Spent the weekend watching two sitcoms that I straight-up loved

brooklyn-nine-nineSo, I am one day from the Bay Area. So many terrible things have happened this week. But I will talk about none of them, and instead talk about the sit-com. I love sitcoms. I even like bad sitcoms. There’s something about the form that’s very comforting. I like them for the same reason that I like romantic comedies. Most media–even most comedy–portrays the world as a dark and friendless place. But sit-coms and rom-coms take place in a different universe. A nicer universe. One where there are no villains and everyone is good-intentioned and even the most utterly annoying people are beloved by all.

Anyway, this week I’ve seen two great sit-coms. The first, unfortunately, is cancelled. It also has a really bad name: Don’t Mess With The B____ In Apartment 23. It sounds like a pretty terrible (and probably sexist) sit-com, but it was surprisingly good. A twentysomething woman from Indiana moves to NYC for a Wall Street job that she loses on day one. And she falls in with a party girl who is, perhaps, a sociopath. And then, obv, they bond. Also, the party girl’s best friend is James Van Der Beek, playing himself. Basically, it’s 2 Broke Girls, but much sharper.

The most genius part of the show is probably James Van Der Beek. They wrote him in perfectly. He’s a self-obsessed washed-up star, but he’s also adorably well-intentioned. I think what makes it work is that his two best friends are these fairly ordinary girls. Most shows about celebrities put their celeb characters into a bubble (think Entourage) where everything is Hollywood and show business. Here, though, you’ve got people gabbing away in a coffeeshop like it’s Friends, but one of them is James Van Der Beek.

How do people even think of this stuff? What do you say at the pitch meeting for this show? I can’t even imagine it. Especially since it might not necessarily have been James Van Der Beek attached, right? Like it could’ve been any number of washed-up celebrities?

Also, James Van Der Beek is surprisingly handsome. I only knew him, up to now, from his guest appearances on How I Met Your Mother, where he was always fat and balding.

Oh, also, the other girl, titular bitch, is amazing. I loved her. She was also a very sharply drawn character. What makes her work is that she’s based on something specific: she’s one of those NYC club kids who’re famous for being outrageous and partying really hard. At one point, James Van Der Beek even talks about how she’s the It girl right now. I liked that a lot. She doesn’t exist in a vacuum: she is enabled by an entire social setting that the show only intermittently delves into. It’s very easy to imagine a version of this show that was much fuzzier, where she was just a girl who drank a lot and went to the bars every night.

 

The other show I’m watching is Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is a sit-com about a Brooklyn detective squad. I’m really fascinated by workplace comedies where people are not terrible at their jobs. In Parks and Recreation, for instance, their main innovation, over the course of the series’ run, was ratcheting up the Amy Poehler character’s competence level and making her more and more effective at her job. But even in that show, most of the characters are pretty incompetent.

In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, they’re not only all superb detectives (even the workaday schmuck who’s the butt of everyone’s jokes is actually a pretty decent crime-solver), but also all appear to like each other? There are no antagonists at all. It’s pretty fascinating. Again, the closest comparison that comes to mind is Parks and Recreation. But in that show, the antagonist was usually the apathy and slovenliness of the city of Pawnee itself. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, even the criminals are pretty genteel and friendly.

I have watched ten episodes of this show and I honestly could not tell you what’s happened in any of them. Basically, each episode is just each character doing their thing. Each episode is Andy Samberg grinning an impossibly wide smile and making a funny face; each episode is Andre Braugher using his dour face to deliver a laugh line; each episode is Stephanie Beatriz being unemotional and terrifying.

I don’t know. Maybe it’d get old after awhile?

But also maybe not. Sometimes I think sit-coms’ primary appeal is their continuity and predictability. They’re how I wish the world would be: wide and colorful and warm.

I figured out the main thing that I don’t like about SHERLOCK (aside from Moriarty, who is just silly)

Sherlock_TV_Series-635342236-largeI’ve watched the fifth episode of the BBC series SHERLOCK, which means that I have watched half of the whole run of the show and, thus, am completely qualified to opine upon it. I have to say, I see what people enjoy about the show. Both Sherlock and Watson are adorable, and it’s fun to watch their interplay. I almost wanted more of their personal lives and less case-solving.

