Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Fall TV: The Good (Place)

Yes, gentle readers, it's been a while, but with the triumphant sounding of trumpets and a whole parade and procession through the center of the city, I have returned!!

It's exactly like this.

Over the next few weeks, I will be your guide through the Fall television premiere season, along with my fellow slutty bloggers, of course. A lot of new shows have already started, but I like to give things a couple episodes before I make my mind up whether to like, hate, or meh them. Unless I hate it right off the bat, and let's be honest, sometimes those reviews are the most fun to write.

But I thought it might be nice to start things off on a positive note with a show I am really enjoying. It's new this season, features an interesting female lead of the kind we haven't seen before, and it even had a promising start in the ratings. But will the Nielsen gods continue to smile on The Good Place? Will I get attached to a show to see it yanked cruelly away? Should you spend your time watching The Good Place?


Well, that was easy. Goodnight, everybody!

Just kidding, of course. Let's establish something right off the bat: if you tell me there's a show on television starring Kristen Bell, I'm in. Full stop. Everyone here at the blog is a Veronica Mars fan and our Kristen Bell love is pretty much eternal. So I didn't need to know anything else about The Good Place to give it a chance. But the show actually has a lot of other stuff going for it:
  • The executive producer, Michael Schur, also brought us such gems as Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Master of None;
  • Ted Danson has a starring role; and,
  • The look, feel, sense of the absurd, and color palette is very reminiscent of Pushing Daisies.

Just look at their cute little faces!

And I am happy to report that the show is actually good! It's fun, cute but not treacle, with fantastic performances. In fact, Kristen Bell basically saves the show. Before I explain what I mean by that, let's give the network PR folks their moment to shine:
When a tractor-trailer carrying erectile dysfunction products strikes and kills Eleanor Shellstrop, she's surprised to find herself in the "good" area of the afterlife. She quickly realizes she has been mistaken for someone else when her wise, newfound mentor tells her she earned her place by helping get innocent people off death row. She decides that she wants to shed her old foul-mouthed and hard-drinking ways and find a way to embrace the good person within -- at least when she isn't considering finding a way to return to her mundane existence back on Earth.
Everything in The Good Place hangs on Eleanor. Having a unique concept and great supporting players is only going to get you so far. The sad truth is that if the audience hates your main character, the show is not going to work.

Eleanor is a very difficult person to like--she had almost no redeeming qualities when alive (there are some very effective flashbacks to Eleanor's mortal life sprinkled throughout the show), and she treated every person with disdain. She wasn't that far removed from a sociopath, to be honest.

"Oops! I'm a horrible person!"

The thing is though, Kristen Bell is so charming and funny that you don't hate Eleanor. You actually kind of like her and want her to learn how to be a good person. If they had anyone with slightly less charisma and talent playing Eleanor, The Good Place would not work. But it does and I for one am really looking forward to following Eleanor on her journey to redemption. Thankfully, Kristen Bell is back and once again proving nobody is a better lovable misanthrope.

The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30PM EST on NBC. The first three episodes are available for streaming on the NBC website.

There is no reason for me to post this picture of Veronica and Logan. Except that I want to.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ghost Rider and Agents of SHIELD

So, if you haven't become aware yet, the current season of Agents of SHIELD features an iteration of the comic book character Ghost Rider.

For those not familiar with the Marvel Universe, Ghost Rider is in some ways like the Marvel version of the Green Lantern: he's had multiple iterations (different fictional people are "the Ghost Rider") each with different powers. Traditionally, he's a guy with a flaming skull for a head on a motorcycle, because he made a deal with the devil and now hunts evil for eternity or something similar.

However, recently Marvel moved him to being a guy with a flaming skull for a head in a muscle car because he died during street racing and is possessed by the ghost of his serial killer uncle, whose evil inclination he defies to be a vigilante.

As you can see from the trailer, the newest version of Ghost Rider is the one we're seeing in Agents of SHIELD.

I welcome the appearance of Ghost Rider, because I've been finding Agents of SHIELD becoming more and more stale.

