Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Magicians' Best Trick is in Being Actually Pretty Good

Okay, I’ve got a story for you. Imagine, if you will, a young man named Quentin Coldwater who discovers that he has been accepted to study magic at a mysterious school and join the ranks of the world’s magicians, those who can work actual magic. Along the way, Quentin and his friends begin to discover that a beloved series of children’s books about adorable English orphans who escape to a magical land may, in fact, be based on reality. Of course, nothing is as it seems and while our heroes learn more about their powers, they become aware that a dark and powerful force is watching and coming for them.

I know, right? Can totally see where all this is going. The premise will sound achingly familiar to anyone who has even glanced in the direction of the fantasy section at Barnes & Noble. Nonetheless, SyFy’s The Magicians, based on the series of books of the same name by Lev Grossman, has finished its first season. And, actually? It’s pretty good.

Accio Preppy Girl!

What makes The Magicians’ story more interesting than what you might expect is that it actually does a fair job avoiding the well-worn tropes of fantasy. Some things remain, of course. There’s still an overly-powerful villain bent on doing bad things; the merry band of adventurers must still come together to save the land; there are, natch, talking animals. But where both the books and TV series succeed is in striking out on some new ground.  Unlike most fantasy stories, Quentin is not a chosen one. The books go out of their way to explain that there are no prophesies, no special destinies to be fulfilled. In fact, anyone can do magic if they are smart enough, focused enough, and possess some latent skill for it. Add to this that Quentin’s fellow students are far from the precocious mainstays that seem to pass through Hogwarts. They’re loud, drunk, hedonistic, complicated, a little giddy about how cool it is that they can do magic. When the books were published they were somewhat derisively referred to as “hipster Harry Potter”, which wasn’t altogether unfair.

All that gritty real life is on full display in the show. Brakebills University is the college to Hogwarts’ primary and secondary school and as such, the characters are that much older and more adult-acting. There’s no wondering about which students are having illicit romantic liaisons with each other; like many college students, these characters are fully in possession of their sex lives and their extra-curricular interests, most of which come in the form of intoxicants both literal (alcohol) and metaphorical (SyFy’s tagline for the show, after all, is “Magic is a drug”).

Levitation sex is totally a thing.

That reality sometimes comes crashing in on itself. A lot of folk attempted to read the books and couldn’t make it through the first one. This was largely due to how epic of an entitled, whiney jerk Quentin is but also because, frankly, does anyone really need another jaded-eyed novel about how excruciating it is to be young, pretty, powerful, and yet feel bored and unfulfilled? That was pretty much the entire point of Gossip Girl, but at least that story knew it was a satire. Here’s one area where The Magicians the show outshines The Magicians the book: the characters are actually interesting and the entire narrative thrust isn’t solely focused on alternately mocking fantasy stories while trying to weave an all-too-knowing narrative about privilege into the fabric.

Another area where the show succeeds is by significantly venturing from the book’s established plot, taking a page from Game of Thrones’ book. While fans of the book will recognize similar set pieces and plots, as well as a general agreement in narrative direction, the show contains a number of differences, some directly related to the outcome of the plot. Again, like Game of Thrones, characters that survive in the books are killed off early in the show. Other characters are created out of whole cloth, merged, or altered significantly. Case in point: Margo, a fellow student at Brakebills who’s name in the book is Janet. While Margo and Janet as characters are certainly echoes of each other, the very fact of Margo’s name is something of an Easter Egg that hints at a major difference in the end of the season.

The biggest change, however, is the inclusion of Julia, Quentin’s classmate/best friend/crush object since forever. Julia’s presence in the first book is almost non-existent; she’s seen in the first few pages and then vanishes for the rest of the story only to turn up at the very end of the book radically different from how she was at the start. We as readers don’t get her story until book two. The series instead interweaves Quentin’s formal magical learning at the storied and WASP-y Bakebills with Julia’s much more dangerous street-level education as hedge witch. Not only does this change give us as viewers a much richer sense of the world of magic and how deeply it runs, but it also allows us to see the development of Julia’s character in a way that lets her claim her own story.

Today, finger sparks. Tomorrow, I dunno. More levitation, maybe?

Generally, the show suffers in the areas that a lot of shows suffer during their inaugural seasons. The pacing of the first few episodes is particularly clunky, veering headlong into plot points that probably should have been spaced out a bit while lingering on others that didn’t need more than a mention or two. The writers also seem to have a hard time grasping the characters voices initially. Penny, a sometimes foil to Quentin, is cast as a rebel and a verbal flame thrower, but instead of coming off nuanced in the first few episodes he just lands on unrepentant jerk. Alice, the Hermione Granger of the group, is done up in Hollywood “smart girl” drag, which is to say she wears glasses and plaid skirts and high collars is given lines to emphasize how socially awkward she is.

Could be worse. At least she's not studying Communications.

The show also sometimes seems to forget its own mission statements. Remember how I said in the books Quentin was not a chosen one? Well, the show gets a little wobbly on that bit. Quentin isn’t portrayed as having some kind of grand destiny, but a twist in the plot that is missing from the books does imbue Quentin with a bit more importance than his written counterpart ever had. Likewise, the choice to showcase how different Julia and Quentin’s education is ends up being underlined a bit too much, right down to the cold, washed out colors Julia’s sequences are filmed in contrasting with Quentin’s highly saturated, vivid experience.

