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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cougar Town: "My Life/Your World"

Are we sure we want this show to continue? Not many shows have ever had a finale as poignant and funny as “My Life/Your World”, which would have served as a series finale had TBS not picked up the show when ABC cancelled it. As is, it serves as a nice goodbye both to ABC, the network that could never find a home for the show they saddled with an unpalatable name and premise, and to creator Bill Lawrence, the man who at first cynically embraced said premise and then turned it on its head, eschewing the possibility for a broad audience for the sake of comedy and personal integrity. Lawrence is leaving the show, though unlike Community’s Dan Harmon his departure is not acrimonious, and he’ll still have some level of involvement. Whoever takes over will have an extremely difficult task in continuing the show at the same level of achievement.

On the path to its astonishingly well-done close, “My Life/Your World” takes some bumpy roads and unappealing turns. It’s always tricky when a show has its main characters behaving selfishly and unsympathetically. While Cougar Town has always highlighted its ensembles less desirable traits, the spats here between Grayson and Jules are hard to take. Grayson’s need for privacy is somewhat well-established, and they have certainly built up his unease over selling his house, a sanctuary from the Cul-de-Sac Crew. But his extreme anger over the situation is an engineered emotion to explode the grenade of Laurie’s status as a pitied co-Maid of Honor. The move to get back at Jules rings absurdly false.

Still, I loved the construct of Groundhog Day-ing Jules. It worked especially well because it played on her insecurity over not understanding movies and her incessant need to please. That it all came together as Jules simultaneously grasped why Laurie was mad at her and how Bill Murray got the day to stop repeating itself was a stroke of genius.

Even then, we weren’t quite out of the woods. Grayson’s still upset about never having Jules to himself, so he wants to elope, a notion which has admittedly never seemed as romantic to me as it has been depicted on television and film. Jules agrees, but only because she misunderstands her fiance’s “just us” dictate to mean, just the crew, plus her dad. Grayson’s insistence that Jules ask the gang to leave so they can get married alone feels extremely controlling, which it is, until it is revealed as a hoax. Still, it’s never a great idea to make your romantic leading man look like a domineering control freak.

While the Napa setting for the elopement lead to a lot of great visual humor, especially Jules’ personal wineglass-refiller, it turns out to be almost filler, as the elopement that really wasn’t an elopement gets called off when both Jules and Grayson realize that his daughter should be there.

Oh, and in subplots no one really cared about, Ellie had a far-too-flirtatious thing going on with the hotel concierge (David Arquette, oddly enough) and Travis had his heart broken by Laurie again when her army boyfriend surprised her in Napa. Luckily he’s turned 21 just in time to learn how to enjoy wine without learning how to stop before you hit drunkenly-confessing-your-love-while-naked status.

It all leads, though, to the perfect capper, the gang coming together to give Jules the beach-wedding she’s always wanted, Mayor Barry Bostwick be damned. It was a terrifically sweet thing to behold, Chick the ordained minister riding in on horseback, the wedding taking place on the march to hold off the local P.D., and Jules and Grayson riding off into the sunset.

I mean, if the show ended right there, who could possibly complain?

Mad Men: "The Other Woman:

“The Other Woman” isn’t one of our beloved trio of female characters in the spotlight tonight. (Sorry, Trudy, your four lines of dialogue don’t quite elevate you onto this Mount Rushmore.) Instead, The Other Woman is a concept, an elusive, utterly insane notion of a Woman as Man wants her. This episode of Mad Men follows Joan, Megan, and Peggy as they all consciously try or try not to become the women the men of the show want them to be.

I think the quintessential scene in “The Other Woman” is the one in the conference room where Ginsberg hits on the tagline for Jaguar. Consider the setting. Megan’s friend is provocatively cavorting on the table to the delight of the freelance copywriters. She’s simultaneously sexualizing herself and submitting herself to the desires of the men around her. Ginsberg, who I really think might be an alien, is the only one not fixated on her. He’s observing the scene at a remove, which allows him to recognize the exact thing the Jaguar represents, it’s a beautiful thing which a man can not only own, but control. It’s truly his, in a way nothing else he wants can be.

Ginsberg might be the one who sees how men want to possess women, but it’s the other men who personify the wish. First and foremost is Jaguar’s creepy dealership president, who thinks Joan Harris is a prime cut of tenderloin he can point at and ask for at the butcher’s shop. The way Pete and the other partners, minus an absent Don, openly discuss the possibility of giving the guy what he wants makes for an incredibly icky, disturbing scene, second only to the smarmy way Pete first presents the offer to Joan, trying to make her out to be at fault for the loss of the account should she refuse. Pete seems to be taking revenge on womankind for Beth Dawes’ refusal to sleep with him on his own terms (remember his lament: “Why do they get to decide what’s going to happen?”)

While it’s tempting to applaud Don for his refusal to even entertain the possibility of Joan joining the world’s oldest, and his own mother’s profession, and to rue his, alas!, belated trip to the Harris home to stop it, Don doesn’t exactly crown himself with glory at home. You would think someone as, at least formerly, attuned to the creative life would realize that breaking into showbiz might require a little time away from the bright lights of Broadway. So it seems Megan might have been right when she yelled at Don for assuming she would fail at her “hobby”. I think we’re seeing here the divergence between what Don wants and what he thinks he wants. In Megan he’s trying unsuccessfully to merge the free-spirit of his mistresses, like Midge, with the housewife he had in Betty. That’s not going to end well. Who knows how Don will react if Megan ever lets him know what the casting calls are really like, with the leering eyes and all?

Don also breaks the camel’s back with the last straw of throwing money in Peggy’s face. (Is that what the money is for?) Peggy has been woefully underserved this season, and it seems like she’s noticed that too. Roger never buys her lobster, for one thing, and even when she saves Chevalier Blanc, they won’t let her near the car account because it’s still a man’s world baby. So on the advice of a still-sober Freddy Rumson, she decides to look around for a better offer. And really, any place where her boss isn’t someone who thinks he can withhold credit because he knows why she got really fat all that time ago would be better for Peggy.

Where do the women of Mad Men wind up at episode’s end? Megan, who could clearly have helped those freelance boys come to the right answer a lot sooner, is starting to clear space for her own needs inside of her marriage, even as doing so means opening herself up to the harsh judgment of the men who run the theater world. Joan now has the five-percent stake in SCDP that Lane swears will take care of her, baby Kevin, and all the broken refrigerators they can handle, but with that many people (all the partners and presumably Ken. Cosgrove. Accounts.) knowing how she got there, will she be able to handle it? It’s Peggy who comes out the best, descending triumphantly down Chekhov’s elevator shaft to the tune of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” after capturing her tearful farewell to Don with the perfect tagline: “Don’t be a stranger.”

Godpeed, Peggy Olsen, godspeed.

Other thoughts:

-Is this the last we’ll see of Peggy Olsen? I haven’t seen any reports in the press yet, but precedent would suggest that if she does come back it will be fleetingly. (Hopefully not as a member of a religious cult.) But Peggy feels more integral to the show’s story than Sal or Paul ever did. The only characters we’ve ever followed outside of the office are Don’s family, but technically we’re still following Megan after she left SCDP.

-Roger InsertMiddleNameHere Sterling, how could you? You’re only objection to Joanie sleeping with the client is that you don’t want to pay for it? I know you wanted to provide for your child’s future, but not like this, not like this.

-It’s almost as if Lane punching him in the face made Pete an even worse person, no?

-Was Lane encouraging Joan to push for a partnership more for her sake, or to save his goose from being cooked? And will they resolve his embezzlement in the last two episodes?

-How can Trudy Campbell be so innocent as to think that Manhattan is Pete’s “other woman”?

-Don must be feeling unmoored. His wife doesn’t want to be the wife he wants, the woman he most admired has now debased herself for money, and the only other woman he thought he could trust is leaving for his hated rival.

-I was going to point out how no one even considers that any women might buy a car, but then I thought about it and it seems most car commercials, at least for certain cars, are pretty exclusively targeted at men.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska is the third John Green novel I have read this year, after The Fault in Our Stars and An Abundance of Katherines. Each of them has been a surprisingly affecting novel full of fun, lifelike characters that draw the reader into the world of the story. These are all so-called "young adult" novels, but it would be a damn shame if we relegated novels where the reader actually cares what happens next to some supposedly lesser shelf. Anyone who still remembers what it was like to be an awkward, unsure-of-themselves teenager will find much to love in the works of John Green.

Miles Halter is a lonely boy without friends until he convinces his parents to let him go to a prestigious boarding school in Alabama. There he becomes fast friends with his hard-working, hard-partying roommate Chip "The Colonel" Martin. The Colonel guides him through life at the school, and eases his way into the social life there, which is split almost neatly in two, between under-privileged students on scholarship, like the Colonel, and local rich kids who go home every weekend.

