horseman                                                          11. You're the Worst
2. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend                                                        12. The Good Place
3. Atlanta                                                                            13. Orange is the New Black
4. The Americans                                                              14. Veep
5. black-ish                                                                         15. Broad City
6. Lady Dynamite                                                              16. Search Party 
7. The Chris Gethard Show                                              17. Bob's Burgers
8. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt                                     18. Stranger Things
9. Insecure                                                                         19. Better Call Saul 
10. Superstore                                                                  20. Full Frontal w/ Samantha Bee 

Friday, March 4, 2016

I watched all of Fuller House

Over the past week, I have, for some reason, watched every episode of Fuller House. I'm not alone, of course: the show was so popular that it trended on Twitter for days and has already been renewed for a second season. That said, if you haven't watched it yet, please: do not watch Fuller House. It is not good, by any means. Even if you loved the original show, even if you have some twinge of nostalgia for it, it is not worth your time.

So then why did you watch every episode, you might ask me? Why not just stop after the first two when you realize, hey, this show is cheesy as fuck and so was the original show and why are you wasting your time? That's what all of the normal people did, the ones who at all value their sanity. I don't really have a clear answer for you. I guess it's because, like many people, I grew up with Full House, for better or worse, and I've seen every episode of the terrible original series so many times that it seemed wrong for me not to watch whatever else these assholes have up their sleeve. Still, I figured I would at least try to make my suffering worth something vaguely productive, so here I am, writing a blog post about how Fuller House made me feel inside.

1. Fuller House is not a good show, but it's not really any worse than Full House. Fuller House was met with extremely negative reviews and a divided fan response, which may lead you to believe it was somehow a disappointment compared to the already dreadful original series. But Fuller House is basically of the same quality of the original Full House. In fact, if I were being daring, I might argue it's actually a little bit better, if only because it's kind of in on the joke (which, in a way, makes hating on it less fun.) My guess is that a lot of people view the original series through rose-tinted glasses and don't realize how totally cornball and awful it is, and also I don't think the Netflix binge-model is really right for this "turn your brain off" style of sitcom, which might seem acceptable in bite-sized, after-school bits but really exposes its true shittiness when you stack it all together. Honestly, the quality difference between the two comes down to this: Full House was bad in a very '90s kind of way, while Fuller House is bad in a uniquely 2016 kind of way. Full House is the archetype of the soulless, mass-produced network family sitcom that was a staple of the '80s and '90s but is mostly confined to the Disney Channel these days. There's little consistency, absolutely no self-awareness, and really no attempt at any sort of depth or understanding. But sitcoms have evolved in the past 20 years, and now even lukewarm family sitcoms are slick and single camera and self-aware and have a baseline quality even when they're mediocre. Fuller House understands this and attempts to mimic it. Storylines actually continue from one episode to the next (an unheard of occurrence on Full House, a show that had at least six different sets of grandparents), there is an actual attempt at a few character arcs (they mostly fail, but they try!), and there are way, way, way too many meta jokes. Fuller House is not good, but it's not good in a way that at least feels relevant to our time period.

2. Fuller House doesn't know if it wants to be a nostalgia piece or a standalone show. The weirdest thing about Fuller House is that it seems genuinely unsure about whether it wants to simply reminiscence on its past or try to be something new. Girl Meets World, the Boy Meet World continuation on the Disney Channel, has made it to three seasons and not-so-terrible reviews because it's basically become its own thing, occasionally referencing the show it spins off from but also establishing a world of character of its own. (I haven't seen much of Girl Meets World, but I'm told it's basically fine for a kids' sitcom, and that it's become its own thing.) Fuller House sometimes seems like it wants to do the same thing. The show introduces a bunch of new characters (DJ and Kimmy's kids) but it never really does anything with them except saddle them with really annoying catchphrases and the typical Full House "one signature character trait." (Jackson is apparently some kind of wannabe rebel, Max - the new worst character on the show now that Michelle is absent - is a loud asshole, Ramona speaks Spanish and want her parents to get back together, and the baby is, uh, a baby?). When it focuses on the kids (it hardly does!) it seems like your run of the mill Disney Channel-esque family sitcom, which is whatever! It could continue on as that, and I would totally stop caring about it, but a bunch of pre-teens would probably be into it, and I could stop watching it and be on my merry way. But, no. Just when it seems like it's heading in that direction, Stephanie busts out a "how rude!" and Uncle Jesse comes trotting back in and it becomes totally clear just what the fuck show this is.