What the show does right, however, is start to course correct after the first few hours which is where I kind of started to fall in love with it despite its initial faults. Given that the books showcase a story that is so transparently about privilege, it is ironic to have a cast that is just…so…white. The show improves on this, adding more diversity to the cast and fleshing out the supporting characters from the book more specifically. Students Penny and Eliot benefit most from this approach with Penny portrayed by Indian American actor Arjun Gupta and Eliot, the sole LGBT character in the series who also is the only one in the book to have literally NO romantic interactions with anyone, given a relationship to develop in the show. (Viewers may find that relationship, shall we say, “problematic”, but that’s another point.)

Seriously. Eliot rocks. His entire magical motivation is basically gin.

What you end up with is a first season that starts off wobbly but finds its legs over time. The show has a little more creative freedom to play with and gets to include new story elements that the books, oddly, never found time for. Also worth mentioning is that the showrunner is Sera Gamble, who was the showrunner for most of the good seasons of Supernatural. The show is eminently binge-able and has already been renewed for a second season, making it perfect for your summer TV watching. 

Friday, May 06, 2016

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 2

So, as this blog's resident always-watching-Netflix correspondent, I watched the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Did you watch the first season? No? Go do that right now! This blog post will wait.

Okay, okay, I'll recap the first season, quickly.

After being kidnapped and held for 14 years in Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne's (Jon Hamm at his sleaziest) underground bunker, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) decides to make a new life for herself in New York City. Having no knowledge of the outside world or life since the age of 14, Kimmy finds herself in a series of fish-out-of-water situations, many involving her job as an assistant/nanny/maid to self-obsessed trophy wife Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski). Helping her in their own inimitable way are Kimmy's roommate and decades-long aspirant to Broadway, Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), and landlord Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane).

Tina Fey is a co-creator and producer of this series, and so it goes at 30 Rock speed with gags. It's pretty funny; although occasionally a joke falls flat, most are great.

While the first season was about Kimmy getting settled in NYC and getting the Reverend convicted for his crimes, this one is about the growth of three of the main characters:

1) Kimmy:
Kimmy is a Christmas store employee this season.
Dealing with the psychological effects of what's happened to her instead of repressing them. Tina Fey, in a cameo as her therapist, tells her that she has Robert Durst (Fred Armisen -yes, there's a running Robert Durst gag this season) stress burps.

2) Titus getting out of his lonely rut - Titus starts dating and works to advance his career, instead of just filming bad raps about "black penis" in abandoned warehouses (if you haven't seen Season 1, that's a great episode).

3) Jacqueline, now divorced, tries to figure out what she should do now that she's no longer Upper West Side rich. Also, Jane Krakowski and Anna Camp go "rich white woman war" against each other:
Seriously, Anna Camp is at her cheerful psychotic best here (3rd best - True Blood, 2nd Best - Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2). 

While all this self-discovery is happening, Lillian is trying to keep the neighborhood from being gentrified by hipster types like Girls' Zosia Mamet:
Pizza rat makes an appearance. A homeless guy nicknamed "Methadone Charlie" makes several appearances. Ice-T gives a eulogy for a man who played a body in several Law and Order episodes.

Oh, and Amy Sedaris is in it, too. Her character briefly impersonates Sia:

I found the second season to build well on the first. It's hard for me to explain why the second season works without ruining half the jokes; like 30 Rock, it's a dense cluster of references and running gags, hearing a knock-off song to the tune of "I Believe I Can Fly" ends up being a hilarious gag in context, but I don't want to ruin the episode for you by explaining the context.

If there's a flaw to this season, is that the show is not subtle. At all. There are episodes with definite political points of view:

  • The episode where Tina Fey clearly wants to tweak all the people who complained about ethnic portrayals in last season without engaging the actual art itself, by having Titus reenact his past life as a geisha as a one-man show:
As a high tenor, Tituss Burgess can sing the heck out of the Takeda lullaby.
  • Drugs to kids who are merely hard-to-handle, but not actually mentally ill, is a super-bad idea.
  • Washington, D.C.'s football team has a racist name and its owners are horrible people.
Depending on how sympathetic you are to these arguments, those episodes will be more or less funny to you. I thought most of them were hilarious, plus David Cross (who I have often found unwatchable outside of Arrested Development) has a great performance.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Serving Up Cake and Pie Realness

Okay, confession: I’m not all sci-fi and comic books and depressing, dreary futurism. While the majority of my television habits definitely veer toward the, shall we say, anti-transcendental, I actually do have a profoundly lighter sensibility as well. Like a nice crème brulee, even my hardened exterior can sometimes crack and you can see the gooey, sweet center. My guilty pleasure is that there are actually some reality shows that I enjoy and key among them is that fluffiest of confections from our cousins overseas, The Great British Bake Off.

I love baking. I love figuring out how to put all these weird ingredients together in a way that will taste new and interesting. I love figuring out how it is that the right combination of certain elements mixed together will change their shape and properties. Basically, baking is like chemistry, but there’s a winner. Turn that philosophy into a literal competition and then add a dash of utterly charming hosts and I’m sold. Basta. Game over.

How many baking metaphors do we think I can work into this post?

For those not in the know, The Great British Bake Off is a competition series from BBC Two that has been running for six years. The tropes of all reality television are firmly entrenched – each season has around 12 amateur contestants who compete each week for two judges. Each week, one baker is eliminated until eventually someone wins. Sadly for those of us in the US, only one season is readily available without resorting to, ahem, unsavory means. Part of this stems from the fact that the phrase “bake off” is actually trademarked in the United States and owned by Pillsbury. More on that later.