To explain this I need to spoil some things. If you don't like spoilers, you should stop now. Below the horizontal line/blogger break I will spoil three seasons each of Agents of SHIELD and The Blacklist, as well as the ending to the Kurt Russell/James Spader film Stargate and probably some other things too because I'm on a roll.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Hannibal - Why it was great and why it was canceled

So, two years ago, my fellow TV Sluts blogger Clovis gushed about the season two finale of NBC's Hannibal. Having now binged it all the way into the midst of Season 3 on Amazon Prime, I feel qualified to render my verdict.

The first season was genius. The second season was fun to watch. The third season got decadent and, in my opinion, boring.

For those of you just tuning in and who also hate to click on links, let me summarize NBC's Hannibal. It is based on the Thomas Harris novels involving the character Dr. Hannibal Lecter, whom you may remember Sir Anthony Hopkins playing in a movie over twenty years ago.

I'm not the biggest horror buff, but apparently what makes good serial killer horror fiction is to put Batman-worthy supervillains in a "normal" world where Batman doesn't exist. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer who eats parts of his victims. He also happens to be in excellent shape and a decent martial artist. And that "Dr.?" It's because Lecter's both a capable surgeon and an incredibly talented psychiatrist, not to mention an all-around super genius with encyclopedic knowledge of modern police forensics. He also draws, plays the harpsichord and theremin, arranges flowers, and has a sense of smell so good he can identify when someone he recognizes is in a room with him. As you can see from the picture above, Hannibal Lecter's a snazzy dresser.

Seriously, I'm not entirely sure how someone not a member of the Justice League stops Hannibal Lecter.

The TV show features the continuing cat-and-mouse between Dr. Lecter and Will Graham, an FBI profiler who is "super-empathic," meaning he's basically psychic when it comes to looking at crime scenes - able to see how it was done and why. While this is sort of a super-power, it's kind of a crummy one, especially since Mr. Graham feels very hard, like an Imagine Dragons song, so the more he does his super-killer-detector mojo the more it hurts him psychologically.

In the TV series, Dr. Lecter is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who brings a more "coiled spring" energy to Dr. Lecter than Sir Anthony.
Obligatory joke.
The other notable thing about the show is that the killing is truly, truly disturbing, even for a show about deranged serial killers. One of the things Hannibal loves to do is feed people to other people without them knowing, like a sick joke. He's a gourmet chef; NBC had DC-area chef Jose Andres and a "food stylist" consult on every episode, so most episodes Hannibal Lecter will serve something to a police officer or innocent civilian that looks like this:
He said it was pork. It looks really tasty.
And then, often, you have to guess whether it's the person he killed earlier in the show. Sometimes that's explicit, but not always.
"I love organ meats," said Tom, heartily.
They all look amazingly good.
This was said to be fois gras. It would be improbable for it to be a person's liver, but Hannibal Lecter does have a giant murder dungeon under his Baltimore home where he does things like pickle people's body parts in wine and feed them to snails to give the snails an extra "oomph" of flavor. So unclear.
And the show spends long, lingering shots watching people eat them.
Prior to these passed appetizers being made, we watch a montage of Hannibal Lecter selecting folks to murder. Are these little flowers beef tartare? Some of them are, certainly. But how many? 
As I said in my summary above, the first season is great. It's a tightly-plotted "serial murderer of the week" where Will Graham is chasing down multiple crazy people for the FBI while Dr. Hannibal Lecter acts as Will's therapist to keep Will's psychic powers from making him feel too hard. As a horrible human being who eats people, Dr. Lecter does not do this. Instead, he plays games with Will and other folks.

In season two, Will Graham has figured out that Hannibal Lecter is actually a cannibal serial killer with really good aesthetic taste, and Will tries to set traps to get Hannibal caught or killed. This season is suspenseful and well-timed, but a little crazier. Plausibility drops a bit. There are many too many dream sequences and hallucination scenes, as well as sex scenes that illustrate why you shouldn't bother having sex scenes on network TV (oh boy! People writhing artily under sheets or with CGI for three minutes! This is both uninteresting and unnecessary!). There's a B-plot involving a murderous pig farmer and his Italian good squad that added nothing whatsoever to the story other than some gratuitous violence and grossness. That said, I cared about what happened and didn't think the plot twists were too manipulative. And the finale? Like Clovis, I thought it was well-done. If the show ended there, it would have been great. But it didn't.