My main problem with the show is that there’s no human element to the actual cases that Sherlock takes on. They’re all just the work of incomprehensible supervillains with incomprehensible supervillain motives. Which, to me, makes them less interesting than the average episode of Law and Order. Because in L&O, there’s always a very human reason for the murder: someone got in the way of something that someone else wanted. In Sherlock, people just do things because they’re bored. However, if that’s the case, then you can justify anything for any reason.

I guess my whole problem with the show is summed up by the first episode (which was actually the one I liked the best), where Sherlock realizes that they’ve got a serial killer on their hands and says something like, “Woohoo, a serial killer. I love serial killers. They’re so much fun!”

However, to me, serial killers are not fun. They’re boring. We get it, they murder people for psychosexual reasons that are rooted in their need to feel dominant over another human being. And while that’s not exactly what’s going on in every Sherlock case, I haven’t seen one, out of these five episodes, where the underlying crime wasn’t committed for what I’d consider to be incredibly stupid reasons (in fact, the episode I liked the best was the on where Sherlock has to solve five cases in a row. In each of those individual cases, I was engaged, because it felt like the crime played a part in some real human aspiration).

Incidentally, I don’t think that this necessarily stems from a problem with the source material. While the motivations in Sherlock Holmes short stories weren’t quite as gritty as the ones in Law and Order, they were realer than the ones in the show. I don’t want to spoil either story or show for you, but the first episode is based off the Holmes story “A Study in Scarlet.” The motivations of the criminal in the show are very different from those in the story. The same is true for the episodes based off “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” For whatever reason, the showrunners have chosen to systematically shift the motivations of the criminals in the show. Perhaps they think it makes the show grittier, or that it better fits in with the shows themes (i.e. Holmes is an anhedonic calculation machine, so his foes should be calculation machines who suffer from a surfeit of passion).

I really really really like ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

Rosa_Orange_is_the_New_Black_Episode_209Just like everyone else in the world, I just watched the second season of Orange Is The New Black and, just like everyone else in the world, I loved it. I was a bit shocked by just how much I liked it. I think there’s the kind of liking when you read or watch something and you enjoy it a lot and incorporate it into your worldview and remember it fondly for years or decades. And then there’s the kind of liking when you read or watch exactly the right thing at exactly the right time in your life.

And that’s a different level of liking. I mean, I’m not sure I can think of a TV show that I’ve enjoyed as much as this. But I feel the same way about it as I felt during the week when I read Sandman between 1-4 AM in the night, every night, while hopped up on caffeine and working on a report for the World Bank. I’m not sure that’s the greatest graphic novel I’ve ever read, but the sheer desolation and apathy of the Sandman universe really affected me profoundly in a way that I’m not sure it would have if I’d read it in a different time and place.

I feel the same about OITNB as I did when I read Adrian Tomine’s Sleepwalk and Other Stories while I was in the second to last day of a one-week sprint to complete a novel. There it wasn’t just his subject matter (apathetic slackers and their sly little lives), but also the style of his stories. To me, they felt revolutionary in their formlessness. The way they ended in places that didn’t feel like endings and dwelled for ages on things that didn’t seem at all worthwhile. I still remember the one about the kid getting a summer job at a print shop. He works there for a summer, shoots the shit with his coworkers, then says goodbye and leaves at summer’s end. Nothing happens. But it captures the feel of nothing happening in such a startling way. And because my life was in a weird heterostasis at that moment, I think it resonated with me more strongly than it would have.

Or reading The Jungle while I was vacationing with my parents and staying on their boat. Actually, I have no idea why that stuck with me so strongly, but it did. Man, The Jungle is amazing.

Anyway, I don’t yet have the perspective to know why this affected me so profoundly, but someday, I imagine, I will.