In each show, contestants complete three challenges: a signature challenge where bakers show off something they are practiced at making, a technical challenge where bakers are tasked with creating something new with limited instructions and/or ingredients designed to test their skills, and a showstopper challenge where bakers are tasked with coming up with something that is both professional looking and tastes outstanding. Each bake is judged by two judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.

Delightful British charm included.
Assisting the process is Mel and Sue, the show’s presenters who not only introduce each of the challenges but interact with the contestants during their bakes. Mel and Sue are noted mostly for their humor and encouraging nature (“There are two ways to make a Swiss roll,” they tell contestants in one episode. “First of all, you push Roger Federer down a hill. Secondly, a lovely thing involving sponge and jam.”), though they have detractors as well.

Mostly from people who hate life.

Certainly there is no shortage of cooking competitions in the US or England for that matter. What sets The Great British Bake Off apart from the rest, however, is the general tone of the show. You guys, it’s so… fricking… nice. We are conditioned to watch competitions for the drama produced. American audiences in particular expect to see backstabbing! Alliances! Tears! Egos! Bake Off refreshingly eschews all of that. Contestants are kind to one another. They help each other out. There is no incentive to gang up on each other and force someone out of the competition. It’s telling that in six years of production, there has really only been one “oh no she better don’t” moment (somewhat affectionately referred to as “bin-gate” by devotees) showcased on the show. In fact, the most interpersonal tension the show has really managed to cook up is the occasional “smutty remarks” from show presenters Mel and Sue. And isn’t that about the most English form of protest you can imagine?

The pressure to be nice and kind to one another while under a deadline is INTENSE!

Even the setting, typically in a large baking tent is some utterly lovely English glade, is tailor-made for avoiding the traditional lighting and sound effects that create dramatic tension on so many other reality shows.  It’s all so… healthy. Which is ironic, given the metric ton of sugars and fats present in each episode. Which leads to the other thing about the show that is so lovely; the food. Seriously, you guys. This is food porn of the highest quality. Behold:

This is basically straight up hardcore porn for me. #sorrynotsorry

So why has a show so remarkably delicious not taken off in the US? Well, partially due to legal concerns. As mentioned earlier, Pillsbury owns the rights to the phrase “bake off” in the US, forcing the show when it has aired in the States to air under the name The Great British Baking Show. A US version was attempted in 2013 called The American Baking Competition, which should be a case study in exactly how to use marketing to utterly water down a title. The show was hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, for reasons surpassing understanding, and imported Paul Hollywood but not Mary Berry. Which was clearly another wrong step. The show failed to find an audience, likely not only due to its lack of the same English charm as its parent show, but also due to its comparatively undramatic nature. Because this is America and we can’t have nice things.

Still, do yourself a favor and watch this damn show. It’s just so ridiculously charming. And enjoy watching the loads and loads of baked goods assembled before your eyes, ever alluring, ever unobtainable, ever interfering with your summer beach goals. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

TV Sluts Threeway, OJ Simpson Edition

Hello, Readers! As we are wont to do from time to time, your TV Sluts have joined forces to collectively discuss The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. The miniseries, the latest from Ryan Murphy and co. and following up on the success of American Horror Story, profiles the trail surrounding the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in 1995. What did we think of it? Find out... 

Please let there be aliens... please let there be aliens...


Maggie Cats: WOOHOO. That's the secret; we're always slutty.

Clovis: Slutty, slutty assembling.

AP: But we are not always assembled and not always slutty in the same place in time and space. Who would like to begin? BECAUSE OMG

MC: General thoughts?

C: So much racism! So much sexism!

AP: It was, much like the case itself, a train wreck. In that I could not look away.

MC: I remember when the trial was happening, I think I was...14? But most of the broader cultural implications were completely lost on me.

AP: Also: Kato!! What what what was he on?

C: Kato was criminally (see what I did there?) underused.

AP: I see what you did, and I appreciate it.

MC: That pun was a crime.

AP: Yeah, I remember it all happening, but I also paid zero attention to it. If punning you is wrong, I don't want to be right!

C: I remember classes in my high school shutting down so that we could watch the verdict being delivered. Even in small town lily-white MI, it was a thing.

MC: I think the main things I took away from the show was how ridiculously underprepared the prosecution was for the defense's strategy and how Marcia Clark was eviscerated in the media. Basically for being a woman. That enraged me.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!

AP: Well, that hairdo was pretty bad. I had no idea she was a rape victim.

MC: Me neither! I wonder if that came out in the book she wrote after the trial.

AP: And I also didn't remember/know that a tabloid published a nekked photo of her. Because what do you do when there's a lady lawyer? You slut shame her OBVS.

C: Duh. Ladies practicing law? Pshaw! Who ever heard of such a thing?

AP: Next you'll tell me they let the womenfolk do the doctorin’. That just ain't natural.

MC: Seriously. It kind of opened my eyes to the progress we have made even in the last few decades. Though stuff like this still happens, but nowadays I think there would be backlash.

C: I was really glad to see how they treated Marcia Clark as a character. Which is to say, I thought they showed really well that she was always in a damned-if-she-does-damned-if-she-doesn't place.

MC: I absolutely agree. Any character with Kiss From a Rose as their theme song is OK by me.

C: Oh Man, we need to talk about the wondrous ‘90s music employed in this show.

AP: I was also interested in the way they portrayed her. They showed her as someone who was really trying to do her job and get at the truth, and not as a famewhore. Who was Johnnie Cochran. Who is the biggest famewhore in the history of famewhores BT Dubs. And that actor’s portrayal was spot on. 