Miles soon befriends several of the other scholarship students, including an eccentric, passionate girl named Alaska Young (her hippie mother let her name herself at age 7.) Alaska is the leader of Miles' gang of friends, and she and The Colonel lead elaborate pranks against the rich kids and the school's strict headmaster, known as The Eagle.

The novel has an intriguing structure. The early chapters are all headlined "XX Days Before" and about halfwy through we transition to "XX Days After." The precipitating event for this change is a heartbreaking night that completely changes life for Miles and his friends.

Looking for Alaska is a great novel because of the sheer honesty with which it was written. There's no irony, no detachment, no cynicism. There's just people, dealing with an impossible situation in the best, imperfect way that they can.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Hour: Series 1

The Hour, a six-episode production of BBC Two which aired on BBC America last August, is essentially Broadcast News set in 1950s Great Britain.

Usually I try to avoid such descriptions, as they can be over-used and uninformative, but really, the overlap between the two is so strong that it merits mention. If you've seen the film, which I hope you have, you'll probably be able to figure out the similar construction from the photo above. Romola Garai plays Bel Rowley, the hard-charging female producer of a brand-new weekly news program (in other words, Holly Hunter). Dominic West is the anchorman, Hector Madden, a good-looking man with superb connections who struggles to be taken seriously by his more intellectual colleagues. (There's your William Hurt.) Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon is a wire-thin idealist intellectual whose lack of grace and social skills keeps him from maximizing his potential. (Albert Brooks, to finish off the comparison.)

The setting is 1956, in the midst of the Suez crisis. The government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Eden, is coming increasingly under question for their handling of the invasion of Egypt, and the news team at The Hour struggle to cover the story without running afoul of government censors, personified here by Sir Eden's lackey Angus McCain.

It's all very, and appealingly, British, with issues like honor, integrity, class, and patriotism coming to the fore. Adding to the intrigue is Freddie's chance discovery of a potential MI6 conspiracy involving skullduggery in Egypt and murder at home.

It's a testament to the strength of the program, and the drama of the newsroom, that all this spy stuff is almost distracting. It's a neat whodunit, but it's never entirely clear what the show wants to get from it. At the last minute, it becomes a more interesting question of a potential mole at the BBC, but for too long the connection between the Suez and the dead spy remains opaque to the viewer.

The best aspect of the series is the chemistry between Whishaw and Garai. The two have such an easy, comfortable repartee that you would swear they really were best friends. Their romantic past is alluded to obliquely, but they are just friends at the moment, though it's clear that Freddie does not approve of Bel's affair with Hector.

If I have any complaint about the series, it is that it too cramped in the six-episode format. I would have gladly watched these events transpire over 13 episodes. Very interested to see where The Hour goes in its next installment.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sherlock: Season 2

Though it aired months ago in Great Britain, the BBC’s Sherlock, written by the brilliant Steven Moffat (Coupling, the present incarnation of Doctor Who), has just finished airing in America. The series is an audacious undertaking, placing the familiar Arthur Conan Doyle characters in present-day London and seeing how the great detective might have made use of text messages and the Internet. Though the artifice may sound precious, Moffat’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and the performance by the cast so enjoyable, that the enterprise is a tremendous success.

Benedict Cumberbatch (from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) plays the great detective, and his ability to shoot out complicated rapid-fire dialogue in character makes it easy to believe in the role of the super-talented genius. Martin Freeman (Tim from the original British The Office) gives Dr. John Watson a world-weary relatability that is charming and empathetic. The back-and-forth between the two is often very funny, and informed by the idea that what was normal in 1890s London (two bachelors sharing a flat) would be the cause of much talk today.

Season 2 of the show is even more ambitious than the first. Moffat and crew have taken on three of Conan Doyle’s most-loved and most climactic stories. The first episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” is a spin on “A Scandal in Bohemia”, the story that introduced Irene Adler, the only woman to ever interest Sherlock Holmes. In the current iteration, Ms. Adler is a high-priced dominatrix who uses the secrets she has acquired as a way to protect herself. When the royal family worries that some incriminating photos in Ms. Adler’s possession might get out, Sherlock is approached by his brother Mycroft to get them back.

As in the original story, Irene Adler proves a capable match for Holmes, and his usual brilliance is thrown off by her beauty. The episode features some especially clever sleuthing (I enjoyed the solution behind the combination to Adler’s safe) and several neat twists and turns. It is, in short, everything you could want from an adventure story.

The second episode tackles The Hound of the Baskervilles, changing the original quite liberally for the sake of relevance. Here, Baskerville is a military base rumored to be the home of bizarre experiments, and the hound is a local rumor started and perpetuated by a local man named Henry Knight, who was petrified as he watched a giant hound rip his father apart.

The plotting of this installment is not quite as strong as the others, and the solution becomes extraordinarily convoluted, and worse, illogical by the conclusion. The episode tries too hard to throw Sherlock off his game, and while it is still fun to watch him at work, it needs to hang together better than this to truly be great television.

Luckily, the last installment of Season 2 rises to that level and beyond. “The Reichenbach Fall” is one of the most enjoyable episodes of television I have watched in some time. The episode draws heavily from Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem” the infamous outing in which Holmes and Moriarty fall to their deaths over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Here, Reichenbach instead refers to the detective himself, as having saved a painting of the falls, Sherlock becomes known as the Reichenbach Hero. There is also a more interesting meaning of the word “fall” involved.
The episode opens with a beautiful sequence wherein Moriarty breaks into the Tower of London, the Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison simultaneously. He’s caught sitting on the throne wearing the crown and waving the scepter, leading Holmes to believe that being caught is exactly what he wanted. There’s a trial, featuring Holmes as an expert witness, leading to the hilarious scene where the detective rudely corrects the prosecutor’s questioning and identifies the professions of all twelve jurors and points out the two who are having an affair together. When Moriarty is found not guilty in spite of the mountain of incriminating evidence, Holmes realizes the game is afoot, but what is the game?

Andrew Scott plays the criminal mastermind with a berserk energy and manic desire for chaos that are both breathtaking to watch. He’s also quite clearly having a lot of fun turning the emotional dial up to 11. Moffat’s script has him ingeniously toying with Holmes, all in the name of turning the public against him and convincing the world that the great detective is a fraud. The episode works as well as it does only because Moriarty’s plan is both chillingly evil and astonishingly brilliant. It all wraps up in a rooftop scene that will be dissected endlessly until whenever they get around to filming Season 3. Even if you’ve read the Conan Doyle story, the ending will manage to surprise you just the same.

BBC’s Sherlock nimbly balances reverence for the source material with the right amount of fun. Each 90-minute installment is jam-packed with action, adventure, and the signature deductions that endeared the original to millions of fans. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Sherlock Holmes story you will thoroughly enjoy the show. And if you’re the kind of Sherlock novice for whom Robert Downey Jr. is the definitive performance of the role, I implore you to watch.

Monday, May 21, 2012

House: "Everybody Dies"

Recently Noel Murray at the AV Club wrote a very observant article on the perils of the planned Series Finale. (You can find it here) I think “Everybody Dies” quite obviously falls into some of the pitfalls of this kind of episode. A desire to go bigger, to provide closure, to wrap things up neatly, when really, something more akin to the hours of entertainment we’ve previously enjoyed would serve the show’s needs much better.

But House has never been a show for subtlety or nuance, and over the years it has hit some big home runs when it swung for the fences. In my Top Ten Episodes list earlier, most of the entrants represent times when the staff of the show really went for it. So it is hard to blame them for taking one more big swing. I just wish they could have done something less trite and forgettable.

In some ways “Everybody Dies” is a casualty of the show’s long run. The constant cast changes have left the show with a number of characters that various segments of the fan base would have wanted a chance to say goodbye to. Thus the show, providing service to the fans instead of the show itself, resort to the old standby, near-death hallucinations. The first three-fourths of the show are a veritable merry-go-round of former members of the Differential Diagnostics Unit. Some of them are people we’ve even seen before in hallucinogenic form, as Kutner and Amber are the first to approach House in the role of dour Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present.

You see, Ebeneezer House isn’t feeling very good about himself lately, since his prank got out of hand and might cause him to miss being there for Wilson’s Death. So, House finds himself in a burning building, with the heroin addict he had been shooting up with lying dead next to him. Our favorite misanthropic doctor is not so sure he wants to try and escape from the flames, and not even Stacy or Cameron can really convince him, though they do manage to get him to provide exposition on the heroin addict’s diagnosis.

Eventually, Detectives Wilson and Foreman, who had both nonsensically tried to teach House a lesson by refusing to save him from jail, (to be fair House’s plan was absurdly ill-considered), track him down and arrive just in time to see the giant fireball consume him.