3. Fuller House could actually be good if it was, like, a different show. There are very, very, very, very rare inklings where you could almost see a good show in Fuller House. This is mostly due to the fact that the show has a surprisingly not awful rock in DJ Tan - uh, sorry, Fuller (yes, the title is a fucking pun), who is maybe a little bit of an "overworked single mom" stereotype (who in the Full House universe isn't a stereotype to some degree?) but mostly sells that character trait and makes it a believable struggle. That's a better center than Full House ever had (it never really cared to analyze the fact that it was about a non-traditional family), and while it doesn't really add up to anything, it's at least, I don't know, there. (On the other hand, just like the original show, there is almost no mention of the dead spouse that lead to the show's premise, except for like once or twice when it's convenient to the plot.)

4. Fuller House is stuck halfway between making fun of itself and taking itself seriously. The biggest failure of Fuller House is that it really never embraces its satirical center nor does it go full cheese. It is definitely more self-aware than the original series - there are a lot of meta jokes about the implausibility of a lot of the show's wackier sitcom shenanigans, and there are actual lines suggesting that the Tanner family is kind of a bunch of privileged white-bread dicks, which floored me a little - but it also fails to go full Brady Bunch Movie in its satire. It still insists on ending every episode with a talk and a hug, it still gives its characters easy outs at every corner, and it's still, well, about a bunch of privileged white-bread dicks who shamelessly appropriate Indian culture without even batting an eye. A lot of the show's tongue-in-cheek "can you BELIEVE this?!" material comes in the first few nostalgia-heavy episodes that have to deal with the sheer implausibility of the show's concept. By the halfway point of the season, the show starts recycling some of the exact same tired plots that plagued the original series. I nearly lost my shit when there was ANOTHER fucking plot about everyone trying to hide a giant barn animal from everyone else in the house, which I swear happened like seven times in the original series. (Not to mention when Stephanie DROVE HER CAR through the kitchen and they tried to hide that. Why do these people think you can hide giant, house-destroying situations?!). ANYWAY, the point is that even if it pretends it has, Fuller House hasn't learned. It's the same old shit, recycled yet again, and I guess that's what we wanted! Which brings me to my final point...

5. This kind of shit is what we want, isn't it? It's what we deserve, isn't it? Look, Fuller House only exists because we asked for it. We watched the syndicated re-runs as kids, we grew up and realized it was awful but kept watching it anyway, we started shitting on it and making fun of it only increasing its hype more, we made Buzzfeed lists and quizzes about it and all of its other terrible '90s sitcoms - we brought this onto itself. Because the truth is, there is something addicting about the specific dose of shared, hated nostalgia of these kinds of shows that's addicting, and that makes even the most skeptical of us watch the entire thing on Netflix and make a blog post about it later. That's why this thing exists in the first place, right? Fuller House doesn't learn, people don't learn, and you know what? I don't learn, because this shit has been renewed for a second season, and as much as I tell myself I'm not going to watch it, I probably am! Fuck it! Fuck it all! I'm probably going to go listen to that stupid Carly Rae Jepsen cover of the theme song right now too!!!

Anyway! Um, don't be like me, don't make my mistakes - please, don't watch Fuller House.

