Monday, October 16, 2017

Fall TV: Ghosted and The Mayor

They're both 30 minutes, they're both comedies, and they're both pretty great! Ghosted and The Mayor also both suffer from the same problem, but I expect they will improve with time so let's not harp on it.

So what the heck are these shows about? Let's get right to it.


From (fill in the blank whatever production companies), comes Ghosted, a paranormal comedy about "a cynical skeptic (Craig Robinson), and a genius “true believer” in the paranormal (Adam Scott), [who] are recruited by a secret government agency to look into the rampant “unexplained” activity in Los Angeles -- all while uncovering a larger mystery that could threaten the existence of the human race."

Well, that promo isn't too bad surprisingly, and gives a pretty good intro to the show. The big strength of Ghosted is the cast, of course. Craig Robinson (The Office) and Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) are great comedic actors on their own and have pretty good chemistry together doing the old "mismatched guys who become reluctant partners and end up becoming friends" shtick.

I enjoy the basic conceit and everything to do with the secret government agency is fun, clever, and surprisingly not a drag. It's also nice to see Ally Walker again (you might remember her from Profiler) playing the agency head. She's brilliant, capable, and basically like a grown-up Hermione Granger if she ran the X-Files division of the FBI. I also appreciate the diversity of the cast, both in color and gender.

The Mayor

"Young rapper Courtney Rose (Brandon Micheal Hall) needs his big break. For years, he's toiled away in a small inner-city apartment, making music in his junk-filled bedroom closet. Tired of waiting for opportunity, Courtney cooks up the publicity stunt of the century: Running for mayor of his hometown in California to generate buzz for his music career. Unfortunately for Courtney, his master plan goes wildly awry, ending in the most terrifying of outcomes: An election victory. With the help of his mother (Yvette Nicole Brown, "Community") and friends, including Valentina ("Glee's" Lea Michele), Courtney will have to overcome his hubris if he wants to transform the struggling city he loves."

This one is super fun with a side of heart. The scripts have snap, crackle, and pop and Brandon Michael Hall is really good as the newly elected mayor. The idea of running for mayor starts out as a joke and a good PR stunt to drum up downloads of his rap album, but by the end of the pilot he's all in on the whole mayor thing and trying to improve the city for his neighbors and friends.

I know, I know, it sounds cheesy, but the pilot had several laugh out loud moments and Yvette Nicole Brown, who was hilarious in Community, strikes just the right balance of supportive, motivational, tough, and loving as Courtney's Mom. Seriously, she's just great. I'm also really enjoying Lea Michele as Courtney's chief of staff. The dialogue moves so fast you might think this was a show by Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Lea never misses a beat. No word yet on whether there will be a musical episode.

So what are the two faults that these shows have in common? Believe it or not, it's just the pacing. They both have somewhat involved concepts and the pilots had to get a lot of set-up out of the way. With only 30 minutes, they both hit the ground running and had to cover way too much ground for just a half hour show. The first few episodes just felt so rushed there was almost no room for the characters or audience to breathe. In the long run, with the plot and characters established, I have a feeling they'll both settle into something great, but for now just prepare yourself for the shows to speed through a lot of plot in the first couple episodes. Having said that, I'd recommend them both, especially if you need something light and funny.

Ghosted airs Sundays at 8:30 EST on FOX and The Mayor airs Tuesdays at 9:30 EST on ABC. Episodes of both series are available online at the network websites.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Fall TV: The Brave

It's Fall! FINALLY! The tights and boots come out, along with long-sleeved tees, pumpkin spice everything, and decorative gourds.

But as all readers of this blog know, the most exciting part of Fall is the premiere of tons of new television shows. And we're here to bring our thoughts, impressions, and advice on what to watch and what's not worth your time.

First up, NBC's The Brave.

At first, I thought this was going to be kind of an overseas spy version of Law and Order. Each episode follows the government analysts who uncover threats and the military special forces team that removes them. The episodes typically kick off with a tag that establishes what the specific threat is (a terrorist group kidnaps a white woman and places her in peril! An US intelligence agent in the Ukraine discovers her team has been killed!) and plays back and forth between the two groups working to stop the bad guys.

The description of the show is, per usual, ridiculously dramatic: "This fresh, heart-pounding journey into the complex world of America's elite undercover military heroes follows Captain Adam Dalton (Mike Vogel) and his heroic Special Ops squad of highly trained undercover specialists as they carry out each mission on the ground...This team works hand-in-hand with D.I.A. Deputy Director Patricia Campbell (Anne Heche) and her team of they wield the world's most advanced surveillance technology from headquarters in D.C. All members of this elite squad, both in D.C. and across the world, have one thing in common: their resilience and commitment to freedom is unmatched by any other."

They are Patriots! Fighting to save Americans! Out in the field and behind a desk! 

But, surprisingly, I really dig this show. I thought it was going to be a paint-by-numbers procedural like all the NCIs and CSIs out there in the world. But shockingly, it felt more like watching a tense movie like The Bourne Identity, Zero Dark Thirty, or Black Hawk Down. Or, say the network version of Homeland.

Ok, it wasn't quite on the same level as those examples, but it kept my attention and had me holding my breath a time or two. If you have a problem with violence, guns, explosions, and similar war trappings, it might be a bit too much for you. But, the intense stares at screens from the analysts and a lot of overly serious phone conversations and proclamations from Anne Heche's character help break up the tension.

I'll also give the creators a nod for keeping the cast diverse. There' s a broad representation of people in here, both in the analysts and special forces crew, with women in several prominent positions. I was pleased to see a woman playing the Deputy Director role...and that they included a woman in the special ops team--she's a sniper. Awesome.

The lead actor is your typical scruffy hunky white guy though. Of course. But at least he's a beardo.

We're only two episodes in, so I can't speak with authority as to whether the writing will fall into some of the typical narrative pitfalls we see around here a lot. As mentioned earlier, the pilot episode turned on the whole "white woman kidnapped by brown people" cliche, but if you're telling a story about the most dangerous areas of the world, I can see why you would go with the terrorism angle right out the gate. The second episode, set in the Ukraine, seems to do a bit better--I think we can accept the Russians as believable bad guys, right?