In season three, Hannibal Lecter, having blown his cover in America when basically the rest of the cast showed up in the season two finale to try to kill him (and he does a much better job trying to kill them in return), is now in Italy having some weird cannibalistic murder-themed codependent relationship with his ex-psychiatrist, played by Gillian Anderson. Everyone's still doing a great job acting, but the plot has become decadent. It goes from twisted murder to twisted murder, with gross revelation thrown in from time to time, without any real suspense. By the time Will Graham found a random Japanese woman guarding a prisoner in Dr. Lecter's snail-filled abandoned Lithuanian castle, with no good reason for any of those things to be and after multiple pointless and gross flashbacks where Eddie Izzard was forced to eat parts of himself, I said to myself, "Netflix has season 3 of The Blacklist on now, so I can see over-the-top plots with murderiness without all the self-seriousness." And I dropped the show like a hot potato. As did NBC.

Season 3's decadence also made me intolerant of the DC-area ignorance of the show's writers and editors in the first two seasons. Will Graham lives in "Wolf Trap, Virginia." This is actually a census-designated place in Fairfax County, but apart from the census bureau no one calls the area around the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts "Wolf Trap, Virginia." Even Wolf Trap's physical address is "Vienna, Virginia." I don't know what kind of 3 to 5 acre farm Will Graham owns in "Wolf Trap," but he's crazy not to sell it to a townhome developer like every other large tract of land in that part of Virginia has been since at least 20 years now; seriously, people are taking parking-lot sized chunks of Fairfax County to build new homes on, housing there is that crazy. The show was filmed in Canada. The police did not wear Fairfax County police uniforms, probably because having policemen who look like city police in gray uniforms would make no sense in crazy alternate universe farmland Vienna, Virginia ("where'd those suburban cops come from?"). But I noticed that they just pulled the sheriffs' uniforms from Fargo out for costuming. Don't get me started on driving times between Vienna, Baltimore, and Quantico. Traffic alone would make Will Graham crazier than analyzing a murder scene.

Okay, I got that out of me. Trust me, you'll ignore it too if you only watch the first two seasons of Hannibal.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Amazon Pilot Season - The Tick

So, Amazon's done its "pilot season" again, where it puts up shows and makes you vote on them, and then really disappoints you.

Or me, anyway. I'm still ticked they didn't pick up the Rachel Dratch vehicle Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998. Instead, they went with some much worse shows and The Man in the High Castle, which is quality but is not watching Rachel Dratch show you how funny she is.
For example, Ms. Dratch's performance in Spring Breakdown.
While Spring Breakdown is not a movie I'd compare to, say, Bridesmaids,
it's a great "late night cable"-quality comedy that made me laugh. If
you haven't seen it, you are missing out. 
What I'm saying is, go watch the pilot I'm about to recommend right after you read this. Go to Amazon Prime and put it on loop. Steal other people's Amazon Prime accounts and make them watch it. Hijack Russian botnets, whatever it takes so that Amazon knows that they need to make more of this.

Because The Tick, from the first episode, looks incredible.
The blue backside is only the beginning of the incredible.
Have you read the comic by Ben Edlund, also known as "the guy who did that Gotham show for Fox"? If you haven't, I'll save my enthusiastic recommendation of that for later. There was also a cartoon, and a previous TV show with Patrick Warburton. They're all good, but I have to move this review along.
Last time I checked, this was a zillion bucks on Amazon.com,
meaning I can't re-read the one where the Tick declares that
the Man-Eating Cow has learned good from evil and therefore
will protect the City while the Tick and Arthur go on an adventure.
To recap The Tick universe, the action takes place in a city referred to as "the City," a stand-in for essentially every DC comics city ever, but exaggerated to the level of farce.