(On the other hand, at least Jodie Sweetin and Andrea Barber are getting paid, right? Good for them.)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Netflix's "Love" demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of the binge-watch model

Over the weekend, Netflix dropped the new Judd Apatow rom-com series Love. As with all Netflix releases, a good chunk of the internet spent the weekend binge-watching and dissecting the series to exhaustion, although the furor around Love seems a bit more muted compared to past Netflix shows. It could just be the sparkle of the Netflix model's all-at-once release method is starting to wear off a bit after three years, or maybe it's just that Love feels a little less splashy then, say, the intensity of Jessica Jones or the sprawling character showcase of Orange is the New Black or the colorful absurdity of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Love is, more or less, your typical Apatow romcom stretched out across 10 half-hours. As an indie-esque romcom, it's pretty good! The story, though a little messy, is engrossing enough that I chose to spend my entire lazy Sunday watching til the end to find out if these two silly kooks worked it out in the end. (Spoiler alert: they did!). The performances are all fairly strong, particularly from Gillian Jacobs (who brings her now-signature lovable mess character to dark, fascinating places) and Claudia O'Doherty (who brings so much to her sidekick role that she arguably steals every scene she's in). Like pretty much every single Apatow movie, there are some really amazing scenes and a whole bunch of nonsense that definitely should've been cut, but all in all, it mostly hangs together. Still, Love is not a movie, as much as it feels like one most of the time. It's a television show. And while Love might have made a fine movie, it's doesn't quite know how to be a good TV show.

It's really hard to talk about Love without bringing up You're the Worst. Normally I don't love comparing shows because every show is different and each show has different goals, but the goals of Love and You're the Worst feel incredibly similar in many ways. Both shows are about a particularly privileged group of people living in Los Angeles. Both shows are about two leads who would be considered "unlikable" in most respects. And both shows are about those two leads learning to deal with each other's flaws and etching out a seemingly inevitable relationship. There are some differences between the two: while Love is a cinematic dramedy, You're the Worst is, at its heart, a satirical sitcom. You're the Worst certainly has its heavy moments (particularly in its transcendent second season) but its overall tone is a lot more outwardly comic than Love, which is an occasionally funny, often very depressing look into post-addiction life and the struggles to maintain an intimate relationship. Additionally, You're the Worst seems to feel that its protagonists' relationship is, ultimately, good for both of them. Whether or not Jimmy and Gretchen are endgame, it's clear to see how the show suggests their budding romance is genuinely improving both of them as people. With Love, that's far less clear. When the season ends with Rust and Mickey kissing at the spot they first mess, the tone is half wistful, half utterly depressing. These are two broken people, and the show doesn't seem convinced that they aren't breaking each other down even more. That final kiss is perhaps the very best scene in the show's entire first season, and it makes the journey there make far more sense in hindsight.

That, in essence, is one of the strengths of the streaming model and its inherent serialization - the end, in most cases, justifies the journey that got us there, no matter how messy that journey is. Most of the pieces I've read about Love today describe it as a show that has "a slow start, but makes it worth it in the end", or posits that the show "finds itself in its last few episodes." I'd quibble with this just a bit - to me the show never quite matched the heights of its second episode, which is the first time Mickey and Gus meet and the only time they seem like they might actually work as a couple - but, in general, the show does become more focused as it goes on, and after a really messy patch of episodes (episodes 3 and 4 are almost completely useless to the show's narrative), the show does snap into focus in its back half, once Mickey and Gus actually go on their first date. Once the show hits that point, it becomes easy to forgive some of the questionable, go-nowhere scenes that got us there. If Love were airing week-to-week, I doubt I would've made it that far - truthfully, I probably would've bailed after that awful threeway scene in the pilot - but when all of the episodes are laid out in front of you, it's hard not to think "alright, this is leading somewhere." (Plus, what else is there to do on a boring Sunday afternoon?). And then it does! And when it does, and when that "somewhere" is actually pretty satisfying, it's easy to think "well, they nailed it. They may have had trouble getting there, but they nailed it!".