Bottom line: it's a tense, dramatic look at international undercover operations that sometimes comes off a bit silly, but also has bursts of graphic military-style violence. I found the characters and stories more compelling than I expected and I'll probably stick with it, at least through the front 13 episodes.

The Brave airs Monday nights on NBC at 10PM EST. You can also watch episodes online.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

My So-Called Reunion

In the fall of 1994, My So-Called Life debuted and immediately won critical praise and a dedicated fan-base, mostly of teenagers. Whereas most family shows at that time were sitcoms that dealt with “very special episodes” once a season, My So-Called Life was a drama that not only confronted those issues in nearly every episode, it did it casually, understanding that to most people these issues, not the regular sitcom fodder of homework or nosey neighbors, were the stuff of everyday life. Sadly, it only lasted for one season but if you were one of the lucky few, as I was, to be squarely in its target demographic, that one year felt like something special.

Come with me, won't you, back to a time of flannel, body suits, and unironically clashing fabrics...

I’d argue the show was one of the forerunners to what we would now call “prestige television” in that it featured many of the same components that would come to define shows like The Sorpanos, or Game of Thrones: a variety of characters with their own plotlines, a unified story told over an entire season, moral ambiguity in plots and character decisions, and a sense of the stakes changing from one episode to another; It felt like life because things evolved and the show didn’t return to the status quo at the end of each episode.

But the show’s hallmark was the ultra-realistic depictions of teenagers and how they related to each other and to the adults in their lives. The show had very few villains, outside of life itself. The show was even mocked at times for the halting, seemingly rambling speaking style of the kids. Adults heard it and felt frustrated, recognizing all the “…um”s and “whatever”s and “….sure”s they heard from their kids daily while teenagers recognized the secret emotional codes that each monosyllabic grunt conveyed.

That inability to communicate was a central theme the show played with constantly. Moreso, it is one that expressed itself not only in the action, but in the interpretation of that action as well. As such, how you viewed the show was very much a function of your age and where you happened to be in your life at the time.

Here’s an example: one episode focused on Angela’s scheme to hang out with the object of her affection, troubled dreamboat Jordan Catalano. Knowing that her parents would never be cool with her spending time with Jordan, she arranges to study at neighbor boy’s Brian’s house one evening, but upon arriving slips away for a clandestine meeting with Jordan. (The meeting is relatively chaste, stuck in that non-verbal, early teenage haze where two kids can barely say anything to each other that doesn’t feature the word “like” as a connector verb.)

At the end of the episode, Angela has a scene with her father, Graham, where he asks about her evening. I distinctly remember my reaction to that scene watching it when it aired in the fall of 1994. It went something like this:

Graham: So you were over at Brian Krakow’s tonight. Was that, like, a date?
Angela: Oh my God, Dad! <Makes frustrated teenage noise>
Me (watching from home): What is wrong with him? How could he think that is what was going on? Clearly she has no feelings for Brian whatsoever. Why does he even bother trying to talk to about this? He’s her dad – it’s not someone you say this stuff to. This is mortifying!

In other words, I had an utterly typical teenaged reaction. Which makes sense, really: I was 16 in 1994, roughly the same age as Angela. My So-Called Life was a revelation because it was the first time I had seen teenaged characters on TV who reacted like I did, who thought like I did, and who looked like I did. They had the same perspective and thoughts and worries. It made them feel real and not canned or codified like the teenage characters on sitcoms who didn’t so much have problems as wacky, 22-minute misadventures that would mostly either resolve themselves or result in someone Learning Something Important.

Then, several years later, a friend of mine had a copy of the entire series on DVD and we gleefully sat down to watch it. We got to that same episode and rewatched that same scene. And like before, I had a strong reaction, though this time it was different:

Graham: So you were over at Brian Krakow’s tonight. Was that, like, a date?
Angela: Oh my God, Dad! <Makes frustrated teenage noise>
Me (watching from home): What is wrong with her? He’s her father and clearly doting on her! All he wants is to be friends with her again and not have this hormonal teenage monster in his house. His approach is awkward, but he’s legitimately trying to show interest in her life. Why is she being such a brat and not seeing that?

And thus, in one swoop and across fifteen years, My So-Called Life showed me exactly when I crossed over to the other side from empathizing with the teenager, to empathizing with the parent even though I myself don’t have children. In retrospect, I think that shows how thoughtfully the show considered the perspectives of not only its teenage characters, but its adult ones as well.

We all grow up. Revisiting our youth can lead to some funny conclusions, not only about who we were but who we are now. Though My So-Called Life only ran for one season, its characters would have graduated Liberty High School in June of 1997, twenty years ago this month. In honor of this show that I still love for its perfect encapsulation of what it felt like to be a teenager in the (mostly) pre-internet 1990s, I started thinking about what would the lives of these people look like if the show were to drop back in on them twenty years after we saw them last. And so, here’s my take on what the 20-year class reunion for My So-Called Life might be:

Angela Chase
Then: ruminative teenager, emotional spendthrift, says “like” a lot
Now: mild-tempered adult, mother, author

The rocky shoals of adolescence were never navigated so fully as they were by Angela Chase. Like most teenagers, Angela experienced high school as a constant source of melodrama, albeit one that she would come to think of in more gilded terms. After high school, Angela attended University of Virginia on a scholarship, graduating with a degree in creative writing.  She eventually took a job writing for a non-profit in Boston where she met Chris, a lawyer. The two eventually became engaged in 2004 and married the following year. Their first child, Claire, was born in 2006, followed by a son, Grant, in 2008. Angela’s often laconic speaking and writing style expressed itself in her first novel, a story about a homeless teenage girl living on the streets of a nameless city which received praise for its “stark, understated style.” Angela continues to contribute steadily to several publications and is currently at work on her third book.

