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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Raising Hope: "Bro-Gurt"

Greg Garcia, creator of both Raising Hope and the departed My Name is Earl, is a master practitioner of the high art of low humor. It would be very easy for a non-viewer to dismiss Raising Hope as a show about stupid people, but while that may be true, the writers are smart enough to use their characters’ stupidity in clever and original ways.

Tonight’s episode showcases this split between smart and stupid in grand form. The Chance family and the whole community are drawn to an invention fair promising to find the next billion-dollar idea. The audience is let in on the fact that the fair is just a scam run by guest star Patton Oswalt, but we get to watch each Chance family member as they come up with their submissions. The intelligence of the writing staff really shines in these conceptions. They are perfectly attuned to the characters and their personalities. They’re hilariously implausible, but yet believable coming from Burt, Virginia, and Jimmy.

The most inspired is Burt’s collaboration with his friend and neighbor Andrew (Ethan Suplee), which lends its name to the episode’s title. Complaining that yogurt today only comes in womanly flavors like blueberry, Burt envisions yogurt flavored like pork chops or cheeseburgers (but not turkey burgers, too girly.) When Andrew comes up with the name, the group thinks they got the competition in the bag.

“Bro-Gurt” also managed to get a funny performance out of guest star Andrew Dice Clay, playing a Simon Cowell-like judge at the invention fair, appearing via satellite. You can see the affinity, as Dice may be the most successful “low-brow” comedian of all-time. (Whether or not you find him funny, and I don’t, the man did sell out arenas.)

In addition to the normal passel of excellent one-liners and Virginia malaprops (tonight’s: “he’s going to be an albacore around our neck.”) the episode also managed to work in a major plot point in the continuing Jimmy and Sabrina non-relationship relationship, as the two got into a fight which revealed something about each of them to the other.

Oh, and did I mention that the episode subtly set up a Wizard of Oz parody that only came to hilarious fruition in the last two minutes? Now that’s good writing.

New Girl: "Bells"

There were not an exceptional amount of laughs in “Bells” but it was still an enjoyable enough viewing experience. It felt like the show committed to fleshing out its main quartet of characters and establishing potential long-running conflicts between them, which overall is a positive sign for the show’s prospects going forward.

“Bells” mostly split itself into two main plots, splitting the roommates into pairs and pitting one against the other. Schmidt and Nick get into a fairly stupid argument about money which at first seems drawn from the master book of sitcom plot points (one person wants to call a plumber while the other swears he can fix it himself) but turns into something different and more interesting. I don’t think it’s come up before that Schmidt comes from money, but Nick’s disappointment with his life has come up before, and it makes sense to explore that tension in relation to someone else. Schmidt especially makes sense as the target for such anger, since it’s been established that Nick looks down on him and considers him an unserious person. For a while, Nick seemed especially unsympathetic, but by episode’s end his behavior had been satisfactorily explained if not excused.

Meanwhile, Jess enlists the preternaturally-talented Winston to join the handbell choir she’s formed for wayward youths. (I appreciate the ridiculousness of this contrivance, taking it as a sign that the show’s writers are trying to be original.) Jess the free-spirit has trouble controlling her charges, but Winston goes mad with power and starts demeaning the kids, leading Jess to toss him out of the group. It’s a nice way to characterize both Jess and Winston without making either of them 100% right or wrong. Jess’s speech to Winston in which she talks about how much she cares for the kids and doesn’t want to be another person telling them what they can’t do was really well-written and delivered. It made her much more human and more likeable. As for Winston, the show has finally started to explore his character, and I like the direction they’re taking him, as a competitive former athlete struggling to find his place.

There were also some funny moments, lest readers think I’ve given up on comedy in sitcoms. I laughed pretty heartily at Jess trying to dance while playing handbells, and settling for doing the robot, in character as a robot programmed to play the bells. I also got a kick out of the way Nick and Schmidt’s escalating feud carried over into the Jess story, as she and Winston were both perplexed as to what kept happening to all the stuff in their apartment. “Where did the freezer and the couch go? Where we robbed by giants?” And the fact that the handell group was called “Ensembell” was pretty funny.

All in all, “Bells” wasn’t as funny as “Thanksgiving” but combined they give me a lot of faith in the show’s potential.