Real life v. Hollywood. Brother from another mother?

MC: Absolutely. She did an impossible job AND was in the middle of a custody battle. That's brutal.

C: Agreed, but I also liked that Johnnie Cochran was a complex character himself. Like, he was a total famewhore, but one who did have a very clear guiding principle that wasn't just around his own self-aggrandizement. (Though, that obviously was a factor as well.)

MC: The guy who played Cochran [Courtney B. Vance] has been in a lot of Law & Orders and is always great. I was psyched when I saw he was playing that role.

AP: I remember when I started watching it, I looked up who was playing Cochran because he nailed it. He was really the stand-out for me, acting-wise.

C: Totally. I had to keep reminding myself that he wasn't actually Johnnie Cochran. And on the other end of the spectrum WTF John Travolta?

AP: I know, right! Oh, he was baaaaaad.

MC: OMG that was so weird! Sarah Paulson for me was the real stand out.

AP: Yes, she was excellent.

MC: Was Travolta supposed to be bad though? Like, was that the character? He was just so swarmy.

C: It was like watching a demented sad clown trying to be a lawyer. Krusty would have been a better choice.

AP: I am so over Travolta. And was he wearing a bad make-up job or is that is face now?

MC: He is plastic fantastic. I actually thought he was fabulous as that character; but that's because we aren't supposed to like that guy either.

AP: It was a departure for him, but I can't say I'm a fan of his acting. Just kind of chewed the scenery a bit. It was a bit too much.

Pennywise wasn't this disturbing.



MC: "Juice...Juice..." It was crazy. So basically OJ Simpson is responsible for the Kardashians. THANKS,OJ.

AP: And that is why OJ is currently in prison. He *was* good, I have to say. But I was always distracted by his skunk hair.

MC: That's what that guy's hair looked like though!

AP: No wonder Kris cheated.

C: What did you guys think of the decision to incorporate the Kardashians into the story? Obviously, they're trying to say something about what fame does to people.

MC: I had read the showrunners were specifically setting out to show the cultural impact of the trial. Example: Kato.

C: And the Kardashians are obviously one of the biggest components of that.

Next season on American Horror Story...

AP: I thought the scene with the little Kardashians was good foreshadowing. Like, you could see Little Kim plotting to become famous somehow. Overall, you could see that the show was addressing the cultural shift.

MC: It certainly did not paint a flattering portrait of most of the LA rich people.

AP: It was kind of the first time there was wall-to-wall coverage of a murder case, and it wasn't because people were interested in it legally or wanted to see justice done, they just wanted to be entertained, and the media complied.

C: Agreed. It seems to me that the big takeaways the show wanted us to, well, take away were the danger in obsession with fame, the problem with putting justice essentially to a public vote, and the very real and very much still pervasive mistreatment of minorities by white people in power.

MC: Absolutely. The whole thing had a "last days of Rome" feel to it.

AP: It was bread and circuses all the way.

MC: Everyone had a stake and an opinion on it. It was like a perfect storm with the race issues, celebrity, and salaciousness. Fo sho

C: I mean, Chris Darden's last speech to Johnnie Cochran even lays it out when he says "[the police] are still going to keep right on killing us." They may as well have had a flash forward to a Black Lives Matter march.

AP: And don't forget the domestic violence angle. Because yes, the cops were racist. And yes, Mark Furhrman is kind of a Nazi. But that doesn't take away from the fact that OJ beat and terrorized Nicole.

MC: Since I didn't follow the actual case closely as a kid, a lot of the facts of the crime were a surprise to me. Like how the LAPD failed at every possible step of the way. The prior beatings and abuse were a shock to me as well. It was so awful.

AP: They completely failed. That was one part of the case I knew about. I knew about that and the glove, and that was about it.

MC: I think the show also worked to keep the focus on the victims, something the trial was not able to do. Like, "hello? Remember the people who were brutally murdered?"

C: But weirdly, we never saw the victims. Which, for a Ryan Murphy show, I was really surprised by given that he never met a bloody body scene he didn’t love to film. We see flashes of two bodies in the first episode, but never their faces. It’s not until the show ends that we even see any representation of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.

AP: I actually thought that was a good choice. It was respectful to the victims not to cast them as Body 1 and Body 2. It was better to just let the real victims be...the victims.

C: It seemed to me like the show was trying to make a point about how much the actual victims were left behind in this process.

MC: Totally agree. This was actually the strongest Ryan Murphy show I have seen. I think because it was limited run, completely mapped out in advance, and based on real events. Keeping the Dad and sister of Ron (I think?) front and center was smart.

C: Yeah, because he was bound by facts and couldn't throw in aliens in episode 6. Just for funsies.

AP: True or False: Aliens would have made it that much more intriguing.

C: I maintain that John Travolta was playing his character as an alien. It's the only thing that makes sense to me.

MC: False. Truth is stranger than fiction. Also, Hahahaha, word.

AP: I think we may have a solid theory going. I mean, Homeboy is a Scientologist. I'm sure he thought aliens factored into it somehow.

MC: Oh, lord.

C: "Aliens did it" would actually probably make a more believable defense strategy than the one they actually presented.

AP: "If I Did It," by OJ Simpson. 

Please note that this is an actual book. 

MC: So, I have to ask. Do you guys think he did it? I have never expressed an opinion because I never thought I knew enough of the facts.

AP: I still don't think I know enough of the facts, to really say for sure. I would say he probably did it, but I also wonder if there wasn't someone else involved.