 Rayanne Graff
Then: Rebellious wild child, drug addict, new BFF to Angela
Now: Countess of Devon

After graduation, Rayanne’s life could only have gone in one of two directions: way down the spiral or way up to the clouds. She was destined either to be the repeat offender in the Pittsburg Downtown Rehab Clinic or finally come to terms with her own emotional issues and make some positive changes. Thankfully, she chose the latter, got (mostly) clean and finished an associate’s degree from community college. She managed to enroll as a non-traditional college student, earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2002. In 2003, Rayanne met Charles Courtenay, Lord Courtenay and the son of the 18th Earl of Devon, England. After a whirlwind romance, the two married in 2004 and Rayanne relocated to London where she become the Countess of Devon after her father-in-law’s death in 2015. Rayanne and her husband have two children and the family are active in philanthropy.*

*Note: This one was easy to write. It actually happened.

Rickie Vasquez
Then: Troubled semi-homeless teenager, kind soul, bisexual
Now: Professional theatre owner, still kind, gay

Despite a rocky adolescence, Rickie managed to graduate from Liberty High on time and in good standing, largely through the help and support of his friends and his mentor, English teacher Mr. Katimski. After graduation, Rickie moved to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming an actor, which largely meant he spent years as a waiter. Despite the challenges of his career choice, Rickie managed to achieve modest success off Broadway and built enough of a network of fellow performers to establish his own performing company and home theatre, The Girls’ Bathroom. The company specializes in telling non-traditional stories and has been featured in leading theatre trade productions. Rickie lives in Astoria and has a reputation for mentoring troubled youth.

Note: my idea of Rickie’s transition from self-identifying as bisexual to identifying as gay is not intended as a case of bisexual erasure. Given the attitude about homosexuality in the mid-90s, particularly in a relatively conservative suburb, I think it’s highly likely that Rickie would have fallen into the trope of identifying as bi at the time because of its relatively better social standing than being gay. (Rickie also self-identified as gay, rather than bisexual, in one of the final episodes.) The notion of gay men initially identifying as bisexual, while certainly used unfairly to cast actual bisexuals as some kind of gay-in-waiting, has nonetheless been an unfortunate pattern for a number of years.

Jordan Catalano
Then: High school bad boy, dreamboat, sorta musician?
Now: Meth addict prolly

Man, you guys – the post-graduation years were not kind to Jordan. I’m operating on the assumption that Jordan even graduated from high school. It’s possible he dropped out, but I think the trajectory of the show would have shown him graduating, albeit just barely. Either way, life after high school was not good for the guy. He was never the brightest star in the heavens to begin with, sensitive soul that he may have been, so his path was likely to either be in the right place at the right time and land a modeling contract or delve down the path of unintentional pregnancies, drug use, and low-paying jobs. One of these was far more likely the other and, now in his late 30s, Jordan has seen some shit, man. He doesn’t really remember his time in high school much, though he does like to think about his car and wishes he could afford a new one.

Brian Krakow
Then: Nerd, Angela’s neighbor, holder of unrequited love
Now: Successful tech magnate, eligible bachelor

For all that he couldn’t catch a break in high school, upon graduation Brian was at the forefront of the new world. The tech revolution was just beginning in earnest in 1996 and Brian capitalized on this by attending college at Stanford and getting in on the ground floor of the tech world. He launched his first killer app only one year out of college and parlayed the experience into a successful video game production company. His company has grown and now provides video and audio solutions for a variety of public and for-profit companies. He lives part time in San Francisco and Montreal and is regularly listed on various society magazines’ annual “most eligible bachelor” lists. He also contributed the start-up capital for Rickie’s independent theatre company. 

 Sharon Cherski
Then: Former BFF to Angela, frenemy of Rayanne, Killjoy
Now: Engineer, somewhat happily married, mother to teenage daughter

Unsurprising to everyone, Sharon graduated top of her class and was immediately accepted into college at Carnegie Mellon University where she pursued a degree in engineering and graduated as one of only two women in her class before becoming the only woman in her graduate degree program. Long since broken up with her high school boyfriend Kyle, she eventually became engaged to Scott, a fellow CMU student before ending the relationship three weeks before the wedding as she realized she wasn’t in love with him. She accepted a job with an auto manufacturer in Johannesburg, South Africa where she met Paul, a fellow engineer. They married and Paul immigrated back to Pittsburgh with her after two years. Their marriage experiences fits and starts, many coming from the clash of two cultures, though Sharon and Paul try to love each other as they manage the tension that comes from a long-term marriage. She now has two daughters of her own, the eldest of which is about to begin her freshman year as a multiracial girl in a mostly white suburban high school. One can only imagine what her experiences will be like…

Patty Chase
Then: Mother to Angela and Danielle, breadwinner, provincial
Now: Semi-retired former executive, doting/meddling mother and grandmother

Patty and Graham’s marriage was straining throughout the show, though it eventually met its breaking point when Patty discovered Graham’s infidelity with his coworker, Hallie Lowenthal. Though they attempted to keep the marriage going, it dissolved shortly after Angela left home. Patty initiated the divorce, coming to the realization that while she still cared for Graham she could never be in love with him again. Patty continued to operate Wood and Jones Printing, wisely foreseeing the impact that the digital world would have on printing companies and successfully diversifying the company enough to keep it in operation for many more years. She eventually sold the company in 2014 for a profit and is now semi-retired. She is proud of the accomplishments of both of her daughters, though she continues to worry about them and has been accused more than once from each of them of inserting herself into their lives. She and Graham are on good terms and Patty has found Graham’s second wife to be surprisingly enjoyable. Patty has no plans to remarry, but continues to keep her options open.

Graham Chase
Then: Father to Angela and Danielle, cook, milquetoast
Now: Remarried, culinary instructor in Philadelphia

Even despite his affair, Graham still didn’t see his divorce coming. He believed that he and Patty had made real progress up until the moment Patty brought home the divorce papers. Given that his previous career path could best be described as “driftless”, it was one more destabilizing event in his life. Thankfully, his progress and reputation at the culinary school he had been attending/instructing at provided a needed assist when a colleague recommended that he apply for an open position at a prestigious culinary school in Philadelphia. He was offered the job and relocated. Shortly after beginning, he met Sue, a real estate agent who was taking cooking classes at the school. They married in 2004 and Graham became a step-father to Sue’s two sons. Graham continued to develop a close relationship with Angela and the two have become closer as Angela has become a parent herself.