Yet when a show is so focused on nothing but what it's leading up to, it starts to feel like it's missing something. This is where the You're the Worst comparison seems most apt. You're the Worst is generally structured like a traditional sitcom in that, while there is an overarching plot to its seasons, each episode is still, well, an episode. There are A stories, B stories, and sometimes C stories that come to some sort of conclusion at the end of 22 minutes. These stories work not to just establish the narrative of the season, but to study the show's characters, expand the show's world, and find out what makes the people who inhabit that world funny and interesting - and not just Jimmy and Gretchen, but Edgar and Lindsay and Becca and Vernon and Sam and...you get the point. All of these people serve purpose to Gretchen and Jimmy, sure, but they're also strong characters independent of their ties to the show's leads. This helps to create a world so well-developed that the show's two season finales both take place at giant parties that involved pretty much every member of the show's large ensemble, and never once when focusing on that ensemble are you wondering "okay, but what's going on with Jimmy and Gretchen?".

Compare that with Love, where pretty much every character is immediately defined by their relationship to Mickey and Gus. Bertie - the show's strongest character outside of its two protagonists - still mostly only appears in scenes involving one of the two (with the exception of a minor, underdeveloped plotline involving her hooking up with one of Gus's friends). The show does have a fairly sprawling supporting cast, and some of the most delightful scenes are when we get a behind-the-scenes look at the comically terrible show that Gus tutors for, but we don't get to see any of this working independently. We only get to see it when we're learning something that suggests why Gus or Mickey should be together, or shouldn't be together, or can't be together. Everything in Love serves the purpose of leading to that final scene at the gas station. And while that final scene is great, it doesn't change the fact that there's not really much of a show leading up to that point. The very best streaming shows - Bojack Horseman, Orange is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - find a way to combine the allure of the binge model with the episodic structure that works to create the very best TV. If Love wants to go from being a nice idea and a generally fine television show into a genuinely great show (and I do think the potential is there for that to happen), it needs to take cues from those shows and start acting like...well, a TV show.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

NBC's Superstore will be my favorite show in 8 months

Superstore is not a perfect show. At this point, it's not even a great one. It's solid, funny, charming and has a likable cast, but there are still plenty of kinks to be worked out. The show occasionally goes too broad with its humor, some of its characters feel more like stereotypes than actual human beings, and it has a tendency to beat you over the head with its character development, rather than letting it progress naturally. Of course, the same could be said of the earliest episodes of almost any network television sitcom, from broad hits like Friends to beloved cult classics like Community and 30 Rock, to The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Cheers to Seinfeld to Parks and Recreation to New Girl to...okay, you get the point.

We live in an era where "network television sitcom" tends to draw minds to either "overly broad, unhip CBS-style comedy" (think The Big Bang Theory) or "family sitcom", of varying quality (from the excellent Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat to the reliably solid The Middle to the mediocre, paint-by-numbers humor of latter-day Modern Family). The most exciting new comedies - the ones that draw the most attention, the most love, the most thinkpieces - tend to be niche, alt-style cable and streaming comedies, shows that come fully packaged with a distinct voice and point of view. These shows, from Broad City to You're the Worst to Bojack Horseman, recall some of the same mechanics as acclaimed dramas (creative freedom, distinct visual styles, unique viewpoints) to create some truly exciting, riveting, and excellent television. These are some of the best shows on television, no doubt, and we're extremely lucky to live in an era where they're in no short supply. But I still hold the old belief that there's a value to the age-old format of network television sitcoms, the kind of shows where you get a wide-ranging cast of actors and writers together and churn out a product whose primary purpose is to draw advertising dollars but, in the very best of cases, winds up stumbling upon something great. And lost in the era of niche cable comedy is the fact that, in the past year or so, there's been a bit of a renaissance of the network sitcom.