Things I've Noticed About Online Dating #3: Playing the Percentages

The site I use for online dating matches you up with other users on three levels. The chance that you would be suitable romantic partners is listed as the Match %, the chance that you would get along is listed as the Friend %, and the chance that the two of you would engage in a protracted battle for the soul of mankind, using your extraordinary abilities for either good or evil, is listed as the Enemy %.

Now I’ve been known to have a pessimistic, cynical aspect to my personality (I know, I know, you’re shocked) so maybe I’m just being overly negative when I say that these percentages are, to put it mildly, a crock of shit.
For one thing, there are an inordinate number of women with whom I’m listed as having 90%, even 95%+ chemistry. Now, I’ve met and talked to many real, live women, and I can assure you that there are not untold multitudes of females that similar to me. (I’m not in any sense of the term bragging when I say this. It’s just that people are infinitely varied and complex, and it’s absurd to think there are people who are that similar to us, unless we’re talking genetically, in which case we’re all at about 99.9%+.)

The way these percentages are derived seems to stem mostly from answers to survey questions, some of which are asked by the site itself, while others are posted from members (these tend to be either more ridiculous, more explicitly sexual, or usually both.) The problem is that so many of the questions are base-level personality questions, meaning you’re guaranteed to have the same answer as wide swaths of humanity. It’s really easy to build up a high level of compatibility even with people you would hate in real life. Happily, we live in a world where prejudice is on the wane, or at least it’s a world where people realize they shouldn’t be admitting their prejudices in a public forum. So does it really mean anything to a prospective relationship or friendship if two people both think gay marriage is ok or evolution should be taught in schools? Probably not, although I suppose it could be useful to screen out the proudly bigoted and ignorant.

One thing I really wish I had the answer to is how differently are Friendship % and Match % calculated. Because the numbers are often widely divergent. I guess I can wrap my head around the idea that some people are much likelier to be friends than mates, but how is someone a 93% Match with only 78% Friendship. Is there a fifteen percent chance I’ll be a relationship with this person but just not like them very much?

Never mind, I think I understand it now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Horrible Bosses

Let me make this quick, I'd hate to spend more time on this review than the writers spent on the screenplay. Horrible Bosses is a shameful waste of a dynamite premise. Unfortunately, the movie has no idea how to go beyond that funny set-up and deliver actual humor.

The writing just isn't sharp. The film's jokes are toothless and lame, even when, especially when, they are exceedingly vulgar and crass. This puts increasing stress on the performances of the three leads, would-be assassins Charlie Day, Jason Bateman, and Jason Sudeikis. They are all funny guys, as they have proved elsewhere, but all three are trying to get by on geniality and reputation here. To the extent that any of the film's jokes work, it is to their immense credit, as they can't have been easy to sell.

Another problem is that Bateman and Sudeikis aren't really given characters at all. Both are just kind of regular Joes with little to remember them by. Day's character at least has loyalty to his fiancee and sweet idiocy to play up.

The titular bosses are played with scene-chewing relish by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston. These actors are at least given characters, however absurd. But there is just an obvious and jarring disconnect present. Farrell and Aniston are both so clearly enjoying the chance to play against type that they go too far, or are allowed to go too far, and this goes so far past absurd as to no longer be humorous. Aniston in particular seems desperate for attention and approval. "Look at me, I'm saying dirty words! Aren't I the cutest? Why would anyone leave me for another woman?"

On the other hand, Kevin Spacey, playing much closer to his natural range, gives the best performance in the movie as the demanding, angry prick Mr. Harken.

The plot does pick up about two-thirds of the way through, when a genuinely surprising turn kicks the film into high gear. From there, confusions, misunderstandings, and chase scenes capably pad out the film until its moderately believable confusion. Ultimately, though, Horrible Bosses is a film which could have benefited immensely from a heavily revised script and some re-envisioned characters and casting choices.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Artist

In a lot of ways The Artist is a shockingly unambitious movie, or maybe even anti-ambitious, in that it is not trying to do anything new, but actively trying to do something old.

The film opens in 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the biggest star in Hollywood. When he makes an appearance after a screening of his latest film, Valentin draws apparently thunderous applause. (This is the first instance where the movie plays with our expectations regarding sound. We open with the end of the silent film, and then the lack of sound from the audience clues us in that we’re still watching a silent movie.) Wordlessly, Dujardin easily demonstrates the way his character feeds off the love of the crowd and needs their attention.