It's full of superheroes and supervillains, but the plot follows the Tick, a nigh-invulnerable and super-strong individual in a blue suit with antennae. He has no secret identity, no romantic entanglements, a near-monomania with crime-fighting, and an eternally optimistic demeanor. The suit never comes off.

The Tick's sidekick is Arthur, a nebbish in a moth suit that actually flies. In many ways Arthur is the opposite of the Tick; he has no powers, he has more of a real life than a superhero one, and, as his name implies, has no superhero identity.

Together, they fight crime. In the comics, it was more that crime was detected, and the Tick happily bounded towards it crying something like "evildoers, face justice!" or sometimes (actually), "spoon!" and Arthur would be dragged along for better or worse. In this, they'd face exaggerated parodies of comic book heroes and villains, and situations that crossed over the border of ridiculous and moved on through to "so beyond ludicrous, I'm just going to sit back and roll with it."

All of this is preserved in the new show, except, post-Gotham, Ben Edlund takes it a little darker.
Arthur gets a legally-mandated psychiatric evaluation
after getting caught in vigilantism. 
We now start with Arthur (Griffin Newman), who instead of just being "normal guy," is dealing with some serious issues, which is why superheroing seems like a good idea to him. The City, formerly drawn solely in bright colors, is experiencing a crime wave, in part because, as a radio expositions early in the episode, the City's last superhero team "was blinded by weaponized syphilis and then shot."

Into this steps the Tick (Peter Serafinowicz), big, blue, invulnerable, and monomaniacal as ever. The Tick sees a kindred spirit in Arthur, and immediately bonds to him, "helping" Arthur realize a dream of being a superhero that Arthur isn't 100% sure he wants to have.

Don't worry, it's still funny. It's just now, the laughs sometimes come from that darker place where I laugh and say, "oh, that's awful HA HA HA [snorts drink]."
And Yara Martinez from Jane the Virgin and Alpha House is
a villainess in this show! How can you not watch?
The first episode tees up all the superheroing the Tick and Arthur are going to have, and I think you, like I, will want to see where Ben Edlund and the rest are going with this. At least one interview has Mr. Edlund saying he wants to put in a bunch of the comics characters, and I'd love to see Paul the Samurai or Chairface Chippendale. I don't think they'll put in Stalin-grad, the graduate student of Russian Studies turned supervillain who based his crimes on Josef Stalin, but it would be great if they tried.
"Josef Stalin, grab on to my armored muu muu and we'll leave
this foul Earth behind" is the line that is actually being said here.
Not only did I like the pilot, but the concept has such promise.
To recap: turn on an Amazon Prime account now. Watch the pilot episode of The Tick. You will not regret it.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Contain Your Excitement

Did you catch CW’s “limited series event” Containment? No? Hooray! The US public health system works!

Seriously, if you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid infection with this particular bug, you can count yourself lucky. For reasons surpassing my own understanding, I’ve been watching it since it began back in April and as it sputters and spasms into the final stretch, coughing, wheezing, and bleeding from its various orifices along the way, I’m here to tell you about the experience.

The first sign of infection is Resting Bitch Face

First, a crucial question: Have you seen the movie Outbreak? How about The Andromeda Strain? Maybe Cabin Fever? Any of these? Yes? Congrats! You’ve already seen everything that you could possibly see in Containment. You have met your quota for disease outbreak contrivances. Please feel free to take a break and maybe watch a rom-com. If you answered no to any of those, get thee to Netflix and enjoy. There is a world of better viewing options if what you want to see is characters wrestling with an invisible antagonist that turns their own bodies against them, a healthy dose of gory body horror, and the requisite slow, creeping paranoia that attends both.

In the meantime, here’s what you need to know about the premise of Containment: After a highly virulent strain of bird flu breaks out in inner city Atlanta, the CDC and a particularly unbelievable government official from the US Department of Homeland Security decide the only way to prevent the disease from becoming a global threat is to literally barricade the downtown core of the city with freight cars stacked on each other and lock in any potential infected until a treatment or cure can be devised. What follows is the usual mix of relationships torn asunder, new relationships forged, people acting like post-apocalyptic asshats, and, of course, blood and coughing. Lots and lots of blood and coughing.