 Danielle Chase
Then: Little sister, family non-entity, wisecracker
Now: Blog editor-in-chief, Instagram maven, hot take detractor

Six years younger than Angela, Danielle initially thought that once Angela left the house she would finally have her parents’ undivided attention. Unfortunately, Patty and Graham’s divorce left Danielle once again feeling invisible to her family. She graduated high school in 2005 and attended Oberlin College where she majored in creative writing and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies. It was there that she launched the beta version of her blog “Chasing the Dragon”, initially as an underground zine for fellow Oberlin students. It caught the attention of a New York media mogul who quickly moved to co-opt it, taking it under his media umbrella and hiring Danielle as editor-in-chief. Now going by Dani, she has skewered the social climbers of Los Angeles and New York with her trademark snark and is occasionally called upon to provide talking head commentary for nightly cable news programs. She is happily single.


Then: Man of mystery, Frozen Embryos front man
Now: Club DJ maybe? Unconfirmed.

No one actually knows if Tino ever graduated from Liberty High School. Neither Rayanne nor Jordan have heard from him since 1998 when he was last spotted hosting a “total rager” at some Sophomore’s house.  Rickie claims to have seen him at an MTV event in Times Square around 2002, however was unable to confirm. Someone going by his name began to make it big on the Los Angeles club circuit about this time and is currently modestly successful as an international DJ who hides his face with a series of outrageous masks.  It is still unknown what, exactly, he looks like. 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

How "The Keepers" Reimagines True Crime Stories

Quick, think back to the last true crime mystery that you watched or read about. Maybe it was Serial or Making a Murderer or whatever you happened to see on Investigative Discovery last night or maybe even The People v. O.J. Simpson. Do you remember the name of the killer (or accused killer)? So long as the story is still fresh in your mind, I’m betting the likes of Adnan Syed or Steven Avery or O.J. Simpson are in your head. Now next question – do you remember the names of the victims?

Sometimes victims become as unintentionally famous as the people who killed them. Most times they fade into obscurity, unless they become part of the zeitgeist like Nicole Brown Simpson or Hae Min Lee. But whenever we watch movies about them or read stories or listen to podcasts, we almost always lose sight of the victims because we tend to get the story more or less from the perspective of the killer, accused or otherwise. There’s a practical reason for this, of course – dead people are notoriously hard to get on the record whereas accused or convicted killers can be interviewed.  That dynamic creates a skewed view on crime where the victims become cyphers, unable to give us the answers we really want.

So what if you had a crime story where the victim of the murder could still speak? Answer that question, and you’ve got Netflix’s new documentary series The Keepers. The series examines the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun and Catholic high school teacher in Baltimore in 1969. And before you get too checked out, this is not a story about ghosts or mediums or mistaken identity or any other trickery. It is, however, about how the victims of a murder (mostly) survived.

Catholicism, man. Amirite?

A quick note: It’s hard to have traditional spoilers in a true crime story, especially one that officially remains unsolved. But The Keepers takes viewers on such an intense ride that if you prefer to experience the story with all the emotional twists and turns that the series intends you to experience, you may want to stop here and go watch the first three episodes before reading any further. The series is full of revelations and I’m only going to review a few of them briefly, but if that’s a concern for you consider this your spoiler warning.

Now that that’s taken care of, let’s explore the facts of the case. In 1969, Sister Cathy Cesnik was a 26-year-old nun living in Baltimore and working as a teacher. Not that much older than the girls she taught, she was popular and well-liked. Several of her students, now women in mostly their late 60s, recount how close they felt to her and inspired by her they were.

Sister Cathy began her teaching at Archbishop Keough High School, an exclusive all-girls Catholic school. She taught English and Drama for several years, but despite a strong tenure at Keough, Sister Cathy nonetheless left the school at the end of the 1968-1969 school year and took a position at a local public school with another young nun in her order. The two nuns even opted to live together in an apartment in West Baltimore. The move was part of an experiment in which nuns would try to live among the world rather than in cloistered lives.

On the evening of November 7, 1969, Sister Cathy left the shared apartment and drove in her car a short distance to a shopping center to buy an engagement present for her sister in Pennsylvania. Along the way, she cashed a paycheck and stopped off at a local bakery. She left around 8:00pm. When she hadn’t returned home around midnight, her roommate Sister Russell called a priest and mutual friend, Rev. Koob who drove to the women’s apartment. At 4:30am, Rev. Koob discovered Sister Cathy’s car parked illegally less than 100 yards from the apartment building. The car was dirty and had twigs and debris inside. (In a weird coincidence, Sister Cathy’s apartment was located near the spot where Hae Min Lee’s body would be found 30 years later. Stay classy, Baltimore.)

Baltimore Policy conducted a basic search, however they reportedly didn’t see any evidence of foul play or violence. Sister Cathy would be officially missing for almost two months until on January 3 when two hunters discovered her partially-clothed body in remote wooded area not far from her home. An autopsy revealed that she had likely died due to a skull fracture caused by a blunt instrument to the back of her head.

From there, the case went cold. It remained largely inactive for almost 25 years when something happened that began to shed new light.

Enter these two jerks

In 1994, a woman in her 40s came forward to say that she had attended school at Archbishop Keough during the late 1960s. She alleged that for three years, from her sophomore year until graduation, she was routinely, systematically, and sometimes violently raped by a member of Archbishop Keough’s staff, Father Joseph Maskell, who served as the school’s counselor. The woman recalled detailed events where Father Maskell would call her into his private office, demean her as a “whore” and a “slut” and then rape her, telling her that only by having sex with him could her soul find forgiveness. What’s more, he routinely arranged for her to be raped by multiple men at the same time, often in his office with the door locked while he watched. Some of these men, the woman later learned, were high-ranking city and police officials.

While the woman’s reports were shocking, what really grabbed public attention was another detail: the woman claimed that not only had Sister Cathy known something about these attacks, but that Father Maskell had taken the woman to see Sister Cathy’s dead body a few days after the nun went missing. And what’s more, she may not have been the only one exposed to all this; there could be others.