C: I think, based only on what I know from reading, that yes he definitely did it.

MC: How about this: do you think OJ believes it was someone else? The way he was portrayed it was like he honestly didn't know why he was there.

AP: Yes. That I believe. He might have done it in a fit of rage, and then honestly blacked out.

C: I think OJ probably doesn't have a realistic impression of his own mind. Which is to say, I think he knows he did it, but in his head the reasoning for it is so constructed and explained away and rationalized that he effectively believes that he did not do something he did.

MC: I would believe that; or convinced himself he blacked out. Right--and justified. Since Nicole was "his." It was creepy how he always called her "my Nicole."

C: That's what makes his whole case fascinating in my mind: I think he's pretty clearly the killer, but the case lived and died on the very real issue of institutionalized racism.

AP: And he really got off because the cops were so incompetent.

MC: It was like, the jury let this one black man go who actually committed it in response to all the black men who were convicted and innocent. And, to be fair, that is a legit reason to get off.

C: For me, the show hit it best in the last episode in a scene between Johnnie and his wife. His wife effectively says that OJ very likely did the crime that he was accused of, but the reason why she's proud of Johnnie is because he shined a light on how terribly African Americans are treated by the police in this country. Even if OJ didn’t deserve to go free, the attention his case brought was still a good thing. The case was an imperfect one, but the issue it raised is one that needs to be talked about, basically.

Justice, LAPD-style.

MC: Our justice system is designed around the idea it is better to let 10 guilty men free rather than imprison one innocent man. 

AP: Or the jury may have believed the defense. They might have actually thought that they knew what cops were like, and in their minds, it's totally reasonable for cops to plant evidence.

MC: Which we all know is now how things go down. I totally agree with Clovis. And like we noted, the police fucked this up royally.

C: I don't believe that the jury "threw" the case, for lack of a better word. I'm pretty convinced that the jury members honestly believed that he did not commit the murders.

AP: No, I don't think they threw it either. I think they honestly thought the cops planted evidence. Because the jury was comprised of African-Americans, and cops have planted things on African Americans.

MC: Well, you don't have to believe he was innocent. You just have to have reasonable doubt. I'm not sure I would have convicted. Even if I believe he did it. Reasonable doubt is not that high a bar.

C: Exactly. They had enough experience with the LAPD to easily believe the police were corrupt and that it wasn't beyond reasonable doubt that they could have framed OJ. Hence, acquittal. 

MC: The defense definitely called a lot of the evidence into question; and remember, this was basically the first high profile use of DNA. There was no CSI. People were like, whaaaaa?

C: Also it shows how you have to be careful telling a story, right? "Please listen to this long, droning explanation of science" isn't as compelling for people as "these racist corrupt cops tried to pull a fast one on you."

MC: Exactly. The show did a good job of showing how the jury was totally not getting it--nobody wants to hear 3 days of some scientist blabbering on.

AP: No, if it's not in layman's terms, nobody is going to care.

C: So what do we think were the things the show did best?

AP: THE CAR CHASE. With OJ and the gun and the screaming = Hilarious. You can't make this shit up. That's why it's so good.

Traffic on the 405 this morning: Light with a few backups due to fugitive activity. Normal Tuesday, folks!

MC: It definitely told a compelling story. And I thought was pretty honest while still being dramatic.

AP: The script was compelling, and the cast was committed.

C: I thought they did a really good job of taking a period piece and connecting it subtly but solidly with issues that we're seeing today. And that it didn't have the usual Ryan Murphy hallmarks of weird shit happening just for fuck's sake.

MC: For sure; I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of everything. But it still felt soapy enough that it was entertaining.

AP: It was really quite addictive. Nobody was phoning it in, except Travolta, who was coming to us live via satellite from his auditing center.

MC: He was with his alien overlords so distracted.

C: Travolta's thetans really deserve an Emmy nod for this one.

AP: And he'll have to donate half his Emmy to the church. And Lord Xenu. And Tom Cruise


MC: Don't forget Nathan Lane. So random! The casting in this was so weird and so awesome.

C: How much fun did Nathan Lane have playing an uber straight dude? I mean, really?

AP: I loved Nathan Lane. He was basically playing Ken Starr.

MC: But David Schwimmer definitely wins for most random. And great. But I thought he only directed stuff now. He hasn't been in anything for a while. It was a great role too--I found his whole arc about doubting OJ's innocence and struggling with that really compelling. What would you do if you believed your best friend murdered someone? I mean, we're all cool with it because TV Sluts united forever. But it must be hard for normal people.

C: We're going to be blogging from prison, let's face it.

AP: They let you have internet time in Gitmo, right?

MC: I bet Arsenic Pie goes first. She'll get put in the slammer for speeding tickets and they'll ignore all the real crimes you've committed.

AP: FOR THE LAST TIME, PUNNING IS NOT A CRIME! You know I'm going to bust some kittens out of a university science lab and it'll be the big house for AP.

MC: 20 to life, bitch. You'll get your comeuppance.

AP: Fortunately, I learned to fashion a shiv from watching Downton Abbey. Anyway, back to it, OJ didn't seem like OJ, casting-wise. He's supposed to be a pro football player, right? Why was the actor they cast so fucking tiny?

MC: Well, he HAD been. He was retired at that point.

AP: Right, but he didn't shrink. He was physically too small for the role.

MC: It's pretty common for pro athletes to gain a lot of weight after they stop playing.