"Hey Bob. Another day at the office in the quarantine zone, amirite? I hear ya, I hear ya."

The characters resemble a paint-by-numbers book: There’s One Good Cop who is on the outside of the cordon and just trying to do right by the people inside. His Strong Female Character sorta fiancé is only inside the cordon because she decided to go to work instead of agree to move her stuff into his apartment because she has Commitment Issues. There’s Innocent Pregnant Teenager, her Initially Evil But Really Loves Her mother, and her Earnest But Misunderstood Inner City Baby Daddy who just wants to be a good father so he actually breaks into the cordon. Attempting to carry the emotional core of the show is Tougher Than She Looks Schoolteacher, who is trapped with her elementary school class inside the cordon on the world’s worst field trip. Tougher Than She Looks Schoolteacher has a meet cute thing going with Trying To Learn About Responsibility Police Officer who has been a slacker most of his life but is being forced into adulthood by virtue of being one of the only armed members of law enforcement trapped inside the cordon. And, of course, overseeing all of this is Nice But Possibly Shady Doctor who is inside the cordon and may know more than he seems to (spoilers: he does) and his counterpart Morally Ambiguous Government Official Who Operates With Impunity and Never Checks in with Anyone Higher Up. Said official is the one to make the decision to lock in tens of thousands of people to potentially die horrible deaths.

Any TV Sluts readers live in Atlanta? Find out if you are in the infection zone!

The Incurable Cough of Death is an uncredited character, though really should have top billing by number of appearances alone. Second billing should go to White Handkerchief/White T-Shirt, which all characters must have on them in order to make that first bloody cough really pop.

Clearly, I don’t think highly of Containment. On technical merits, it’s really not that bad. It’s competently filmed and looks slick. The acting is, well, not great but far from the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s just not greater than the sum of its parts, which is a quality a show needs to have, particularly if it’s treading on very familiar ground. The show unfortunately commits the one error a show is never supposed to make, the cardinal sin of television: it’s boring. Despite a legitimately strong first episode, the overall pacing of the next 10 installments is sluggish at best. Much like the infected characters that start piling up on the screen, the show limps around, gradually getting less and less lifelike. (Sorry, btw: It’s literally impossible to write this review without overly relying on cheap medical puns.)

It didn’t really have to be that way. In its first episode, Containment generates more excitement and more dread than all of Fear the Walking Dead did in the entire first season. I mean, come on! It’s a viral outbreak! That just lends itself to drama. Unfortunately, the few times the show gets interesting it’s only interesting because of characters making decisions that are SO OBVIOUSLY bad ones, you find yourself riled up at the lunacy of people acting how no human, driven by fear or otherwise, would act. It’s not until episode 10 that any real action begins to happen again. Watching the meandering plotlines and characters moving around without any direction only to begin to finally come together in the end made me wonder why the show couldn’t have just been three or four episodes, which likely would have served it better.

My reaction when I was on episode four and realized I still had eight more to go.

If, after all this, you’re still game for binging on the series, it wraps up its final episode next week. Back episodes are available from the CW. Mercifully, this disease is one that we can all get into remission from as the network has already announced that there will be no second season and the storyline will wrap up at the end of its current plot. Apparently the network had hoped that Containment could take advantage of the trend toward anthology shows, presenting either a different outbreak or a story of different people should a second season have occurred. Given that the first exposure was so ill-serving, it’s best to just let this patient go peacefully. 

Saturday, July 09, 2016

What Ben's Watched On Streaming for June/July

I've watched a bunch of things on streaming media recently. Here are my short-ish reviews:

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, Season 3 (Netflix)

A friend of mine recently said, "yeah, I was watching Agents of SHIELD, and then it got really stupid." I think she was referring to sometime in Season 2. 