Tom Nugent (no relation to Ted), reporter, shows the headline of his 90s era article re-opening the case

And therein lies the detail that separates The Keepers from other true crime series that I’ve seen. Unlike most that focus on the accused, The Keepers has access to the victims and investigates the events surrounding Sister Cathy’s murder and Father Maskell’s alleged conspiracy and sexual assaults through the eyes of people who were witnesses to them because it was happening to them too. Sister Cathy is a victim, to be sure, but the story quickly grows to encompass a number of victims who have spent more than 40 years unable to tell their own stories.

The Keepers is dense, but immensely watchable. As I binge-watched it with a friend, I turned to her after one episode and said out loud, “How are there four more episodes to go? There’s so much information here; how are they going to keep shedding new light on this story?” And yet, with each episode, the creators do.

This is largely thanks to the access they have not only to the still living victims of the crimes committed at Keough High School, but also thanks to the small sorority of women who, nearly 50 years later, are still dedicated to getting to the bottom of the murder of a teacher they loved and respected so much. What this means is that the narrative of the series is almost entirely told through the voices of women, most of them middle-aged or older. The women in this story have been abused, literally and figuratively, by a variety of forces and personages and they’re only now getting to tell their stories. That makes The Keepers a natural expression of the nascent “Nevertheless, She Persisted” notion.

Abbie (r) and Gemma (l), the amateur investigators still trying to piece together the crimes. AKA #Heroes.

As such, the series gives out a measure of justice, but justice is like Schrodinger’s cat – it both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. These women finally get to tell their stories and be believed, but of course many of the perpetrators of the crimes done to them are long dead, having escaped whatever worldly justice the law could have meted out to them. There’s a sense throughout the series that history has already passed much of this story by, making it even harder to gain any sense of closure about these events. In a timely, though unrelated event, Keough high school, now officially named Seton Keough High School, announced last fall that the school would be closing its doors for good once school lets out this summer.

Crime and punishment are almost always, by their nature, reactionary things. It’s in keeping then that the way we’ve talked about both of those things has been reactionary as well. The Keepers represents an attempt to change that narrative, if only by looking at those concepts from a different perspective. The results are fascinating to watch.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hagsploitation and Old Hollywood

At a certain point in FX’s miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan, Warner Brothers’ studio head Jack Warner throws a tantrum upon realizing that his box office strategy of pitting two aging actresses against each other in a film has been stolen by a rival studio. Warner, a relic from Hollywood’s earliest of days, feels he has proprietary rights to older women beating themselves up for his monetary and personal gain. “Hagsploitation”, he terms it. And while Warner didn’t have the exclusive rights to a plotline, he wasn’t far off from his belief that people, particularly women, were exploitable and that the best way to exploit them was to make them exploit each other.

That nuance is emblematic of the entire miniseries which was sold as a camp-fest featuring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford respectively, but ended up being a much more thoughtful meditation on aging, the role of women in the professional space, and how hubris, that old favorite of screenwriters everywhere, is ultimately an ambitious person’s worst enemy.

Dahhhling, what say we finish these drinks and then go talk to that handsome Mr. Draper we're hearing so much about?

Feud: Bette and Joan is the latest from the mind of Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, and just about everything else on television. While Feud revisits many tropes that Murphy loves (anything set in the 1960s, Los Angeles in general, Jessica Lange), it’s arguably his most mature work, outstripping even The People v. O.J. Simpson. By relying on events that are either confirmed to be true or at least strongly sourced, often from original sources themselves, Murphy is able to present a much more coherent storyline and develop more nuanced themes than when he’s cooking up his next creepy ghost scene or figuring out which musical number to get his cast to sign. Murphy loves high concept television, but clearly he does best when pairing those high concepts with real events.

And the reality of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is the stuff of legend. Feud finds time to present not only the big ticket items from Joan manipulating the 1963 Oscars to humiliate Bette to Bette’s statement upon learning of Joan’s death in 1977 (“You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good,” Bette was quoted as saying. “Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”) And yet it also finds the time to show us both of these characters at their best. Joan moving through the studios and the awards ceremonies, a pro expertly glad-handing the studio bosses, schmoozing with the talent, and mentoring the younger performers, illustrates how she attained the heights that she did. Likewise, Bette uses her outsider status to churn the press and manipulate from behind the scenes to improve her status.

Clearly, the real life Bette and Joan were not catty stereotypes perpetuated by gossip and later movies like Mommie Dearest. In keeping with the nuanced take on them, Susan Sarandon and, in particular, Jessica Lange give compelling performances that bring out all those qualities, good, bad and ugly. While the actresses bear only a passing physical resemblance to their characters, both actresses wisely aim to create breathing characters instead of just relying on physical mimicry.

Original still for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Feud's recreation

Where Feud excels the most is in underlining the ultimate tragedy of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: that, like the line from Baby Jane, all this time they could have been friends. Had Bette and Joan partnered together, as indeed they halfheartedly tried to at times, they could have exerted tremendous pressure on the studios. Instead, they fell into waring with each other, seeing each other as rivals rather than co-conspirators. And while machinations on the part of male studio heads certainly facilitated that rivalry, the miniseries gives us a sense of how the women’s insecurities factored in.

In one of the show’s best scenes, the two square off against each other in a verbal fight scene that ends sorrowfully. Bette, perennially viewed as one of the most talented actresses of her era but never one who was pretty enough to truly be a star, spits at Joan, “How did it feel to be the most beautiful actress in history?”

“It felt great,” Joan spits back before pausing and adding quietly, “And it was never enough. How did it feel to be the most talented?”

“It felt fine,” Bette returns, venomously, but clearly shaken. “And it was never enough.”

These were two actresses who, by rights, could have been a forceful duo but were both undermined by feeling inadequate in the face of each other. Joan, always seen as a Hollywood beauty, struggled to be appreciated for her talent and not just her face. Bette, somewhat resigned to being the character actress because it was bringing her Oscar nominations and wins, was never going to be awarded the approval of her industry because she didn’t look like a cover girl. And through it all was a studio system run by men who understood that the only way to make sure that these women didn’t kick them all out of their precarious positions was to keep them at each other’s throats.

This picture need more sexism and misogyny, I say! MOAR!