C: I thought Cuba Gooding Jr did a good job, but agreed that he never quite nailed OJ. Like, he just didn't quite become the part the way Courtney B Vance did for Johnnie Cochran or Sarah Paulson did for Marcia Clark.

MC: I actually think is a good thing to talk about--because the show didn't seem to want to take a stance on whether OJ knew he did it or not. So I don't know how much Cuba was given. It's hard to walk that line. 

AP: He did a good job being Cuba Gooding Jr. He didn't seem physically imposing at all is my point.

MC: The first few episodes of showing how he could get very unbalanced. I would have like to have seen him rage out.

AP: He didn't go all the way into how scary OJ supposedly could be.

Unclear if this is a compliment to OJ Simpson or an insult to Cuba Gooding Jr.

C: Maybe the reason for that is because the show was trying to be agnostic about his guilt or innocence. I mean, it's notable that we never once see any kind of recreation of the night in question, which would have been easy enough to film.

MC: Agreed. The audience is definitely supposed to make up their own mind. So it's difficult for an actor to play that role when the story never specifically tells him whether he did or not. He has to be convincing both ways.

C: And that fits with the idea that the show really isn't that interested in OJ himself, it's interested in the questions raised by the case (and trial) and what the cultural fallout from it was.


C: Thanks. I am incredible, aren't I?

MC: It's this kind of hard hitting analysis people expect from us. Also poop jokes.

AP: And Scientology jokes. Cuba did a fine job acting-wise. He just seemed kinda there. Like, he's not as tall as OJ, and not as muscular, and he didn't have that same physicality. Which, even if the focus isn't on OJ, OJ should still have been more of an elephant in the room. He just wasn't.

"Yes, you, young man. Would you mind trying on the gloves of this famous football player?"

MC: Yeah, agreed. The 8 previous calls to the police for domestic abuse is kind of a hard fact to ignore. The whole thing is just awful. Everyone failed Nicole in this circumstance.

C: The thing that was probably most heart-breaking to me was the scene of the Goldman family silently walking back to their car, hearing the news reports of people celebrating throughout the city and then asking "what do we do now?"

MC: Absolutely.

AP: You sue. That’s what you do.

C: Which has always been the thing that brings me back to the guilt or innocence question when you think about OJ. If he didn't do, someone did and that someone has never been pursued. Of course, the reason why is because the LA DA honestly believes that they found the killer and there's no one else to pursue, but hey. Double Jeopardy, everyone!

MC: But then when we say things like that, I want to roll my eyes and be like, of course we know who did it. Which kind of throws my whole "I haven't made up my mind yet' thing out the window.

AP: The defense did do a good job of pointing that out. That no other suspects were ever considered.

MC: Any final thoughts? 

C: I'm interested to see what next season is. This is an anthology series, after all.

AP: I would like to see them do the Steven Avery case, actually

MC: Charles Manson? Lizzy Borden? Good stuff about women in there.

AP: Nothing will top Christina Ricci though.  The Christina Ricci one was such a hot mess!!

C: I would love a season focused on the Chicago Murder Castle and the World's Fair. (Devil in the White City stuff.)

MC: As long as they focus on the murders and not the architecture. Zzzzzzzz

AP: I think this is a good series. So long as they keep attracting high caliber actors.

C: That's the real benefit of an anthology. You can get really good, big names because they don't have to sign away seven years of their lives. It's basically just shooting a big movie and then they can come back next season if they want to.

AP: Yeah, not too shabby to get Bruce Greenwood on board. I have a crush on him.

C: Didn't he play Captain Pike in the NuTrek movies?



MC: I have a crush on David Schwimmer now.

AP: I'm telling Rachel you put moves on her man. I'll hold her down and shave her head.

C: It's hard to come back from Rachel. She did a number on all of us in the 90s.

MC: Yeah, Greenwood was great as the DA! He's very handsome. Though he seems short.

AP: He's 5'11"

MC: Someone has IMDB open.

AP: LIKE A BOSS. Anyway, overall, very good. Very compelling. A couple casting hiccups, but really well done

MC: I think it's fair to say we all enjoyed the hell out of the show. Both as entertainment and for raising conversations about broader issues. It certainly is a huge flashpoint in American history.

C: Yes. TV Sluts agreement.

MC: TV Sluts hooooooooo!

Monday, April 04, 2016

Criminal Tension

It’s fair to say that my usual television habits aren’t exactly light-hearted. I loved Breaking Bad, but generally saw it more as a surrealist family drama. So understand that when I say that American Crime is tense, I mean it’s, like, REALLY tense. This is probably the most uncomfortable show on television. Counting the Republican Debates.  If you can get yourself comfortable with being a little uncomfortable, however, it’s one of the few shows that I’ve seen where I continually think to myself, “How the hell is this show on television?”

So, something light and effervescent tonight then? 

Before I go any further, I should mention that American Crime is not to be confused with American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. The latter is the latest offering from Ryan Murphy and company, capitalizing on the success of American Horror Story by launching a new anthology franchise that will explore real American history. American Crime is also an anthology series, however this is from writer John Ridley who is most known as the writer of 12 Years a Slave.

As an anthology series, American Crime changes its story each season though retains much of the same cast. The story this season revolved around an elite private high school in Indianapolis and the fallout that occurs at that school and amongst the students, teachers, parents, and community members when it comes out that a student reports the he was raped at a party hosted by the school’s powerhouse basketball team. That set-up alone should tell you most of what you need to know about all the places that this show is unafraid to go: the simmering racial tension that exists in American cities, overt and covert homophobia in a post-Obergefell country, what politicians used to call “class warfare”, and the morally grey area that school administrators inhabit in trying to provide an education in a time when funding is low or non-existent.