Which is true, Agents of SHIELD perenially has a plot which I'd describe thematically as "peak comic book," where all plot threads come together into a unified whole no matter how disparate they seem to be at the beginning, and some stuff seems shoehorned in. It is apparently inconceivable to the Agents of SHIELD writers that SHIELD could have to deal with two major issues at the same time and they never team up or subsume each other. 

The show is also knocking off characters at a Game of Thrones rate (okay, pre-season 6 season finale Game of Thrones rate) sometimes seemingly because Joss Whedon doesn't want to pay for an actor anymore. Similarly, the "big bad" for the last half of the season sometimes seemed to be down a henchman because, I think, either the actor they had for him (who's B-list famous) was too expensive to be in every episode if he didn't have lines or he had a prior commitment so he couldn't appear in half the episodes you'd expect to see him in.

That said, as a guy who just read all the issues of Radioactive Spider-Gwen and spin-offs available on Marvel Unlimited (Gwen Stacy is a much more interesting Spider-Person than Peter Parker! Also she's in an alternate universe where Captain America was always an African-American woman and Daredevil is evil! You really should read it!), I have a pretty high tolerance for comic book stupid (I had to read through several issues with Spider-Ham -- yes, the Spider-Man that is an anthropomorphic pig -- crossovers) if a show is otherwise diverting. And Agents of SHIELD remains entertainingly diverting.

Also, Clark Gregg is still clearly enjoying his job and is a joy to watch.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (Amazon Prime)

Elevator pitch for this show: "It's Attack on Titan, but with zombie mobs instead of naked giants, and it's set in a steampunk late Tokugawa Japan where most of the action takes place one of the armored supply trains for the rail system that keeps the last few human outposts connected."

The execution is, at best, fair. Writing seems to be done by folks given the directive: "use the formula we know works for shounen [teenage boy-marketed] anime for the elevator pitch you just heard. Do not, under any circumstances, take any risks with plot or characterization or otherwise give the audience something they likely have not seen before in another anime."
It's always magical zombies with glowing hearts covered in some sort of difficult-to-penetrate metal alloy. isn't it?
I could go on and give details, but it would really be a waste of your brain space. It's not good.

Penny Dreadful (Netflix)

This was reviewed before on this blog, but I actually like it a little more.

Let's not get too excited: I don't love Penny Dreadful as high art. I like it as a television version of a gothic horror (which also has influence from - and name-checks - the Grand Guignol style of gory theater) acted by people who are capable of much more substantial work than being "morally compromised supernatural evil-hunting team."

And that's what Penny Dreadful is -- Timothy Dalton plays the rich African explorer father of Mina Harker -- yes, that Mina Harker -- who assembles a semi-random team of dangerous misfits to rescue his daughter from a vampire. They are:
  • the African explorer's mysterious African warrior butler/something (Danny Sapiani)
  • demon-possessed psychic childhood friend of Mina (Eva Green)
  • American gunslinger whose dark secret would be only revealed in the last episode of the first season if it wasn't spoiled by the credits sequence (Josh Hartnett)
  • Dr. Victor Frankenstein -- yes, that Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadway)
In a parallel plotline, for reasons I can't quite understand, there's Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney); yes, the Oscar Wilde one with the painting. He seems to be there mostly to create multiple romantic issues with Josh Hartnett's character; Gray has sex with two women Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) is romantically entangled with, plus Chandler himself. I don't think this spoils much in the first season because, as I said, Dorian Gray has no direct relationship to the main plot. 
Here's Ethan Chandler and Dorian Gray making out. While there is a bunch of male full-frontal nudity in this show, sadly not of these guys. 
Also, Billie Piper is in this as a prostitute dying of consumption. She needs a better post-Doctor Who agent. 

As I said above, this show is sort of an update of gothic horror and Grand Guignol; the point is not that it's good, it's that it's constantly entertaining or at least shocking in a visceral way. There is a plot and there is dialogue. As the previous blogger on this beat noted, neither are particularly compelling (although the pacing of the story is good). But the production values, the acting, and the fact that everyone making this is taking it seriously instead of winking at the audience somehow raise it above "dumb" to "weirdly fun." 

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.