When Valentin leaves the theater to do his interviews with the press, he bumps into a young extra who charms him and the crowd, starting her rise to stardom. First, she earns a small role in Valentin’s next film, where their chemistry on the dance floor causes production problems (he’s so enraptured he forgets to move past their dance scene) and he quite literally leaves a mark on her.

As Peppy Miller, Berenice Bejo is vivacious and winning. She and Dujardin have remarkable chemistry together. Both of their performances are inherently reliant on physicality, and they manage without mugging or emoting (except when the script calls for it, knowingly.) It’s that remarkable chemistry that makes the film’s decision to keep them separate for so much of the story unfortunate.

You see, from their initial encounter, the story of George and Peppy follows a very predictable arc. His refusal to adapt to the advent of the talkie leads to a decline in his star, followed by a decline in his fortune when the stock market crashes. Peppy works his way up through small roles (a montage showcasing her increasing prominence in the credits of her movies is an excellent example of the director Michael Hazanavicius’s ability to replicate the styles of yesteryear) and eventually she passes George on her way up and his way down. This is all too literally depicted in a scene set on a staircase. He becomes depressed, drinks, hits bottom, she remains concerned, tries to help and is rejected, climactic finish, predictable conclusion.

The problem with The Artist is that it is slavishly dedicated to recreation, to the point where creation seems to have been left by the wayside. The wordlessness of the film is its sole reason for existence. It is a gimmick around which the story was formed, not a serious choice for how best to tell the story. There are times when Hazanavicius uses sound to play with the concept of the silent movie, and even teases that he might be going in a new and interesting direction. But these are mere ruses, and the film eventually settles into little more than a painstakingly crafted rehash.

There are moments when the film shines, and uses its wordlessness to high effect. A scene where Valentin gets into character before each take merely by narrowing his eyes is very funny. But other times it is just an inexplicable artifice. Long spans of the movie pass by excessively slowly. The use of title cards to reveal dialogue is sporadic and seems nearly haphazard. Dujardin and Bejo get all they can out of facial expressions but no one’s wink is strong enough to carry a film.

If I had to say what I thought The Artist was about, I guess I would have to say that it’s mostly about movies themselves. It’s very self-consciously a movie, reminding you that even in the scenes set in Valentin’s “real life” that you are still watching a movie. It feels like Hazanavicius is testing the artform itself, using only the elements exclusive to its province to try and capture and engage the audience. Can a movie without words, with only the barest suggestion of a story, win the day using only pictures and music?

By the end it seems like Hazanavicius has chosen to answer that question with “no” but I’m not sure whether he means it or not. The Artist tries to have it both ways a lot. It simultaneously insists that it can communicate without using words, but also plays with how ineffective some of Valentin’s attempts to communicate are. The film relies on Dujardin and Bejo to create their characters wordlessly, but then lets them and us down by giving them flat, unchanging characters to create. Valentin’s self-defeating pride is arbitrary and inexplicable, while Peppy Miller is kind of a blank state, existing exclusively as a foil for Valentin. It’s the kind of female role that would have best been left behind in the ‘30s.

A silent movie gives the viewer an awful lot of time to think, and this viewer couldn’t help but think of ways that this film, so beautiful to look at, would have been more interesting to watch.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Black Friday

Every Thanksgiving, my family is lucky if we’ve even gotten past saying grace (for the only time all year) before the conversation is hijacked by talk of some people’s plans for Black Friday. What time are you waking up? What store are you hitting first? And so on. Judging by the blitz of commercials advertising Black Friday sales I feel confident that we are not alone in this regard.

This is not some screed on preserving the traditional aspects of Thanksgiving. As far as I’m concerned the holiday’s specialness is a myth or a relic or most likely both. For now and likely forever it’s just a random Thursday off from work, where you’re compelled by forces seemingly beyond your control to eat more food than is good from you, watch football, and nap on the couch. It’s a fine observance, but really nothing special.

No, this is a rant about the stunningly effective psychological manipulation that goes on in these ads. The ads show women (their sexism, not mine) game-planning and pumping themselves up for Black Friday the same way the Allied Forces might have strategized over the Normandy invasion. Retail shopping is portrayed as a contest that can be won. The focus is entirely on acquisition, and not just the more benign idea of giving others what they want, or even the still slightly palatable idea of getting what you want. The theme is getting more than anyone else. You “win” the retail game by saving the most money on the goods buy, which of course, actually requires you to buy the most goods.