American Crime is unflinching in looking at each of these issues. It’s also a testament to how well put together the series is that it never feels overstuffed despite all the issues on its plate. That’s largely because it correctly understands that the uniting strand behind all of these things is a collective fear of “the other”, the person that is different from us. As such, all the racism, homophobia, class tensions, privilege, and cutthroat business actions are accurately interpreted as symptoms of the same ugly disease.  What makes it good television is that the characters are so completely watchable that viewers are far more likely to get wrapped up in the story than feel like they’re attending a political rally.

This scene actually passes for almost "playful" relative to some of the others... 

So what’s it actually about? The action mostly revolves around an elite private school headed by Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman) and attended largely by the children of Indianapolis’s upper class families.  Working class mother Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor) is an exception, sacrificing all she can to afford the tuition for her 17-year-old son Tyler (Connor Jessup), who previously attended one of the city’s rougher public schools. The story begins when Anne is informed by Leslie that Tyler is set to be expelled from the school after lurid photos showing him drunk and in various stages of undress have surfaced on the internet, a direct violation of the school’s code of conduct. Tyler confesses to his mother that the photos are genuine, however that he was, in fact, drugged and raped by another student while attending a party hosted by the co-captains of the school’s massively successful Basketball team.

Tyler’s claim is the catalyst for significant unrest at the school, currently in the midst of a multi-million dollar fundraising effort that Leslie hopes will catapult her to an even loftier position than Headmaster. At the same time, it shakes the confidence of the school’s basketball coach, played by Timothy Hutton, as he must face uncomfortable questions about the behavior of his players, including whether or not one of them is truly guilty of the crime and if so what that means. Caught up in all of this is the LaCroix family, headed by matriarch Terri, played by Regina King. Terri’s son, Kevin (Trevor Jackson) is one of the two co-captains and Terri worries that these allegations will derail her carefully planned future for her child. As one of the wealthy, she can afford to hire representation to protect Kevin’s interests, even if that means causing harm to victim Tyler or to the other student implicated directly in Tyler’s claims, co-captain Eric (Joey Pollari).

Safe to assume "have conversation about not getting involved in a rape charge" was not initially in her work plan.

Terri is a mass of contradictions and Regina King plays every one of them beautifully; she’s the driven perfectionist career woman who wants to play the boys’ game but is intensely aware of what it means to be an African American woman in that world. She is both controlling and patronizing of her son and at the same time his biggest champion and a doting mother. She represents the curious intersection of being one of the sole minority families at an elite upper class predominately white school and at the same time being one of the wealthiest, affording her son access to the kind of privilege that other characters can’t even dream of. Seeing Regina King walk the fine line of each of these near-contradictions every episode is one of the joys of watching the show.

Likewise, watching Felicity Huffman as Headmaster Leslie Graham is like watching a Venus flytrap getting ready to spring. Leslie is utterly composed and in control, exuding concern about her students while managing the political and administrative duties of her school. All that control belies her ruthlessness, however, as we quickly see when trouble descends and Leslie manipulates, maneuvers, and manages problems away, always with a level voice and the kind of platitudes about leadership and responsibility that have all the genuine emotion of a Successories poster. Her chief concern lies with preserving the school and her record as an administrator, though she’s so darn sensible sounding, even when she explains to a grieving mother that because the mother signed a piece of paper while emotional, the school has no obligation to safeguard the mother’s damaged child. She isn’t cold, per se; she’s tactical.

"Yes. I am fantastic, aren't I?"

What makes the show particularly uncomfortable, aside from the subject matter generally, is watching how each of these characters from their varied perspectives approach the issue. Race is front and center, though handled without the easy shorthand of poor-black-rich-white characterization that many stories fall back on. A significant subplot revolves around the actions at one of the public schools after three Latino students attack a black student for groping a girl. The school’s overtaxed principal, played by Elvis Nolasco, suspends the three Latino students for their frankly violent assault leading to outrage by the Latino community who point out that the black student went unpunished despite attacking a girl. The principal, a black man, must examine how his approach is not only intended but viewed by communities that are already racially divided.

Ugh. Simmering racial tensions in high school. Worse than math homework, amirite?

Homophobia is also an evident theme and, with one particularly terrifying exception, is addressed mostly in the kind of “er, not that there’s anything wrong with that” wishy-washiness that shows that a fair number of people actually believe that there is, in fact, something very wrong with that but just recognize that they can’t say such things. (There are likely a lot of Trump voters in this story.) Tyler’s mother and his girlfriend struggle to find the middle ground between being supportive of him and deeply uncomfortable with his lie-of-omission. Tyler’s sexual orientation becomes a subject of debate as he’s called to justify his own feelings because they have bearing on a criminal case. His own family, one that is deeply loving of him, shows their own flaws when Tyler recounts how one of the surrogate parents who helped raise him, a man who still clearly cares for him as a son, unthinkingly continues to throw words like “faggot” around as insults.

And then there’s the issue that makes everyone uncomfortable: Tyler’s rape. Anyone who has spent any significant time around the issue of rape will recognize all the hallmarks of familiarity here. As the series progresses, the rape takes on a grayer hue reflecting the reality that most rapes aren’t committed by strangers in alleys but by someone we know. When it comes out that Tyler went to the party willingly and, in fact, with the intention of having clandestine sex with his attacker, not only does Tyler have to come clean about his sexual orientation but also the very nature of it and the exploratory nature of sex itself. When his mother angrily demands to know if he intended to have sex, his response is a weak but ultimately exactly correct one: “I didn’t go there intended to be violated.” We logically know that we’re not supposed to blame the victim, but the myriad of ways in which we still manage to are fully on display here, particularly given that the victim is male.

