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.