Well guess what? No one doing the shopping wins on Black Friday. The only people who win are the corporations that have tricked too many people into thinking that we need all this crap. Their everyday prices are so bloated and absurd that the mild discounts they offer one day a year seem like unrivaled beneficence. And not only do we accept the conditions the retail chains have set for us, we’ve started clamoring for more game-like aspects. So now stores like Target are opening at midnight. Gee, I wonder how their worker’s families will feel when their relative has to go to bed halfway through carving the turkey.

I thought we had a shot at corralling this insanity a few years ago, when a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death, but I made the mistake of overestimating people. It’s appalling that some stores still use terms like Doorbuster Sale in the wake of that man’s death in a stampede of well-trained consumer animals.

Don’t let yourself be manipulated into buying things just because retail companies have turned Black Friday into some kind of off-brand holiday. And if you can’t boycott all stores, at least shun Kohl’s. That remix of Rebecca Black’s Friday song is an abomination that must be punished.

Monday, November 21, 2011

How I Met Your Mother: "The Rebound Girl"

Thanksgiving has been surprisingly fertile ground for How I Met Your Mother over the years, giving us the hilarity of Slapsgiving, and its more-or-less successful Slapsgiving II, as well as other highlights of the series' run. But the show is in a decidedly dramatic arc this year, and that overshadows the holiday, which barely figures into the main plot tonight.

The Rebound Girl was, once again, light on outright comedy. I found little to laugh at in Barney’s and Ted’s hare-brained idea to co-raise an adopted baby. I did at least appreciate that they followed through with it to a certain extent, and didn’t leave it in the realm of drunken ideas. The fact that Ted and Barney still thought it was a good idea in the morning was slightly redemptive, as was their married couple sparring as they tried to fill out the online forms. Less humorous was their creepy rejection of “girls” (which, seriously, HIMYM writers, it’s creepy for 32-year-olds to use the world girls to refer to people they want to sleep with) and their fantasizing about the freaky sex they could have if they and the absent Marshall were gay.

The other plotline, featuring Robin frantically trying to keep Marshall and Lily from moving out to Long Island, was a little light on jokes but still managed to wring laughs. I especially liked the sight gag of the Erickson’s shrinking apartment. Robin’s insistence on the apartment’s spaciousness, despite her constantly knocking over lamps (“Don’t you have any overhead lighting?”) was also pretty good, although her put downs of Long Island and list of things you can do in New York at 4am were both pretty lame.

The episode’s initial reach for heartwarming conclusion felt contrived and unconvincing, with Barney’s gay brother James (Wayne Brady) showing up as a living deus ex machine, to relate his tale of also considering starting a fake family. Yeah, I know. But then at the last minute the show threw us a big curve (SPOILER) with Robin’s pregnancy. End scene.

I don’t know where they’re going with this, and I like that. It feels almost certain that Barney is the father, if not logically, than by the show’s internal logic. I just like that the show can still surprise me seven seasons in, and do it in such an organic way. Robin’s anger was understandable even before the revelation of her pregnancy. She’s had a rough year and it’s only gotten worse in recent weeks. I also like that, even if only in the brief second between the reveal and fade to black, it seemed pretty clear that Robin isn’t overjoyed at this new development. That’s a strange place for a comedy to put itself in, but that’s just fine with me. How I Met Your Mother is at its worst when it tries to be a normal sitcom.

The Simpsons: "The Book Job"

I’ve never reviewed The Simpsons in this space before, mostly because it’s settled into an understandable rut in its third decade on the air. But on those exceedingly rare occasions when the writers find a new story to tell and a new way to tell it, The Simpsons shows why I and so many others will be so upset when it finally does go off the air.

The Book Job combines two elements, a satire on young-adult literature and a pastiche of heist movies, to fantastic success. The episode kicks into the main plot when Lisa discovers that the author of her favorite book series (the Potter-like Angelica Button books) is actually a fake, a hired actress paid to front for an anonymous hive of out-of-work lit majors crowd-sourcing bestsellers formulated along market-tested guidelines. (This isn’t so far off from the truth by the way, as evinced by the recent magazine articles about James Frey’s factory-produced teen lit.)