It’s then that we get the spectacle of House’s funeral, where all the guest stars and more get to put their best spin on what House did for them, even though presumably they all knew House well enough to know how much he would hate what they are doing. Eventually Wilson snaps during his eulogy, and starts telling it like it is, until his phone starts ringing…

Surprise, House isn’t dead! Because the urge to center finales around big splashy life events isn’t that strong, apparently. If you remembered that House was modeled on Sherlock Holmes, you may have been skeptical of this death from the beginning, after all, Holmes fell over the Reichenbach falls and lived to tell of it.

But House’s career is basically gone, and if he’s ever discovered he’ll be in jail for years! But never mind that, he’s too busy Easy Rider-ing with cancer patient Wilson while Louis Prima plays in the background.

Not a lot of Everybody Dies made sense from a logical perspective, and its language and arguments were too trite compared to the House of old. It’s unfortunate, but House did not go out on a high note. It limped to the finish.

Top Ten Episodes of House

I'll be tuning in to the series finale of House tonight and hoping that it might cause me to revise this list, but recent years have not been kind to the show. Cast departures, both contractual and plot-related, have been used in the place of actual drama for too long, and the show's present cast doesn't hold a candle to the original. (Although I like Taub and tolerate Charlyne Yi, Odette Annable is no Cameron.)

Still, House is worth watching most weeks because of the spectacular performance of Hugh Laurie as the pill-popping misanthrope with the talent for getting to the incredibly complicated and unlikely diagnosis somewhere between the fourth and seventh try.

With that in mind, let's remember the good times with a list of my ten favorite episodes of House.

10. Acceptance- House eagerly treats a death row inmate despite the staff's objections. Notable for a very good guest turn by LL Cool J.

9. All In- House diagnoses a young boy with the same symptoms as an undiagnosed case from 12 years ago. On the list for great scenes of House playing poker against Wilson and Cuddy.

8. The Mistake- I'm a sucker for time-shifted narratives, and this one about Chase and House lying to cover up the reason for a patient's death is quite good.

7. Broken- Two hour season premiere where House goes to rehab and learns to accept that he needs help. Great guest turns by Andre Braugher and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

6. One Day, One Room- Form-breaking episode where House doesn't diagnose any case, just sits in with a rape victim who decides he is the only person he can trust.

5. Alone- House attempts to solve a case without help from his recently-departed team. Great twist ending.

4. No Reason- House gets shot. A really great example of the "it was all a dream" TV trope.

3. Son of Coma Guy- Really interesting episode where House wakes a guy from a coma for 24 hours to try and diagnose his son. John Larroquette is great as the coma patient.

2. House's Head/Wilson's Heart- Brilliant two-part episode where House goes to extreme lengths to remember the details of a bus crash. It's a damn shame the show killed off Anne Dudek's Cut-throat Bitch.

1. 3 Stories- Absolutely the best they've ever done. House is forced to lecture med students and decides to tell them three stories about patients with leg injuries. The first episode to give background on House's pain.

Mad Men: "Christmas Waltz"

Ah Christmas, “that time of year when the world falls in love” as the song would have it. And what of the men and women at SCDP? Are they suffused with the love of their fellow man? Yes and no.

Harry Crane is overcome by the seemingly simple rhythm of the Hare Krishna chant, and even though his newfound connectedness is tested by the scheming ways of Mother Lakshmi, he is still moved to help his old friend Paul Kinsey.

But things are far rockier in the Draper marriage, where Megan’s burgeoning artistic impulses are coming to loggerheads with Don’s consumerist career. Their minor spat on the heels of witnessing a truly dreadful avant-garde play is nothing compared to the clichéd dish-throwing outburst that results when Don spends an afternoon blowing off work to drink with Joan.

Joan’s on an emotional rollercoaster herself, from calmly but firmly denying Roger the chance to but his way into fatherhood, to screaming at the receptionist who let a process server into the office with her divorce papers, to flushing at Don’s flattery and flowers. (Signed “Ali Khan” as a reference to Rita Hayworth’s husband.)

Pete’s warm, fuzzy feelings are short-lived as always, when the Jaguar knows doesn’t garner him the loving reception he had hoped. Seriously, Pete, maybe you could wait until you actually land the account?

And then there’s Lane, whose previously hinted at money troubles come to bear here, although without any clarifying explanation. (I don’t think there’s a more sinister meaning behind “gave to a foreign power”) Lane tries to get out of his jam by extending the office’s credit to give the staff and himself Christmas bonuses, but when his plan fails we see him forging Don’s signature on a check. Judging from Mad Men’s usual style, this should come back into the story line sometime in Season 8.

This installment also seemed much more contingent on historical name-dropping than character and plot. Look, it’s Star Trek! Look, it’s the crazy Hare Krishna movement! Look, it’s the Jaguar XK-E!

More so than most weeks this season, “Christmas Waltz” seemed more about putting pieces in order than telling a single story. There were a number of nice moments, but nothing really coalesced, and the whole episode seemed more about setting up the last three episodes of the season. Here’s hoping all the staff’s “New Year’s dreams come true” but as far as this week goes, “Christmas Waltz” was something of a disappointment

Other Thoughts:

-It can’t be a coincidence that Lane embezzles the same amount of money George Bailey was accused of embezzling in It’s a Wonderful Life.

-That test-drive where they pretend to be a couple sure seems to tease the possibility of a Don-Joan tryst, doesn’t it? I say unlikely, although it seems equally unlikely that Don will continue sheepishly sitting down to dinner when Megan yells at him.

-In the annals of drunk-acting, Jon Hamm knocking over the lamp with his overcoat goes into the Hall of Fame.

-It may be hard to believe from how wooden and trite it was in the episode, but that was a real play Megan dragged Don to. It’s called America Hurrah, by Jean-Claude van-Itallie.

-Really loved Roger needing to translate Lane’s announcement about the bonuses.

-Is Don’s speech at the conference a sign that he thinks Megan was right about him, or something else?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Exit Dan Harmon

Art and commerce have always been uneasy allies, with commerce simultaneously enabling art to reach a larger audience and restricting its creativity to that narrow band which will appeal to a broad enough slice of the population. Which is why the refrain you will probably hear most about Dan Harmon being forced out as showrunner of Community is that, “it sucks, but it makes sense from a business standpoint.” But does it, really?

Television is perhaps the artform most directly reliant on its commercial prospects, so much so that it you will still find many people who insist television isn’t art at all. It’s just a way to get people to watch commercials. And because the production of a television show necessitates a lot more expense than other forms (you can’t make a TV show with a canvas and paint) the men and women with visions of making art on television are hamstrung when it comes to pleasing the people with their hands on the purse-strings.

Community is not a very highly-rated show, and on any other network this lack of an audience would have meant cancellation after a season or so at best. NBC’s decision to keep the show on the air is less a commendable commitment to quality than a panic-move by a network so incapable of establishing prime-time hits that any new show might fare just as poorly or worse. At least Community got some good notices in the press.

NBC recently renewed the show for a shortened fourth season, but Sony, which produces the show, wants more. Their business model depends upon shows like Community reaching syndication, a feat that usually requires 88 episodes. Sony wants the show to go beyond the next 13 episodes, and they don’t believe that Harmon can achieve that goal. Aside from that, Harmon is a notoriously prickly person, and his cost overruns and off-stage drama can’t have endeared him to his corporate overlords.

But the part where the logic breaks down is this: How will Harmon’s departure help the show, from any persepective?

Creatively the best possible result is that new men-in-charge David Guarascio and Moses Port are able to maintain a status quo that proves suitable to the cult audience that adores the show. Far more likely is a slow exodus of devoted viewers as the new episodes fail to live up to the lofty standards of what came before. No other show has pulled off the types of stunts that Community has, so why should anyone believe that anyone but Dan Harmon can do it?

From a business standpoint, Sony’s desire to attract new viewers is misguided at best. Three seasons in, the type of broad audience Sony seeks is unlikely to give Community a chance, whether or not Guarascio and Port abandon the complex continuity and make the show more like every other sitcom on TV. How many non-fans of the show are even likely to be aware of any change at Community?