Predictable MRA bullshit misinterpretations to being in 3...2...

When you’re dealing with so many heady issues, it’s inevitable that some of the presentation is going to get a little mucked up. Viewers may find it unsettling that the victim of rape here is male, particularly given that the number of male rape victims, while certainly in existence, is far outweighed by the number of females. It’s not that hard to draw the conclusion that the rape is given its importance only once it becomes something that happens to men. And while there is a female victim of sexual violence among the show’s ensemble cast, her story is given nowhere near the heft or screen time as Tyler’s.

Likewise, the show’s one prominent African American family is wealthy and powerful, particularly in contrast to the other predominantly working class white families. At several times in the season, different white characters seek out Terri LaCroix and her husband to ask for assistance and are unilaterally rebuffed every time. It’s not terribly hard to see a racist form of wish-fulfillment embodied here whereby a viewer, again likely also a Trump voter, would interpret this as yet more evidence of how black people have gotten the upper hand over white people and white people are punished unfairly. While the show clearly takes pains not to sympathize with such a position, it shows just how tricky it is to tackle these issues even given the full breadth of ten hours’ worth of air time.

Which, ultimately, is what leads to the points in American Crime where the writing stumbles. The show is very eager to address big issues that don’t normally get their day on TV aside from a few “very special episodes.”  For all the deftness it manages in raising these big questions, it has a hard time providing any answers to them. In addition to a narrative and thematic gap, it also leads to some plainly uncomfortable dialogue. Characters are tasked from time to time with expressing the themes of the show, leading to dialogue that no human being has ever said independently. It’s so eager to get in the big point that it sometimes tells when it should show. The writing works best when it isn’t trying to underline its own thesis.

The end result of this story is less about a particular bad thing happening than it is about how bad things continue to happen. It illustrates how crime creates a ripple effect. One crime inevitably leads to another and victims can become perpetrators startlingly fast. Episode 8 even inter-cuts the dramatic action with real life interviews with the victims and survivors of school shootings and bullying attacks, showcasing starkly both the victims who chose a better path and the ones who opted for revenge. In the final episode, not every storyline has a clear resolution and the final picture is far murkier than the one that we started out with. Which is to say, unlike a lot of television, American Crime can be just as uncomfortable as real life.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bosch, Season 2

It's time again for one of the best opening themes in television again (I'll just wait while you rewatch the Season 1 credits):
That's right, everyone, Bosch is back.
If you don't remember and are too apathetic to read my review of Season 1, Bosch is a police procedural based on the mystery novels of Michael Connolly (fun fact: The Lincoln Lawyer -- the book and the Matthew McConaughey movie -- are a spin-off of the Bosch novels; apparently the Lincoln Lawyer is Bosch's half-brother).

As we left Season 1, Detective Heironymous "Harry" Bosch (played by Titus Welliver) had stopped a serial killer, solved the murder of a little boy, and gotten himself deeply in trouble with the police department for reasons completely unrelated to his gruff personality and "pragmatism" when it comes to police procedure. It's now six months later; Bosch is back to work solving crimes when a mobbed-up Armenian pornographer is found shot dead and stuffed into the trunk of his Bentley.

Suspicion immediately falls on the victim's wife, Victoria Allen (played by Jeri Ryan), as Starfleet is always suspicious of the Borg:

Seriously, though, it's because Tony Allen was a man who launders money for Armenian organized crime and spent a lot of time in Vegas in the company of strippers not his wife. She just maybe was jealous and looking for some of the money.

But clearly she didn't double-tap Tony on a lonely California highway and shove him in his trunk. So who did?

Bosch applies his trademark lack of tact and vengeful need to get the perp to this case, even when it makes him enemies with the mob and the FBI. In the meantime, we continue to follow some of the other characters from Season 1; Deputy Chief Irving is still trying to finagle a chiefship out of Los Angeles politics and his son is working undercover for Internal Affairs. Surprisingly, these plots intersect with Bosch's main case in a way that is neither too brief nor too contrived.

I really enjoy Bosch. It's gritty; Los Angeles in this show is a hot desert full of nasty corrupt people, and that's just the police officers. But each person has a personality, real motivations, and are played well by a cast of people who generally aren't "Hollywood pretty." Even the villains are people, which is refreshing, because that wasn't true even for this show last season.

Last season, Reynard Waits was kidnapping mothers and leaving their infant kids behind in strollers crying. Reynard was a monster; remember that we are introduced to him with a dead prostitute in the back of his literal murder van. There are no monsters this season, just people who have decided to do evil. And the distinction is clear. Bad people still do normal things, like hang out with old friends and then go back to their hideouts to have trouble opening a tin of disgusting-looking Vienna sausages (maybe it was the lighting, but they looked super-gross). The show is better for it.
This gunfight, from the literally explosive final episode, was also one of the most "real" I've seen -- everyone's shooting blind, hitting things by luck alone, and desperately ducking not to get shot.
One warning: this season does not end "tidily." Yes, the bad guys are caught, but it's more of just a thing that happens than a denouement, because life continues to go on. It's interesting, it's plausible, but it's not an NCIS "got the bad guys let's high-five and have some drinks" kind of ending.