Now, it sort of feels like someone talks about "the resurgence of the sitcom" every few years. It seems to be an endless cycle of "the sitcom is dead!", only to be followed by "the sitcom has returned!", and the cycle repeats itself again. Indeed, it hasn't been that long since network television was blessed with a line-up of all-star hitters, from NBC's last great Thursday night line-up (Community, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks & Rec) to Happy Endings to Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23 to the beginnings of New Girl and Bob's Burgers. But while that line-up featured sitcoms doing their best to analyze, freshen, and deconstruct their form, the current network renaissance seems to be dominated by shows that are trying to get their unique stories told to as wide of an audience as possible. During the Eddie Huang/Fresh Off the Boat debacle, Huang (whose autobiography serves as the basis of the show but severed ties with it after ABC was unwilling to realistically portray his often gritty, heavy novel), when asked why he didn't take his story to a more auterer-friendly cable or streaming network, responded that he felt a need to bring his story to as many people as possible, and the only place to do so was on network television. We may be heading into an era where every show is specifically designed to appeal to a certain niche audience, but we're not there yet. There's still broad, network shows designed to appeal to a large amount of people. And however long that may be, it's great to see shows taking that opportunity to tell stories of people that aren't always represented on TV.

Maybe that's why I have such a soft spot for Superstore. I've spent many years of my life working shitty retail jobs, only getting through the day by reciting various funny sitcom lines in my head, over and over, to forget a little bit about the rather mundane reality I was stuck in. Seeing TV actually portraying that shitty retail job - even if it does a mixed job of portraying it accurately - certainly has an element of catharsis to it. And truthfully, there's not a lot of television shows that even attempt to broadcast the everyday mundane, struggling existence that a large majority of us put up with. One thing that sitcoms in particular have lost a step in recently - from the prestige to the mainstream - is creating relatable, down-to-earth realities. Since Friends ruled the '90s, it seems the large majority of comedies have a need to give their characters an element of glamour, whether or not it's actually realistic to their situations. Yes, there are exceptions - The Office, The Middle, Broad City - but in general, there's a trend in TV comedy to promote escapism over realism. This makes sense, to an extent - people watch TV to escape their realities, after all - but sometimes I want to see characters whose lives are kind of a big, boring ass mess, just like mine is! That's what makes Superstore work so well for me so far. Between the wacky hijinks and the sometimes thin character stereotypes, there's an element of sadness, the idea that these people are kind of stuck going through the motions and aren't sure how to get out of it. The show doesn't fully realize this is about itself yet, but it's slowly getting there - the most recent episode, "Color Wars", did a great job of balancing the wacky, big box silliness (a sales competition where everyone wears Red and Blue and the reward is $100 and a pizza party) with a little twinge of well-delivered sadness (Amy is so into the competition because money's tight and she needs cash to fund her college classes that her asshole husband doesn't support).

If Superstore can perfect that balance, it could go from being a pleasant, entertaining way to pass the time to one of network TV's best, most poignant comedies, one that helps restore the idea of a workplace comedy that accurately depicts the kind of workplace most of us actually work at. I think there's some solid evidence that the show is working towards being this kind of show as it heads towards finishing its abbreviated first season, and here's to hoping September will bring a splurge of pieces talking about how much Superstore's second season has turned the corner and become the latest, greatest NBC comedy, because having a sitcom that actually gives voice to some of the most underappreciated workers in the country would be pretty damn sweet.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A love letter to sitcoms