The last thing I’ll say about this situation is a rather common complaint of mine, but it gets no less true with repetition. The ratings numbers that are reported in the news media are little more than a lie agreed upon. The truth is that no one knows for sure how many people are watching a given episode of television. The networks are just terrified of any improvement in the system because it is probable that any change will show just how little penetration all those expensive advertisements actually make. Right now automakers, movie studios, snack companies and the like are paying for an audience that they only think is watching. Community may not be watched extensively among the few thousand (seriously, have you ever met one?) Nielsen viewers, but it is obviously a show with a passionate, actively involved fanbase. That is the legacy of Dan Harmon, and something that will be exceedingly difficult to replicate.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Suburgatory: Season One

Comedy nerds who sneer at any sitcom that is not on NBC or cable would do well to give Emily Kapnek’s Suburgatory a chance. Though the show’s awkward title and its premise seemed to promise a condescending look at the suburbs from its city-slicker protagonists, instead the series has given us a delightfully unique and fractured space populated by damaged but likable and funny characters. And while the zaniest and most inexplicable behaviors are predominantly the provenance of the natives, the writing staff have taken great pains to cut down the smug superiority of the fish out of water.

Suburgatory stars Jeremy Sisto as George Altman, a divorced father raising his precocious 15-year-old daughter Tessa (Jane Levy) on his own. Freaking out after finding a box of condoms in Tessa’s New York City bedroom, George moves them out to Chatswin, a posh suburb. There the both of them struggle to adapt to the mores of this cracked community, with its lavish spending habits, completely self-centered worldview, and resistance to differences. The Altmans are terrified of their tightly-wound neighbors the Shays, Sheila (Ana Gasteyer) and Fred (Chris Parnell) and perplexed by free-spending Dallas (Cheryl Hines) and her spoiled daughter Dalia (Carly Chaikin). The overloaded cast also includes George’s old friend Noah (a dentist played by Alan Tudyk) and Tessa’s high-school guidance counseler Mr. Wolfe (Rex Lee) and best friends Lisa Shay (Allie Grant) and Malik (Maestro Harrell).

Early episodes of the show didn’t quite calibrate exactly how much we were supposed to agree with Tessa, who narrates, about how horrible the people of Chatswin are. Jane Levy was a tremendously appealing actress from the very start, but what the show has gotten better at is undercutting her snobbery by revealing the faults and cracks in her persona. One of the earliest and most successful ways it has done this is through depicting her confusion about boys. Though Tessa acts tough and hard-shelled, she constantly falls for guys who more typically represent the ethos of Chatswin, such as champion wrestler Ryan “The Body” Shay. “The Body” got off maybe the best joke I heard on any sitcom this year: When asked who he would choose if he could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, he replied, “Scarlet Johansson, dead.”

Holidays are typically a boon to sitcoms since they are relatively easy ways to generate stories, and perhaps no sitcom took as much advantage as Suburgatory. The show started to truly find its way on Halloween, when Tessa’s stereotypical suburbanite get-up eerily reminds her classmates of a departed student. (Don’t worry, “A Better Place” is just the name of a prep school in Jersey.) The show used Tessa’s Sweet Sixteen to firmly place Tessa within the world of Chatswin even as it established her self-assuredness and independence. And Thanksgiving was the first start-to-finish great episode of the season.

After the Christmas break, the show seemed to really find its way, creating original plots ornamented with the kinds of absurdities that few other shows could get away with. Tessa becomes envious when the cool new poetry teacher fails to realize that Dalia’s poems are vapid, but her own attempts to exploit her absentee mother for an emotional reaction go for naught. Dallas divorces her cheating husband and opens a crystal emporium. Tessa thinks the new kid in school is a closeted homosexual, but in fact he’s an undercover narcotics cop.

Late in the season, the show embarked upon an ambitious plotline that featured George dating his friend Noah’s surrogate mother (played by Sisto’s Clueless co-star Alicia Silverstone). This plot was hamstrung by being squeezed into such a small number of episodes, and Silverstone does not seem to have great comic acting skills. Still her status as a “big-name” guest star presumably means that, even as the show leaves her plot unresolved at the end of Season One, we won’t be seeing too much more of her.

Suburgatory is buttressed by its gifted cast. In addition to the talented young Levy, Cheryl Hines is phenomenal as the immature but lovable Dallas, Allie Grant is a dynamite comedic actress, and Carly Chaikin gives hilarious readings to Dalia’s bratty remarks. Season One ends on an emotional note, with Tessa finally admitting that she is missing out by not having a mother, and thinking about leaving Chatswin to be with hers. Obviously, there’s not much show without Tessa in Chatswin, and when she returns this fall it should be well worth watching.

Jeopardy!: DC Power Players Week

If this week’s contests pitting media insiders, newsmakers, and political figures against each other proved anything, it’s that the Beltway is an insular world, and those who make their way to prominence within it often do with a single-mindedness that precludes the wide knowledge base that makes a true Jeopardy champion.

Night after night figures like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, and former Obama Administration Press Secretary Robert Gibbs performed adequately, if not always as well as you might expect, in categories pertaining to politics, government, and recent history. Matthews, who was otherwise an abject failure at the game, managed to do quite well in a category that involved naming the cabinet position a given individual had held.

When the categories pertained to typical Jeopardy fare like TV and movies, sports, wordplay, or geography, the lack of breadth to the contestants knowledge bases was exposed. Anderson Cooper, who won Friday night, reacted to a question that featured a synopsis of the movie “From Here to Eternity” as though it were written in hieroglyphics. A panel of CNBC’s David Faber, Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino, and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar performed miserably in a category about bestselling authors, with none of the three being able to identify Tom Clancy as the author of the Jack Ryan thrillers or name Jurassic Park as Michael Crichton’s bestseller about dinosaurs.

The most galling mistakes involved a bewildering inability to remember or follow the most basic rules and structure of the game. In Friday’s game Thomas Friedman consistently forgot to answer in the form of a question. Chris Matthews had the opposite problem, asking for categories in question form and clearly confusing himself in the process. Matthews, who I am picking on deliberately because he was that bad, and because he once poked fun at Sarah Palin’s intelligence specifically by saying that she would be horrible on Jeopardy, also rang in on a question in the category of “6-Letter World Capitals” asking for the location of St. Basil’s Cathedral with the answer: “Istanbul.” Now, Istanbul is seven letters, is not the capital of Turkey or anywhere else, and at any rate, St. Basil’s Cathedral is in Moscow.

There were also many instances of candidates failing to read into the language of the clues for the keys to getting the answer. To me this displayed an alarming lack of genuine intuitiveness and critical thinking. Maybe there is something to all the criticism that the media are in front of the camera for their looks and not their brains. Hell, many of them messed up the math. Tonight Anderson Cooper caught the Daily Double in Double Jeopardy on what was pretty clearly going to be the last clue of the night. If he’d risked $2200 and gotten the answer right, he would have assured himself the win going into Final and secured $50,000 for his charity. Instead he limply bet $800, and was saved when neither of the other contestants (a horrifically bad Kelly O’Donnell and an underwhelming Thomas Friedman) could name Eli Whitney as the inventor of the cotton gin. Of course, Cooper got it wrong too.

Community: "Digital Estate Planning/"The First Chang Dynasty"/"Introduction to Finality"

Last night's tripartite Season (Not Series!) Finale showed off all of Community's finer points, in three disparate but equally enjoyable episodes. Every element that the show's fans love so rabidly, and everything that would immediately confuse or even repel anyone just checking in with the show, was out in full force.

Take "Digital Estate Planning", with its absurd premise, designed solely to maneuver the study group into a barely plausible alternate reality. One of the strengths of the Community writing team, and something which I am sure frustrates the bean-counters at NBC, is their ability to work backwards from an insane idea and make it fit into the mostly-realist world they've envisioned. From the Paintball wars to the zombie outbreak, there's nowhere they can't go. An elaborately structured, appallingly racist 8-bit video game designed by an unloving father to mock his disappointing son? Sure, why not?

And while we're at it, let's have sweet innocent Annie brutally murder a digital blacksmith just to get what she wants, and have super-Christian Shirley kill the witnesses and set fire to the home. Abed finds his perfect woman in a programmable, endlessly-adaptable villaige maiden, and Britta gets to (for once) save the day by Britta-ing her strength poison so that it kills Gilbert (a very good guest turn from Giancarlo Esposito.)

Not only can Community construct a video-game episode that makes logical sense, they can tie it to an emotionally resonant plot-line. Gilbert's revelation that he is Pierce's half-brother spawned some fine dramatic acting from both Esposito and Chevy Chase, and gave the episode the uplifting victory it needed.

Because of the high amount of animation that this episode required, it is pretty clearly not in the right place from a continuity standpoint. No glaringly obvious tells, but it just seems parachuted in when the last few episodes have dealt with Chang's takeover. But with the final two episodes, we're back to the main arc of the season.

"First Year of the Chang Dynasty" follows in the proud Community tradition of homage episodes like "Contemporary American Poultry" or "Basic Lupine Urology." Here we get an extended riff on the heist movie. What works best about this set-up is the plausibility of the actual caper. The study group's plan is remarkably well-thought out, and features one of the greatest of all heist-movie cliches, the turnabout when the plan being foiled turns out to have been part of the plan all along.