As such, it’s tempting to try to watch the show through the lens of modern Hollywood which, despite being 40 years on from the final scenes, is still very much stuck in the same mode. It’s not news that finding roles for women over the age of 40 is difficult, nor is it a surprise that Hollywood remains enraptured by the next “it” girl before turning her over for someone new within a year or two. But if anything, Feud takes pains to keep the story tight and focused and avoids underlining the comparisons to modern Hollywood too much. That approach works in its favor by allowing the audience to stay with the story instead of seeking out any too-clever-by-half references to the modern world. In fact, the show avoids irony almost entirely with the possible exception of a few lines in the final episode where an aging Joan admits that the only actress she sees in Hollywood in the 1970s with the kind of real star power that her generation of women had is Faye Dunaway. (In fact, that was a sentiment that Crawford voiced in real life before she died, obviously unaware of Dunaway’s eventual role in defining Crawford’s legacy for a new generation of people.)

Feud tells a remarkably restrained story about how women fight each other to the benefit of men and how hard it is to deviate from that pattern so long as men control the money. Watch it for the social commentary or just for the utterly on-point production design which faithfully recreates not only the 1960s but the specific looks that two titans of early Hollywood both cultivated for themselves. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Yes, It Is Wrong You Think Gilbert is Kinda Hot (and Other Observations)


Yes, here we are, folks. Netflix (and CBC's) long-awaited (dreaded?) Anne With an E is finally available, streaming stateside on Netflix. 

   I talk way too much and have all kinds of codependency and anger issues. PLEASE KEEP ME.

This adaptation has been subject to a pretty unfair tongue-lashing by the chattering classes. There has been a lot of propaganda against this adaptation in the press, and so what I will do here is try to give the positives and negatives of this new version and let you thinking, autonomous adults make up your own minds about whether or not to watch or if you like it.

Let me first start off by saying that there is no bigger L.M. Montgomery geek than yours truly. I was legit OBSESSED with L.M. Montgomery. I read all of her books, anthologized short story collections, several biographies, and her personal published journals. I visited P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, and I have been to actual Green Gables. I spent most of junior high watching the Megan Follows Anne and its subsequent sequel, and I spent a good portion of my time imagining I was Ilse Burnley in an adaptation of Emily of New Moon. I also was a YUUUUUGE fan of Kevin Sullivan's Road to Avonlea series, watching all of the episodes multiple times. 

I have cred.

Here's what I do like:

AmyBeth McNulty was born to play this role. That is all there is to it. This girl is mad gifted. She looks exactly like Anne, it's true, but beyond that, her performance -- please don't throw rocks at me -- surpasses that of Follows. I understand that a lot of the differences between the performances have to do with script and direction, but I see McNulty showing a wider range of emotions. For instance, during Anne's first scene at Green Gables, McNulty bursts into tears upon being told by Marilla that there has been a mistake. Anne has been deprived of love an acceptance her entire life and it is so clear and so sensitively and beautifully portrayed by McNulty. Compared to Follows, who was directed to be upset, but what really comes through in Follows' version of this scene is Anne being like, "But wait! I'm kooky."

This kid made me cry. Legit. She has been breaking my heart. The way she inhabits this role is on par with Follows -- she is Anne.

Also outstanding is veteran actress Geraldine James in the role of Marilla. It's not easy stepping into Colleen Dewhurst's shoes, but James does an outstanding job as the no-nonsense Marilla, portraying her as a woman disinclined to tolerate shenanigans but doesn't come off as a cold-hearted bitch. This is no small task. 

I also love RH Thomson (FAN SERVICE!!!!) as Jasper Dale -- I mean, Matthew Cuthbert. Of course, die-hards know that Thomson played a very similar role on Road to Avonlea as bumbling inventor/town recluse (and later husband to Olivia King), Jasper Dale. So, this is familiar territory for Thomson. His Matthew is spot-on and so lovable. 

For the supporting cast, Walking Trigger Warning Rachel Lynde is deftly handled by Corinne Koslo; Odd Squad actress Dalila Bela portrays a very believable Diana Barry. 

And...what about Gilbert Blythe? 

How can I make Anne not hate me?

Maybe I could brood harder.

The writers have ramped up the tension/attraction between Anne and Gilbert in this version. In the Sullivan one, it's there, but it's a lot more subtle. In this version, Anne is a little more honest with herself and she knows she'd like Gilbert to maybe pull on more than her hair. They've also made him more attractive by killing off his father and making him into an orphan. That makes him sad. Men become substantially hotter when they are sad. Fact. 

I really like this portrayal of Gilbert. He is played by Lucas Jade Zumann and he is just...a dude. He seems very real and very believable. 

So, let me digress here and address some complaints.

Here's the thing: It's been thirty years since the Sullivan adaptation. It was already several years old by the time I saw it. Anne of Green Gables is one of those books that has been getting remade over and over and over again; the first film version appeared in 1919. The Sullivan version is considered the definitive Anne, and I would actually really like Netflix to put it on streaming, but that doesn't mean that there isn't room for new takes on the story. 

As for complaints that Anne is a family story and that this version is too dark and depressing -- like, did we read the same story? Anne is a victim of systematic abuse and neglect. She's an orphan in a world that has very little sympathy for orphan children. The only reason she has survived up until this point is because she has created this fantasy world around her. If she hadn't, she wouldn't have been able to deal with reality. She did have to live in an orphanage (and orphanages at this point in time were not nice places), and she was put out into service with a family where the father was a drunkard who got so mad at times that he broke mirrors and windows, and they had more children than they could realistically care for. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that, during this time period, and considering the situation she was in, Anne could very well have been beaten. I do not see anything wrong with directly addressing Anne's emotional and psychological scars because they are part of her story. The whole point of Anne is that she is able to overcome her past and succeed through the love and support of her new family and friends in Avonlea. 

Personally, I would simply like to know when we are going to find out that Anne is a wizard. I mean, think about it. She's an orphan. She was mistreated by people who were supposed to be caring for her. She has visceral reactions to what she perceives are injustices. I'm not saying that Anne and Gilbert are Harry Potter's parents, I'm just saying they're probably his parents. 