Lisa is devastated that anyone would write just to make money, but Homer, his head full of big ideas from his Jetski Wanter magazine, smells an opportunity. He and Bart concoct a plan to produce their own publishing sensation. After a very cleverly written scene at the arcade, where Homer cryptically promises Bart that this scheme won’t be “another Kansas City”, father and son gather Principal Skinner, Selma, Moe and Professor Frink into a superteam. With the guidance of guest star Neil Gaiman they discover that all the big book world hits are about orphans with special abilities. Dismissing vampires as overdone, the gang hit on an idea about twin trolls who attend a high school under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Along the way, The Simpsons also takes shots at so-called “real” writers. Lisa, spurred by her outrage, sets out to write a true novel of her own. Right after she finishes Friday Night Lights on DVD and plays a few more games of Boggle online. Lisa’s self-recriminations and rationalizations (“A hard deadline will be just the thing to get me to do some real writing.”) will sound familiar to everyone who has stared at a blank computer screen, not sure where to start.

Eventually the show settles into a fairly rote and predictable twist ending, which it then rescues by pointing out how trite that ending is. (Lisa: “I got the idea from every movie ever made.”)

The Simpsons is well past its prime, but it still has many of the elements needed for a great comedy, and it’s cause for celebration when it marshals them together as well as it did in The Book Job.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Descendants

In a lot of ways The Descendants reminds me of Up in the Air, to the extent that if I didn’t know any better I would think they were directed by the same person. George Clooney is the star of both, obviously, and in both is trying to disappear into a real person. I’m not sure if either effort is entirely successful, but it seems unfair to hold Clooney’s stardom and the limits of our suspension of disbelief against him. Just as he did in Up in the Air, Clooney performs fantastically the mannerisms of a put-upon, imperfect man. You can never forget that he’s George Clooney, but he resists the temptation to do too much to get you to forget, if that makes sense. He masterfully underplays his role here as Matt King, a Hawaii lawyer descended from wealthy land barons. The film catches King just as he is being hit with conflict on two fronts. His family trust is set to lapse, and his more spendthrift relations are pressuring him to sell their vast land holding to developers and make them all rich. The second and more devastating problem is that his comatose wife is never going to wake up, and her will requires that he pull the plug.

King is forced to confront the idea of raising his two daughters on his own, which the film’s early scenes establish as no easy task. Ten-year-old Scotty is acting out at school, bullying other girls with nasty text messages and testing Matt’s boundaries at every turn. In light of his wife’s condition, Matt takes his older daughter Alexandra out of her expensive, prison-like boarding school, where she’d been exiled for drugs and alcohol use.

Shortly after Alexandra comes home she reveals a disturbing secret about her mother, one that changes everything for Matt. For the rest of the film Matt struggles to balance keeping it together, especially for Scotty’s sake, with letting his emotions take over and lead him to do questionable things. Along the way he relies too heavily on Alexandra, and becomes obsessed with confronting a person from his wife’s past. Clooney gets to play a wide range of emotions in this movie, from quivering rage to draining sadness, and he differentiates the finer distinctions along the way expertly.

The rest of the cast is equally naturalistic, despite not being given quite the same opportunity to showcase it as Clooney. Shailene Woodley is thoroughly believable as the troubled Alexandra. It’s a performance that belies the actress’s young age, and promises great things to come from Woodley, who presently stars on ABC Family in The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Judy Greer has only three short scenes, but her final one is a tremendous display of conflicting emotions, played at just the right level of pathos. Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, and Beau Bridges are also excellent. The Descendants is buoyed by its reliance, outside Clooney, on character actors and real people. (The surfer Laird Hamilton has a small role as a beachcomber, for example.) Even the film’s least believable character, Alexandra’s tagalong friend Sid, is given some depth to escape the limits of mere comic relief.

Two years ago Up in the Air came out a little early for Oscar season, and its front-runner status was short-lived, as it disappeared among the flashier films. Whether or not the same fate befalls The Descendants, the movie and its star are to be commended for playing it straight and crafting a real and relatable movie for adults. This feels like the kind of movie that will get better with repeated viewings, and how many movies can you say that about?

P.S. I couldn’t find a spot to include it above, but it absolutely floors me that one of the three credited screenwriters for The Descendants is Jim Rash, aka Community’s Dean Pelton. I’m now really pulling for The Descendants to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New Girl: "Thanksgiving"

New Girl hasn't quite finished cooking just yet, but it's getting there, and I have a feeling it's going to be really enjoyable once it's done.