There was so much to enjoy in the visuals of this episode, from the quick-cuts and familiar camera angles, to the spectacles of bearded-caterer Shirley, Brooklynese speaking plumbers Troy and Abed, "Mindfreak" Jeff Winger, and of course, Goth magician's assistant Britta, an image I am sure will be featured as many a Reddit commenter's avatar for the next few weeks.

Community proves the effectiveness of its character-based humor by again going to the emotional well within the heist. The moment where Troy silently consents to joining the AC-repair school in a time of need is legitimately sad. Donald Glover, who gets so many laughs by crying, manages to convey so much emotion with just a nod of his head. Glover is a superstar talent.

With the Dean restored, Chang on the lam, and a grateful schoolboard drinking away their sorrows, "Introduction to Finality" speeds ahead to the end of the summer. Jeff is trying to get the gang to focus on their make-up Biology exam side note, I always find it hilarious how simple the show keeps the group's classes. Jeff is trying to learn about mitosis, a subject most high school freshmen are familiar with), but as usual he gets dragged into some petty disagreement among the group. This time Pierce and Shirley are fighting over who gets to be the signee for their joint sandwich-shop venture. Eventually this will of course wind-up with Jeff using his fake-lawyer skills to help resolve the situation.

Meanwhile, Troy is suffering through AC classes, and getting tired of Vice Dean Laybourne's talk of him being the True Repairman ("who will repair Man" intones John Goodman.) Of course, when Laybourne dies after ingesting poisonous freon, Troy becomes suspicous of his professor and Laybourne's successor. Interrupting the coronation with the Crown of the Five Winds ("East, West, North, the one we keep secret, and South") Troy challenges the successor to a duel in the sun chamber.

This is Community at both its most inaccessible and its most outrageously funny. It helps when the show winks and the preposterousness of its plots. I loved the unhinged arena-style announcer for the Sun Chamber duel, but I loved it even more when a colleague asked him if he was on coke and then calmly recited the rules.

Also on the out-there scale was Evil Abed's take-over of "Lame" Abed, and his subsequent deconstruction of Therapist Britta. People who only like traditional sitcoms probably wouldn't get past one character completely disabusing another of their cherished delusions. Evil Abed wasn't my favorite thing in the world, but it was worth it if just for the sight of fake-bearded Evil Abed strutting down the halls at Greendale and being a dick to everyone who crosses his path.

Of course, the episode ends with a classic Winger speech, this time about how much better it is to help others than to help ourselves, a lesson he learns from Shirely when she gives him permission to throw her case to save his future legal career. It's also a lesson Troy didn't need to learn, as he spares the life of Laybourne's killer by fixing both AC units in the Sun Chamber.

Community ends its third season in a very interesting place. Having restored order to the AC-repair school by becoming their messiah, Troy is free to both pursue his ability and remain part of the study group. It's becoming clearer and clearer that Troy is the moral center and the best leader for this group. Britta seems really into him too, and it will be interesting to see how the show handles a real relationship between two of its characters, something it really hasn't tried before. (Jeff and Britta were a friends-with-benefits type thing, and Jeff-and-Annie hasn't gone much past that first kiss.)

Pierce ends the season on an upnote, conceding that the business is a true joint-venture with Shirley, and even remonstrating someone else for using "gay" as a slur. It's still not clear whether Chevy Chase will be back next year, and his frequent "sundowning" gives the writers an easy out if he bolts, but if so it's nice that he went out on a relative high note.

Abed admits he needs help, and demonstrates some more of that empathy he's still learning about by agreeing to let Britta try and help him. And Jeff seems to not only accept Greendale for what it is, but to admit that he's better off for being there. The moment where he thanks his former colleague for ratting him out was an amazing example of how far the show has taken his character.

Whether there are really only thirteen episodes left, or whether we get those wished-for six seasons and a movie, I'm damn glad to know that there's more Community to come.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How I Met Your Mother: "The Magician's Code"

Considering the lengthy mid-season hiatuses that CBS has inflicted upon HIMYM fans, it seems odd that the two-parts of tonight’s two-part season finale have so little in common. There pretty much no thematic correlation between the two, and they have no greater continuation of story than any other two neighboring episodes. Still, we must take our HIMYM where we can get it, and most of the hour-long “Magician’s Code” was charming, funny, and surprising.

The first episode was more strongly connected to the previous installment, as we open with Lily in labor, Marshall stuck with Barney in Atlantic City, and Ted and Robin putting aside their awkwardness to help Lily in her time of need. Part I did not wring many laughs from Marshall’s drunkenness, although I appreciated Jason Segel’s ability to perform drunken-Yoda speak. I was also slightly put off by Barney’s consistent need to inject his and Quinn’s troubles into the discussion. It just seemed false and selfish. This plotline got much better when they essentially discarded the extreme drunkenness and shifted to the attempts to get the bus driver to pull off the road so Marshall could get to the hospital. I greatly enjoyed the “I am Spartacus” moment among the senior citizens on the bus.

As for Lily’s need to be distracted after going into labor, I enjoyed the “fake clip show” aspect of these scenes even if I wondered how much Dan Harmon would be upset by this “homage.” Still, the writers at HIMYM are often at their best when they are just rapid-firing jokes one right after the other, and this was certainly one of those times. Many of them were really silly, like Ted’s super long arm hair, but I got a kick out of most of them, especially the experiment to determine how slippery banana peels really are. The runner with the door also paid off nicely in the end.

Of course, this being How I Met Your Mother, the arrival of Marvin Waitforit Erickson (one of the lamer jokes of this offering) can’t help but be used to make Ted and the others re-evaluate their lives.

Ted and Robin have a great conversation where she calls him on the gap between what he says he wants and what he actually pursues. It’s a familiar theme in the show, especially given how often the show has used Ted and the career-driven, no-kids-wanting Robin as a couple. Her suggestion is to go after Victoria one more time, which is kind of nonsensical considering her previous rant about unavailable women. Victoria is engaged, as Robin knows.

Meanwhile, Barney is relieved that Quinn hasn’t left him, but he pays the price by having his apparent redecorated with a Hello Kitty theme. This was rather dumb, but Neil Patrick Harris was great as always and redeemed most of it.

With very little in the way of transition, Future Ted begins Part II with a scene from Barney’s wedding, teasing us with the idea that it’s a wedding that did not go well. We’ve been waiting all season to see who Barney will wind up marrying, and this better not be another instance of the show pulling a fast one. Much as I like this show, I don’t want it to run forever.

Marshall and Lily are basically too tired with the newborn to be much involved in this one, except as the uncooperative subjects of Robin’s attempts at a perfect family photo. Instead we get Barney and Ted taking big steps forward.

Barney and Quinn are headed to Hawaii for a romantic getaway when one of his magic tricks causes him to be detained by airport security. What follows is a largely implausible but still amusing piece where Barney refuses to disclose the contents of the box, adhering to the titular “Magician’s Code”, a concept instilled in Barney by the magic teacher who was working on a trick called “The Disappearing Salami” with Barney’s mom.

Barney is unflappable even with the TSA officers’ guns pointed at him, and the sheer absurdity of his drawing a sword and setting off an explosion in the security room at an airport drew a lot of laughs from me. Of course, the whole thing is just a way for Barney to too-quickly propose marriage to Quinn, who it turns out actually quit stripping for Barney, because there’s no way these two are actually getting married and they need to lay the groundwork for why not.

Over in Tedland, he follows Robin’s advice and calls Victoria, who is surprisingly eager to catch up, in fact she needs to make it 1:30 instead of 2, and if you didn’t know right at that moment that she was getting cold feet before her wedding, then you don’t watch very many sitcoms. Of course, she can’t just tell Ted this information, she has to show up at McLaren’s in her ball gown style wedding dress.

Ted is flustered by the dress, but it turns Victoria has been thinking about him. She wanted to leave Klaus for him in the fall, but knew Ted wasn’t over Robin. Now she wants to leave her fiancé at the altar and ride off into the sunset with Ted. She needs an answer soon, and since Ted is pretty sure this rates more than an 8 on Marshall and Lily’s scale of Ted problems, he gives them a call.

Lily thinks Victoria is just panicking and would regret running off, while Robin is gung-ho for Ted to take off with the bride. Ted decides to go through with it, before changing his mind and driving towards the church, which he then blows past, grabbing Victoria’s hand and heading straight toward the conveniently-placed sun. He’ll get word of Barney’s engagement somewhere to the west.