Hulu quietly added the entire run of Happy Endings to its library last week. Happy Endings, if you are sadly unaware, was a hilarious, weird, well-crafted little gem of a sitcom that aired on ABC from 2011 to 2013. It was never a substantial ratings hit, hence its too-short three-season run, and its previous unavailability on streaming platforms combined with its somewhat generic "friends living together in a big city" premise (that the show quickly rose above) kept it from being a cult hit along the likes of Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation. But at the time, it was one of the funniest shows on television, a proud member of what we may eventually know as the "last golden age" of sitcoms on television. This was a time around the late 2000s/early 2010s, from about 2008 to 2013, where there was a sudden uptick in quality of network television sitcoms, heralded by the much-cherished block of NBC Thursday sitcoms at the time (30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Community). These shows, heavily influenced by the adoration of shows like Arrested Development as well as animated sitcoms like The Simpsons and Futurama, managed to bring TV comedy to a new level. As The Office took its British counterpart's dry wit and realism and mixed it with big swings of emotion, 30 Rock set the joke-per-minute ratio to astonishing heights all while serving as a cutting satire of the entertainment industry. And then came Parks and Recreation, daring to have a big heart and a sunny worldview in an era where most sitcoms were downbeat and cynical, as Community tore apart the sitcom structure and re-examined it on a weekly basis. These were unique, strange, big swing shows that could only survive as long as they did on a network failing as hard as fourth-place NBC was at the time. And they went onto influence shows like Happy Endings, Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23, and New Girl, which helped round out an era where network comedy felt more daring and alive than either.

That era died a fairly fast death, though, as network TV ratings plummeted and streaming services heralded in a brand new world. NBC phased out its much beloved but low-rated and aging comedies for generic procedurals with half the creativity but double the ratings. Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B were cancelled, and while New Girl holds up a fort of generally strong comedies over on FOX and ABC has assembled a line-up of surprisingly strong family comedy, the sparkle and wit once found on network TV not so long ago now mostly exists on cable and streaming comedies like Broad City, You're the Worst, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Bojack Horseman, places where these niche shows can conform to their own rules and structure without having to worry about appealing to a broad audience. It's great! I love it! I really do!

But as someone coming of age just as the NBC Thursday night line-up became the most exciting collection of comedy on television, I can't help but feel nostalgia for the old line-up. It's ridiculous to get nostalgic for a time that is barely even gone, but as I've been navigating this post-grad world as someone who wants to do fucking comedy for a living, the era has been on my mind a lot lately. I remember five years ago when every Thursday I would tuck myself into bed and watch the entire NBC Thursday line-up (taking a snack break during Perfect Couples), forgetting about whatever my anxious 17-year-old brain was fretting about at the moment and immersing myself in weird, rough-around-the-edge worlds like Pawnee and Greendale, where I felt I belonged. I remember nights where my friends would ask me to hang out and I would tell them I was "hanging out with my other friends" - yes, I was referring to TV characters. (I was not the coolest high schooler.) I remember realizing how happy these shows made me, how great it felt to just sit back and laugh all night, and I remember how it finally gave me a sense of purpose and direction in life. These were the shows that led to me writing my own comedy and finding my own voice. These were the shows that led to me majoring in motherfucking television, of all things. (Okay, it was communications with a focus in television, but ya know, still.) And weirdly, marathoning Happy Endings this weekend brought a lot of those feelings back. I guess it's because I've never stopped endlessly watching shows like Community, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock - they've become regular "leave them on repeat endlessly" shows for me - but Happy Endings was almost like a re-discovery, and it brought me back to being barely graduated from high school, believing that a career in comedy was the most exciting direction I could go in.

Now, I have graduated college with my useless degree. Comedy is slowly becoming something resembling a job to me (though not one that pays), as I attempt to navigate my way through the New York improv scene and learn just how the fuck to actually do what I want to do. It's not exactly the fun comfort zone it was when I was a teenager, although it's still something that guides my everyday life and overall being. But watching Happy Endings reminded me of a time when it was, which reminds me of why I am, like an idiot, attempting to do this whole comedy thing anyway. It made me realize just how much joy it brings me at its root. It made me remember how great that feeling of watching someone take the thing you feel so passionately about - the thing that gives your awkward, strange, generally useless self meaning - and do something great with it is. And that's a nice, necessary reminder sometimes.