"Thanksgiving" provides me with optimism for the show's future mostly by coming up with a seemingly fresh take on a holiday episode, something that is notoriously difficult for many shows. I liked that the show was confident enough not to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying the fact that their leads would be eating Thanksgiving dinner together. There was also very little cloying sentimentality around the holiday or the fact that these people were apart from their families. The holiday isn't really a big deal to anyone but Jess and her invited guest, Paul (Justin Long, from movies like Accepted and Going the Distance, and of course as the Mac to John Hodgman's PC.)

Jess has been a problematic character in a lot of ways, but if they keep her at the level where she's ditzy enough to plan a first date on Thanksgiving, I think the show can work. It was such an obviously insane, yet curiously believable act. Less believable, but too funny to object to, was her and Nick's conversation about how much she wanted to sleep with Paul and why it was important to her that Nick like him. (I am endlessly curious as to what the sexual act referred to as "giving him the hat" consists of.)

Of course it's a little too obvious to the audience that Jess wants Nick to like Paul because she actually likes Nick, but I think we just have to accept that pretty much every sitcom from now on is going to have a will-they-won't-they relationship at some point.

I got a big kick out of a tyrannical Schmidt getting CeCe all hot and bothered, but then ruining it by trying to be a nice guy. It felt consistent with what we've previously seen of Cece, and it shows that there is room for Schmidt to become a more relatable figure. (Also, we got the triumphant but subtle return of the douchebag jar.)

The dead old lady in the bathroom was probably taking things a bit too far, but it lead to some nice physical comedy from Long trying to avoid the gurney in the elevator, and to the nice bit at the end where he wins over Nick by bringing the gang turkey subs while they wait in line at Best Buy.

There's still not enough for Lamorne Morris to do, but if they can figure that out they'll really be set.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Things I've Noticed About Online Dating #2: The Eyes Have It

She walks in beauty, as the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best in dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.
-Lord Byron

There are whole fields within the sciences dedicated to proving that we are poor observers of our own existence. We have biases which lead us to focus on evidence that fits the narratives we have chosen to believe and ignore that which would force us to confront the shortcomings of our belief systems. It is to the eternal frustration of behavioral scientists, statisticians, and the coolly logical that the plethora of studies that have demonstrated this fact have fallen victim to the very conditions they describe, and are thus ignored.

This may explain how the ridiculous idea that you can tell a lot about a person by their eyes has stayed with us for so long. The eyes are the window to the soul, the mass, anonymous, “they” would have you believe. How often have you heard someone describe another person, typically of the opposite sex, as having “kind eyes”, “crazy eyes”, or what have you.

On the online dating site I have recently signed up with, this truism (a word which might as well mean “something that cannot be proven true) has certainly been taken up by the female population, and with great enthusiasm. I have seen myriad profiles which make reference to the subject’s eyes, whether they are Irish, coy, laughing, shady, Midwestern (?), and a whole host of others. Even those who don’t feel the need to put their eyes out there front and center almost always list them in the section asking “What’s the first thing people notice about you?”

Isn’t this pretty ridiculous on its surface? I imagine all of these people have instinctually liked or trusted someone based on their eyes and later been mistreated or betrayed by that same person. Science tells that a person’s eyes change very little in size or shape from birth to death, and yet I’ll bet there are a lot of people who feel like their exes’ or former friends’ eyes changed right about the time they noticed some character deficiency that had been lying dormant all along.

We humans have this need to feel like we can discover everything we need to know about a person right off the bat. Despite all evidence to the contrary, whether in the form of charming used car salesmen, serial killers or other creeps and weirdos, we maintain the illusion that “he has an honest face” is a valid assessment. Why?

And ladies, not to pick on you, but I think this emphasis on eyes is misplaced. Most guys I know aren’t going to be intrigued by what you tell us about your eyes. Don’t get me wrong, we can be fooled just as easily if not more so, but you’ll need to get us in person. And to do that, you better have something more intriguing than a pair of eyes, smiling, Irish, or otherwise.

How I Met Your Mother: "Tick Tick Tick"

Tick Tick Tick is an episode which has a little something for everyone, by which I mean it contains ample evidence for both people who love the show and people who hate the show.

Let's get the hate-worthy material out of the way. Stoner humor is generally too easy to generate genuine laughter, and tonight's Ted-Marshall "sandwich" plot was several degrees too silly and nonsensical. The last second reveal, which was itself pretty funny, came too late to redeem the forgettable plot. The idea that stoned Marshall and Ted are incapable of even reading the sign to the women's restroom was pathetic.