We end with a flash-forward to Barney’s wedding, and the bride wants to see Ted, who first stops to chat with Marshall about all the twists and turns it took to get to this day, and by this point I was half-expecting Victoria to be marrying Barney. But no, it’s Robin, because of course it is. Sometimes plot developments are spoiled in pilot season, and Becki Newton, who plays Quinn, is set to star in Bays’ and Thomas’ new show “Goodwin Games” on FOX. Debuting and departing from the network’s schedule this spring.

And that’s a wrap on Season 7. What are we to make of all this? Where do we go in Season 8? Marshall and Lily may have inadvertently brought Marvin to the bar for his first outing, but I would think that would be an infrequent occurrence. At least they’re not out on the Island anymore. Most of the early part of Season 8 will be breaking up Barney and Quinn before Newton uses up her allowable guest appearances. Here’s guessing she’ll be better about not making money at the Leopard Lounge.

As for Ted, as much as I’ve always loved Victoria, this was a pretty indefensible act, especially coming from a man who’s been left at the altar himself. Is there any chance that Victoria is the mother? That doesn’t seem like something that Bays and Thomas could have had planned, and it doesn’t seem to fit the premise of the show. But I think there’s some unspoken rule that if you steal a woman away from the altar you pretty much have to marry her, right?

Monday, May 14, 2012

While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut

When a literary icon dies, as Kurt Vonnegut did in 2007, there is the customary emptying out of the drawers. Every short story that is even half-passable will be pulled out, dusted off, and when they get enough to reasonably pad out a collection, published with great fanfare, as though great authors were routinely in the habit of hiding their best work in desk drawers lest anyone know their true genius. Thankfully, though the stories in While Mortals Sleep are nowhere near the height of his powers, Vonnegut is so good that even his half-baked ideas put most writers to shame.

The stories here are from a young Vonnegut, a struggling writer with a day job and kids to feed. In some of these stories you can see the manic, zany genius peeking through from behind stories calculated to appeal to the readers of tasteful magazines.

Vonnegut’s subject is all of humanity, but more specifically the strain found in America in the post-World War II period. The author finds us a species obsessed with the pursuit of wealth, enthralled by industrialization and mechanization, and struggling mightily for some kind of happiness or truth amidst the massive amounts of bullshit.

In one story an inventor is so hungry for perfect love that he destroys his soul building a mechanical wife from refrigerator parts. Another features a man helplessly obsessed with the world of his model railroad and neglecting his wife. In the title story, a cynical newspaperman is disgusted by the lengths the people of his town will go to in order to win a Christmas decorating contest.

Most of the characters in these stories are employees of large, faceless corporations. They’ve been given menial functions and are expected to perform them automatically. These stories capture them trying to let the human being inside the machine escape.

The stories in this posthumous collection feature just enough of Kurt Vonnegut’s trademark wit and black humor to make them a must read for any fan of the author’s work.

Mad Men: "Dark Shadows"

First, let’s all take a minute to remark upon the remarkable coincidence that an episode of Mad Men entitled “Dark Shadows” should air on the same weekend as the film adaptation of the TV series from which the episode derives its name should open at the box office. The mind reels.

While the episode does make overt reference to the vampire soap-opera in the scene where Megan Calvet Draper reads lines with another actress, the real Dark Shadows of the title seem to be the dark recesses of the heart where the men and women of the SCDP world will go in the name of getting ahead and staying ahead. Competition recurs and recurs in this episode, with a re-invigorated Don out to prove he can still beat the extremely-talented Ginsberg, with Betty sending grenades into Don’s and Megan’s marriage, with Roger using his hatred for Pete Campbell as fuel, and Pete competing with Howard Dawes for the hand of the ethereal Beth.

There are plenty more examples too, but let us stick with these as the most thematically important.

This is the most we’ve seen of Betty in a while, and she’s not looking any better, and I’m not talking about the fatsuit. For a long time the dilemma for the die-hard Mad Men fan has been whether January Jones is just a terrible actress or Betty Draper is just a terrible character. In “Dark Shadows” Betty is hideously childish, selfish and evil. Telling Sally, who is what, 13? about Anna Draper is just cruel, and instructing the child to ask Megan is borderline psychopathic. Jones’ bland line readings and vacant expressions take all the possible fun out of watching a character be so evil, making it darn near excruciating to sit through any lengthy Betty scene.

There were several such Betty scenes tonight, and each left me squirming in my seat. Matt Weiner sure seems to be making vicious fun of suburban housewives in those Weight Watcher’s scenes, with the vapid obviousness of the platitudes therein. And then watching Betty regurgitate those same truisms to Henry Francis, it was just too much for my fragile soul to bear.

After the initial blow-up with the telephone, I actually thought Don and Megan handled the conflict almost perfectly. Megan saw straight through Betty’s ploy, and convinced Don pretty quickly that she was right. And Don told Sally enough information to satisfy her curiosity without divulging anything she’s really too young to know about. By the end of the episode Sally is firmly back in Don’s (and Megan’s) camp, as she very subtly makes fun of how hungry Betty is at the Thanksgiving table.

The conflict resolution is almost enough to make one think that Don is maturing, except for the whole leaving-the-better-pitch-in-the-cab-so-your-idea-will-win thing. I was glad to see Don trying again, even if it meant sitting through his long dark night of the soul in the office as he riffed on possible snowball pitches. But clearly his transgression against Ginsberg shows an uglier side of professional Don than we’ve seen before. Even when he stole’s Danny’s banal pitch for a cereal slogan, that was mostly an accident.

I’m intrigued by this socially-inept genius Ginsberg. Will he become the agency’s new star, or will his brilliance burn out in spectacular fashion? Perhaps he will return to his home planet in frustration. Even Peggy Olsen, carefree girl about town, is worried when Roger turns to the new guy to see Jewish wine to the goyim. (“I’m not an airplane” is Peggy’s best line in a while, yes, even funnier than last week’s “Pizza Haus!”)

And then there’s Roger. Twice-divorced, although Cooper doesn’t know it, Roger hasn’t been doing so hot this season. But LSD has him ready and raring to go, even if everyone including ex-wife number two is sick of hearing about it. Though he denies it to Ginsberg (and how great was their repartee together?) Roger clearly hates Pete Campbell, and who wouldn’t when he’s throwing his New York Times interview in everyone’s faces?

Roger’s competitive spirit emerges in an interesting fashion when he drags his Jewish ex-wife to the Manischevitz dinner. The winemaker’s scion might as well be Pete Campbell in a yarmulke for how obvious a stand-in he is, what with his posh talk of yachting and the life on easy street. When this son of fortune aggressively hits on Jane, it basically forces Roger to make passionate love to Jane in her start-over apartment, and the next morning when she calls him on what he’s done, Roger is truly checked and ashamed.

As for Pete, he’s too busy day-dreaming about Howard’s wife to really care what Roger thinks of him. (Another competition, Beth’s dream-sequence fur coat against the force of gravity. Unfortunately, gravity and the network censors emerged victorious.) Pete really is smitten, and it seems like he’s upset at the snub from the Grey Lady because it’s deprived him of his fantasy. After the snub, he’s so driven to distraction by Howard’s chattering about his mistress that he cracks back with a line about screwing the guy’s wife. Luckily, Howard is the kind of jerk who thinks everyone else is a jerk too, and takes the line for a joke.

It was that kind of week on Mad Men. We didn’t see anyone’s best side, but we got seem insights into the way they all see themselves. The men and women of Mad Men are all measuring themselves against one another, and all of them find themselves wanting.

Other thoughts:
-More competitions: starving artist actress vs. rich man’s wife playing at her hobby; Betty and her neighbor at WW, who’s actually losing weight instead of just maintaining; the race for the Republican nomination in 1968, which Henry’s man John Lindsay doesn’t want, and which Henry thinks Nelson Rockefeller has in the bag. (A washed-up former Vice-President named Richard Nixon wound up winning that one.)

-Roger’s annoyance at the schticky Ginsberg was pure gold. From the Jewish jokes to the dismissive attitude, everything about that scene worked.

-Roger’s line of the night was probably “I’ve got to stop carrying so much cash”, but really, he didn’t have single bad line tonight, from the phone call with Jane on.

-I loved the scene where the accounts and creative departments gathered to weigh the merits of Don’s idea versus Ginsberg’s. Very interesting that Pete wound up siding with Ginsberg. Of course, square Harry Crane was the only one firmly in Don’s camp.

-Loved Peggy’s swift dismissal of too-big-for-his-office Harry Crane: “What were you promised?” Someone has to remind Harry that he basically conjured his lucrative job out of thin air, and that Joanie could probably do it three times as well.

-Also, in case you thought Betty’s actions might be psychologically complex in origin, Matt Weiner uses a shot of Jessica Pare in a bra to make sure you realize that Betty is just jealous of Don’s thin new wife.