"Mum, he called you 'Carrots.'
"I know, son. Stand back while I cut this bitch."

Moving along here, a couple other things I actually like are the fact that the Avonlea kids are actually kids and they look like kids. Megan Follows portrayed Anne as a 16-year-old, while the late Jonathan Crombie played Gilbert at 19. While I know that playing down is done all the time, sometimes it adds more to a piece when the youth roles are filled by young and extremely capable actors. 

The young cast is very impressive -- on the same level as the child actors on Road to Avonlea. It's also nice to see the "minor" characters like Ruby Gillis and Josie Pye getting more screen time. The Sullivan adaptation didn't seem to have much room for the other kids in Avonlea, focusing primarily on Anne, Diana, and Gilbert. 

With all of that said, if you are on the fence about whether to check the show out or not, I would suggested watching at least the first episode with an open mind. It follows the book pretty much verbatim, and it is full of fabulous performances and lush scenery. I also really enjoy the flashbacks not just to Anne's life, but to Matthew and Marilla's childhood, especially Marilla's aborted romance with John Blythe.

Having gotten my gushing out of the way, here's what I don't like: 

I understand that the producers want to make the show modern and relatable, and want to bring in some issues relevant the present day. However, what the writers and producers have misunderstood is part of Anne's appeal is that it is a timeless story, so there really is no need to bring in "modernizing" influences. Granted, this is not my show, and so if I wanted to make my historical drama more pertinent, I think I would not go about it in such a heavy-handed fashion. There's a really adorable feminist club in Avonlea, but it's run by a bunch of bitchy hypocrites. Anne gives lectures to straw-man type characters about the capabilities of females etc. 


Look. For those viewers seeking moral validation in their entertainment: This story is already feminist. It's about a brother and sister who ask for a boy and are given a girl instead, and they decide to keep the girl. Anne is smart, sassy, independent, and capable. She doesn't chase after boys, and she dreams of being educated and having her own life. It's not necessary to beat us over the head with a stick about how forward-thinking she is.

Oh, Matthew! This view from my moral high horse is so virtuous!

I feel like this has been done with period pieces. A lot. There's a spunky, outspoken heroine who shocks everyone by telling them that women can do things men can't. Like she's the only one who's ever thought of that before. And she's gonna blaze a trail. Because well-behaved women rarely make history. Right. That's why we've all forgotten completely about Queen Victoria. 

Ladies, you can work! You have so many choices! Yes, Anne who was forced to work from the time she could walk is going to go around demanding the right of women to work. And what about female servants like Mary Jo, WHO HAVE TO FUCKING WORK? The fact that Anne can choose between a career and family have NOTHING TO DO with her being female. AND IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH FEMINISM. They have to do with her social class. That's it. She got a class promotion. Poor women have always had to work. Period. Now, if she wants to go be a suffragette, that's great, but I'm guessing she doesn't want to go back to scrubbing floors.  

Secondly, I don't understand why Anne has to give the reverend a bunch of attitude about religion. L.M. Montgomery was married to a minister.  I also don't understand why the Avonlea reverend was changed from a kindly, gentle man in the novel to an insufferable, closed-minded sexist. 

I understand that the writers want to bring a new take on Anne, but is this the best they've got? Anne spouts pandering platitudes about how girls are just as good as boys and people should be accepted because they're different. This is coming from someone who is a complete jerk to Jerry Butte upon their first meeting because she doesn't want him there because she's afraid that will make her place at Green Gables precarious. She only starts to be nice to Jerry after he gets his ass kicked in Charlottetown. Again, this is someone who has to work for a living; he gets no say in whether or not he goes to school.

Honestly, sometimes these lines were making me cringe. What artistic purpose does it serve? Anne was never in the business of giving moral lectures to people. She was too busy fucking up puddings with dead mice and dyeing her hair green to get all up on her high horse and spout sanctimonious harangues. Anne never thought she was better than anyone else. 

Except Josie Pye. 

Please let her throw more shade at Josie Pye. 

I bind thee, Josie Pye. I bind thee from doing harm to yourself or other people.

And why is Billy Andrews a punk?

Please nobody get mad at me, but why is Aunt Josephine a lesbian? I get it; let's be inclusive. But...why? Is there an artistic purpose that's served? You can't just reboot a story and say, "Oh, this time, so-and-so is gay" and have that be considered a bold creative move. Gay people aren't signifiers of how progressive you think you are. They're people.

I also do not like the Stranger Danger plotlines. Similarly, I really felt uncomfortable with the Matthew suicide plot. Richard Farnsworth, who portrayed Matthew in the 1985 version, did commit suicide in real life and he did use a gun, and I just thought that was really not cool. 

Don't get me wrong; some of the new plotlines and writing are very compelling and very good. It's just sometimes the show jumps the rails and the Morality Police jump out, reminding us all about some trite popular notions. I do feel that there is enough in the book to fill out several episodes. There were many incidents in the Sullivan version that were blended, or cut altogether. 

One other thing is, and I know this is nitpicky, I don't like the contemporary dialogue thrown into the episodes. For instance, like "Bud" and "Seriously, what's your problem" and "A cute girl is a cute girl" are out of place. Your audience isn't stupid; they'll understand if you use more complicated vocabulary and words that have more than two syllables. 

To wrap up: If you're curious about the show, do yourself a favor and watch it. It has a lot of positive points, and they more or less outweigh the negatives. What I see here is a show trying to find its legs, and I think it might be a good idea to bring in some of the writing team from Road to Avonlea. The incidents that are taken from the book are really nicely adapted, so I would like to see them doing more of that and following more in the footsteps of the successful Sullivan series. 

"But what DO boys want, Marilla?"
"Cheetos and beer, my child. And video games."

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Maybe We Should Have Risen a Little More

ABC’s recent miniseries When We Rise introduces its audience to each of its three main protagonists the same way: sexually. In Arizona, teenager Cleve Jones is caught shirtless and making out with a fellow male student.  Elsewhere, Peace Corps volunteer Roma Guy steals a passionate clandestine kiss from her fellow female volunteer as she prepares to end her tour and return to the United States. In Vietnam, US Naval Officer Ken Jones meets his shipmate in a shabby room for an illicit tryst.