(In case anyone cares, I was most into Rosa, the cancer-ridden bank robber. Oh, and the two surprisingly dangerous old ladies: the one with the chest tattoo and the one with the stringy hair. They were the best. And Poussey’s flashback. I loved it. And also Taystee’s flashback, although that made me feel really sad. And Red. Oh my god, Red. She was tremendous in this season. And Crazy Eyes! Never my favorite. But her performance in the season finale was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was incredibly compelling. And Black Cindy!  They gave her so much personality. It’s amazing how they filled out all the little side characters from the first season. Oh my god, and Morelli. I almost cried during her flashback episode. And I was even compelling by Jason Biggs’ plotline! I mean, it wasn’t my favorite, but his parts were still sweet. He does still some have of that awkward American Pie charisma to him)

The Veronica Mars movie is really not very good.

sq_veronica_marsIn retrospect, I don’t know why we ever thought it would be good. I mean, Veronica Mars is not one of those shows that just got better and better and was cancelled at its peak. It was a show that had an amazing first season (one of the best on television) and then declined. Which is not to say that the remaining seasons weren’t good (I watched and enjoyed them). All I’m saying is that the creator got more than enough time to show the world what he could do with the franchise, and there was never any evidence that he had any new tricks to wow people with.

The reason the first season worked so well was because everything fit together: both the protagonist and her father had a personal stake in the murder, and their reputation and place in the world depended on solving it, and they were thoroughly at odds with their entire community over it, and the nature of the murder (and the subsequent investigation) struck at the heart of the economic inequalities in this fascinating setting that the show had constructed.

And then they solved the mystery.

How was lightning going to strike twice?

As a murder-mystery, the movie was kind of anemic. The murder is, well…it’s just a murder. And the case had fewer twists and turns than the average episode of Law and Order. That didn’t really seem to be the focus of the show. The focus was mostly on fanservice: showing us all these characters ten years later.

And that was marginally enjoyable, but even there the performances themselves felt very strained. Maybe it’s because I only just (within the last month) re-watched the first and second seasons of the show, but the performances in the movie felt more like people doing impressions of those characters. Everything was stilted and awkward, almost like people trying to recreate who they were ten years ago…

It’s worth comparing this movie to Serenity, the movie that they made from the TV show Firefly. Again, not a particularly great movie, but that one at least took advantage of the cinematic form to do things with the property that it couldn’t have done onscreen (resolve a major mystery that’d run through the show…and also kill some folks off).

Still, the movie’s worth watching if you’re a fan. I appreciate fanservice as much as anyone else, and it’s fun to see learn what became of people like Gia and Vinnie Van Lowe and Madison Sinclair and Dick Casablancas after an interval of ten years (actually, Dick was the only character who legitimately gave a decent performance).

I actually do like the characters in GIRLS (except for Adam…god, I hate him)

I would not be unhappy if this character were to suddenly die.
I would not be unhappy if this character were to suddenly die.

I recently made a Facebook post about the HBO series, Girls, which prompted a ton of people to chime in and say that they can’t stand the show. Now, that is an opinion which makes sense. The characters in Girls are uniformly pretty shallow and self-absorbed.

But I cannot share that opinion. I think the show is very funny and emotionally affecting, and that the characters are quite relatable.

Maybe the show doesn’t work if you can’t recognize yourself within it. But I am pretty sure that if someone were to film most of the conversations that occur around me and screen them for the benefit of an outside audience, then it would be obvious that there’s an element of grandiosity  and lack of self-awareness that is a natural result of human beings’ tendency to think they’re way more important than they are. To other people, your life means absolutely nothing. But to you (and, to a lesser degree, your friends), it is everything. That’s exactly what Girls both mocks and celebrates.

Anyway, I’ve very much enjoyed the third season. The second half of the second season was way too dark for me. The life of the main character, Hannah, was seriously off the rails. It’s not fun or funny to watch someone fall into the grip of OCD. This season has dialed that back, and some of the lightness has returned.