-Not very much Joan this week, and no Lane. Betty really is the worst.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Parks and Recreation: "Win, Lose, or Draw"

The best part of “Win, Lose, or Draw” (besides Mike Schur coming out as a fan of the Oxford comma) was when Ben told Leslie that he had never written a concession speech. It felt like a little wink to the obsessive fans of the show, who had surely seen all the interviews in which Schur and star Amy Poehler had insisted that the show had filmed versions of the ending for both possibilities. In truth, there was no way Leslie was going to lose.

One other thing Schur always says when he is interviewed is that he loves change, making him something of an anti-Swanson. “Win, Lose, or Draw” certainly set up some intrigue for next season. Ben has impressed Jen Barkley so much she offers him a job working on a Congressional re-election campaign. After some sweet discussion of what it will mean for them as a couple, Leslie insists Ben take the job.

The rather slight Andy and April plot seemed shoe-horned into the episode just to introduce the out-of-leftfield-but-not-really idea of Andy following his unrealized dream of becoming a police officer. It seems clear that Parks and Recreation doesn’t want to become one of those shows where the later seasons (and please, please, let there be later seasons) become sort of tinged with melancholy as you realize all these people are still stuck at the same place. Think of Sam Malone being single when Cheers ended, and how sad it is that Jim still sells paper at The Office.

It will be interesting to see how the show evolves now with Leslie in the City Council. It looks as though the show will try to avoid becoming the local-government equivalent of those teenager shows where everyone winds up going to the same college. Leslie probably isn’t going to hire all her friends to work on her staff, though they might try that with a few castmembers.

But speculation can wait. For now, here’s three cheers to my favorite show on television, one that even in an episode necessarily more focused on plot and drama, can give us such comedic gold as Bobby Newport believing it was illegal to vote for himself, Tom dreaming of playing baccarat with Drake and Blue Ivy Carter, and Andy trying to fix the office computers the same way he fixes his Xbox.

The show gets the emotional stuff right too. How great was it to see Leslie placing her photo on the wall of city councilmen? They may be best at combining the two. I really cared for Leslie as she cried with joy at being able to vote for herself in an election, and then I cracked up when Bobby Newport pulled the curtain and asked for help voting because he’d broke his pen.

Thank you, Parks and Recreation, for another incredible season of heart-warming comedy. Please, NBC, don’t take this show away for a long time.

Mitt the Bully

What are we to think of prep student Mitt Romney finding a classmate’s long, bleached blonde hairstyle so offensive that he held the boy down and give him an involuntary haircut while other boys cheered him on? Not much, really. Boys will be boys is not much of an excuse, but it’s true enough that teenage boys tend to do a lot of stupid shit. On that score, the man whom Mr. Romney seeks to replace doesn’t fare so well, either, as I’m sure many Fox News pundits are already pointing out. President Obama not only smocked crack cocaine and ate dog meat, he committed the far more tasteless crime of quoting T.S. Eliot to try to get laid.

No, what matters is how Mitt Romney conducts himself now. Sadly, the presumptive Republican nominee isn’t really distinguishing himself on that front either.

Speaking in response to the Washington Post’s report, Mitt Romney apologized if any of his “pranks” “went too far” but he claimed not to remember the incident in question, and also denied that he knew or suspected his classmate was gay.

Reading through the Post’s article, the Governor’s weak apology doesn’t really fit the situation. I find it hard to believe he doesn’t remember the incident. Five of his classmates recalled the incident in vivid details in the Post piece, and one of them, not even a direct participant, was so scarred by his not doing anything to help that he felt compelled to apologize to the victim 30 years later upon running into him in an airport. If Mitt’s telling the truth, then just how many people did he mistreat in those days that he can’t remember something that had such an impact on so many other people?

I also find his insistence on not thinking the student was gay to be an example of Mr. Romney missing the point. Young Mitt Romney picked this person out for mistreatment because he was different. That’s wrong whether or not the kid was gay.

What would be nice to see is some sign or acknowledgement from the candidate himself that he’s grown up a lot since then and knows what he did to this boy was wrong. Perhaps Mr. Romney feels that he cannot afford to make such a statement in the current political climate, but I don’t see how he can afford not to.

Mitt Romney has a personality problem, and contrary to late night monologue jokes, it’s not that he doesn’t have one. Many people see the Republican nominee as an out-of-touch son of privilege who only wants to help his businessmen friends and doesn’t really know anything about the way life is led by the vast majority of Americans. The various gaffes Mitt Romney made in the primary campaign stuck because they almost all fit conveniently into this admittedly easy narrative. Now, thanks to an article with suspiciously good timing, we have another picture of Romney to add to this gallery: a prep-school jackass who thinks his daddy’s money will get him out of any trouble. It’s worth noting that nothing happened to Romney over this incident or any other, not even the one where he damaged a faculty member’s car. The recipient of the haircut got tossed out of school for smoking a cigarette.

Look, this haircut isn’t going to be the biggest problem for Mitt Romney, but the problem is going to be that Mitt Romney can’t establish trust. He can’t even really do it with Republicans, who spent months propping up impossible candidates just to see if anyone could take out the bland, uninspiring choice. What can Mitt Romney possibly do to convince anyone that he has their best interests at heart?

Mitt Romney has not given the American people any idea of who he really is, and that seems to be by design. He seems afraid of using his faith too much lest it ward off evangelicals, he doesn’t talk too much about his term as governor because he’s running as far away from Romneycare as he can. All he wants to talk about is Bain Capital, and how he’s such an expert manager that he can run America the same way he ran Staples or The Sports Authority.

Call me a starry-eyed optimist, but I don’t think of America as just being a business, and I know a lot of other people feel the same way. We want a President who is competent, yes, but also courageous and honest, upright and decent. We want a President who embodies the values that all these politicians keep telling us are what make America great. True, on that scale, extremely few politicians of recent vintage score highly, and the current President has shown some serious failings in this regard, but if Mitt Romney wants to upset the apple-cart, he’s going to have to show some personal qualities beyond being able to turn a profit.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Evolution of Barack Obama

First things first, today is a good day for a lot of Americans, and even more importantly, a bad day for a lot of bigots who want to legislate their religious feelings into civil law. It was not that long ago that U.S. Presidents completely ignored gay citizens. Ronald Reagan famously did not use the word AIDS in public until 1987. Twenty-five years later, the President is publicly supporting their right to marry each other.

But how much credit does Barack Obama deserve? His statement is obviously a great moment, but it might have been a more meaningful moment at any point in the last four years. The President has not exactly been a leader on this issue, and the calculations that have made him so reticent are no more acceptable for their probable correctness. Is it too naïve to wish that the President had had the conviction to proclaim his support for gay marriage at a time when it might have been less politically expedient?

Surely there are very few people who believe the malarkey that the President’s views have been “evolving” on this issue. Most liberals have long believed that Obama was privately in favor, but too worried about the electoral consequences to do so in full-throated fashion.

If so, that actually augurs better for the gay-rights movement on the whole. Imagine, the President of the United States is coming out for gay rights in order to pander to voters. That means that the real credit here belongs to society, which has been gradually becoming more accepting and tolerant, even without a President willing to lead the fight against bigotry.

As is so often said in regards to this issue, demographics is destiny. Young people, even ones who think corporations shouldn’t pay any taxes, are for gay rights in large numbers. The true significance of Obama’s public stance is that it’s now likely that there will never be another Democratic candidate for president who tries to placate the middle by hanging back on this issue. In a generation or so, the issue might well be nearly settled. History will decide how much credit Barack Obama gets for this, but one thing is clear today. He could have done a lot more, a lot sooner.

New Girl: Season One

With all the hullaballoo around Lena Dunham and Girls, it seems almost quaint to look back on the buzz circus that surrounded the premiere of New Girl in September. There were think-pieces and blog posts about Zooey Deschanel, her public persona, her place in the culture, et cetera. A lot of feminists took issue with her girly, “adorkable” act, claiming it was doing a disservice to women in the entertainment industry. And because this is the world we live in, there was the inevitable backlash to the backlash, saying that feminism meant Zooey Deschanel should be free to pluck ukulele strings and ice cupcakes to her heart’s content. And then the show premiered.

It was inevitable that the first few episodes of New Girl would be judged through the prism of Ms. Deschanel’s character. It didn’t help that for a while the show presented her as some kind of space-alien beamed in from a planet where the natives have trouble accurately describing adult-themed situations. But then a funny thing happened. Actually, a lot of funny things happened, and New Girl became what it probably wanted to be all along, not a referendum on the state of modern womanhood, but a damn funny show.