As such, When We Rise takes a slightly daring position in not hiding the very thing that makes most heterosexual people, even ones who are fully supportive of gay rights, feel squicky about – gay sex. It also meta-textually echoes the entire thesis statement of When We Rise; namely, that gay people and gay history shouldn’t remain hidden, even if it makes people uncomfortable to think about. Even in a post-Obergefell world, that sentiment is significant and still kind of radical. Watching the seven-hour miniseries, it really makes you wish the rest of the story had lived up to the promise of those first ten minutes.

How do you feel about this logo? Just kinda there? Get used to that feeling. It's going to follow you through the entire series.

There’s nothing inherently offensive about When We Rise, which is sort of its problem. For a series that's all about the struggle of a group of people who literally had to scream in order to be noticed, its tone is entirely the same as a librarian shushing an excited reader. It’s a more-or-less honest take on late 20th/early 21st century history. Unfortunately, it is to actual history what Epcot Center is to international relations, full of surface-level understanding and representation that never tries to peel back the onion any further than the first layer. By the end of the miniseries, the show’s own message is somewhat diluted. The audience feels talked at, not brought along. This is risky, particularly in a world where anyone can say they support LGBT rights while at the same time supporting leaders who take those rights away.

If the goal is to foster an understanding in the viewing public of people living differently from them, the key to doing that is to get people by the emotions, not by the events. Watching When We Rise feels a bit like cramming for a history final where it’s important to remember when a protest occurred or a law was passed, not the reasons why those things happened.  In that way, the show lacks a good hook to hang its own message on.

Maybe if they had gotten Kendall Jenner?

That’s one of the reasons why watching it feels so maddening, because Cleve, Roma, and Ken are all real people, not fictional characters. Cleve Jones is the creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and an activist to this day. Roma Guy and her wife are the founders of the Women’s Building in San Francisco as well as numerous health care and homelessness organizations. Ken Jones is arguably one of the originators of the modern intersectional school of thought linking the LGBT community with the African American community and beyond. Bottom line: each one of these real-life heroes have an amazing story to tell and, sadly, each one feels like they get short shrift even with a biographical miniseries that takes as long to watch as an average workday.

The show gives us 40 years of history told through these people’s lives. It’s a shame that during that time we never get to know any of them. Major events happen off camera or in between chapters where significant leaps in time occur. AIDS becomes a major issue for about an hour before quickly fading into the background, even though several major characters become infected in that time. It’s particularly jarring when, roughly halfway through the miniseries, the actors playing the younger twentysomething versions of their characters are replaced by the actors who take on the middle-aged and older versions. While that transition in any biopic is always potentially awkward, it feels even more so here partially due to the skill level difference between the younger actors and their far more experienced older counterparts.

It is a requirement that all LGBT activists have practiced left arm-raising skills.

Mary-Louise Parker, playing the older Roma, arguably does the most heroic work, molding the character into someone who more or less sounds like a real human being. Guy Pierce likewise manages to find a compelling core to the elder Cleve, despite being made to utter some truly cringe-worthy lines. By contrast, Michael K Williams is criminally underused as the older version of Ken Jones. The storyline for his younger counterpart, played by Jonathan Majors, is probably the best thing about the early hours of the miniseries, as it outlines the struggles that Ken faces not only as a gay man but as a black one as well, continually set apart from both communities in one way or another. The added focus on his transition from military officer to private civilian in a city that, for the first time, affords him some avenues for expression makes Williams’ portrayal feel almost sidelined when Jones’s story starts to fall by the wayside in the second half.

And you guys. We need to talk about the dialogue. It’s hard to waltz around this; it’s just bad. Characters don’t have dialogue, they have talking points and thesis statements. Cleve and Roma, in particular, seem to only speak to other people as if they’re reading from a particularly overly dramatic college essay. So much of their dialogue seems designed solely for the writers to convey their various mission statements instead of dramatizing real events. “You all are more powerful than you know,” says the Widow Norton in a particularly clumsy cameo during one early scene. “When did you first know…that you needed to rise?” asks a young writer of the adult Cleve, establishing a framing device for the entire miniseries that would be dropped two hours later. The cardinal rule of writing is “show, don’t tell.” In that vein, When We Rise misses the mark almost universally.

Which, frankly, is surprising. The project is based off the real life memoirs of Cleve Jones, published in 2016. The head writer is Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning writer of Milk. Gus Van Sant directed the first two hours of the series. Thomas Schlamme, a long-time television veteran probably most famous for being one of the chief creative forces behind The West Wing lends the show a polished look. Whatever you think about any one of those three people, they are established professionals at what they do. Yet somehow, there’s never a moment when the series becomes anything more than the sum of its parts. I'm not sure who is to blame, but those who know me should know that I always think even the best performances can't overcome shabby writing.


When We Rise does do some things right. Unlike recent questionable attempts at dramatizing LBGT history, the miniseries is smart to tell the stories of three different kinds of LGBT people, not just white men. In addition to Roma (a woman) and Ken (a black man), the show finds time to introduce other LGBT pioneers, most notably Cecillia Chung (played by Ivory Acuino) and Pat Norman (played by Whoopi Goldberg).

It also shows that the LGBT community is not, actually, always one big happy family. The series illustrates the factions that develop in the long struggle for rights and showcase how those factions can work at odds to each other. That it does this non-judgmentally is one of its strength; the series isn’t pointing fingers here, it’s merely highlighting the notion that just because people can be grouped together in one category does not make them a unified voice.

Ultimately, When We Rise is attempting to bite off more than it can chew. Even confining itself to only 40 years of history still feels rushed, particularly considering that it has to find ways to keep tabs on the lives of three very dynamic people when an eight-hour biography on just one of them would have taken the same amount of time. The series wants to present a sweeping epic of gay rights, however any attempt to do that in a way that would do it justice would take days, not hours. Gay rights did not begin in the 1970s and they do not end with marriage equality. And while it is refreshing to see the stories of people who have mostly been ignored by history finally getting some attention, the rushed pace, explain-y dialogue, and uneven casting results in a story that never feels exciting.