The one character who I really dislike is Adam. He just seems awful. He gives off a creepy vibe and seems mastered by his sexual obsessions. He lays around Hannah’s apartment, living there rent-free and doing nothing that’s off value. And he also snaps at everyone and is rude to everyone. He’s like an adult eleven-year-old. And he’s got a strange-looking face. There is literally nothing good about him. I think that my feelings about Adam are roughly equivalent to what most people feel about all of the characters in the show, which certainly makes me sympathize more with peoples’ antipathy to it.

The Looney Tunes really are quite unlike most other American mass media.

Looney Tunes -1I just spent two hours in a plane. And for most of that time, the five year old in front of me was watching the Looney Tunes on Cartoon Network, so I (naturally) stared over the top of the seat at his screen and watched along. Which prompted several thoughts. First, the Looney Tunes is extremely resilient! What other American television has endured–not as an art object or through ironic revival or by highbrow appropriation, but as something that’s genuinely enjoyed by ordinary people–for more than fifty years? When I was a kid, I watched Looney Tunes, and when my parents’ generation* were kids, they also watched Looney Tunes, and it’s not at all impossible that my own children will someday watch the Looney Tunes.

That’s pretty cool.

Secondly, the Looney Tunes are much more abstract and surreal than most American pop culture. Although they have narratives, the narrative is quite often very barebones and is centered on a premise that’s extremely absurd, like a sex-crazed skunk who’s chasing a cat, or technophile coyote who chases a simple-minded roadrunner.

Frequently, an individual cartoon’s raison d’être will be provided by its setting. For instance, while looking over the kid’s shoulder, I saw a Tom and Jerry cartoon that took place entirely on a dock setting. In these cases, it’s interesting to see how startling and fertile the settings can be. They’re like well-constructed video games: the camera is always panning over to show you something very distinct, very recognizable, and very fun.

There’s also a minimalism to the Looney Tunes. Most of the meaning is carried by expression and gesture. The cartoons resist the temptation to oversignify their meaning. Instead, they use just enough to get the point across.

Furthermore, the characters talk really funny.

 

*Although not my actual parents, obviously, because they grew up in India and didn’t have TVs.

There isn’t a single character in Orange Is The New Black who is played counter to racial/ethnic stereotype

I’m watching Orange Is the New Black, the new Netflix show about a women’s prison. It is amazing. Just the right mix of light and dark. Shows like this always veer in the direction of being too brutal. Like, yeah, desperate people can be horrible to each other: I don’t need to watch six seasons of Breaking Bad to know that. In Orange Is The New Black, many of the people are genuinely sort of okay, which makes it easier to understand the terrible stuff that they do. Like, almost all the guards show empathy towards the inmates at times, but in the end, they’re still authority figures, and they make the inmate’s lives terrible in casual ways.

For instance, when a guard tries to seduce a prisoner, it might be because he really loves her and she might even really care for him, but it also puts her in a seriously difficult position. Or how when a normally-pleasant guard is challenged for something minor, he’ll immediately turn to making threats.

So the show is really good. However, literally every character in it is some kind of stereotype. In no case did they dig deeper than the first choice for a given character’s race or ethnicity. For instance, just imagine the first race/ethnicity that comes to find for the following characters.

  • A hard-as-nails former restaurant owner who was involved with the mob?
    • Russian!
  • A stern, buttoned-down, very religious disciplinarian who ran a cleaning service that used illegal child labor?
    • Haitian, of course!
  • A wanna-be faith-healer with bad teeth and a meth habit?
    • Appalachian. Duh!
  • A former firefighter who transforms into an expert hairdresser?
    • African-American trans woman (the power of female hormones, amirite?)
  • The former junky who grew up on Park Slope in a house with a doorman?
    • White girl!
  • A \ woman with five kids by five different fathers, who neglected her children so she could party with her drug dealer boyfriend.
    • Hispanic!
  • A girl who was gonna go to college on a track scholarship until she got mixed up with a bad crowd and was busted for theft.
    • Black!
  • A writer who lives off his parents and mines his relationship w/ his prisoner fiance for material to get him into the NYT and New York Times.
    • Jewish!