But Tick Tick Tick was redeemed by the emotional stuff. The show did a remarkable job of portraying the aftermath of Barney and Robin cheating on their partners with each other. It's pretty rare that a show is willing to confront its main characters doing something morally dubious. Which is why I thought for sure both characters would confess before the end of the episode. The fact that they had Barney step up and do the hard thing, while Robin did not, shows that they have ideas in mind about how to develop this storyline.

The writers also cleverly portrayed Robin's decision in terms that make her decision, probably disappointing to so many fans, extremely understandable. Robin's lack of self-confidence led her to ask both Barney and Kevin the same question: "Why do you even like me?" Barney's answer and Kevin's answer were very different, with Barney liking her for being messed up like him and Kevin not believing that she is messed up. It's an interesting divergence, and a legitimate question as to which is better.

Curiously, the attempts at comedy in this plot also felt forced. Sandy Dennis is too cartoonishly evil to be believable in the world of the show, though it was nice to see him get a drink thrown at his face (if not in his face.) Thus we had an episode that was extremely light on actual laughs but was carried through on the strength of its characters and emotional insight. Unusual for a sitcom, but that's How I Met Your Mother all over.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Girl: "Cece Crashes"

I think the people behind New Girl, with one possible exception, are all trying too hard. First, I appreciate Zooey Deschanel's committment to playing this character to the fullest, but in doing so she is achieving very little comedy. Instead she is just kind of frustrating and unrecognizable as a human being. "Cece Crashes" pivots on her complete and utter inability to act like a reasonable person for any length of time. After her best friend Cece convinces her that her roommate Nick has a crush on her, Zooey winds up freaking out at the supermarket and jumping out of his car and running home. Heck, she doesn't even run away in a vaguely human way. She kind of shuffles and hunches while she's running. This suggests that Ms. Deschanel has a pretty firm grip on the character, but that that character is so fundamentally unrelatable as to wreck the show's whole premise.

Similarly, I get that Schmidt is supposed to be kind of a douchey guy. The show has done a somewhat decent job establishing that his obnoxious behavior is mostly a result of previous obesity limiting his experience with women. Still, his behavior around Cece in last night's episode would have cost him his life savings if the douchebag jar from the pilot were still around. (I guess Damon Wayans, Jr. must have taken it with him.)

The show has some interesting ideas for its characters. I like the idea of both Jess and Schmidt as late bloomers. And I enjoyed the look at how Cece's friendship has conditioned Jess not to expect male attention. But the show has to do a better job of displaying these traits in actual stories, you know, the kind where events happen and people react to them, or take actions and deal with the consequences. The oddest aspect of "Cece Crashes" was Nick's sudden and inexplicable anger at Jess for trying to take care of him, which really seemed to come from out of nowhere.

The show needs to do a better job of earning the emotionally resonant moments between characters. I liked Jess telling Schmidt that he was a good guy "if you ignore all the stuff you do on purpose and focus on the stuff you do by accident." But I would have loved it if it had been more earned.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

New Girl: "Naked"

With the weather starting to turn and the rest of the fall TV slate starting to round into shape, it’s easy to forget that due to FOX’s postseason baseball coverage, this is actually only the fourth episode of New Girl. (Can someone pinpoint for me exactly when The New Girl lost its article? Was Sean Parker/Justin Timberlake involved?) This early on, character swings and reformulations are more easily forgivable, so even though the Jess of “Naked” was such a disappointing regression from the more realistically eccentric Jess from “The Wedding” I won’t be too critical of the show on that front.

More problematic is the reliance on such a hoary sitcom staple in just the fourth episode. No matter how talented the writing staff it’s hard to do much new with one character accidentally seeing another naked. Thus, Jess’s startled laugh and Nick’s subsequent self-consciousness failed to move the needle much. What laughs there were in this plot centered mainly on the amusing euphemisms Deschanel’s Jess came up with to avoid saying the anatomic terms. Even these, though, were Pyrrhic laughs, as they came at the expense of infantilizing Jess to an unsettling degree. The episode got much better once Jess had mastered the art of saying "penis."

The rest of the episode also didn’t inspire much confidence. It seems clear that the show is suffering for having to jettison Damon Wayans, Jr.’s Coach in favor of Winston. The show deliberately kept Winston in the background and separate from the other characters this week, and it’s a distressing sign that they’re having trouble finding stuff for him to do besides watch The King’s Speech and Human Centipede simultaneously.