The show is a modest hit, buoyed by a favorable lead-in from Glee. It’s also became a critical favorite, and in its back half reeled off a string of episodes that hopefully established its place in the current television landscape. New Girl is a nexus point between a host of competing trends, and if the quality keeps up, I believe it is poised to become the representative sitcom of the generation that first encountered a world of social media and had to make sense of it.

Why New Girl? Well, a lot of the other candidates have some pretty serious flaws. Community obvious moves the needle online, but in terms of actual eyeballs it’s something of a dud, kept afloat only by NBC’s sinking fortunes. (Mixed metaphors ahoy!) Dan Harmon’s show is also willfully inaccessible in a way that New Girl is not, not to mention uneven. Parks and Recreation is a better show in just about every way, but it feels like a more old-fashioned show. Modern Family is the ratings juggernaut, and it deserves kudos for making a mass-appeal family show featuring gay parents, but it lacks the inventiveness to truly make a mark on sitcom history, it’s more like our times’ Everybody Loves Raymond. Though not nearly as many people are watching, the show most similar to New Girl is Happy Endings, and not just because the producers of both shows wanted Damon Wayans, Jr.

Happy Endings is zanier, more manic than New Girl, but the latter matches it laugh for laugh. Where New Girl beats out all comers in this race to represent a generation is in the quality of the cast and the roundness of its world. Happy Endings is a sitcom steeped in the world of improv, the men and women in the cast have fun with each other as they try to shoehorn in as many silly gags and catchphrases as they can. New Girl’s cast are accomplished actors who happen to be very funny, and it lends a believability to the characters and their situations that separates them from the pack.

Ironically, the thing that made me realize what was so different about New Girl is something I hated. In recent weeks the FOX network, provider of such boons to humanity as the glowing trail on the hockey puck, has seen fit to place suggestions for Twitter hashtags in the corner during episodes. Hey, Cece’s thick-accented Russian roommate Nadia thinks the Disney hero is named McMouse, maybe you should tweet that? They did the same thing with last night’s finale, first urging home-viewers to tweet the banal #NewGirlFinale, then later exhorting them to echo Jess Day’s roadrunner impersonation. #MeepMeep, indeed.

This rubbed me the wrong way, and I think the reason it did so is because it felt false to the work that had gone into the scripts. A cynical observer might think that FOX was directing the people behind the show to make sure to insert things that would make for likely internet memes. Whereas when I was watching those episodes, the moments themselves felt built up within the show itself, each of those lines was funny because of all the work that had been done leading up to those moments.

Meddlesome though it may be, the Twitter hype is at least a sign that FOX knows what it has with New Girl, as is the fact that the show is constantly used in promos for the networks other shows. It’s easy to see why. The show’s core ensemble is a likeable group that is easy for the under-35 crowd to relate to. The dynamics of douchey bro Schmidt, hangdog loser Nick, post-basketball searcher Winston, and frustrated modern woman Jess are well-established. The show has made remarkable use of romantic pitfalls, career setbacks, and angst.

What’s especially nice, and realistic, about the group is that while each has their well-defined traits, they are flexible enough to occasionally switch roles within the group dynamic. Winston is usually the sensible one, but every so often he goes off the deep-end himself, like when his fear of the dark causes him to lose control in the desert. No one in this group is relegated to being the straight-man.

If there is anything to quibble with in the first season of New Girl it is the fact that the show often seemed to rush through things that would have been better served with more breathing room. Some of this is just due to the nature of the television business. High-profile guest-stars are only going to be on three episodes max, so sometimes new boyfriends or girlfriends are going to be rushed off the stage for less than convincing reasons. The show did better than most on that count, milking Justin Long, Lizzy Caplan, and Dermot Mulroney for all they were worth. But things like Nick’s decisions to move out of and then back into the apartment aren’t given credence by being walked back within the space of 22 minutes.

Still, for a first season, the show is remarkably well put-together. They’ve normalized Deschanel’s Jess to the point where her quirks aren’t supposed to be of the infantilizing, “isn’t she cute?” variety, but are a part of a whole, rather mixed-up person. One I think even feminists with blogs would find a lot to relate to and laugh at. Obviously, my optimism for the show’s future is a tad premature, but I think there’s a chance Schmidt could be filling up the Douchebag Jar for years to come.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mad Men: "Lady Lazarus"

Tonight’s Mad Men was all about putting the men and women at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in unfamiliar places and seeing how they would react. Some of them wanted to be in their new environments, while others reacted quite badly.

For something we’ve never seen before, that phone booth saw quite a lot of action tonight, as Megan used it to answer a phone call she didn’t want to take in Don’s office, and Pete used it to try and arrange a tryst with his friend’s wife.

Pete Campbell is definitely a “grass is always greener” type of guy, and it’s sad that he doesn’t realize how pathetic his desire for Beth is. He’s blindly optimistic that life with Beth would be better than life with Trudy, without anything to base that on. (Oh to be in a position to choose between Alexis Bledel and Alison Brie!)

Then there was the Cool-Whip test kitchen, where Peggy flubs her lines, depressing the client (Mr. Belding!) and angering Don, who had done the bit flawlessly with Megan.

As Peggy says, Don is really mad at Megan, but the scene should be instructive for Don. He and Peggy have about as healthy a professional relationship as Don is capable of with a woman, but she’s an incredibly poor substitute for a wife. Perhaps it’s good for him that his real wife is taking her talents in a different direction.

As for Megan Calvet Draper (for some reason I love using her full name), what are we to make of her sudden decision to quit SCDP and pursue acting again? Is she just listening to her father? Is Joan right that Megan is destined to become the next Betty?

Both Peggy and Don try to talk Megan out of leaving, and their appeals are markedly similar. Megan is good at this, and you don’t always get to choose where your talents lie. In the end both are pretending to be alright with her decision, even if neither of them can quite understand it. I’m most curious how Don will handle a wife who wants fame, attention, and something she can call her own. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would sit well with him.

I think Stan might have the closest read on Megan, when he says that she’s facing the reality that she worked hard for eight months on Heinz baked beans. It’s a frustration that he clearly shares, and it seems to really hit Peggy too. Maybe she kept saying “try” for “taste” because she just didn’t care to see the difference anymore.

Other thoughts:
-I’ve never understood why Alexis Bledel isn’t a huge star, and I hope we see more of her.
-Loved seeing Roger playing Don’s therapist late in the episode.
-Poor Harry Crane, relegated to self-effacing comic relief. He did get off a great Henny Youngman joke when Pete asks if the pictures of the Earth from space made him feel small and insignificant: “That’s Jennifer’s job.”
-Add Chekhov’s Elevator Shaft to the list of foreboding elements in Mad Men that will most likely never pay off (see: Pete’s shotgun, Roger’s suicide jokes, etc.) Seriously though, Don should probably have alerted the maintenance people about that.
-Like Roger, I got a kick out of seeing Pete try to carry those skis.
-I found the use of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Don’s distaste for the Beatles in general to be one of those things where Mad Men gets too on-the-nose. We get it, Don’s falling further behind in the times.
-I may have to give back my English degree, because I can’t really connect Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” to anything that happens in this episode.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers

The strengths of The Avengers are a superb cast and a well-written script. These amenities, so often missing in a movie with this surefire a commercial appeal, make this the rare movie that any critic can be happy to see succeed. There’s action and firepower, but also wit and characterization.

All of the leads are talented actors, and it’s great fun just to see them interact with each other. This might be the truest insight Whedon brought to his script. The movie is not jam-packed with action, but instead spreads out the explosions, leaving room for our heroes to come together and, humorously, get on each other’s nerves. Much of the film’s mid-section revolves around the Avengers’ struggle to work together and discover the real reasons for their being summoned.

The biggest star in the Marvel universe is Robert Downey, Jr,, who seems to have as much fun playing Tony Stark as Tony Stark has being Iron Man. In particular, it is great to see Downey’s irreverence come face-to-face with Captain America’s righteousness and virtue. Evans does a remarkable job at making the hokey sentimentality of Steve Rogers seems as though it is coming from a real human being.

The team is filled out by Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlet Johannson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. In particular, I thought Ruffalo did a great job depicting the strain of his double life. Johansson and Renner are fine, but I admit to finding their characters a little more incredulous. Okay, maybe Black Widow can escape from a rogue Russian general’s lair, but how much use would she really be against a Norse demigod commanding an alien army? And compared to Thor’s hammer, Iron Man’s suit, and Captain America’s shield, Hawkeye’s near-limitless supply of arrows really don’t seem like much of a threat.

Still, these are minor complaints. As unrealistic as the story might be (these are not grounded in as near a reality as that of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films) the ride is unadulterated fun. Whedon’s script is light on themes or morals (there are some nods toward ideas like sacrifice and the value of freedom, but these are merely window dressing) but is full of great character moments and excellent plotting. A blockbuster well-worth your popcorn money.