I don’t think there’s a single prisoner in here who is played against type. I mean, maybe that’s what was in the source material, but, I mean, come on. The writers ought to have stretched themselves at least once.

The worst part of the show, though, has to be the flashbacks to the protagonist’s pre-incarceration life. All the other flashbacks (each episode focuses on a different inmate) are really interesting, because they’re well-drawn and do their best to humanize the subjects. However, many episodes also include a flashback or two for the main character (a white woman–currently engaged to a man–who is in prison because, ten years ago, she was involved in her girlfriend’s drug smuggling ring).

All the other flashbacks are good because the other inmates are presented to us in an opaque, forbidding way. Because prison imposes conformity of dress, manner, and situation, we don’t know much about them. The flashback opens up their lives and their minds.

But when it comes to the main character, the flashbacks do nothing for us.

Like, uhh, she was a WASP who was torn between security and adventure. We get it. We understood that in the first two minutes of the show’s first episode. All these contrasts between her doing yuppie things (juice cleanses) and rebellious things (smuggling drug money through customs) are wasted, because they don’t advance our understanding of the character.

All that having been said….the show is one of the best that I’ve seen in a long time.

Scattered thoughts on the second season of Game of Thrones

So, when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones last year, it somehow wasn’t particularly compelling to me. Since I read the books, I already knew what was going to happen, and I wasn’t particularly interested in watching it played out onscreen. I finished the first season, but I didn’t rave about it. This year, I watched the first episode of the second season and then put the whole thing aside. I just didn’t feel any desire to watch the rest.

Yesterday, I finally watched the second episode, and I found myself intensely gripped. I rapidly watched the next two episodes. And I have no doubt that within a few days, I’ll have watched the rest of the season.

This makes me remember, “Oh, wait, this is exactly what happened with the books.”

Way back in the mists of prehistory, when I was a high school sophomore, I basically slogged my way through A Game Of Thrones. I enjoyed it enough to keep reading, clearly, but it was also just a little boring. The death of Eddard Stark at the end of the first book was just surprising enough to rescue the book from being a failure, in my eyes. So it was only with reluctance that I picked up the second book. However, from the moment I began reading the second book, I was captivated.

Since then, I’ve read the first book several times and considerably enjoyed each re-read, so I’m not quite sure what put me off the first time. Maybe it was all the children. The worst thing about A Song Of Ice And Fire are the children. Particularly Bran. My god, he’s dull. In five books, he’s done absolutely nothing. Arya has a more action-packed life, and it definitely caught my interest….but it definitely wasn’t ever what kept me reading. Only Sansa sometimes crosses my interest threshold (but then, isn’t she the most nearly adult of all of them?)

Anyways, the series of really good. Arya’s storyline is surprisingly interesting. Perhaps that’s because it’s just so horrifying. There’s really something about seeing it that is different from just reading about it. All of the little side characters she encounters along the way also have so much more life in the series than they ever did in the books: Gendry, Lommy, Hot Pie, and the Tickler all have some kind of solidity to them.

I think that’s true of the series in general. It’s definitely done wonders for even some of the more important minor characters. Tywin Lannister, for instance, was an imposing figure in the books, but in the series there’s also a hint of humanity to him.

And, of course, the best character resuscitation is that of Renly/Loras. Okay, I knew that they were lovers in the books. But really I only knew that because of a fan-made FAQ. It is really not at all obvious. And that’s for a simple reason: I don’t expect to the homosexual romance in a modern book to be subtextual.

For instance, it’s obvious (to me, at least) that Ishmael and Queequeeg were lovers in Moby Dick, even though it’s never directly acknowledged. They sleep in the same bed and spoon and Queequeeg calls Ishmael his wife and they hold hands while kneading a barrel of sperm. It’s totes obv.

I understand why Melville had to be so coy. I mean, that was the 1800s (although he was considerably less coy than Martin’s books). But it seems a little antiquated that Martin inserted this homosexual relationship into his books in such a veiled manner. It comes off as more of a box-ticking exercise than any real engagement with the world. Like, “Oh yeah, there should be gays. Oh, and we’ll put an island of black people somewhere too.”

Anyways, I am glad that the movie corrected this oversight. And they did it so deftly, too. Renly and Loras are, like, a real couple. I particularly like that their relationship is not just sexual (although in every case that we see them together, they’re about to start having sex), but that Loras is very involved (perhaps more involved than Renly) in this whole plan to turn Renly into a king. And I like how the show steers clear of shoving them into a feminine/masculine dichotomy. Both of them are a little foppish and a little foolish and, in their scenes, they trade off on the role of being the wiser head. There’s also no implication (in their scenes together) that whoever tops the other in bed is also the one who is more worthy of respect. Yay for not assigning normative value to sexual roles.

Oh, and the Daenerys plotline (which, in the books, is completely tepid) is also marginally more interesting to me in the show, although I have a sneaking suspicion that this might just be because the actor who plays Jorah Mormont is so handsome. I think I have the opposite problem with Jon Snow’s plotlines. Those were pretty interesting in the books, but there’s something about Jon Snow’s goofy looks that’s putting me off.

So….yeah…I’m just going to come out and say it….I’m thinking about adding this show to my list of movie/television adaptations that are better than the books.* Who’s with me on this?

*The other items on my list: The Prestige; Legally Blonde; The Devil Wears Prada; The Godfather; Minority Report; Total Recall.

Gray’s Anatomy has the most attractive cast I’ve ever seen in a television

Since my last blog post, some good stuff has happened. Osama bin Laden got killed. I drove 1100 miles in 18 hours. Uhhh, I read War Of The Worlds and Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and some other books….

But that has all been wiped away by the illness that has plagued my last three days. And at the same time, my internet went down. So I was reduce to watching my roommate’s boxed sets of Gray’s Anatomy.

I have never seen a show that has a main cast that is as attractive as Gray’s Anatomy. Even movies don’t try to put five or six extremely attractive people on the same screen. But the attractiveness level of TV show casts is usually lower than in movies. I mean, that’s not to say that TV shows don’t contain attractive people. It’s just that they usually have…I don’t know…interesting faces. They have faces with something weird going. And maybe they have some older people, or some rotund people, or something. Some sort of physical diversity.

But Gray’s Anatomy is a little unreal. It makes the drama kind of hard to take seriously, actually. Something about the brain rebels against the notion that six or seven beautiful people can exist, much less be involved in some kind of plotline.

Casting directors and showrunners must have little rules of thumb about how many attractive people can be in one cast. I know that they must, because I know that there are enough out of work, very attractive actors in LA to staff a hundred Gray’s Anatomies…yet these shows do not exist.

Relevant quote from Tina Fey’s Bossypants that is probably the spur to this entire post (For years the networks have tried to re-create the success of Friends by making pilot after pilot about beautiful twenty-somethings living together in New York. Beautiful twenty-somethings living in Los Angeles. Beautiful twenty-somethings investigating sexy child murders in Miami. This template never works, because executives refuse to realize that Friends was the exception, not the rule. The stars of beloved shows like Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, Newhart, and The Dick Van Dyke Show had normal human faces. And that’s what some of the people on our show have. When you watched Sanford and Son, you didn’t want to have sex with everybody you saw, just Grady. I’ve never understood why every character being “hot” was necessary for enjoying a TV show.)

Except that the stars of Gray’s Anatomy are more attractive than the stars of Friends (or maybe they’re not, really, but it just appears that way because of the weird dreamlike lighting in the former show?). On the one hand, it seems intuitively obvious that having a super-attractive cast is great and awesome and fun to look at. On the other hand, it seems intuitively obvious that it’s unreal, and kind of silly.

Hmm, I was going to say something more about the structure of Gray’s Anatomy and how it has very long denouemonts and I always feel like the show could be ending around the 30 minute mark, but I am still kind of feverish and I fear that I may not be making much sense as it is.